Jim, fresh out of medical school, gets his first job on a reservation i Mescalero, New Mexico. He quickly learns that the theory and practice of medicine diverge at critical points: when a patient is drunk or violent; when a patient does not understand instructions or prefers to seek tribal remedies; or, with the greatest potential for tragedy, when the patient is his beloved. He also discovers a culture, that of the Apaches of southern New Mexico, unlike anything he has ever known. Suicide is common and, more often than not, unpremeditated.
Without the experience yet to dispense “creative” medicine, Jim learns quickly to depend on his new colleagues, especially on the expertise of the hospital’s brilliant surgeon, Max Rubenstein, a gay man, stereotyped by the author as archly clever. (Why is this character gay? It is of absolutely no importance in the narrative except to show Jim’s surprise when he finds it out.) Of more practical help is Annie Messenger Bird, a lovely Sioux-Lakota nurse, whose compassion and common sense make her a particularly attractive character. In fairly short order, Jim falls in love with her. Through her son Silas, he becomes embroiled in the new militarism of the American Indian Movement and through her ex-father-in-law, Barnabas Lester, the chief of the reservation, he discovers that tribal politics and national policy are not necessarily reducible to victim versus oppressor.
Of more importance in the structure of this novel, however, are the numerous characters, Jim’s patients, who appear only for a page or so, or even for just a paragraph. It is they who reveal to him the suffering, the penury, and the despair of a proud, taciturn people. Ministering to their physical ills, Jim becomes more and more aware of the larger social problems which white men have inflicted on them—and the ones that they have made for themselves. MESSENGER BIRD is episodic, held together by the daily incidents of comedy and tragedy that make up the lives of these minor characters. It is, however, in the sufferings of the title character that the novel attains its special grace.