Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Ron Querry’s first novel is an important addition to the growing literature by and about Native Americans. The recent flood of such fiction was begun in 1969 with N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn. Querry, whose background is Choctaw, has chosen to place the action of his novel among Jicarilla Apache, Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo Indians (he has also, it should be noted, chosen to use the term “Indian” throughout The Death of Bernadette Lefthand). He takes pains to include explanations of the ceremonies and customs of his characters, as if Gracie were speaking to non-Indians during her narratives. At some points, this material is not closely integrated into the action of the novel, perhaps because it is not part of Querry’s own background.

The Death of Bernadette Lefthand takes the form of a conventional mystery novel, in which almost everything is known from the beginning except the identity of the murderer. In combining a murder mystery with Indian witchcraft, Querry works in a genre also explored by Louis Owens in The Sharpest Sight (1992). In dealing with life among young Indians by focusing on female characters, he is in the territory pioneered by Momaday in The Ancient Child (1989).

Although he deals at length with witchcraft among the Navajo, Querry seems less interested than many other Native American writers in other aspects of Indian mysticism. Silko, Owens, and Momaday, in particular, include characters who see and know more than ordinary people and write about events that are not open to easy rational explanation. Querry, on the other hand, uses the mystery and menace of the old witch to create an atmosphere of dread, but he does not clearly accept the supernatural as real. Emmett Take Horse’s decision to perform the murder of Bernadette himself seems to result from a lack of confidence in magic—an attitude that may reflect a similar hesitancy on the part of the author.