Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Sharpest Sight is volume 1 in the University of Oklahoma’s American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series, which also includes Louis Owens’s Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (1992). Owens, a professor of literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz, is a specialist on the work of John Steinbeck and coauthor with Tom Colonnese of American Indian Novelists: An Annotated Critical Bibliography (1985). The Sharpest Sight, his first novel, reflects his own mixed Choctaw, Cherokee, and Irish ancestry. In it, he combines ingredients from Tony Hillerman, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and the Magic Realism of Latin American novelists to come up with a work that is strikingly original.

The Indian protagonists and their cultural background resemble those of Hillerman, but with Choctaws and Cherokees rather than Navajos. The California episodes take place in Steinbeck country and show how the Chumash Indians had their lands stolen by Mexican settlers, who in turn were dispossessed by aggressive white invaders. In the Southeast, the five civilized tribes had their land stolen and were sent west on death marches in the 1830’s. The Mississippi episodes not only take place in Faulkner country but also have Uncle Luther allude to Ikkemotube, or Doom, the Indian chief who features in a number of Faulkner’s fictions.

Onatima brings Luther books of literature so that he will turn from Westerns to the stories that count, the ones that change the world. At the moment, she is reading Thomas Pynchon. She is worried that white people, with no homes, no roots, and no concern for the earth, make heroes of immature people who perpetrate senseless violence. Among the more amusing as well as enlightening parts of the novel are Luther’s Choctaw explications of Moby Dick: Or, the Whale (1851) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The Choctaws also have their own stories to give words to the spiritual dangers in the world. Yet literature is not enough, for Jessard Deal throws out allusions to poetry while committing atrocities. Attis believed that “we have to accept responsibility for our lives, for everything within us and around us.” Tragically, Vietnam derailed him from doing this.