What I’m Reading: May Update

Whoops, looks like I had a busy April and did not do a reading update.

I’m still working my way through Sierra Crane Murdoch’s Yellow Bird and Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. Both of these books navigate the complicated and blurred lines between federal, state, and tribal jurisdictions and traditions. One is non-fiction and the other fiction, but both offer rich settings and difficult stories set in the Dakotas.

Murdoch’s journalism is a long, winding expedition following amateur detective Lissa Yellow Bird as she obsesses over the mystery of Kristopher “KC” Clarke, one of the many white men who have come to profit off the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota, and who went missing early in 2012. Lissa’s background on and off the reservation, her ease with manipulating relationships with other vulnerable men and women who have fought with addiction or abuse (like she has), and her ability (addictive personality?) to hyper-focus on a mission makes her a compelling focal point for this narrative and a lonely figure through which the layers of history and violence and economic greed are refracted. To be honest, Lissa’s actions can be frustrating: she pushes people to uncomfortable limits in order to get what she wants. This includes pushing her children’s capacities for patience and forgiveness to their limits. But it also becomes clear that Lissa is the right person at the right time (as in: unfortunate necessity) to connect the dots and dog the various tribal and federal officials into action.

Erdrich is a beloved American writer of short stories and novels, and The Round House, like her other fiction, captures the beauty and precarity of life on reservation land in North America. The novel is told from the point of view of a teenage Ojibwe boy whose mother survives a brutal attack. Like Lissa, Joe and his friends become amateur detectives, motivated by revenge and a sense of injustice that is still sharp in youth, but is replaced by depression and cynicism in the adults around them. Erdrich reportedly wrote the novel while battling a cancer diagnosis, and some have suggested that the writing of this novel suffered as a result. From my point of view, the narrative has weaknesses — especially when the “adolescent masculinity” sections seem strained. Honestly, the teenager’s obsession with another woman’s boobs is repetitive and not executed creatively or effectively. The novel reads like YA fiction in an unappealing way for stretches at a time. But then there are moments of beauty that keep me going. This one has become an obligatory read — rather than an entertaining/enjoyable read — but I will finish it.

Cover of

There is another book that I began reading recently that is worth including in this update (as a reminder, I read several things at once, but slowly and haphazardly, driven by research questions and/or themes). Anna Burns’s Milkman is a novel set in 1979 Northern Ireland, with a narrative perspective looking back from 1999. These are important dates in the timeline of the late 20th century Troubles.

While I picked up this book serendipitously, it seems to be a good companion read for the non-fiction book I mentioned earlier this year, Say Nothing. In the latter non-fiction book about the IRA volunteers who left confession tapes as part of an archival project, we hear about a fatal ambush of suspected informers involving a milk delivery truck. That scene has stuck with me as I am reading Anna Burns’s narrative, which replaces real names and places with euphemistic nicknames, like the title name “Milkman,” which refers to a mysterious IRA figure (we assume) who stalks the narrator, a 19-year-old woman taking night classes at the local college.

The narrator’s stream of consciousness offers us glimpses of the terror and confusion and banality of growing up in Northern Ireland. Her tone and euphemistic vocabulary — the words “Catholic” and “Protestant” are never mentioned, nor is “Belfast,” or “England,” or any of the other words that label political and cultural factions within this conflict — highlight the arbitrariness and cruelty of not just this era, but the general practices of imperial violence, nationalist violence, toxic masculinity, and “culture wars” that result in real devastation.

Reading this book has raised again the bigger questions for me: where is the line between “crime” and “terrorism” and “policing”? When is someone a “serial killer,” and when are they just a “soldier”? When can (should) we call politicians gangsters and criminals? So much of our concept of “crime” boils down to narrative framing, cultural perspective, and language.

What should I read next?

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