Painted Turtle Summary
by Clarence Major

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Painted Turtle Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar is an experimental novel in the fable tradition that traces the moral, personal, psychological, and spiritual development of Clarence Major’s principal character, Mary Etawa, called “Painted Turtle.” Born into a traditional Zuni family on December 17, 1938, Painted Turtle gets her nickname because she crawls on all fours and raises her head like a turtle. In some ways, this name comes to define her position to everyone and for everything outside her own life. She tries to shut out the traditions of her family and the realities of her ancestry, much like a turtle in its shell. She exists in a place between actual reality, dreams, mystical experiences, and the construction of her autobiography, as told through the “voice” of her lover, Baldy. In many ways, this story is a poetic statement on alienation and transformation, the misunderstanding inherent in the dynamics of multicultural interaction, pride and prejudice, sexism and racism, and the known and unknown spaces that exist between the traditional roles of men and women.

The novel begins with Baldy’s explanation of how he came to know Painted Turtle. It ends with their riding through the barren landscapes of the Southwest as a committed team in both music and love. In between is the story of many people who inhabit Painted Turtle’s world as children, ghosts, parents, relations, relatives, and spirits. All these relationships are complicated by the demands of tradition fighting against Painted Turtle’s desire for identity and independence. Painted Turtle’s life is difficult and confusing because she defies traditional mores and dares to disagree with authority. As if unconscious and in a trance, Painted Turtle wanders through her life as much an observer as an active participant. She does what she wants to do, needs to do, has to do, not quite knowing why or how. She knows that the “old ways” keep her in a state of agitation, and therefore she rebels against what appears to be a fixed position in life. She does not fit into the social and cultural systems of the reservation, nor does she accept the demands of motherhood. Her defiance, as well as her rape and bearing of twins, makes her an unacceptable bride; her lack of conventionality forces her to leave the Zuni reservation to escape its restrictions. Moreover, her desire to go beyond the ordinary means that her life cannot be like that of her mother, who by making pottery out of clay follows the traditional static path of females.

After attempting to drown the twins, Painted Turtle is placed in the Gallup Indian Medical Center. Released after a few months, she returns to the reservation but soon realizes that she can no longer live there. This begins her quest for identity. She takes a few odd jobs; after being arrested for prostitution, she finally picks up her guitar again and finds the space where her life has meaning. In a series of trips away from the reservation and on visits back to bury the dead and observe rituals, she discovers that she is more fulfilled, even as a very proud and conscious Zuni, away from the reservation. Thus, time on the cantina circuit takes on a life of its own; she meets Baldy and allows him to travel with her. Familiarity grows into love and mutual respect into a partnership. The story ends as they ride to their first job together.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. “Modernism and...

(The entire section is 838 words.)