(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Hale’s somewhat autobiographical novel ostensibly concerns the memories of an American Indian woman who is incarcerated for drunken driving and for an old welfare fraud charge. Her jailing, however, is metaphorical as well as literal. As a child, Cecelia conforms to her father’s expectations for a boy, and her chosen sport appropriately is running. Her childhood dreams of flying and of angels with wings reflect her desire to escape: “She thought that her favorite song [‘Oh, if I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly’] must have been made up by a little girl like herself, another secret angel, who had been imprisoned.” Cecelia’s story is, in fact, a series of flights, of attempted escapes, that ironically result in her “capture” before she finally escapes over the walls of exploitation and oppression. Late in the novel, she recognizes that she feels much as her mother had, the prisoner of “circumstances and an inability to imagine anything beyond the prison,” both in loveless marriages, traps of their own making.

Circumstances such as racism have led not only to her exploitation and oppression but also to that of all American Indians unable to see beyond the walls. Using Cecelia as a spokesperson, Hale points out that American Indians did not receive citizenship until 1924, that separate-but-equal schools are not equal, and that whites introduced disease through blankets given as “gifts” to American Indians. It is, however, the insidious, less obvious racism that produces the “sidewalk Indians,” those marginalized individuals without futures. The lack of self-confidence that cost Cecelia her race is fostered by bureaucrats such as Miss Wade, who suggests vocational courses for Cecelia, and by whites such as Nathan, who advocates a “more...

(The entire section is 740 words.)