Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1748
Flutie Moses, oppressed by her own silence, has words and images she wants to, but cannot, articulate, not even to provide directions for passing motorists. Her small world is dominated by Hampton’s Garage. There her father and brother repair the town’s broken and worn-out vehicles, and her father—a Native American whose siblings simply walked away and disappeared, and whose heritage is all but lost—attempts to reclaim something about his personal past by rebuilding an old car like the one he owned in his youth. Flutie’s mother careens over the highways of western Oklahoma, collecting traffic tickets, in her pursuit of distance and speed. “As she drove she rushed away from the past so it wouldn’t catch up with her.”
Anger consumes Flutie’s brother Franklin. Six years Flutie’s senior, Franklin defiantly refuses to finish high school. He and his leather-clad friends spend their time stealing hood ornaments from cars passing through their small town, fixing old cars, traveling the countryside to salvage yards and car shows, seeking salvation through custom cars. Flutie observes, “Cars were the angels of America. They were full of invisible wings. Chevys. Fords. Plymouths. Buicks. Studebakers. Restored. Rebuilt. Customized. Polished. Worshipped.”
Ruther and Luther Rutherford, the old sister and brother who live down the road from Flutie’s family, are the only people to whom Flutie can speak freely. Their family claimed Indian land at the turn of the century and stuck it out during the 1930’s Dust Bowl. As the two of them wait for their end, with their “Do Not Resuscitate” sign boldly placed above their front door, Ruther hears angels and has visions of the racks of heaven that she imagines to be just like the dark inside of an oven until her prayers turn on the light to reveal the angels and all those who have gone before her. She also feeds bread crumbs to the thousands of buffalo she believes roam the Oklahoma plains; she thinks they would visit her backyard if only her brother would stop his incessant mowing of their dry, dusty yard.
Jess Tessman, Flutie’s friend and confidant, lives at the end of a long dirt road with his father on a small, dismal farm. He is a lonely boy whose mother disappeared long ago, leading him to believe that no one who leaves ever returns. He loves Flutie and wants her to marry him and stay in Vini forever.
Swallow Smots, Flutie’s best friend, is everything Flutie is not—pretty, flirtatious, and talkative. A waitress at the only restaurant in town, she attracts Franklin’s attention as his first marriage fails and becomes his second wife. Once the girl who bails hay in a bikini, she is eventually subdued by the insularity of small town life and by marriage.
The first epigraph of Diane Glancy’s novel Flutie reads: “There’s the sky and the ground with / nothing between them but a landscape / of stories you can hear if you hold / your ear to the air to the land—.” That statement, along with the enticing iconic portrait on the book’s cover of a saint-like Indian woman, draw us into the world of young Flutie Moses, the novel’s confused and lonely protagonist. She dwells in a landscape of not only vast plains of inescapable dust and desolation, but also ancient, eternal geological and cosmological forces, which are available to those able to perceive them. The novel is an engaging—and often depressing—account of Flutie Moses’s gradual awakening to this landscape of stories that have the potential to save her.
Flutie is a tale of silence and words, of staying and going, of the immediate place and moment, and eternal space and time. In eighty-seven short chapters, some only a few paragraphs long, as well as in the typographical and imaginative spaces between the chapters the author provides, Glancy presents the moments and events that transform Flutie from a pathologically silent girl to a young woman who finds her voice and in the process recognizes her role as a storyteller.
The girl we meet at the beginning of the novel is trapped in three ways. First, she is imprisoned by the tiny town of Vini, forty miles from the Texas border and a short distance from the Great Salt Plains, both of which might as well be on the other side of the globe for as much access as Flutie has to them. Her world extends only as far as town—including Hampton’s Garage, where her father and brother repair cars, the town’s only cafe, and Carpter’s Drygoods—the Rutherfords’ house next door, Jess Tessman’s lonely farm down a long dirt road with its small pond, and the two small nearby towns to which her mother flees at breakneck speeds, blurring the occasional road signs and landmarks as she terrifies her daughter-passenger.
Second, Flutie is caught in the isolation, anger, and violence of her family. Her parents seem to stick to each other because they have no one and nothing else. The only vestige of her father’s Native American heritage is the sweat lodge he maintains in the backyard. His brother and sisters walked down the road, “falling off into space,” never to be heard of again. Flutie longs for connection to her father’s past, for stories. She wants to know about grandfather’s experience at Indian board school, of being assigned the name Moses, of losing his language and culture. She visits her grandmother’s grave hoping to hear something, a story from the old woman’s resting place, but nothing comes. The only story from his Indian past that her father will share is a warning: When Flutie spends too much time drinking in the local dance halls as a teenager, he tells her that she, like all Indians, must not drink. Instead, her father connects to old custom cars. The family’s excursions to car shows and her father’s restoration of Florentine blue 1942 Ford, the car of his youth, are the only links to her father’s past Flutie is allowed. Her mother’s background, family, and past is just as elusive, available only in her mother’s ironic repetition of the one German phrase she seems to have retained, “Ist ja wieder gut,” “Everything will be all right.” But it isn’t. Flutie’s hot attic bedroom—her jeans hanging from nails driven into the walls, and her box of rocks wrapped in string, an ancient bone, and a piece of deer hide her only comforts—provides her with some refuge from her father’s and Franklin’s arguments and from her parents’ physical violence toward one another, evidenced occasionally in her mother’s marked face. Some nights, the oppressive heat from the weather and her parents’ temperaments drive her from her room to the porch, to the seat of the pickup truck, or as far as the Rutherfords’ sofa. Franklin’s frequent midnight escapes in the family pickup lead to sheriff’s visits, eventual arrests and jail terms, and his own unhappy marriages.
These forces ultimately reinforce the suffocating silence overwhelming Flutie, the third factor trapping her. She cannot find words, though she wants to say so much. Always fascinated by rocks, water, and sky, she realizes through her study of geology in school that she resembles an underwater volcano. The quiet enveloping her is like an underground ocean—traces of which are glimpsed in Jess’s pond and the nearby Salt Flats—the lava exploding, the water boiling. But she cannot spit out words, only hot tears. “And under the tears was her anger in knowing that she couldn’t talk when it counted.”
Finding a voice means finding the stories that the landscape has to tell. Since her parents won’t tell her their stories and since she seems to have no stories of her own, Flutie must learn to listen in order to repeat the stories the land, the air, and the animal and human ancestors reveal. For most of her life, however, Flutie’s immediate circumstances seem to suffocate her. She cannot breathe. The narrowness of the world, the closeness of the sky choke her words before she can speak them. “Release. . . . Flutie wanted space. She wanted flight. She wanted something more than she had.” But what? Ruther expands her world through her visions of the racks of heaven. Flutie is visited by a spirit—part Christian saint, part Indian girl—who is just enough encouragement for Flutie to reject Jess Tessman’s marriage proposal and her future with him consisting of kids, living with Jess’s father at the end of a dirt road, car shows, and no one asking her to speak. Staying means more silence. Leaving to return to college—after her short and dismal first attempt—might mean liberation.
Flutie’s journey to find the voice to articulate the stories held by the landscape, her people, and she herself is not the stuff of high drama. It consists of the subtleties of everyday life—some steps so modest that they are hardly remarkable but that lead cumulatively to real progress and to a life that matters.
Since the publication of M. Scott Momaday’s 1969 novel The House Made of Dawn initiated the Native American Renaissance in literature, Native American writers have added a richness and texture to the American literary canon that cannot and should not be ignored. Diane Glancy’s contribution to this tradition is undeniable. She demonstrates that there is no single Native American voice, identity, or experience. In fact, Flutie Moses—half-Indian and half German, growing up in rural America rather than on a reservation—reflects the author’s own experience. Glancy and her characters add to the colorful and diverse tapestry that is Native America. When one converses with Diane Glancy, one hears a voice of quiet intensity. The same is true of her prose. With a few well-crafted words, she is able to create a world, populate it with very distinctive people, and provide them with lives that are as memorable as they are meaningful. Flutie may not be a major novel, but it is an important one, providing a reader with a literary experience worth having.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, March 15, 1998, p. 1201.
Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, February 15, 1998, p. 212.
Library Journal. CXXIII, March 1, 1998, p. 127.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, May 17, 1998, p. 40.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, March 16, 1998, p. 55.