The Death of Bernadette Lefthand
Ron Querry’s first novel joins the increasing number of stories and novels written by American Indians dealing with life on reservations or in small Indian towns. Querry, whose heritage is Choctaw, has chosen to tell the story of the murder of a beautiful young woman who lived in Dulce, center of the Jicarilla Apache reservation in New Mexico. Bernadette and her younger sister, Gracie, are the children of a Jicarilla man and a woman from the Taos Pueblo; most of Bernadette’s story is told by Gracie.
Bernadette’s death is reported to her father and sister in the novel’s opening pages, so there is little mystery about that fact—although it is not clear for some time that she did not die as so many young Indians do, in an automobile wreck, but was murdered. Almost the entire novel is devoted to the story of the last year or two of Bernadette’s life, including trips to rodeos where Anderson George, her Navajo fiance’ and later her husband, is a not-very successful bronco rider. Gracie goes along on these trips and is able to report on Anderson’s increasing dependence on alcohol, a tendency that also disturbs Tom George, Anderson’s brother. Gracie also reports on Bernadette’s popularity as a fancy dancer at powwows all over Indian country; she often wins prizes and money.
Querry adds two more layers of narration to Gracie’s. One is that of Starr Stubbs, the bored wife of a popular country- western singer who has chosen to build a large house near Dulce as a kind of refuge, a place where he can rest from the frantic pace of life on the road. Starr is intelligent and well- intentioned; she has read widely about Indians and has befriended Bernadette, who works for her as a kind of housekeeper. Starr goes so far as to hire Anderson to care for her horses as a way to provide more money for Bernadette’s family. Querry uses Starr, however, as a means of showing that even caring and informed Anglos do not understand Indian ways. Unintentionally Starr offends Bernadette by laughing at a plan to take Anderson to a Navajo “trembler” to diagnose his vague illness; Starr offers to pay for a trip to Albuquerque so that a “real” physician can examine him. Clearly, she fails to recognize that witches and healers are very much part of Navajo reality.
The third level of narration is in the third person and is used on occasion by Querry to show the George brothers when Gracie could not possibly observe them, and later on to show the character, at first unidentified, who visits an ancient Navajo witch in order to become initiated into witchcraft. Eventually it becomes clear that this character is Emmett Take Horse, who hates Anderson and Bernadette. Once their schoolmate at the school for Indians in Santa Fe, Emmett was a successful jockey in informal horse races among the Indians until an accident left him scarred and crippled in an arm, a hand, and a leg.
Gracie’s admiration and love for her sister make her a somewhat naive narrator, but even in her reports there is a gathering sense of menace as Emmett appears more often. When the two brothers and two sisters go to Gallup after a rodeo and stay in a famous old hotel, Anderson leaves the others to go drinking with an old acquaintance. Despite promises to return soon, he does not reappear until the next morning, having spent the night in the drunk tank in the Gallup jail and having lost his hat, boots, and quite a bit of cash. He tells the others of a terrible dream he has had in which he was pursued by a coyote—a traditional symbol of warning to Navajos. Increasingly, even after his son is born, Anderson neglects Bernadette and takes refuge in drinking. His skills as a bronco rider diminish. He takes a small prize at one rodeo because most of the contestants have withdrawn, but at another, at a village on the Navajo reservation, he is thrown before the horse even emerges from the chute.
Bernadette seems to accept Anderson’s problems with equanimity and strength. If she is troubled by the increasing amount of time he spends with Emmett Take Horse and by his drinking, she does not complain either to Gracie or to Starr. After her child is born, both sisters derive pleasure from taking care of the infant, Anthony. To support her family, Bernadette returns to her job with Starr, although Gracie now takes over some of that work.
The climax of the novel comes on a night when a powwow is held in Dulce to benefit Jicarilla children. Bernadette goes with Gracie and is honored by the chairman for her past accomplishments as a dancer; the money given to her she turns back to the fund for the local children. Anderson is not there, but he shows up with Emmett and causes a disturbance before being convinced to leave. He goes on drinking, and Bernadette returns to the dance. Eventually Gracie leaves, taking little Anthony with her. That night, after leaving the powwow, Bernadette is savagely hacked to death.
In the final pages it becomes clear that in the end Emmett did not rely on witchcraft. Although he had apparently planned to bewitch Anderson so that his rival would kill Bernadette, he made sure that Anderson was too drunk to know what he was doing when Emmett himself slashed and...
(The entire section is 2131 words.)