The Northern Lights Summary (Joy Foster)

Joy Foster


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story of Whirling Soldier, a Vietnam veteran and Native American, unfolds through a series of flashbacks, alternating between his war experience, his childhood, and his life after he is discharged from the military. As an unnamed narrator relates the story’s beginning and end, the body of the story comprises a series of images that reveal the psychological and spiritual decline and subsequent recovery of Whirling Soldier.

The narrator meets Whirling Soldier at a traditional Native American powwow held on the shores of Lake Superior. In contrast to the natural phenomenon of the northern lights that blaze across the sky, the powwow takes place under the garish electrical lights of an auditorium. From his physical appearance it is apparent that Whirling Soldier still suffers the psychological trauma of war. However, despite his suffering, his attendance at the powwow demonstrates that he has reintegrated into the Indian community. The narrator and Whirling Soldier engage in small talk and look on proudly as the latter’s niece and eighteen-year-old daughter, a recovering alcoholic, dance joyfully before their relatives.

Whirling Soldier confides to the narrator that he has suffered much pain because of his war experience and because of his father’s death. Memories of his Vietnam experiences intertwine with those of his childhood. His first Vietnam memory is sparked by the appearance of the northern lights on the night of the powwow: At one moment during the war, he and a white companion take cover in a ditch. Gunfire from an unseen enemy reminds him of the northern lights. In his confusion, he cannot tell whether the gunfire originates with his ditchmate or with the enemy Viet Cong.

Whirling Soldier’s confusion concerning the enemy gunfire is symptomatic of a deeper cultural conflict. The Vietnam War—which was orchestrated by white men in Washington—violated the...

(The entire section is 784 words.)