Susan Power

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Michael Dorris (review date 4 August 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725

SOURCE: "A Dynamic First Effort That Proves to Be the Real Thing," in Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1994, p. E7.

[Dorris is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and critic. In the following review, he remarks favorably on The Grass Dancer.]

The Grass Dancer is a look through an inverted telescope into the rich tapestry of Dakota society. Moving a century backward from the early 1980s and reclosing the loop in the present, its series of related, beautifully told tales unravel the intricate stitch of related lives, the far-reaching consequences of chance acts, the lasting legacies of love and jealousy.

Susan Power, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, has written a first novel that hums with serious intention and reads like a sad and lovely lament. The high plains reservation setting is rendered with the kind of authentic realism—the little but crucial details—that only the most acute observer notices, and her prose is both strong and lyrical.

As with other books that deal with the social dynamics of small communities, The Grass Dancer is concerned with the power of thwarted or stunted kinship—mothers who lose their daughters, fathers who die before they are known by their sons—and with marital love gone wrong or betrayed.

The bitterness of one generation literally haunts the next, and the next. Frustrated spirits often meddle in human affairs, and indeed the boundary dividing the living and the dead is occasionally so blurred that a man can marry his fiancee's ghost.

Magic suffuses the world that Power poetically describes. Eyelashes baked in chocolate cupcakes instantly turn high school boys lusty, a tiny fragment from the sheet of one bed sewed onto that of another is a prescription for unwilling adultery—or at least that's how people explain seemingly irrational occurrences to themselves and each other.

People, especially the young and innocent, can be puppets in the hands of unscrupulous elders whose manipulations, in the long run, are balanced only by the goodness of ancestors even older, even wiser in the ways of power.

In what might be the book's most powerful story—an archetypal tale of a sibling love-hate rivalry—two sisters do battle using their unfortunate children as pawns.

They looked like two opposites, like people with blood running from separate rivers. Chaske, whose baptism name was Emery Bauer Jr., after his German father, was sturdy and tall for his age, his powerful calf muscles bulging like little crab apples under the skin. His hair was creamy yellow, the color of beeswax, and his eyes were a silvery gray, so pale they were almost white….

Dina, on the other hand, was a blueprint of the women in our family, long-legged and graceful, thick braids grazing her narrow hips. Her little heart-shaped face was dark brown, the color of a full-blood, and her eyes were black and onyx studs.

In the end, both perish, each from the meanness of their respective aunts—whose true animosities are toward each other, but whose children are too-easy targets.

The world that Power describes pulses with vitality and passion. Characters roll forward like gusts of wind, smacking into each other, changing direction, temporarily blowing the same way, exhausting themselves with the force of their will.

Even though they may pretend otherwise, everyone wants something—a lot—although achieving a goal is no guarantee of contentment. When they get what they wanted, they immediately want something else just as badly. And once in awhile, just when they teeter on the edge of finding satisfaction, they misread the signals, make a mistake, lose their chance—and forever regret their blunder.

Power is...

(This entire section contains 725 words.)

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a terrific writer—energetic, fresh, political, daring. She succeeds most impressively when she relaxes into the simple rhythm of her stories, trusting the reader to understand their mythic elements without underlining them too boldly.

The symbolism at the heart of this striking novel—the grass whose beauty and movement, whose very soul the best dancers strive to catch and imitate—is unadorned, timeless: "She became a flexible stem, twisting toward the sky, dipping to the ground, bending with the wind. She was dry and brittle, shattered by drought, and then she was heavy with rain."

The Grass Dancer is a book wonderful both for what it is and for what it promises. Susan Power is the real thing.

Lawrence Thornton (review date 21 August 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1037

SOURCE: "The Grandmother in the Moon," in The New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1994, p. 7.

[Thornton is an American novelist, educator, and critic. In the review below, he discusses Power's integration of past and present in The Grass Dancer.]

Near the beginning of The Grass Dancer, Susan Power's captivating first novel, an old medicine man tells his grandson to remember that there are "two kinds of grass dancing. There's the grass dancer who prepares the field for a powwow the old-time way, turning the grass over with his feet to flatten it down. Then there's the spiritual dancer, who wants to learn grass secrets by imitating it, moving his body with the wind." The second kind of dancing, both a complex art form and a resonant metaphor for the relationship between humans and nature, functions as the armature of this moving exploration of lives infused with the power of the spirit world.

Ms. Power, a member of the Sioux tribe, writes with an inventiveness that sets her writing apart from much recent American fiction. She is more interested in montage than the progression d'effet of traditional plot. Set on a North Dakota reservation, The Grass Dancer tells the story of Harley Wind Soldier, a young Sioux trying to understand his place among people whose intertwined lives and shared heritage move backward in time in the narrative from the 1980's to the middle of the last century.

The effect of the structure is manifold. The reader responds to the narrative as if it were a series of photographs ranging from the crisp images of a Nikon to grainy daguerreotypes spotted with age. But Ms. Power's method has thematic as well as technical brio, for it also replicates the tribal sense of time and connectedness, reifying a world where ancestors are continually present in everyday life as spirits, memories and dreams. There is a fine example early in the book when Harley paints his face with traditional markings in preparation for a traditional dance and suddenly thinks he hears the voices of "the dead grandfathers … scratching the house with hoarse whispers, rasping like static from the radio. We are rising, we are rising, the voices hummed. And when Harley's painted mask was in place, an angry magpie divebombed the bathroom window, screeching, We are here, we are here." This is not magic realism, which consciously alters the world in order to expand its circumference, but a factual representation of reality as it is perceived by the characters—a single plane where past and present exist simultaneously.

The novel opens with Harley's father and brother dying in an accident after a drunk mistakes the headlights of their car for ghost eyes and drives his pickup truck "into their strange light, blinding them forever." From this stunning scene that sets the elegiac tone of Harley's life, The Grass Dancer leaps forward to 1981, the year Harley meets a young woman named Pumpkin, an accomplished dancer who finds him attractive. The problem is that Charlene Thunder also has designs on him, and her mother, Mercury, is endowed with powerful medicine. When Pumpkin is killed in a car wreck we have an uneasy feeling that Mercury had something to do with it. The reader is thus informed early on that bad as well as good medicine affects the lives of everyone on the reservation. Both are ever present as the spirits who chide and guide the living.

Mercury's witchery is countered by the ministrations of Herod Small War, a "famous Yuwipi man, the one who finds things: misplaced objects, missing persons, the answers to questions." Herod and Margaret Many Wounds, Harley's grandmother, are Harley's principal tutors, and while he learns much from Herod, Margaret Many Wounds has the greatest effect on her grandson's life. As she lies dying, the old woman leads Harley to one of his earliest visions. It is 1969 and Harley, who is 5 years old, is watching television, following the movements of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. A moment later, Harley "saw his grandmother's figure emerging on the screen, dancing toward him from the far horizon behind the astronauts." Though he does not know it at the time, Harley will spend the early years of his adult life seeking to replicate this vision, which holds answers to questions he has not yet learned to ask.

As The Grass Dancer edges into the past, women's voices fill out the history of the community, and their wisdom leads Harley to a remarkable moment of reintegration with his ancestors. Besides Mercury Thunder, whose powers are inherited from Red Dress, a warrior woman who figures prominently in the story, there is also Lydia Wind Soldier, Harley's mother. She, too, is drawn in her dreams to Red Dress, whose powerful voice speaks from 1864. The chapter devoted to her is the strongest in the novel. Red Dress recreates the Old West in startling images that reveal irresolvable conflicts between Indians and settlers. Her strength is immediately apparent, her devotion to the religion of her people unswerving. But when her powers to kill soldiers with words and dreams are fully manifested at Fort Laramie, the post chaplain, a deranged fundamentalist named Pyke, enacts a chilling revenge that resonates into the present.

The single fault with The Grass Dancer is that many of the women's voices are indistinguishable from one another. Had Ms. Power found individual inflections for them, the novel would have soared. But this is a small flaw in an otherwise substantial achievement. Written with grace and dignity, The Grass Dancer offers a healing vision that goes to the core of our humanity.

Stephen Henighan (review date 2 December 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633

SOURCE: "The Sioux Sense of Self," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4783, December 2, 1994, p. 22.

[In the review below, Henighan argues that The Grass Dancer fuses traditional storytelling with contemporary fictional forms and demonstrates the continuing vitality of Sioux culture.]

The act of reclaiming a lost or suppressed cultural identity is often carried out with defiance. Histories that have been denigrated or marginalized tend to be reborn in the contentious language of rebellion. Susan Power's first novel, The Grass Dancer, set on a North Dakota reservation, reassembles the history of the Sioux Indians—a term Power seems to prefer to the currently favoured "Native Americans"—with disarming equanimity.

Four weeks before Harley Wind Soldier's birth, his father and brother are killed by a drunken driver. The driver is white, and, though Power makes little of this detail, the accident epitomizes the offhand way in which, throughout this novel, white society wipes out the Indian past more through carelessness than malice. Harley's mother, traumatized by the accident, becomes mute; Harley grows up feeling that he has a "black, empty hole squeezed in his chest between heart and lungs". When the novel opens, in 1981, he is an introverted seventeen-year-old. At a summer pow-wow, he meets Pumpkin, a red-haired Menominee dancer of Irish ancestry. "You shouldn't ever be too arrogant or too loud about who you are", she tells Harley, in response to his anger at having been denied knowledge of his past. Before their relationship can release Harley from his stunned resentment, a second road accident claims Pumpkin's life. Her successful projection of her heritage into the hybrid reality of the present serves as a model for the stories that follow.

Later chapters of the novel hop back and forth between 1961 and the early 1980s; one tale reaches back as far as the 1930s, and there is a full-blown historical re-creation of a tragic encounter between Sioux and missionaries in 1864. Each of these narratives contributes, in a subtle way, to the reader's understanding of the opening accident. Nearly all of the narrators are women. Power is anything but a racial purist; her heroines have their children by wayward Swedes and errant Japanese doctors, yet their offspring's claims to Sioux history are never in doubt. The narrating voices are tough and matter-of-fact, even when their vision elides the barrier separating life from death; spirits abound in this novel, yet their activities are depicted as unremarkable. The mingling of living and dead, like that of Indians and whites, is crucial to Power's integrated account of her community. If her various narrators all speak in similar language, at once frank and lyrical, this appears to be a strategy rather than a stylistic lapse: the complementary insights and images evoked by their respective stories forge the shared history which, in the novel's final pages, succeeds in restoring Harley Wind Soldier's sense of self.

Comparisons of The Grass Dancer to the work of Louise Erdrich are unavoidable. Despite the shared North Dakota settings, Indian themes and layering of voices, however, Power has succeeded in creating a universe resonant with its own obsessions. Her fiction is more introspective and less plot-driven than that of Erdrich. This novel concludes with the white woman whose meddling is indirectly responsible for the initial accident marrying and having a child with a Sioux man. Yet one of the reservation's elders discourages her from bringing up her daughter solely in the Sioux tradition: "She needs to know both sides … tell her two stories." Acceptance, here, grows out of a deep-seated indifference. The lure of white society fails to impress Power's Sioux characters; their culture rolls on, adapting prevailing modes to express a Sioux vision. This scrupulously wrought novel, deftly fusing traditional story-telling with the forms of contemporary fiction, provides a sparkling demonstration of that culture's continued vitality.

Linda Niemann (review date January 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1185

SOURCE: "Healing History," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XII, No. 4, January, 1995, p. 23.

[In the following review, Niemann focuses on the magical and supernatural aspects of The Grass Dancer.]

The Grass Dancer flows along the page with the grace of its title character, a Menominee woman named Pumpkin who dances what is traditionally the male role of the grass dancer in powwows. The book as a whole becomes a place—the reservation where the series of stories that make up the novel are heard. Each chapter is as long as one night's storytelling, reflecting different points of view on the same set of events and characters. Susan Power draws on both novelistic technique and oral tradition to create a newly emerging form.

Storytelling, like grass dancing, is a tribal art: Power is working within her tradition to unfold spiritual secrets through the narrative. Each chapter is a discrete story in its own right, taking the reader from the 1860s to the 1980s as the lives of younger generations come to intersect with the still-present spirits of their ancestors.

This structuring of the novel as a series of overlapping stories is similar to Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. The difference is in focus: Alexie's stories are deeply rooted in reservation life and are triumphs over despair, while Power is more concerned with myth-making in all its new-car excitement. People get up from their deathbeds and walk on the moon with Neil Armstrong. They come back from the dead in pretty good shape, with consoling messages for the living. They give advice. History is not drenched in gore, as in Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead; it's less of a tragedy than we thought it was.

Power tells stories of how the Dakotas used white magic to defeat their enemies, such as the story about the "Medicine Hole"—the magical opening up of the earth that hid and protected warriors surrounded in a battle with US soldiers in the 1860s. She chooses to represent indigenous history not as a record of defeat but rather as a continuing process whose outcome is still uncertain. The past and the spirit world lie within and around the present.

The germinal story tells of Red Dress, a woman warrior who left her people to go to the US soldiers' Fort Laramie in 1864. There she pretended to accept their culture, but secretly used her magical powers of sexual attraction to lure and kill a number of them. Accepting this role separated her from her lover, Ghost Horse, and she died at the fort before they could be married. Ghost Horse married her spirit anyway, but in his grief he was unable to release her. He sought death in battle, and his spirit went to the place of the ancestors, while hers remained attached to the places of the living.

The modern inheritor of Red Dress' power is Anna Thunder, her grand-niece. Anna, however, uses her sexual power for her own ends rather than for the good of the tribe—to bewitch lovers and take revenge. This is not to say that her character is unsympathetic; Power presents her as a formidable, intelligent, intensely alive woman:

"Too many people don't believe in their souls, don't recognize them when they feel the spirit twist against their heart or snap across their brain. And some that do believe hand their spirits over to the care of others, just give them blithely away, though they may be tightfisted when it comes to their coins. I own my spirit. Can you say that? How many can say that?"

Anna is grooming her teenage granddaughter, Charlene, to succeed her as a bruja, but Charlene prefers the approval of the tribe over the personal power a black magic worker possesses. It mortifies her that everyone is afraid to eat any of her grandmother's casseroles or to buy any of her beadwork for fear of bewitchment:

Charlene trained her headlights on the dog, but he didn't look up. His front paws were planted in the macaroni casserole Charlene had baked. Two neat squares—the servings Charlene had carved for her grandmother and herself—were missing, but the pan … was otherwise full. "They must have thrown it out," Charlene thought. "And it was good, too." Tears pooled in her eyes, but she squinted fiercely to keep them from spilling down her face.

The other series of intercut stories concerns the descendants of Ghost Horse, the Wind Soldier family. Harley Wind Soldier, the great-great-nephew of Ghost Horse, is struggling for spiritual healing after the tragic death of his father, Calvin, and in the face of his mother's continuing vow of silence. The family tragedy is complicated by the involvement of Anna Thunder, whose witchcraft made Calvin sleep with his wife's twin sister. Harley turns to traditional medicine with the help of the tribe's practitioner, Herod Small War. In a vision quest ceremony he meets Ghost Horse and is given knowledge of himself and the history of the tribe:

Harley Wind Soldier stood in the same deep pit his father had occupied thirty years before. Harley was more cooperative than Calvin had been, and wore only his gym shorts and a blanket. He clutched Herod Small War's pipe against his chest and watched the flags staked at the perimeter of the pit rise in the wind. His mother and Alberta Small War had made the long string of tobacco ties that encircled him.

"I don't know how to pray," Harley mumbled, but he dismissed the idea. "I will learn," he told himself.

The title character, the grass dancer Pumpkin, appears only briefly in the narrative. She is in a way a cipher for the author, being a mixed-blood on her way to an Ivy League education. Grass dancers imitate the way the prairie grass moves; their costume is fringed, and they wear grass bundles on their backs. Early in the book Pumpkin turns up at a powwow, where she wins the heart of Harley Wind Soldier, whose emptiness she promises to fill with her own soul. Leaving the powwow she is killed in a car wreck, another victim of Anna Thunder's witchcraft.

Pumpkin beat Charlene in the powwow competition, and Charlene is haunted by the responsibility for her death. But the way in which she is relieved of this burden illustrates the philosophy permeating this novel—that life works itself out in ways not understandable to humans, but with a beauty, even in tragic events, that is accessible and healing.

Pumpkin opened her mouth to speak, and Charlene flinched, dreading the beautiful little birds, which she knew would leave the dancer's lips only to die. This dream was different. The birds emerged, the same as always, but this time darted away. They were a neat flock, so miniature and close together that they looked to Charlene like a school of fish. Her mouth creaked open in surprise. Quickly, easily, the birds flew past her teeth, entering the cave of her jaws. Charlene coughed, but the birds coasted down her throat, tickling her with their fluttering wings.