Book Reviews

By Tharp, Julie | Transformations, March 31, 1995 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews


Tharp, Julie, Transformations


Book Reviews

Allen, Paula Gunn, ed. Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature 1900-1970. New York: Ballantine, 1994. Hardcover. 321 pages. $24.50.

Krupat, Arnold, ed. New Voices in Native American Literary Criticism. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. Paperback. 555 pages. $34.95.

Even ten years ago I could read nearly everything published by Native American writers, but that is no longer the case. The wealth of literature published in recent years has created a need for a central anthology of pieces that can be easily used in Native American studies and/or English classrooms. A proliferation of literary criticism within the field has consistently evinced the need for some consensus on culturally sensitive methods of approach to these literatures. Two new books help to meet these needs.

Teachers of American Indian literature should welcome Paula Gunn Allen's latest publication, an anthology of American Indian narrative literature produced between 1900 and 1970. The first of a projected two volume set, this anthology focuses on the roots of the contemporary blossoming of literature by Indian writers. Within the introduction Allen provides a general historical overview of the transformation of Indian narrative from oral storytelling to formal fiction and of other variations of literature created along the way. The anthology represents these variations well; in fact, that is one of the editor's strengths. Allen has managed to combine, in evocative juxtaposition, autobiographical narratives by writers like Estelle Armstrong and Luther Standing Bear; stories from the oral tradition such as those recorded by Charles Eastman; collaborative narratives like those created by Pretty-shield and Frank B. Linderman; and fiction by D'Arcy McNickle and Simon J. Ortiz. Allen's opening argument that "Native Narrative Tradition revolves around the theme of magical transformation" is amply supported by the transformation of genre evinced by her selections (8).

The other three subthemes she mentions - "social change, cultural transition, and shifting modes of identity" - figure largely in the content of the stories she has included within the anthology. As such, the anthology would lend itself well to an interdisciplinary course in American Indian, literary, or sociological studies. Allen also provides biographical, critical and historical context for the writers, their work and the events referred to in the pieces within short introductions to each selection. Within an introductory course, the anthology would provide students with a strong sense of the general concerns within the American Indian community. The instructor of an upper division course would want to supplement the text with background information on individual tribal and regional differences. A bibliography of other primary sources and a critical bibliography, particularly for college students, would have been handy additions to the book.

I am delighted to have discovered some works with which I was unfamiliar: one of the "little stories" gathered by Mourning Dove from her Okanogan relatives and friends, Canadian E. Pauline Johnson's "A Red Girl's Reasoning," and a fictional piece by Simon J. Ortiz, "Woman Singing." Two strong threads running throughout the collection - Indian boarding school experience and adherence to traditional culture in the face of change - are also striking, particularly because of the tension they generate. In a course, these two themes would create a strong backdrop for the exploration of a number of more recent longer works such as Louise Erdrich's Tracks or Love Medicine, Louis Owens' The Sharpest Sight or Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony.

In justifying her use of excerpts from longer pieces, Allen comments that all literature arises out of an "all-encompassing matrix" made up of cultural assumptions, backround and narrative traits. All readers have varying access to that matrix and therefore to the stories included, but Allen has done a creditable job of bringing together pieces that help to create, together, a matrix from which the reader can develop a greater understanding of the whole and of each writer's contribution to it.

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