Shell Shaker Themes

The main themes in Shell Shaker are ambiguity of intention, family, and magic.

  • Ambiguity of intention: Howe’s characters are complex, and even those who commit immoral actions (such as Red McAlester and Red Shoes) intend to help the Choctaw people by doing so.
  • Family: The matrilineal Billy family and its various close ties, both by blood and by love, are the novel’s center.
  • Magic: The Choctaw characters of the novel are able to impact the world around them through visions, spirits, and ceremonies. Magic is simply part of the everyday life of Shell Shaker’s characters.


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Ambiguity of Intention

Many stories about Native American groups, especially those that have a focus on the eighteenth century and the history of Native Americans, foreground the difficult relationship between white colonizers and the native populations they oppressed. Interestingly, in this novel, this is not the primary concern: instead, Howe draws attention to the fact that some Native Americans, such as Red Shoes, actually caused the deaths of thousands of their own people because of the actions they took, actions other Native Americans objected to.

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Red Shoes—as well as the modern-day inheritor of his soul, Red McAlester—are Native Americans who have caused enormous harm to their own tribes. However, Howe forces the reader to confront the fact that there is no simple “good” and “bad” in this story, or in the story of Native Americans in general. Bienville and Father Renoir, although members of the oppressive invading group of white people, are benevolent and good to the Native Americans they live among. James Joyce and the white Irish he represents have been subjugated by the English, like the Native Americans, but they are also members of a terrorist organization, the Irish Republican Army, which has been responsible for the murder of many innocent people.

Red Shoes and Red McAlester themselves explain to Auda, through her revelatory vision, that they had intended to better their people. It had been to help the tribe that they had interacted with white people in these ways: they intended to take the advantages of these invading people and use them to improve the lot of the tribe, without having to live under others’ oppressive rules. Red McAlester, as chief of the Oklahoma Choctaws, was responsible for money laundering through a casino which destroyed the lives of many, but he saw it as a business that could set the Choctaws free.

McAlester is the chief of his tribe, and for this reason his body must be returned to its ancestral grounds, which will keep him from being Osano, or doing evil. There is further ambiguity in this decision: McAlester is viewed by many as a bad person, and being buried at the ancestral mound is seen as a great honor, but burying him here is more a move of caution, intended to prevent further harm. Readers are also told that Red rejected the gift he was given as a child: rather than becoming a peacemaker, he has tried to be a warrior.

His first name, too, is connected to a motif of redness, and the color’s various ambiguous meanings, that permeates the novel. Like McAlester, Shakbatina was destined to be a peacemaker but also desired to cover herself in “vermilion” like a warrior. In her moment of death, she drew strength from this vengeful element of her personality, painting herself red as her grandmother had once told her never to do. Arguably, Shakbatina is the hero of the story and Red is the villain, but by drawing this connection between the two, Howe makes clear that such distinctions can never be so clearly marked.


Family is a key theme in Shell Shaker . In the opening chapter, Shakbatina describes the origins of the Choctaw tribe through the story of the tribal “Grandmother” and “Grandfather,” and throughout, Howe emphasizes the core importance of family to the Choctaw people. Familial groups...

(The entire section contains 998 words.)

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Chapter Summaries