The historical novel ALL SOULS’ RISING (1995), set in eighteenth century Haiti, marked a new departure for Madison Smartt Bell both in genre and in setting. Ordinarily, in works like SAVE ME, JOE LOUIS (1993), he writes about contemporary America, notably the world of the poor, with its drugs, crime, and violence. In TEN INDIANS, Bell returns to this familiar territory. However, as in ALL SOULS’ RISING, his subject is how long-standing racial injustice results in violence, bringing suffering and death both to the well-meaning and the most vicious members of society.
Troubled by a sense of failure with his upper-class patients, psychiatrist Mike Devlin decides to take Tae Kwon Do and the principle of non-violence into a black inner city neighborhood. While looking for a place to meet, he witnesses the death of a teenaged mother and rescues her baby, Froggy. Even after returning the child, Devlin feels tied to him and to those around him, including Froggy’s drug-dealing father, his dead mother’s friend Sharmane, and her indomitable grandmother.
Unfortunately, as Devlin’s wife warns him, no one can fix everything. Though he naively sees the high attendance at Tae Kwon Do sessions as proof of his success, Devlin is actually increasing the risk of an explosion by bringing together members of rival gangs. When Devlin’s daughter becomes involved with a gang leader, Trig, the outcome is inevitable. In the end, neither Devlin nor his program survives, and the only ray of hope is that perhaps after Trig gets out of prison he will live a different kind of life. Few writers see as clearly as Bell how hard it is to establish relationships between individuals divided by race and class. TEN INDIANS may not be a reassuring novel, but it is an honest one.