Read The Grass Dancer by Susan Power Online


From the 1860s, when two lovers are separated by death, the cosmic drama of the two spirits desperately seeking to be reunited molds the lives and fates of their descendants, in a lyrical debut novel shaped by the lore of the Sioux. A first novel. 50,000 first printing....

Title : The Grass Dancer
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ISBN : 9780399139116
Format Type : Hardcover
Number of Pages : 300 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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The Grass Dancer Reviews

  • Zanna
    2019-06-10 08:13

    What I said in the secrecy of my thoughts was: Fanny, mazaska, the white iron you call money, is useless to me. Even the goods I take from the sutler's store, the flour, coffee, sugar, and tobacco, the knives and blankets, are things I do not want. I give them to my cousins who live upriver.These words belong to Red Dress, ancestor of several members of Susan Power's wonderful cast, who gives the novel a kind of foundation stone or pivot. Her presence, like that of other ancestors and spirits, is real in their lives: here the truth of powerful and often dangerous medicine and magic is taken for granted. I remembered a friend comforting me once saying that everything that dies goes on being somewhere and this is true if only in that afternoon country of the past, but reading The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir before this prepared me to believe more wholeheartedly in the visions and visitations of Power's multilayered narrative, which eschews linearity and braids stories and voices in a way that reminded me of Louise ErdrichFrom the beginning I was smitten with some of the characters, especially Pumpkin, full of joy to be partaking of the pow-wow, consciously shrugging off her inhibitions, flexing and displaying her abilities without vanity or disdain for others. She has been successful in the state education system and she is able to understand what this has given to and taken from her, and to see a way forward for herself that honours and includes her passionate engagement with her native heritage as well as builds on academic success.One important character, Jeanette, is a well-intentioned ignorant and foolish white woman who has somehow managed to get herself employed as a school teacher on the reservation. Her attempts to integrate herself into Sioux culture and reflect her students' backgrounds in her teaching are almost unbearably cringeworthy, but the cringe-factor is definitely enhanced by my awareness of being a similar sort of cringey white feminist myself. While the teenage students dutifully repeat well-known stories of Iktomi, stories from their own lives or told by relatives, darker and less acceptable, run through their minds. The children use folktale cleverly as a mask or ruse to keep the truth safe from this ignorant, dangerous outsider. That Jeanette is dangerous at this point we can tell from her attitude, as she tells the students that her lessons are about give and take and she expects to learn as much as they do, her intent is exposed as the white liberal strain of extractivism, one which sees cultural heritage as a value-able resource.Jeanette has a pleasing character arc though, gradually learning some degree of wisdom and starting to be of use to those around her rather than a pain in the ass, wielding her feminism against Herod as white women are still doing today. However, Herod's patriarchal attitudes don't get a free pass from Power. His wife isn't impressed with them either and like conservative sexual customs, they are presented as due for an update. As my friend Margaret pointed out in discussion of the book, it's easy to see how some people would benefit by discussing their feelings openly, as Pumpkin and Harley do, for example. Jeanette's confusion and naivity provides a useful opportunity to correct liberal misconceptions, but also helps other strands to stage a dynamic, living culture that is anything but frozen and monolithic. As Red Dress and uncle Ghost Horse show their descendants, selective adaptation, open-mindedness and commitment to try new ways are themselves traditional to the Sioux.Unlike the parable-like Iktomi tales, which Frank thinks of as baby stories as he tells one, these real stories require more than an explanatory sentence of interpretation. Grandfather Herod passes on a story-stub to Harley about his uncle Ghost Horse, and Harley then has to re-enact the story in his own life to find out its importance. Reenactment is also necessary later, in response to dreams and problems. Some knowledge can't be passed on in telling, even when the seating plan is congenial, it has to be lived, entered through the body.Harley is perhaps the closest thing the novel has to a central character, subjected to the most twists and turns of event, involved in the most relationships. I loved the scenes between Harley as a child and his grandmother, Margaret, who is ill, and Margaret's twin daughters, Evie and Harley's mother Lydia. Evie wants her mother to witness the historic Moon landing, but Margaret is unimpressed, telling Harley that there is a Moon for everyone who sees the Moon and that she could walk on the Moon herself. She proves this to him with a beautiful flourish. This reimagining disrupts the USian moon landing narrative and its Cold War subtexts, forming a spectacular decolonising gesture that Margaret gifts to her grandson, more fabulous than any material inheritance.Anna/Mercury is a descendant of Red Dress whose magic is very powerful. She is dangerous because she uses her medicine selfishly, and perhaps Susan Power is giving a little nod here to those who know Iktomi, who is also a selfish person and is punished, reminding us that selfishness is the quality of a bad Sioux. Courage and resourceful intelligence must be the converse, since Margaret thinks, amusingly, Elizabeth Bennett 'would have made a good Sioux'.A contrast between this book and Louise Erdrich's work is the attitude towards Christianity, the worldview and vision of which Power presents in all its deathly, world-eating, law-and-order horror through the character of a priest helped by Red Dress, who is unmoved by her Christian education, but accepts her situation among the whites as fate. Despite, or perhaps because of, the quality of her assistance he makes no converts. When she translates the priest's stories to her family, Sioux logic defeats them – they are inferior tales:Bear Soldier, head chief of our band and my own father, was a logician whose counsel was solicited by other leaders. He listened to the anecdotes I dutifully translated for the priest – Cain slaying Abel, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Joseph delivered into slavery by his jealous brothers – and shook his head. My father wanted to know, “Why are his people so determined to kill their relatives?”So I asked Father, “Why did Cain kill Abel?”Father pointed at me and shook his finger. “Because he didn't have faith.”I told my father, “When the priest's people don't believe in the higher spirits they go crazy.””Then we'll pray for them.” he said.Thus, the critical orientation to Christianity is always respectfully expressed in a way that explains Sioux traditional religion as again when Frank is chatting with a Sioux Christian and repeats one of Herod's comments: “That's what Tunkasida told me, something like that. He said the Christian God has a big lantern with the kerosene turned way up, and the people pray to Him for guidance, and he lights the way. Now, Wakan Tanka, when you cry to Him for help, says, 'Okay, here's how you start a fire.' And then you have to make your own torch”. What you get in these stories is no blazing kerosene, but a whole lot of hard work learning, especially for Harley. The key metaphor of the grass dance in the book's title moves gently through the narrative, slowly revealing its meanings and depths, carrying joy, love, grief, anger and power, working its signs in action, in the spirit. This is a gorgeous, glorious novel and I will definitely read all Susan's books.

  • Zoe Brooks
    2019-06-13 13:04

    I loved this book and could hardly bear to put it down. In fact it is now one of my favourite magic realist books, which is saying a lot (this is the 116th review on this blog). There are some books that you should read in one sitting or as near to one as you can get. This is one such book. Each chapter in the book is almost a separate story, narrated by different characters at different times (it is important to make a note of the year that appears under each chapter heading). This patchwork of stories comes together to form the larger picture. This structure is why it is important to read the book rapidly, because you can lose your way if you take too long. I felt very much that I was dreaming when I read the book - experiencing a series of instances, visions, references that came in and out of focus, until at last they formed one vision. Dreaming and visions are at the heart of this book. The full story of Red Dress does not come until towards the end of the book, but she appears in the dreams and visions of the characters throughout the book. I read somewhere that that is how Susan Power got the idea for the book - the woman in a red dress appeared to her. The line between the real and the dream is constantly blurring. Which is real - the dream or the waking? Power makes it clear how central dreams were and are to Sioux culture. I can't help thinking that they should be more important to the culture of the white man (and woman in my case). It seems to me that we have lost something when we forgot to take our dreamworld as seriously as our waking. There are some memorable characters in this book - the most notable being the awful and awesome Anna (Mercury) Thunder. She could so easily have been a stereotype, but Power gives her a back story that shows that she was not always the witch she becomes and also explains why she changed. Of course the book's structure of telling characters' stories in reverse makes the revelation of Anna Thunder's past tragedy all the stronger.If I have one criticism it is that there are perhaps too many characters to keep track of, especially as the book's chronology jumps about so much. One of the reasons for my confusion was that the storyline is structured almost as a series of variations on a theme, with incidents reappearing through the generations. In this I was reminded of Alan Garner's books, which so influenced me as a child and which also feature legends that reappear in the present day.I have read a number of excellent magic realist books dealing with the complexity of life of modern Native Americans in a predominantly white society, but none have shown mixed marriages and mixed parentage as this book does. The different generations (apart from Red Dress's) all feature inter-race relationships. And yet this book shows the native "magic" as very much a part of accepted everyday life. On the reservation magic just happens and everyone accepts it. This is contrasted with the attitude of the white schoolteacher who comes to live with and study Anna Thunder. Despite being around Anna and supposedly respecting Sioux heritage and culture, she is shocked and scared when she realizes that Anna can actually work her magic. As Anna affirms: I am not a fairytale. No Anna you are not and nor are your beliefs and nor is magic realism.This review first appeared on

  • Lila
    2019-06-14 14:44

    This book follows the lives of various members of the Sioux Nation starting in the 1980s and going back into the 18 hundreds. It was very interesting reading about things that many would consider paranormal or supernatural, but we're or are considered real in traditional Sioux culture. One of the characters is a Sioux witch, a rather evil one, and there are also ghosts and a shaman. Long-dead ancestors still make appearances in modern life.At first it might seem like there are too many characters, however as the story ends everything comes together. All the characters and stories are interrelated and come together in a perfect whole story leaving the reader very satisfied. I loved all the references to the Grass dancer who “wants to learn grass secrets by imitating it, moving his body with the wind." Indeed grass is an important theme in many ways. I would highly recommend this book! This is my second reading and I loved it even more than the first time around, so it definitely gets 5 stars from me! I think Susan Powers is an extremely gifted writer and I look forward to reading more from her.

  • Jerome
    2019-06-03 14:53

    I like the structure of the book--the way the story was told in reverse. Before reading the book, I read that the story was multilayered and a bit complicated to follow but I disagree. The story and characters were well developed but I was not crazy about the content. I'm not Dakota so I can't assess whether some of the information Susan Powers included was appropriate or not. When I thought about the "equivalent" information of my people and if an author included it in a novel, I would think it was irresponsible and exploitative. It was like a horrible Tony Hillerman representation of the people...almost like an outsider perspective. I imagine White people converging on Sedona for a vision would be inspired by such a novel.

  • Matt Garcia
    2019-06-06 10:49

    A terrific, poetic, and moving novel of resilience, pride, fear, and raw human emotion. Power’s prose is as smooth as velvet and her ability to weave a story and create such rich, complex characters is fantastic. The fantasy elements of the story are riveting and you can almost feel the magic that’s coursing through the narrative. The alternating character viewpoints and timelines helped to keep the story fresh and allowed for backstory to be provided for every character in the novel. A rich and compelling tapestry of Native American culture and beliefs in a contemporary setting.

  • Margaret
    2019-06-04 15:02

    Two young Sioux—Harley Wind Soldier and Charlene Thunder—try to figure who they are and what love means to them on a North Dakota reservation. Their family histories create a tapestry of possibilities, ways of living with loss and love. On Harley Wind Soldier’s side, his mother Lydia Wind Soldier deals with the death of her husband and oldest son by refusing to speak, while Margaret Many Wounds, Lydia’s mother and Harley’s grandmother, keeps her grief close in a secret only revealed with her death. Ghost Horse is their ancestor, and where Harley’s history connects with Charlene’s, for Ghost Horse loved and lost Charlene’s ancestor Red Dress.Charlene’s family deals with loss much differently than Harley’s. Charlene is raised by her grandmother, Anna/Mercury Thunder, who has turned her medicine woman powers into evil, and plans to pass down her legacy to Charlene. Mercury tried to pass down her powers before with Charlene’s mother Crystal, and failed. Crystal is thus lost to both Charlene and Mercury. But Mercury has had sorrow in her past too, as has her ancestor Red Dress, whose spirit haunts the family and condemns Mercury’s magic.Grass Dancer is a beautiful magical realism novel, one I’ll revisit.

  • Katy
    2019-06-26 14:01

    A great read with Ms. Power's wonderful storytelling.

  • Joshua Buhs
    2019-06-21 15:49

    This is a genuinely great book.Is it possible to be cynical about it? Yes. It is a little too easy to describe this book in elevator-pitch terms (Michael Dorris does Wuthering Heights) and it is so cinematic that one might feel it was calculated to be a movie. (Chuck Norris the dog was made for film.) But these are unfair thoughts.The book is cinematic because Powers is that kind of writer. She knows what literary allusions she is making and is in full control of them--she calls out Wuthering Heights, in fact. She is careful about the symbolism, without letting it get in the way of the book. (Her use of symbolic imagery makes me think of E. Annie Proulx.)The book works, though, because the characters are real, wonderful and flawed, and their stories gripping. And there are many stories here, and many categories. The book almost works as a series of short stories rather than a novel--think Proulx again. But it's held together by the persistence of the characters, the language, and the imagery.Powers starts with a prologue that (we later learn) is set in 1964. We then jump to 1981. Both chapters end with horrific car crashes. The book then slowly works itself back in time, each chapter focusing on a particular character at a particularly crucial moment, though within the chapters the narrative will sometimes further flashback, or give hints about the fate of other characters. Eventually, the tale works its way back to the 1860s, and a spiritual love gone sour, the curse of it echoing forward through the century. we end up in the early 1980s, again, with the descendants of those two star-crossed lovers resolving the conflict--by not resolving it.The book is consciously political and cultural, and acknowledges the deep injustices done to the Dakota and Sioux peoples, their sad contemporary situation, the naiveté of intervening white do-gooders, and a hope for a better future. (Thirty years after the book was set, twenty after it was written, the future doesn't look any better than what has gone on for the last century, at least to my relatively uneducated eyes.)The book also takes seriously the role of what Westerners would call magic in the Dakota and Sioux lives it documents, with magic having real effects in the quotidian world, beyond the intergenerational curse. Powers does not try to rationalize the magic, or offer alternative interpretations, she just accepts it. Which is an interesting choice, potentially dangerous. There's the obvious parallel with Latin magic-realism, but the use of magic also threatens to make the very real people and their very real problems into caricatures, importing an elevated sense of 'wonder' that makes the culture into something other, exotic, the reader a culture-tripper.But agin, the characters are so grounded, and Powers shows them developing over time (backwards through time, as a matter of fact) that the dangers are avoided, It was a dangerous choice, but she pulled it off.You can read this book as a species of cultural commentary, or for the game presented by its symbolism (I wonder if this has been incorporated into high school reading lists--it would be a great teaching tool), but you can also read it as a set of great stories, well told, and simply get lost in it.

  • Christina (A Reader of Fictions)
    2019-06-24 07:59

    Right from the beginning, I knew that Susan Power's The Grass Dancer was a book I never would have picked up on my own. Though I'm generally up for reading about any culture, I've been burned by a couple about Native Americans, so I'm hesitant to read them. Still, that's not something I'm proud of and is certainly no reason to write off all of those books, so, when this showed up in Sadie Hawkins, I figured I'd give it a try. While I didn't precisely dislike The Grass Dancer, I didn't really like it either, and I definitely did not understand it.The Grass Dancer is a strange novel from a narrative perspective. Power uses multiple perspectives, varying from chapter to long chapter. Some of the perspectives are in third person and others in first. Since I read the book in chunks by chapter (seriously, they're long), I can't say for sure how unique the voices are in the first person chapters, but it pretty much all read like the same narrator to me. As such, I found the shifts in narration confusing.Shifting from third to first person isn't all that weird though. Plenty of books do that. What not as many books do is jump around in time while switching perspectives. The book opens (with no year ascribed, then goes to 1981. From there, the narrative keeps jumping backwards years at a time, all the way to 1935, at which point it finally hops back to the early 1980s. WHUT.Each chapter is a somewhat self-contained narrative and, taken individually, some of them were quite interesting and would have made decent books if built out more. Both the 1981 story, involving Pumpkin, one of the only female grass dancers and one of the best regardless of gender, and the 1964 story about Crystal Thunder, which is about her falling in love with a white man. Race and culture and identity and romance are the main themes, and I'm totally all for that. Some of the other narratives, the one of Red Dress most especially, bored me.Taken as a whole, though, I have no freaking clue what to make of this book. Why did it go backward? Why make it so difficult for me to piece together how everyone's related? To follow this, I would have had to build out a family tree and keep track of names. As it is, I think I got the broad strokes, but missed the more subtle impacts the earlier timelines had on the later. Having finished, I really have no clue what I was meant to get out of this novel. What I consider the main plot, the frame story, seems, to me, unresolved and unsatisfying. Basically, I just don't get it. So there you go. I don't think this was a book for me, and I don't think I did it justice because I am baffled.

  • Leah
    2019-05-31 15:01

    One of the reasons I write "reviews" is to help jog my memory down the road when I might want to reread a book or mention it in relation to another book. But then there are stories so immediately embedded in my brain I know I won't need any reminders no matter how long it's been since I first read it. The Grass Dancer is one of those stories. It was also one of those where I would read a passage I wanted to bookmark but couldn't make myself stop reading long enough to do so.I loved how the story started off in 1981 with Charlene Thunder and Harley Wind Soldier, then progressed in reverse chronology, until the story of Red Dress in 1864. The story then circles back to Charlene Thunder in 1981 before concluding in 1982. Through the young Sioux's ancestry, showing how their paths have been influenced and affected by the events set in motion before they were born. Anna/Mercury Thunder! Right up till her backstory was revealed, I couldn't believe how much she'd gotten away with, how much pain she'd inflicted for personal gain. But her story deeply affected me, made me question how many of us in her position would choose power over pain, revenge over forgiveness? Would she do it differently if she could step away and see the whole picture? Hindsight and all that.Highly recommended to readers looking for multi-generational stories by Indigenous authors, especially fans of Louise Erdrich.4.5 stars

  • Joan
    2019-06-14 12:11

    Grass DancerSusan PowersMarch 8, 2016Read this book with a good friend - you will want to discuss it. The story has some many layers and yet they all work together so well that it is not overwhelming. This is probably a book you can reread many times and find new perspectives with each reading.Is it a book about:The contrast between tradition and progress? YesThe conflict between Native American and mainstream culture? YesA coming of age story for adolescents or middle age or old age? YesA love story? YesA family saga? YesA bromance? YesRich with characters you would like to meet for coffee? YesAll this an more - but you will want to discuss it with a friend.It may even inspire a vacation to North Dakota.I do recommend that you keep a table of characters and their connections - I wish I had.At first the reverse chronology was maddening but hang in there; it makes sense in the end.

  • Lizz
    2019-06-25 15:52

    I found this book really interesting. Parts of it were frustrating and at times I feel like I didn't understand what was going on. There were one or two characters that I absolutely hated, but I feel like that was the point. The author then managed to bring me to pity the one character I detested throughout, so I guess that's pretty impressive. One thing that this novel did was get me really interested in the Sioux Indian tribe. I feel like I want to go on to read other Native American fiction or non-fiction novels from here. The description of the pow-wows and sweats and rituals were all fascinating to me. Then for Power to bring in the influence of Christian missionaries on the tribe really helps you to see it from the point of view of those being converted. As if it wasn't something that angered me already, I found it even more ridiculous in reading this story.Overall, a pretty good read.

  • Carolyn
    2019-06-25 12:57

    I found this a compelling read, tho I felt sometimes confused by the myriad of characters, and their connection to one another.I see this as a set of stories describing Dakota Sioux mythology. The whole does not come clear to me. I've seen that other readers have given this book excellent reviews, yet I feel it could have been more tightly woven, and thus more accessible. I'm open to magic, and to spirituality; I just couldn't get quite into the flow here.Easy to understand is the Sioux anger toward the 'white man - soldier and preacher' who endeavored to destroy the land and the culture. And I do 'get' the troubled minds of the modern day young men and women in the stories. Something is missing here for me, tho.Perhaps read in a course situation, a study of Native American literature, this book would be more enlightening.

  • Peggy
    2019-06-09 08:53

    This novel is very different from most that I've been reading. It tells the story of three generations of Dakota Sioux living on a North Dakota reservation. There are multiple narrators and the story is not told in a linear way, but moves back and forth through various points in time between 1864 to 1982. There are ghosts, spirits, and visitations from ancestors. There are many characters to keep up with and due to the shifts in time, which has characters disappearing and re-entering the plot chapters later, it was hard for me to get oriented to the stories after taking a night off for sleep. Engrossing and written like a dream, with vivid, descriptive language. Also contains a satisfying ending, for which I am grateful, as that was not a certainty.

  • Heidi Garrett
    2019-06-10 11:06

    The Grass Dancer a collection of vignettes about mostly women—mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers—in a Sioux tribe in North Dakota. It's sad. I mean it's really sad. The writing is beautiful, lit up with magical realism, but the stories and the breaking and broken relationships are so sad. Eleven stories that move back and forth in time they eloquently capture the Sioux way of seeing the world. I love that part, their visions and dreams and belief in them. I just wish... there had been... yes, some happier endings. There is a fantastic retelling of The Red Shoes, the red shoes being a particularly brutal tale, Red Moccasins adheres to that tradition. Very powerful, but again very sad. It's a worthy read, but... left me feeling very sad.

  • Teresa Thompson Arcangel
    2019-05-31 10:48

    I read a hard copy of "The Grass Dancer" years ago, and looked forward to reuniting with this great story in audio. Unfortunately, I don't think I'm going to make it all the way through the audio edition. The narration is too fast, and monotonous. It ruins a fabulous story. I wish Ms. Power had hired a pro.

  • Melody
    2019-06-10 16:13

    While on the whole I wasn't that impressed I was amazed to find that one of my favorite short stories of all time is actually a chapter from this book. It's really a lot better if read as individual stories rather than a cohesive novel.

  • Janet
    2019-06-22 14:12

    A lovely novel depicting the lives of multiple generations of Plains Indians. My publisher, Sharmagne Leland St-John, has purchased the film rights and is working on a screenplay. I'm a little mystified how this can be made into a film, but I can't wait to see it!

  • Darcy McNeill
    2019-06-17 14:11

    It took me back to the days when all I had to worry about was if my boyfriend was ever going to tell me he loved me. Days when going to PowWow's was our summer vacation and we looked forward to it as if we were going on a trip to Disney Land.

  • Julie
    2019-06-17 14:51

    This is a beautifully written book. The magical realism, the character development, the lyricism are all fabulous. I did occasionally have trouble keeping up with who was who in the sectional changes, but not enough to effect my rating.

  • Matt
    2019-06-14 11:02

    Required reading for Am Ind Lit at UMASS-Amherst. Teetered on giving this one 5 stars because it really wraps up well...but I didn't have the anticipatory excitement of reading it that I normally would for a truly great book. A good read...funny, emotional, 'sall good. See below for my essay, my final ten-pager for Am Ind Lit:One Story: A Synthesis of Assimilation, Rebellion, and Rediscovery in Susan Power’s The Grass Dancer This essay will address the role of stories in Susan Power’s The Grass Dancer and respond to criticism of the novel. Stories manifest themselves in a variety of ways in the novel, and so the term is used loosely to encompass ghosts, allusions to Western literature, language and words, and speech. This essay will examine Power’s engagement with both Christian/Western culture and Sioux tradition via “story”. “Sioux” will be used consistently in this essay in light of other names for the tribe, such as “Dakota”. Finally, an attempt will be made to relate this to the novel’s ending, and this essay contends Power’s ultimate message is not polarizing as some critics have argued, but represents a holistic merging not unlike the generic Native viewpoint offered in Paula Gunn Allen’s essay, “The Sacred Hoop: A Contemporary Perspective”. Susan Power subtly recreates a dichotomy centuries old between Western and Native culture in her novel. A well-researched historical interpretation can be found in Jacqueline Vaught Brogan’s “‘Two Distinct Voices’: The Revolutionary Call of Susan Power’s The Grass Dancer”, which the reader is referred to for that purpose. This essay, however is more interested in the symbolic nature of characters and their actions within the novel itself. Most easily identifiable in an introduction to this conversation is the character of Jeannette McVay. As Jeannette is one of few white characters Power spends significant energy developing, the teacher comes to stand in for white people in general. Her enthusiasm for Sioux culture acts as foil to the actual Sioux children, who are disengaged with their heritage: Power writes, “Jeannette became more Sioux than her Dakota students” (59). While she appropriates the Native students’ identities, she also guides the classroom conversation into a Christian dichotomy, labeling Frank’s story a “fascinating parable” (63). This warrants connection to Paula Gunn Allen’s statement that “the study of non-Western literature poses a problem for Western readers who naturally tend to see alien literatures in terms that are familiar to them, however irrelevant those terms may be to the literature under consideration” (“The Sacred Hoop” 3). Lastly, Frank tells Herod she has been “making” the students say the stories, and so the eliciting nature of Jeannette’s cultural voyeurism connotes the forcefulness of colonialism (67). Power’s language subtly evoking colonialism is not lost on Brogan, who goes as far as to say The Grass Dancer is “aligned with the contemporary and somewhat militant ideology best known through the AIM movement” (117). This view, while striking, is probably more attuned than Vanessa Holford Diana’s: [Red Dress’s] father asks after hearing the stories of “Cain slaying Abel, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Joseph delivered into slavery by his jealous brothers,” why Christians are “so determined to kill their relatives?” (245). Power uses humor to remind us that the taken-for-granted stories of the Christian tradition are unfamiliar to outsiders (“I Am Not a Fairy Tale”, 20-21).Diana’s interpretation limits Powers. The remark that Christians are “so determined to kill their relatives” is humorous, but it also shows the same dissociation we see when Jeannette calls Frank’s story a “parable” – here an Indian character cannot interpret a parable, and connects Christians with murderers. Red Dress states plainly of Father La Frambois, “His stories did not make sense to us” (245). The aforementioned inabilities of the characters to interpret inter-cultural stories could be construed as an almost Womackian-separatist didacticism on Power’s part – does she argue that the Christian and Sioux story-telling traditions cannot be engaged with by outsiders? If so, this essay complicates this question, as I am non-Native. Red Dress, as above, denounces the colonizing language, thinking, “[English] is little pebbles on my tongue, gravel, the kind of thing you chew but cannot swallow” (260). If Sioux tradition is aligned with the old, then Western colonial Christianity is aligned with the “new vocabulary” of Herod Small War’s home, “words such as ‘climax’”, that cause him marital problems (82). Charlene Thunder suffers nightmares from not merely the horror of the Salem witch trials of Puritan colonial times, but specifically, “she blame[s] the book”, and Mercury Thunder tears out half the pages in Charlene’s textbooks (285). I think the opposition between colonial white society and traditional Sioux thought leads to a more directed discourse – it is the books, the words themselves, that the Native characters have developed such an aversion to. The Christian and colonial message is built in and now indistinguishable from their everyday engagement with words and texts. Arnold Krupat in “Red Matters” discusses not Dakota but the Yukon, so I take liberty when I cite his saying: “English, as [Julia M.] Cruikshank notes, has become another indigenous language (xiv). As it is with English, so, too, is it with writing” (659). This being established, the challenge of this essay is to now see what the characters do with this perhaps unfortunate adoption of English. Other Native characters engage or deflect words and deal directly with language itself and their Sioux tradition, part of which is story-telling. Crystal, a generation deeper into assimilation than her textbook-tearing mother, “rub[s] the top of [her] head to brush off any words that had caught in [her] hair with their mean little hooks” (132). The words are “mean”, but they are first and foremost “words”. Jeannette acts Sioux, a tribal trademark of which is sharing stories. However, Charlene flees “before [Jeannette] could share even more” (302). Lydia exhibits the same resistance to storytelling: “I wanted to…whisper the story urgently…But that would have been handing the experience to someone else, and I was greedy. I didn’t want to share it” (199). The characters’ inability to share appears, from an outsider’s perspective, to show a lack of desire to claim their traditional identity as a story-telling people, a way of rebelling against their past. Jacqueline Vaught Brogan writes, “[As Red Dress notes,] ‘I never told the priest my own legend’. In this way, Red Dress introduces the possibility of silence (which has appeared so destructive to Harley Wind Soldier from his mother’s refusal to speak) as a form of political resistance, rather than mere passivity” (Brogan, 118).I think Brogan’s view is hesitant in calling it simply “silence”. It is more profound that Red Dress and Lydia are withholding specifically stories that they could otherwise share: Red Dress does not tell the priest her “legend”, and Lydia’s silence is symbolically significant of her refusal to tell Harley his true past. Critics have interpreted this oral withholding as a rebellion against the force of colonialism and oppressive modernity. There seems textual evidence to support this, most explicitly in Red Dress’s chapter where the conflict between Natives and whites is violent. Red Dress describes her native Dakota language positively as “the lush spring grass”, to be contrasted with her aforementioned negative opinion of English (260). This compliments thematically Anna Thunder’s ceremonial working of her garden: “[Anna] collected the tomatoes and said his name in Dakota: ‘Tate Akicita.’ [She] dug with [her] trowel and planted that name alongside the parsley” (170). In both instances, Sioux women associate their language with the earth and growing plants (notice Power specifies Anna’s invocation of Calvin Wind Soldier’s Dakota name rather than his English name). The preference for and ritual use of a native language could support an argument that the aversion is not to words and language in general as stated above, but is in fact a direct defiance to the English language in particular. Harley presents a problem in this regard. His revelation at the end is justly interpreted as a connection to his culture, but his behavior throughout shows a disconnect between he and his tribe’s traditions. Harley is forced to make up a traditional Sioux story in Jeannette’s class, then convinces himself “it must have come from outside him” (67). At the powwow, Harley’s mother breaks into the chorus “like a ghost singer”, and later, “people said she had the voice of a ghost” (32, 103). If ghosts are interpreted as a symbol of the past, and Harley’s mother is charged with withholding story, then her voice functions as a reminder of culture lost on Harley. His mother is greatly shamed when Harley makes a mockery of himself while painted as heyo’ka, a figure paraphrased as “typically Sioux” in Malcolm A. Nelson’s reflection on the work of Mari Sandoz. Harley becomes too drunk to participate in the grass dance, and defaces a sacred Sioux spirit. Harley’s making a mockery of his Sioux culture is underscored by Lydia’s ability to do the opposite: she not only dresses and dances beautifully in honor of tradition, but does so with “leggings that resembled the American flag…because this too was part of her story” (321). Lydia shows a humility, a bigness of spirit, that contradicts the militancy against colonialism pointed at by critics like Brogan. Herod warns of leaning too much in either direction of resistance or assimilation when he tells Jeannette, “[Your daughter] needs to know both sides. Otherwise she’ll stand off-balance and walk funny and talk out of one side of her mouth. Tell her two stories” (314). Jeannette appears to have redeemed herself by the book’s end, when the equally but differently misplaced Charlene “let her counselor take [her hand] because…they were only shadows” (307). Even Red Dress speaks to Harley “in two languages, two distinct voices”, as if to begrudgingly admit, in alignment with Lydia’s leggings, that her history is composed of both native tradition and imposed language (331). Crystal uses beads, which we see as ritualistically important material when Anna makes beaded moccasins for Bernardine, to reproduce Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The dominant notion then by the book’s end seems to be that, for better or worse, “the two languages” of Native-Sioux and Western-Christian are intertwined. I would like to here transition to the other side of the argument, a topic that has not been addressed to its deserved extent in scholarship of The Grass Dancer. Power provides numerous allusions to canonical Western literature that are curiously only fleetingly referred to in other critical literature of the novel, with perhaps the exception of Red Dress’s involvement in reproducing Macbeth. Allusions are made to Virgil, James Fenimore Cooper, Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, Dickens’s Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, Wuthering Heights, and Macbeth. When Red Dress sleeps as a child, she “clutched a serpent by the tail and shook it like a baby’s toy”, an image familiar to any reader with a peripheral knowledge of the myth of Hercules in ancient Greek mythology. Less overtly but perhaps more importantly, I believe Power alters her writing style to subtly evoke Shakespeare in Chapter Three, “The Medicine Hole”. After a recounting of his wife’s dissatisfaction in the bedroom, Herod Small War awakens to a chicken that has had its head stuck in his pantry wall. In classic Shakespearean comic raunchiness, a racket is made until the chicken relaxes enough so Herod can “push its head through the opening”; further innuendo is implied connecting “chicken” and the double entendre of “cock” (83). Herod’s exclamations also echo a typical Shakespearean boisterous character, perhaps Falstaff of King Henry IV, for example: “Ho, foolish brother…these are boots, not dinner, you dumb cluck!” (Ibid). I will return to the inclusion of canonical Western literature shortly. A synthesis of criticisms by Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez and Jacqueline Vaught Brogan shines light not just on Harley’s climactic revelatory scene, but on the academic dialogue surrounding the novel as a whole: “‘Ghost Horse’s touch was gentle…“You see? A warrior is not what you think”’. Without question then, Power’s novel brings a feminist imagination to the Native American story she is telling – and one which corresponds in many ways to the appeal made by Paula Gunn Allen for a new literary imagination that would re-envision strong women at the center of Native American culture” (Brogan 118).Again, Brogan provides a well-developed but limited perspective. I would argue that while her included quote of Red Dress speaking to Harley does function in a feminist way, it also shows Harley’s inability to see his ancestors of his tribe’s stories as non-archetypal. This sort of distancing is characteristic of criticism from non-Natives: Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki) criticizes ‘a lack of awareness’ about American Indian stories, saying, ‘They are not “myths and legends,” in the popular sense, stories which are untrue and belong to some distant past. They are, in fact, alive…Stories are part of the life of the people’ (Roots, 91) (Brill de Ramirez, 2).I invite the reader to look no further than Neil H. Wright’s “Visitors from the Spirit Path: Tribal Magic in Susan Power’s The Grass Dancer” for a thesis showing “a lack of awareness”: “[The Grass Dancer’s] real literary home is in the realm of magical realism” (39). Wright as a critic can be equated to Harley as a character – they both share a lack of understanding for the realness perceived in story by Natives. So what does one do with all this? Harley’s “moment” referred to repeatedly in this essay in which he hears “his own voice, rising above the rest” shows a cyclicism underscoring the novel discussed by Vanessa Holford Diana:Harley, a young man who was lost in despair a short time ago, emerges from his hanbdeč’eya vision quest standing tall and embraced by his family and friends; he emerges ready to be a leader, and we suspect that his role in the community will be that of storyteller who passes on cultural continuance to the next generation. (16)Again, Jacqueline Vaught Brogan:“When one daughter tries to interest [Margaret] in watching the astronauts by claiming ‘it will be history,’ Margaret Many Wounds retorts, ‘It’s all history’ (emphasis Brogan’s) – a remark that validates the spiritual component of the book as being as real as actual events, as well as reminding us again of the unfortunate ‘history’ between the domination of Native Americans and continued white exploration and conquest.” (112)The above conclusively illustrates the failings of Brogan to see the oeuvre of Power’s work. She does not point out that the character themselves are included in this history. Harley’s invocation of heyo’ka and the inclusion of Chuck Norris the faithful dog are just a couple examples of how the novel’s present parallels its past (Ghost Horse becomes heyo’ka and Red Dress has her canine companion, Spotted Dog). The characters are all history. They are part of a story, no matter how much Anna Thunder iterates “I am not a fairy tale”, which I think agrees with Brill de Ramirez’s argument above that “stories are, in fact, alive”, than it does to a refutation of the characters in the present becoming a story (Power 187). Now if I may return to my previous evidence of the plethora of overt and subtle allusions to Western canonical literature, I believe that the characters’ story is inextricably tangled with their surrounding society. If we accept that Harley and the other characters of the novel’s present are becoming a story like the characters of the past (Red Dress and Spotted Dog, for example) the reader is forced to accept a story yet to be told will include a dog named Chuck Norris, a culture icon of modern Western society. To become a story, the Sioux “will reach full flowering again in their children as they walk the hard new road of the white man” (Nelson 44, citing Mari Sandoz’s “Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas). This is why I refuse to accept this novel as simply a meditation on colonialism and Nativism, or as a reductive militant or feminist agenda. I argue that The Grass Dancer acts on its highest level as meta-narrative. Power thanks Bradley Pritchett in her “Acknowledgements” section for being “there since Ophelia days” (vii). In her dedication, she writes, “To my mother…who told me the stories…in loving memory of my father…who read them to me”. Power embodies then the fictional characters of her novel, which are at once embedded in tribal oral tradition and Western literature. Brill de Ramirez offers an approach to reading The Grass Dancer complimentary to approaching the novel on a “meta” level:Instead of approaching orality in American Indian literatures from a Western critical discourse that emphasizes the distanced objectification of texts – thereby looking at orality as the object of a critical gaze – a conversive approach places the scholar within the oral engagement as a ‘mutual participant’ (Moore, ‘Myth’ 371) (6).If we take Brill de Ramirez’s offer to approach The Grass Dancer as Moore’s idea of a “mutual participant”, the ending encompasses us. We need to remind ourselves of the same revelation that Harley has – and the revelation that scholars like Wright overlook – stories are not dead. The characters in Power’s story embody her own dual upbringing and that of all of us. Paula Gunn Allen would contest the wording of the previous statement: “Those reared in traditional American Indian societies…do not organize perceptions or external events in terms of dualities” (7). I acknowledge my own shortcoming as a critic – I have not been “reared in traditional American Indian society”. I would like to believe that by separating myself and Neil H. Wright as non-Native scholars, I am reinforcing the duality of Western versus Native, but Power writes for an audience inclusive of everyone. She seeks, as Allen says, “through song, ceremony, legend, sacred stories (myths), and tales…to actualize, in language, those truths that give to humanity its greatest significance and dignity” (4). Surely, the story of the novel and the story of our lives intertwine, and are in a way, the same. Allen concludes my argument best, perhaps, when she says, “The purpose of a ceremony”, in this case, Harley’s grass dance and The Grass Dancer itself, “is to integrate: to fuse the individual with his or her fellows, the community of people with that of the other kingdoms, and this larger communal group with the worlds beyond this one” (10).

  • Carol
    2019-06-06 08:57

    "Harley alone remained behind to entertain his grandmother. He saw there were two moons in the world: one on television and one in the sky outside his grandmother's window. "Two moons," he told Margaret, curling his thumb and forefinger into a telescope he peeked through. "More than that," Margaret told him, "many, many more. For every person who can see it, there's another one.""The Grass Dancer travels through time with its stories, travels through planes of living and death. The characters are multi dimensional with intent, humor, and depth, and inter connected by blood and love and despair.

  • Christy
    2019-06-02 08:06

    This is a beautiful book, and it is a book that resonates strongly with the themes and techniques of other Native American literature of the 20th century.In its technique of retreating into stories of the past to illuminate the present and the future (it's told mostly in reverse chronological order, returning to the present and moving forward into the future for the last couple of chapters) it is reminiscent of Michael Dorris' Yellow Raft on Blue Water. I prefer Power's use of this technique, however, because it doesn't just go backward, as Dorris's novel does, but also moves forward. In its juxtaposition of at first apparently unrelated stories in order to tell a larger story, it is somewhat like Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven and Greg Sarris's Grand Avenue. However, Power's novel functions more as a novel because it does bring the stories together in the end in a way that Alexie's and Sarris's novels-in-stories do not. In its consistent and recurring criticism of Christianity and its intrusion into a culture that has no need or use for it, The Grass Dancer follows much Native American literature: Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor, D'Arcy McNickle, Black Elk, among many others. Red Dress, who functioned as a translator between a priest, Father La Frambois, and her people, illustrates this best. She says first that the priest's "stories did not make sense to us" (224) and so the people rejected the stories as signs of insanity. She tells the priest, "We will not be degraded" to try to explain why they resisted his religion. At that point, "Father's mouth fell open, and his tongue flicked out and then back in, like an alert frog's. He swallowed the words he was about to deliver. I quickly apprehended. In Father La Frambois's view of the world, we were already a degraded people, whom he intended to elevate, single-handedly, into the radiant realm of civilization" (225). The loss that Red Dress later describes, the forgiveness found by Charlene in the penultimate chapter, the healing undergone by Harley--these things all take place outside the realm of Christianity's ideals. The losses Red Dress witnesses are inextricably tied up with Christianity and the culture it accompanies, but the ways in which the Dakota Sioux culture preserves itself, saves itself from disappearing, are of necessity completely separate from Christian practices and beliefs. Each side sees the other as degraded, as crazy or uncivilized. The only way they can each maintain their own ways of life is to dismiss that of the other. In its incorporation of magic as a major force of the plot and spirits as major characters, it is like Leanne Howe's Shellshaker, which I have yet to re-read and so will not elaborate on here. One of the most moving moments of the book for me, though, is from the perspective of Red Dress, the oldest character in the book, the spirit of a woman who dies in the 1860s and finds herself unable to leave the world of the living. She says, "I am hitched to the living, still moved by their concerns." This concern leads her to watch over her people and attempt to help them in the face of the terrible losses she must witness: "There have been too many soldiers and too many graves. Too many children packed into trains and sent to the other side of the country. Many times I ran alongside those tracks and waved at the bleak copper faces. You are Dakota, I called to them. You are Dakota." She goes on to enumerate the losses she has seen and her response to this experience:"I saw the language shrivel, and though I held out my hands to catch the words, so many of them slipped away, beyond recall. I am a talker now and chatter in my people's ears until I grow weary of my own voice. I am memory,I tell them when they're sleeping."I prefer to watch the present unravel moment by moment than to look close behind me or far ahead. Time extends from me, flowing in many directions, meeting the horizon and then moving beyond to follow the curve of the earth. But I will not track its course with my eyes. It is too painful. I can bear witness to only a single moment of loss at a time. Still, hope flutters in my heart, a delicate pulse. I straddle the world and pray to Wakan Tanka that somewhere ahead of me He has planted an instant of joy" (255).In its movement toward healing in the final chapters, particularly in its emphasis on healing through tradition and ceremony, it is very much like Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony or N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn, which also end with the beginning of healing: "The honor song swelled in Harley's ears, and the united voices comforted him, lifted him up so that he stood tall in the vision pit. He would spot them any minute now, cresting the flat top of the hill: his friends and relatives. None of them strangers. But a powerful new voice that was unfamiliar to Harley disturbed his ears. Who was this unknown singer? He became a little angry, thinking to himself that after such an ordeal as the hambdec'eya, it wasn't right to bring outsiders into the circle."Harley listened carefully, his hands curled into fists, and it was only as the song neared its end that he realized the truth: What he heard was the music of his own voice, rising above the rest" (300).

  • Lynne
    2019-06-07 07:57

    The power of the rich world of Dakota Sioux traditions, contemporary and historic characters, spirits and the people they interact with...are all beautifully crafted in linked chapters/stories. "And Charlene Thunder could see only her grandmother--a plump, majestic sage grouse, a robber fly, a towering hill--wrapping her long arms around the earth and squeezing firmly, her enemies whirling into lost space (p. 67)"

  • Abel Magana
    2019-06-02 13:04

    Wow this book took me a very long time to read. I hadn't read any Native American literature prior to this but I'm glad I did. I enjoyed the stories and characters. It was hard to be invested in the story as the style is formatted to go back in time. I hope if I reread this book in the future I will enjoy it much more.

  • Ozaawaa Kwe
    2019-06-02 08:06

    Susan Power has a special gift for writing from multiple points of view, hooking the reader in with her visceral descriptions of characters from both other characters perspective as well as the personal characters points of view. Her creative take on old stories from within her tribe were refreshing and relevant in a modern day way.

  • Kirralee
    2019-06-14 09:48

    I read about this book blurring the boundaries between ordinary and non-ordinary reality on Terri windling's blog myth & moor. It does, & the writing is wonderful! It's so well written I stopped noticing the words & went deeply into the story. No horrible cliches which is a bloody miracle in fiction that dips into the fantasy genre. I've been recommending it to everyone!

  • Annie
    2019-06-20 11:44

    Probably more like 4.5 stars.

  • Lois Blanco
    2019-06-19 08:48

    The stories grew on me, although I didn't understand all the mythology. I likes the way she went back to the ancestors, told their stories to explain the modern characters.

  • Chel
    2019-06-03 15:04

    Moving, haunting, but thin.