Shell Shaker

by LeAnne Howe

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 911

Shell Shaker is, arguably, a work of magical realism. Magical realism, a genre often associated with South and Central American literature, is a body of work in which the fantastical is incorporated into the everyday world and treated, within the context of the story, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. In Shell Shaker, visions and dreams form a significant part of the narrative trajectory: the eighteenth-century Shell Shaker, Shakbatina, spends centuries learning how to return in spirit form to help her people, and she is seen and heard by numerous characters in the part of the story which is set in the twentieth century. The father of the present-day Billy sisters appears to his daughter Tema as a panther, then helps to kill one of the D’Amato brothers, symbolizing the power of family and tribal protections.

For the Choctaws in the story, vision quests, dreams, and magic are simply a fact of life. However, what Howe shows the reader is that while the Choctaw world may be one in which magic is real, this is something that others fail to understand. Magic is real in the world of the novel, not only to the Choctaws but also to the white people who interact with them: Native American magic leaves scars on a dead Italian’s face that white police can see and touch, but not comprehend. Even so, it takes Borden, Tema’s British husband, a very long time to accept the Billy sisters’ gift of receiving visions, hearing voices, and deriving knowledge from tribal magic. The importance of magic and ceremony within the Native American experience, and the extent to which it is no less real than conferences or courthouses, is something it takes outsiders many years to recognize.

Slippage between times and characters are also elements common to magical realism that appear repeatedly in Shell Shaker. At various points, characters in the modern day are overtaken by, or feel themselves to be, characters from the eighteenth-century portion of the story. The connection between Red Shoes and Red McAlester, in particular, underscores the idea that the Native American experience depicted is neither linear nor simply defined. Red Shoes sought to assist his own people; this was understood by Anoleta and Haya, who loved him because they knew he was unaware that he had become Osano, a person who has lost their humanity and begun to suck power from their tribe. In the same way, Red McAlester believes that his casino, his money laundering, and his assistance of the Irish Republican Army will help to secure freedom for his tribe, which he places above all things.

Earl Billy suggests that both Reds had tried to evade their own destinies, rejecting the spirits’ desire for them to become peacemakers; at the same time, it is clear that Red McAlester, being a reincarnation of sorts of Red Shoes, is exactly what he was destined to be. His destiny was determined by the behavior of Red Shoes long ago; Red Shoes’s relationship with Anoleta parallels Red McAlester’s with Auda, the woman who ultimately kills him. In being overtaken by Shakbatina and killing McAlester, Auda is not only avenging herself but also allowing Shakbatina to put to bed a grudge she has held for hundreds of years.

The problems of the Choctaws, the story suggests, recur. It is wryly noted in the narrative that, whatever the difficulties posed by white people—both the French and the English—to the Choctaw nation, Choctaws too often kill other Choctaws.

Symbolism is key to Choctaw storytelling, and in seeking to replicate this type of storytelling in her novel,...

(This entire section contains 911 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Howe uses motifs throughout to indicate repetition and continuity. The color red is an obvious symbol: both Red Shoes and Red McAlester are possessed by the same mistaken drive to help their people. Red signifies greed and the desire for power, but it also symbolizes righteous vengeance and the passion and ambition of the warrior. Shakbatina, the peacemaker, paints herself red when she undertakes her final act of sacrifice; there is a benefit to a peacemaker also having a deep well of power from which to draw, and it is no coincidence that Shakbatina later reasserts herself as a forest fire. Matriarchal figures can destroy and avenge, as well as protect, in this story.

Other symbols, such as shells, birds, porcupines, and alligators, recur throughout the novel, indicating the continuity of the Choctaw experience and, finally, the coming together again of a tribe which was split apart by the behavior of Red Shoes. By laying to rest Red McAlester in the mound which marks the original home of the tribe, their Mother Earth, the Choctaws are able to unite again, burying the specter of the man who tore them apart.

Grandmother Porcupine, a sort of trickster character, serves as an agent of chaos in the story and underscores the extent to which Choctaw fortunes are governed by chance. When Divine Sarah appears in the courtroom to save Auda, it is not what Auda wants to happen, but it is what is destined to take place. The Billys, and the other modern-day Choctaws, to a certain extent, are moving along the same trajectory as those who came before them. However, the ending of the novel makes clear that, while they will always be bound to each other, there is a way for modern-day Choctaw women to be independent, successful, and happy without relinquishing their identity.