The Ghost Dancers

The Ghost Dancers by Adrian C. Louis, published by University of Nevada Press, due out 14 September.

This gritty, funny and at times brutal book is about life on the rez, or reservation. It is modern Native American life, unvarnished, with all its dysfunctions and absurdities, but also its love and joy. Bean is going through difficult times with his current wife; her son and Bean get on, but her son is going through a difficult age; Bean’s ex-wife lives on a different reservation and is angry that his mother is dating a black person. Finally, and the thread that binds the book, Bean’s father is dying.

What I liked about the book was the energy and fearlessness of the writing. The hatred and rivalries between different tribes, the humour and discrimination, the alcohol abuse and the fact that just about everyone smokes, are all depicted without glamourising or demeaning. It is not a social comment – it was just the way things are. Yet, of course, it is a social comment, because things are in a pretty bad way. Unemployment and violence are rampant and, although Bean, his wife, ex-wife and her boyfriend are employed, and although they have sons who are doing well at school, they are the exceptions in a bleak environment.

Much of that could be said of any disadvantaged people; what sets the book apart is the subtle fabric of native American tradition and worldview that runs through the novel. There are sweat baths and shamans, spirits who walk abroad and totems. The use of words from various languages is illuminating without ever being intrusive.

The book is about identity. Bean’s is under pressure: he teaches a white curriculum at a school dominated by whites. He edits the magazine, always trying to put a positive spin on events, but the events can get very nasty. He is angry yet intelligent, and also sexually frustrated. The result is a comedy that never degenerates into farce because it’s just too real. Altogether, a very good read.