The Jailing of Cecelia Capture Critical Context - Essay

Janet Campbell Hale

Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Jailing of Cecelia Capture is possibly more important as a cultural document than as a novel. Published in 1985, long after the energies of the radical American Indian Movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s had largely burned out, the book demonstrates that self-realization and cultural integrity for Native Americans remain possible even under the jurisdiction of the United States. The novel shows that a person can work for her people while giving up only—or mainly—the limitations they confuse with their culture—and also shows how lonely such a passage can become.

The book is hard-eyed and uncompromising. Its depiction of common reservation life pulls few punches: The majority appear alienated from the ways of the past, which require too much effort to sustain, and mired in the unnourishing bread and pompous circuses of American commercial culture. The tribes seem caught in a world compounded of the dregs of two societies, able to function in neither. Cecelia gains only credit for turning her back on the shabby mobile-home and junked-car surroundings of her parents and siblings, but the urban American Dream, on close inspection, seems hardly congenial. Upward mobility into material culture is not Cecelia’s ambition, but it is about all she is offered. None of the men she meets is capable of recognizing her for herself. Her most positive encounter is with another Indian, who offends her by referring to her as a squaw with an education. Eventually, she discovers that even her Ivy League-educated Mayflower-descended husband has chosen her not for what she is but for what she represents to him—the victim of the crimes of his ancestors. Yet it is precisely her self, her embattled self, that she finally discovers as worth preserving from assaults from two cultures leagued together to deprive her.