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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819

In her novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows , Paula Gunn Allen employs Laguna women’s traditions to trace one woman’s search for psychic balance. The novel is divided into four parts, each preceded by a prologue. These prologues tell the traditionally oral stories of Thinking Woman, also known as...

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In her novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, Paula Gunn Allen employs Laguna women’s traditions to trace one woman’s search for psychic balance. The novel is divided into four parts, each preceded by a prologue. These prologues tell the traditionally oral stories of Thinking Woman, also known as Spider Woman or the Grandmother, and of her two sister goddesses whom she sang into being, Uretsete and Naotsete. The bodies of the four parts are sectioned into short vignettes that follow middle-aged protagonist Ephanie Atencio as she struggles to gain a sense of self and purpose. Allen parallels Ephanie’s own experiences to the goddess stories and in doing so establishes the acceptance of traditional woman lore as the key to a woman’s individual spiritual harmony.

Told in stream-of-consciousness style, the novel begins with Ephanie, recently abandoned by her husband, in a state of mental turmoil. She vaguely hears Stephen’s attempts to aid her in grasping reality, yet she feels suffocated by him and longs for him to understand her and to let her be herself. With Elena, Ephanie had been who she wanted to be; as children, the two seemingly had complete understanding of each other, seeing themselves as Snow White and Rose Red, as two halves of a whole. Ephanie recounts their separation and the final words of betrayal spoken by Elena that separated them forever. Ephanie connects this memory to her present need for a friend, someone who will accept her as Stephen does not. After Stephen makes love to her, she realizes that something is “out of time, off-pace.” She flees Albuquerque, leaving her children with her mother.

Settling in San Francisco, Ephanie sends for her children. The three experience city life and attend the local powwows, looking for acceptance into that community as something connected to and yet different from their home. Ephanie is discontented, however. Going to the Indian Center less and less, she rationalizes her withdrawal by claiming a desire to see “how the other half lives.” She spends more time with the non-Indian friends she has made at her group therapy session, particularly Teresa. Ephanie and Teresa grow close, though Ephanie is always troubled by feelings of disconnectedness and isolation. She meets Thomas Yoshuri, who claims to “need” Ephanie. In desperation, hoping to find care for her children and a reason for her own existence, Ephanie agrees to marry Thomas despite Teresa’s warnings and her own misgivings.

The marriage predictably fails, and Ephanie, now pregnant, runs off to Oregon, where she gives birth to twin boys. Thomas joins her for the birth and stays with her until, not long afterward, Tommy dies of crib death. Part 2 ends with their final separation and divorce.

In part 3, again alone and now also experiencing guilt about her young child’s death, Ephanie yearns even more desperately to be understood. She recalls the stories of disrespect shown toward Iyatiku and searches for the meaning in her dreams of the strange katsina, messenger between the spirits and the people. She visits Guadalupe with Teresa, but this trip only stirs up the mysterious disquiet within her. During their return to California, Ephanie and Teresa stay in Colorado with some friends of Teresa who are full of statistics about the injustices wielded against indigenous people. Ephanie resents her people being seen as romanticized victims by those who blame anyone but themselves. She retraces the shunning of her family by her own community because of her grandmother’s marriage to a white man. Connecting all of this, Ephanie is again overwhelmed and angered by lack of understanding. Possessed with the desire to do something, to take power in any way possible, Ephanie hangs herself, instantaneously regrets her action, and cuts herself free with the knife propitiously stuck in her pocket.

In the final section of the novel, Ephanie madly searches, though for what she is not sure, through books and her own writing. Eventually she discovers the key to her own enlightenment. More stories of the goddesses come to her; through these and stories of her family’s life, she begins to see pain. Ephanie’s struggles, her stories, and her writings intertwine, forming circles that she prays will lead her to understanding. She is certain that if she could understand, people, beasts, and the earth would be healed.

Finally, she unleashes the memory of her childhood fall from an apple tree and how, overpowered by the anger and guilt of her fall, she stifled the energy and freedom of her spirit. A spirit woman comes to her and tells her the stories of the goddesses of her people. Through this oral telling, Ephanie understands the combinations and recombinations that form the whole of reality. She puts the fragments of herself back together and sings with the surrounding shadows that have taken the shapes of women, women singing and stepping in balance and harmony.

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