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Joy Harjo Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

As a writer often working in poetry, Joy Harjo’s language tends to be highly charged and full of images (such as “the blue bowl of the sky”) and visions. Her writing is also often strongly spiritual, encompassing, as it does, a number of Native American myths and a distinctive Native American viewpoint. Harjo also writes of social issues, particularly the plight of Native Americans in the United States, both historically and in the present, and especially (but not exclusively) the condition of the Native American woman. C. B. Clark has accurately described the scope of Harjo’s work, saying that she “recalls the wounds of the past, the agony of the Indian present, and dream visions of a better future for indigenous peoples.” Her prose work is generally short (three to five pages), it often mingles realistic and mythic modes, and it is strongly autobiographical.

“The Flood”

“The Flood” is representative of the shape of much of Joy Harjo’s prose writing—short and yet deeply visionary. This first-person, three-page narrative alternates between a contemporary, realistic mode (cars, a six-pack, and a convenience store) and deeper elements (a mythical water monster and centuries of legend and history). At the heart of the story is the image of a sixteen-year-old woman walking into a lake to marry a mythic Indian water god. However, the narrative is hardly linear, and the girl is simultaneously a tribal daughter carrying her sister to the lake to draw water in the distant past, a contemporary young woman driving a car into the lake, and a third woman watching the girl walk out of the lake twenty years later. Which is she? All of them, in a mixture of the poles of the narrative method used here, which employs memory and imagination. The fiction is heavily multilayered: Myth infuses history with meaning, and there is no objective retelling of the story that can adequately capture truth without undue reduction or simplification. The story is less a fiction than a vision—including the rain at the end “that would flood the world.” Readers of “The Flood” may be reminded of another native American fictionist, the Chippewa writer Louise Erdrich, whose short story “Fleur,” for example, also concerns a young Indian girl meeting a water monster in a lake.

“Northern Lights”

Like “The Flood,” “Northern Lights” was first collected in 1991 in Talking Leaves: Contemporary Native American Stories, edited by Craig Lesley. While it is also in the first person, “the story doesn’t belong to me,” the narrator concludes, “but to Whirling Soldier who gifted me with it in the circle of hope.” The narrator meets Whirling Soldier at a winter dance. He has returned from duty in Vietnam with many scars, most of them mental. His story is also the history of three generations of an alcoholic family (including his father and his daughter). There is no easy answer here as to how Whirling Soldier is saved, but at the conclusion of the story, there is a kind of redemption for all of the characters:After the dance, we all ran out onto the ice to see the northern lights. They were shimmering relatives returned from the war, dancing in the skies all around us. It was an unusual moment of grace for fools.

Like the work of Native American writers Leslie Marmon Silko (Ceremony, 1977) and James Welch (Winter in the Blood, 1974), this story of a soldier returning from war is an opportunity for the writer to raise a number of other important Native American issues. As in her other stories, Harjo here writes like a poet (“He snuffed his confusion between honor and honor with wine, became an acrobat of pain in the Indian bars of Kansas”).


This short story varies from the usual Harjo pattern in its taking place outside the southwestern setting of most of her other fiction, and yet even here the view of the world is Native American, for Boston is perceived as sitting at the edge of the Atlantic, where the horizon...

(The entire section is 1,405 words.)