Last Updated on January 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1045
The Loss and Recovery of Cultural Heritage
Greg Sarris’s 1994 Grand Avenue is a novel composed of ten linked stories. The stories focus on the Pomo Indian community, specifically the fictional Waterplace Pomo tribe. Located in the town of Santa Rosa in Northern California, Grand Avenue is a place in which many culturally diverse ethnic groups have founded their homes—Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Portuguese, and others. Sarris talks about the struggles and social injustices the Native Americans face every day due to their history and heritage. Many live in poverty and have given up on their dreams and ambitions. Whether consciously or unconsciously, many of the characters in Grand Avenue are searching for a sense of belonging and purpose in the face of poverty, prejudice, and the cultural void left by colonialism.
In “The Water Place,” Nellie Copaz—a healer and a basket-weaver, tells Alice, a young neighbor, how the Pomo people were horribly mistreated and colonized over the course of many generations:
Look at what the Spanish did, then the Mexicans, then the Americans. All of them, they took our land, locked us up. Then look at what we go and do to one another.
Through Nellie and Alice, Sarris presents readers with examples of how both older and younger generations of Native Americans cope with their situations. Due to the difficult living conditions, many young people fall prey to vices and often forget about their tradition and ancestry. However, there are also people like Alice, who wish to know more about their culture and ancestry and keep their traditions, such as basket-weaving, alive. Thus, hope and determination are two central subjects of the novel. In the final passage of “The Water Place”—and of Grand Avenue—Nellie feels a stirring of hope as she sees Alice embody her Pomo heritage:
Something moves in the marigolds, jumps to the edge of the front walk. The little green frog, what else? Then I hear the song and turn, seeing this girl named Alice singing as sure as tomorrow. The frog winks at me and I smile like never before. I’m not too old for miracles.
The Bonds and Bruises of Family
Grand Avenue depicts five generations of Pomo Indians, all of whom are descended from one common ancestor: Juana Maria. The book’s tangled narratives form one overarching story about the complicated relationships between all of the narrators and their families. There are those who care about their families, such as Anna, a mother of eight, who tries to cope with her daughter’s (Jeanne) cancer and her son’s ignorance (Frankie). There are also those like Mollie (Alice’s mother), who often neglects her children and distances herself from them. “Secret Letters” tells the story of Steven Pen, a father who desperately tries to show his love for his illegitimate son through anonymous letters. By focusing on the relationship between Alice and Justine, in “How I Got to be Queen” the novel explores the powerful bond between sisters. These interfamilial dynamics showcase the characters’ humanity and psychological complexity. From these interactions it becomes that love, family, and the power of forgiveness are three central subjects of the novel.
The story “The Progress of This Disease” particularly highlights the powerful and often heart-wrenching bonds between family members. In the story, Anna navigates her complicated relationship with her alcoholic husband while struggling to save her daughter Jeanne, who has been diagnosed with cancer. Sarris writes of Anna’s extensive research about cancer and its progression, and about various alternative healing methods to make her daughter feel more comfortable and happy:
I took myself to the library, read books, learned so much about the disease I came to speak its language… I read about Laetrile, coffee enemas, diets of brown rice and sprouts, support groups—none of which I had time or money for. Visualization seemed the ticket. It’s free for the effort. Picture the body healthy. See flowers and things… At first Jeanne and I took rides to find open pastures where we parked the car and sat, letting the color green fill our eyes and enter our bodies…
Anna’s story captures the combination of joy and pain that marks so many of the familial relationships in Grand Avenue.
Intergenerational “Poison” and Toxic Masculinity
One of the most common themes in the novel is the “poison” which is passed down from generation to generation. Sarris describes this notion at the beginning of the novel, and indirectly explains its meaning. In essence, the poison which is spread among the families represents their lies, secrets and intentions. It signifies their refusal to communicate and resolve their problems. In “The Magic Pony,” Sarris introduces his first narrator, Jasmine, who explains about this concept of poison:
Us Indians are full of evil, Auntie Faye said. She told lots of stories about curses and poison. We call it poison. Not that we’re bad people. Not like regular thieves and murderers. We inherit it. Something our ancestors did, maybe, or something we did to bring it on ourselves. Something we didn’t realize—like having talked about somebody in a way they didn’t like, so they got mad and poisoned you.
Two related subjects explored in the book are toxic masculinity and female empowerment. Sarris creates several male characters who are desperate to prove to others that they are masculine and powerful. The story “Slaughterhouse” illustrates this dynamic through the activities of Anna’s son Frankie and his group of friends. This group of teenaged boys believe that the only way to prove their strength and masculinity is through sex and dominance, an attitude that results in their being ignorant and disrespectful towards women. The story strongly suggests that the way these boys think and act is to a large degree absorbed from their environment.
Another example of toxic masculinity can be found in the 100-year-old Sam Toms—a duplicitous man who often mistreats women and has passed down the “poison” to the next generation. His ways are questioned and changed by Nellie, who manages to outwit him in the story “Sam Toms’ Last Song.” This story, like many of the others, highlights the subject of female empowerment in the face of toxic masculinity.