Although some elements of the following come from pieces published in Orion and the Wild Duck Review, this is the first appearance of this essay.
THE HOME OF POWER, THE POWER OF HOME
by William Severini Kowinski
COMING HOME TO THE PLEISTOCENE by Paul Shepard. Island Press, hardcover and paperback.
THE ROAD HOME, A Novel by Jim Harrison. Paper: Washington Square Press 1999, 464 pages.
GAIN by Richard Powers. Paper: Picador, 1999. 388 pages
POWER by Linda Hogan. paper: W.W. Norton, 1999. 248 pages.
What is 'home' and where is it? What is power, what is gain? And what's to be gained by considering these four books together--will it make you more powerful? Will it tell you how to get home?
How important these concepts are to our lives and times is clearer when we consider the opposites they imply: loss, helplessness; exile, homelessness, alienation. These are obsessive themes of the 20th century that remain disturbingly relevant as we begin the 21st, though in different ways, raising different issues. These ways and issues that will likely dominate debate as well as our lives for years to come are cogently defined in this trio of novels by three of our better fictionists, and a summary work by a scholar whose reputation is still growing.
If there are any historians in the late 21st century, looking back to find the most important thinkers of the 20th, they'll likely move quickly past one-noters like Einstein, pause for awhile at Jung, nod appreciatively at a few scientists, artists and social critics, and then settle with great interest on Paul Shepard. Their attitude towards his obscurity in his own time will either be amused or dour, depending on how the 21st century is turning out. Are these historians huddled in abandoned malls, refugees from a botched civilization, scribbling with the last manufactured ink and wondering how to actually make the stuff? Are they gazing down at a devastated planet from Bill Gates' space station? Then they are rueful and bitter that humankind again ignored the threads of answers they had. Or are they confidently chronicling the vague beginnings of the ongoing transformation to save humankind and revive the remnants of the planet? Then they are reading Shepard as a cogent prophet. In any scenario save the least likely (that 2099 looks pretty much like 1999 but with faster toys) Shepard's work will be of supreme relevance.
One of the founders of the ecology movement in the early 1970s, Paul Shepard almost immediately disappeared down his own path of inquiry and advocacy. At the time of his death in 1996,almost none of his books were in print, despite their acknowledged influence on heavy-hitters in many fields such as James Hillman, Gary Snyder, E.O. Wilson, Theodore Roszak and Kirkpatrick Sale. As the new century starts, all of his books are available, thanks largely to Island Press and the University of Georgia Press. Two have been published posthumously: an essay collection (Encounters With Nature) and Coming Home to the Pleistocene, the last book he completed, which is edited for maximum clarity by his wife, naturalist and essayist Florence R. Shepard. It serves well as an introduction to Shepard's major lines of thought as expressed in the thousands of pages of earlier work, with their sweeping and subtle ideas derived from obsessive scholarship, boldly and poetically expressed.
The title sums up the main premise of his work: that we became fully human, in body, mind and as societies, in the 5,000 centuries--half a million years--of the Pleistocence, and that this subsequent brief period of what we call history and civilization has been a grand and tragic botch, contrary to our natures and the necessary relationships we had achieved with the rest of nature.
We're familiar with the standard view of the Caveman, of the ignorant, cruel and superstitious primitive living nasty, brutal and short lives of noisy desperation. This view has accumulated its own superstitions, as the repository of our projections about the worst we dread and fear in ourselves and fellow humans, which we mythologize as the savagery and selfishness of human nature, controlled only by force and civilization. But Shepard doesn't see the modern world's destruction of the natural world as a product of human nature. Our ills are caused precisely by the opposite: by the systems we have created in the period we call civilization, resulting in entrenched behaviors and ways of thinking that are not only anti-nature but contrary to human nature as it was formed in the vastly longer period of the Pleistocene.
But this is no rewarmed resurrection of the noble savage: as Shepard demonstrates in the elaborate mosaic of his work, these are complex societies evolving along with the human genome in intimate relationship with the rest of the natural world. These relationships shaped our genetic makeup. This is how our ancestors developed social structures and ways of life that were human, not utopian. Nature was not a collection of objects: neither "natural resources" nor cute and cuddly symbols. Human relationships with other life included learning through close examination, imitation, respect, fear, cooperation, awe and the paradox of killing creatures for your sustenance that you know deeply, deeply admire, even worship--a living paradox apparently too complex for modern minds to accommodate.
It's no creative leap or comic coincidence that in our time "prehistoric man" became mythologized as the Flintstones, a family based on the sitcom version of Ralph Kramden and the urban working class. This preconceived bias links stereotypes that are little more that symbols of what we think we're better than: caveman, peasant, immigrant, country bumpkin, redskins, bush babies, Polacks, Joe Six-pack. According to fashionable mythology, they are all poor, boorish and ignorant. But Shepard turns the tables in a sentence from a previous book: "Modern men are no smarter, kinder, or more creative than their forebears of a quarter of a million years ago." In many ways hunter-gatherer humans were more sophisticated and complex, and lived better, too. In other hands, this assertion could be wishful thinking, a sentimental projection as egregious as the opposite stereotype. But Shepard's work is thorough and complex. In this book, he finds more contemporary examples in traditional Native cultures, which lends further weight to his model.
"The cruelest form of modern criticism of primal peoples depicts them as stingy and greedy as anybody else,"Shepard writes, "implying that to be human is to be selfish." Yet as Shepard shows, our reflexive notion of what constitutes human nature is of human beings in one basic meta-system that underlies everything from medievalism to consumer capitalism: the centralizing force of agriculture.
Hunter-gatherer bands went to where the food was at any given time, usually on a landscape they intimately knew. Dependence on farming meant that people stayed in one place, and ample crops had to arrive on time or they would starve. From this simple fact arises all that we know as history: the religions and their leaders and bureaucracies that existed to guarantee crops by direct link and propitiation of the gods (or goddesses) and later by the quasi-religious leader and his bureaucracies who rule the land, guarantee the crops will grow and be efficiently distributed: the king, the government, the state. Animals are domesticated, wars are fought, civilizations rise and fall, all over protein and carb. Soon comes the hunger for the chimera of guaranteed personal abundance and its gleaming symbols, such as gold.
This dependence on One Crop necessitates everything from one true God and one central authority to the science and machinery to guarantee it. It is behind all our social and cultural systems that, Shepard maintains, stunt our growth and twist our 'human nature' as individuals as well as societies. Mostly we don't mature in synch with nature, but stay dependent. (He works the individual aspect out most carefully in a prior book, Nature and Madness.) It's a profound reversal of all we've been taught: the 'primitive' human is not so simple, and we, it turns out, are arrested in adolescence, psychotically oversimplified.
Just as farms necessitate the state, the production of crops is the model for all economic production. Industrialization is just farming by other means. You can see this clearly on the great American highway--on Route 101 north of San Francisco, for instance: the fields of grapevines around Somona become the fields of new Fords and Toyotas and the fields of identical office buildings approaching Petaluma. Of course, the huge factory farms and livestock factories we never see are visibly clearer examples. A single pig factory, ecologists claim, creates more toxic waste than Los Angeles.
Shepard shows that on a global level the monoculture begins with agriculture. Everything becomes a crop, subject to control, and what grows fastest and best drives out all else. Farmers don't need diversity; nomads do. As we deplete diversity, we end up as global cultivators. The entire world becomes a farm (including our "wilderness areas."). Yet wild nature is part of our nature, and we have not evolved beyond that interdependence. We are losing what made us: the complexity, integrity and reality of wild life. So few of us feel truly at home in this world because we aren't. Our feeling of lostness, loneliness and longing can be traced back to the lost home of the Pleistocene, and Nature as our necessary Other.
We can't go back to being hunter-gatherers, at least not voluntarily and not in the same form, though Shepard's apparently pale hope that "we may recover some social principles, metaphysical insights, and spiritual qualities from their way of life by reconstructing it in our our milieu" may not be so far-fetched, especially if world population steeply declines in the 21st and 22nd centuries, as some demographers expect. In the struggle to control or at least influence our destinies we might reflect on the possibility that we long for a lost home because we were indeed at home in the world once, and for a long time. This home is not only a place in nature, it is our nature. We have met the home, and it is us. It is what we are made for, because it is what we were made with.
In this book and in the totality of his work, Shepard suggests what forms of culture fit our human form, the kind of society in the natural world in which we still struggle and strive and make collosal mistakes, but we are always at home--or perhaps as in the title of Ursula LeGuin's novel suggests, Always Coming Home.
While LeGuin's novel is set in a future which is something like Shepard's vision of the past, Jim Harrison writes about journeys to a home in our own time, yet not in its centers of commerce and control. Here on the margins his characters get glimpses, pieces of pictures, of home.
JIM HARRISON's literary voice has always been unique and entertaining, and this aspect of his craft reaches something of an apotheosis in The Road Home. Partly it is the off-center language, a combination of the contemporary and antique (to my knowledge he is the only well-known novelist to regularly employ the words "otiose" and "captious", which to me are so arcane that I still have to look them up whenever I read him.) Partly it is the construction and cadences: while his sentences are logical and perfectly formed, his paragraphs are as wild as river rapids. Within them sentences tumble from one subject to another, changing geographical locations and sometimes centuries, linked by rhythm and their own particular logic.
Harrison typically builds his stories with an ongoing narration that links recollections of the main action, often as written in journals or letters. In this book, almost everything is presented as having been previously written down by the characters. Still, Harrison's prose always has the sound of speech, even if no one actually speaks that way, except maybe Harrison, at least in interviews. This voice is heard most clearly in the many cogent, witty and epigrammatic observations and asides his characters make. All of these elements coalese somewhere near perfection in this novel, making every page a pleasure to read (especially after the first 100, which seem a bit awkward compared to the 350 that follow.) Perhaps Harrison's years of meditation inform this exactness, along with his reading of classic Zen poets who can be as least as ribald, tortured and funny as any American Beat.
Harrison's subjects and the elements of contemporary life are also odd, when compared to the dominant urban-centered and Zeitgeist-minded fiction. In his last novel, Dalva, his unhinged heroine came home to the family homestead, a sprawling ranch in Nebraska, established by the progenitor John Northridge in the mid 19th century. Dalva is a Northridge, a multigenerational family of Euro-Americans with several points of alliance and intermarriage with the Lakota Sioux of these plains. The Road Home is a kind of sequel, moving the narrative forward a little in time, but basically adding more breadth and depth to the same events, concentrating on the perspectives of Dalva and her family: her grandfather ("a prairie Lear" as Harrison describes him elsewhere), the son she put up for adoption and first meets as a young man ,her uncle (and surrogate father), and her mother.
There is a remarkable sense of continuity in these four generations, and it is predicated on the land. (In his non-fiction collection, Just Before Dark, Harrison notes that even today Nebraska reminds him of "what America was supposed to look like before it became something else.") Life on the Northridge ranch is simple and yet highly cultivated. Here the Northridge generations hike, ride and hunt, eat and drink gloriously, read books and talk and write about them, keep journals and read past journals of others, so the past is a considered part of their present. Of course it wouldn't be a Harrison narrative without swales, dogs and garlic, so these too are part of his most integrated vision of home.
There is one self-conscious wanderer in this book, whose journey to find a lost home is actual. Dalva's son Nelse, who as a young man read a magazine article about nomads (likely an excerpt of Bruce Chatwin's book, The Songlines)and set out to be a deliberate nomad, traveling the west with no fixed address, trying "to understand the world, especially the natural world as I seemed to draw up short on human beings." But Nelse was adopted and he doesn't know his mother's identity. His wandering takes on another purpose when he seeks and finds Dalva and his ancestral home, repeating Dalva's own journey in the previous novel, the last section of which was called "Coming Home." This is another function of home in this novel: as a place where journeys begin and end, and where lives can be recollected in tranquility in between.
The characters are torn from home by their own passions and obsessions (principally love and art); and their lives, particularly those of the men, are permanently distorted by war (from the Indian wars through World War I, Korea and Vietnam.) The road home is everyone's life's journey. And so this novel--this two-volume saga--presents the births, dreams, marriages, sex, misunderstandings, regrets, brawls, tantrums, brushes with the law, even some gun-play of characters that live over a century of American history. The real-time events in the novel are mostly the rhythmic activities of daily life, and the big events are mostly remembered. Because of this considered, precisely expressed observation and thought, each event has texture and density. In turn, memories and the thoughts and emotions they evoke give more weight and dimension to the simple acts of living, which become rituals of affirmation and grief.
Harrison is rightly praised for his vivid evocation of the natural landscape and the values embedded in it, although here the landscape is also cultivated. This isn't wilderness or the Pleistocene--it is the Midwest formed from the frontier by stubborn Scandinavians, who provide Harrison with some piquant and McMurtryesque minor characters. Still, everything about this family refers ultimately and deeply to the land, including their name. Home is a place of grounding, and therefore it is vital that it be a home that sits in nature, that partakes of timelessness in the modern age. Like the homes of the foragers, it's a place to go away from and come back to, yet unlike the Pleistocene foragers, the contemporary forager is never quite sure where he is or what she's looking for, or why they wander. ( Though Paul Shepard is not among the many writers Harrison generously names in the text, it's hard to believe Harrison hasn't read and been influenced by him.)
Dogs and horses are as individual and perhaps as important as people in this novel, and contact with the land is the lifeblood of these characters. It's when people can no longer ride or hunt that they know it's time to die. The deaths, both violent and natural, are prominent, and several are described at length, giving this book an elegiac tone as well as an epic scope. The Road Home also leads to death, the home where the journey ends. The sense of elegy extends also to the land, which the characters often fret about, whether it is on the ranch or on the backroads. When one is faced with imminent loss, the only creative act is careful remembering. Memory is another home.
This pair of novels offers unusual possibilities--reading and re-reading each in relation to the other, reading parts of one that match up with the same time or event in the other, finding the symmetries that might be fate or beauty or both, and otherwise discovering the literary rendering of the hypertext of life.
There is a sense here not of an ending but of a kind of completion, as well as in the coincident publication of Harrison's new and collected poems, The Shape of the Journey (Copper Canyon Press). "To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime," Harrison asserts in his preface to a series of Zen inspired poems, included in this substantial and revelatory volume. The Road Home is the work of a lifetime, in that sense and more.
The home where these roads lead is not ideal, but the best there is now. Harrison's achievement is to do so well what he observes in music of birds, as he writes in the last line of the last poem in The Shape of the Journey: "They sing what and where they are."
GAIN is one of what author Richard Powers calls his 'bottom up' books, (like Operation Wandering Soul) that begin with the characters and their stories, rather than his more popular and praised'top down' books (Goldbug Variations, Galatea 2.2) that begin with a structural premise. Yet it is the structure that dominates Gain: a contrapuntal narration of more than a century of a single corporation's history juxtaposed with the course of one contemporary woman's cancer, which was likely caused by exposure to chemical byproducts released by that corporation.
The ironies, poignance and, in a fairly large sense for our civilization, the tragedy, is embedded in this scenario through the corporation's chief product: soap, to make us clean and white, to purify us from disease and the dirt of the earth. What product could be more benign, more helpful? It is among the most intimate of products, redolent with the smell and security of home. Yet the cancer that it indirectly causes smashes the safety that home represents. Powers gives this another literal edge, as the costs of cancer mean that Laura--the woman with cancer--might lose her home, which she thinks of as a kind of being: "She must have been mad. Had some crazed idea that the house would be her safe haven. Would always take care of her. She's spent years taking care of it, keeping up her end of the deal. But now, at the first called debt, the house gets ready to renege."
Read the first pages of a Powers book and be dazzled--nobody, not even DeLillo or Pynchon--can dance like this: fancy footwork, bouncing references, slant puns and daring patter. This breathtaking dazzlement isn't sustained, as it probably can't be, though it flares often enough in pages and passages. So it goes in Gain, though in more muted tones. Beside the prose of his other novels, Gain is stark, sometimes even awkward. Perhaps one of the major themes demands it: No author can tapdance with cancer, even if the sufferer who is described is trying to do so, putting up a brave but ultimately empty defense.
For me the major weakness of this book is this contrapuntal structure. A popular structure these days--from Stoppard plays and earlier Jim Harrison fictions to TV dramas--it seems ready-made to contrast the corporate with the personal, the big accidental cause with the deep effect of the accident. Here, after a hundred pages or so it seems to bleed the energy out of both halves of the story. But I read this book over a long period; a faster reading might redeem the structure. Personally, I couldn't read it more continuously. In addition to my note-taking for themes, referents and felicitous phrases, I had to stop rather often for anguish. It was the hardest novel for me to read that I can remember, because of the cancer sections.
Not just the echoes of my mother's long bouts of treatments, crises, remissions before her cancers killed her (the hardest parts to read were the things I didn't realize at the time that she was likely going through)but in the very specific contemplation of my own future and of those I love. For American women at this moment, the chances of manifesting cancer are one in three. For American men it's one in two--the flip of a coin. It is our slow-motion plague, none the less destructive for forms of it being less fatal these days, as it still surrenders us to the humiliations of hospitals and the arbitrary power of insurance companies. Cancer evokes the fear not only of death and pain but of powerlessness, and exile.
Regardless of its structure, however, Gain is rich in themes and subthemes that illuminate American history and current dilemmas. Few other novelists have been brave enough to directly explore the meaning of corporate power. (Though Jim Harrison refers to effects of business on the landscape, his characters rarely even work for a living.) Powers describes the curious status in the law that allows corporations the legal privileges of a person without commensurate responsibilities, so that each business becomes infinitely more powerful than actual individuals, and it need never die. "The limited-liability corporation: the last noble experiment, loosing an unknowable outcome upon its beneficiaries. Its success outstripped all rational prediction until, gross for gross, it became mankind's sole remaining endeavor." The growth of a kind of organism that overwhelms and ultimately threatens the life of the larger organism it inhabits is of course the model for both cancer and the corporation.
Corporations as persons have made the earth their home and property,changing the relationship of mere humans to the natural world. In the end, " The earth had become a factory. Humankind scrambled to emulate the productive reliability of its machines."
"Gain" is a concept from applied science as much as business or, for that matter, religion. As usual, Powers deals meticulously with the science, though this time it is not the clean abstraction of higher physics and computer chip-inspired theories of mind, but the practical chemistry of making us clean. He really does tell the story of soap and its manifold uses (to clean the rubber to make tires to win World War II, for example)with such richness as to make a corporate history hack green with envy. In fact he also chronicles corporate p.r. from early advertising to greenwashing and the management of desire; for this also he has the perfect industry, since the cliche everyone seems to use when decrying the inappropriate application of business principles to, say, art or medical care, is that they're "selling it like soap."
Yet this book is not anti-business, any more than it (or any of Powers' books) is anti-science. What happy ending the novel has posits a corporate science solution to the painful death this corporate and science alliance causes, though too late for the woman whose life the narrative follows. So, too, would the corporate hack's hackles be soothed at the novel's conclusion. As its protagonist, nearing her last check-out, totes up her personal balance sheet, she decides that corporate science has given her more than it is now taking away. "The world is her spent purchase," she mused, and noted that life--that ultimate industry--goes on without her, maybe without anybody ("Lovely lichen will manufacture soil on the sunroofs of the World Trade," she speculates.)
There is a certain unflinching bravery in Powers ability to look all the implications in the face and express them (something he shares with Shepard.) Does Powers say that we have gained the world only to lose our souls? I don't think so. Readers, like reviewers, may be tempted to find only support for their ideology in this unflinching exposition and rumination. Yet the biggest joke pulled by pun-conscious Powers may be that his evaluation of gain versus loss in the soap industry turns out to be a wash.
On the one hand, corporations cause cancer, and in a sense they are the cancer of the earth. But they are responding to human wants. Powers' history doesn't provide the long context that Shepard does; perhaps he's hinting that this is human nature, rather than a long inbred reaction, expressed as greed, to the fear of want if the crops fail. In Powers' formulation, cancer is the price we pay for our way of life, for our desire. These are Laura's last words: "People want everything. That's their problem."
A man's home is his castle, the saying goes, linking domicile with dominion over it. Castle walls protect from outside invasion, safeguarding as well the king's power over the land. Moving the metaphor to the individual, making and keeping a true home depends upon power over one's life and land. In Gain, our power is diminished by corporate power, which in Shepard's terms is essentially an extension of centralized agriculture and its belief system expressed by the monotheistic desert religions and a science that sees the world as essentially made of dead objects to manipulate for apparent short-term gain. What happens to individuals in the modern world as a result, has happened to entire indigenous cultures, including those of our hemisphere. "Would it have been a different world if someone had believed our lives were as important as theory and gold?" wonders Omshito, an American Indian, the 16 year old narrator and center of Linda Hogan's new novel, Power.
To complete the circle back to Shepard, after journeys through the very different contemporary landscapes etched by Harrison and Powers, is to confront the world's surviving indigenous peoples, whose deepest living traditions provide the strongest remaining link to the Pleistocene way of life that made humans human.
Harrison's saga is deeply involved in the confrontation and relationships of Euro-Americans and Indians on the Plains. His heroine Dalva has Lakota blood and has her son with a young Lakota man, the love of her life. The late 19th century events surrounding Wounded Knee are central to the first volume, and near the end of the second there is a ritual affirmation that expresses both the kinship and the distance between the Northridge clan and the indigenous peoples.
A thread that runs through Powers' book is the destruction of Native peoples, their cultures and worldview, necessitated by the cancerous spread of corporate business. He notes in several places the shameful ironies of a dominant power that destroys the Indians as it buys up and uses their images, compounded in the devilishly ironic name of his soap company's first big product, called Native Balm.
But increasingly now, we can hear the stories of these confronting cultures, the effects of those confrontations, and the nature of what was destroyed and is still being lost, from Native writers themselves. From the illuminating analyses of Native languages by Jeannette Armstrong to the witty and trenchant commentary on science and history by Vine Deloria, Jr., these writers are expressing what one Native activist calls the"Native paradigm," the counterpart to the so-called New Paradigm and its concepts of deep ecology, sustainability, biodiversity,and biophilia, all of which are basically abstracted aspects of traditional Native cultures.
The Native Paradigm emerges not from theory but from untold centuries of experience, study and revelation. Though this paradigm survives in the traditions of peoples who have made this land their home for millennia, much of it is still so foreign to the dominant monoculture as to be very difficult to comprehend. "The study of native cultures tends to lead you far afield from all you have learned, including much more that you have perceived and assumed was real." Jim Harrison observes in an essay. "At first this is disconcerting, but there are many benefits to letting the world fall apart."
Perhaps cushioning the fall for non-Indian readers, and opening up access points to Native sensibilities, are the fictions and poems of contemporary Native writers, from the "grandfather" generation of N. Scott Momaday through the "grandchildren"--the Sherman Alexie generation of writers in their 30s and 20s. It is especially among the writers of the middle generation who came of age in the 1960s that mastery is growing in the novel form, providing a larger and deeper portrait of Native cultural legacy by using the novel's potential to embody complexity, and to express emotional, moral, intellectual and cultural contexts simultaneously in an involving and enriching reading experience. This European form has become the most widespread, rich and accessible means of storytelling in our era in almost every culture on earth.
Though they are still often ignored by the literary establishment, today's mature Native novelists-- such as Craig Lesley, Louise Erdrich, James Welsh and especially Leslie Marmon Silko-- have created contemporary classics as exciting and various as the novelists of any period, anywhere.
High on this list is Linda Hogan, self-consciously a Native American writer of Chickasaw heritage,and a literary artist in the "western" sense as well, of poems, essays, stories and plays. She has written three novels, each magically absorbing, and each more formally accomplished, while doing what the novel allows and cherishes--expanding the possibilities of the form to illuminate in new ways. In this case, to suggest a radically different notion of power than non-Native world is used to.
The artistry of this relatively short novel is astounding. Hogan grows stronger in what was already her strong suit: combining the sensory/sensual and the mystical/mysterious to create unique descriptions that are intensely alive. There is also a robust plot, with enough action for several feature films, and social relevance for several TV movies. Yet it is also a personal story: mesmerizing moment-by-moment description in a classic adolescent coming to awareness tale. Holding it all together is a strong narrative momentum and a conceptual structure of classic simplicity that opens the door to the kind of complexities that blow the assumed world apart.
Though the story is clearly and beautifully told, nothing here is simple or completely resolved. There are surprising plot turns and paradoxes, and even minor characters are more than one dimensional. Hogan's writing is sensate, lyrical and at times hypnotic. Omshito's voice is at once oracular and realistic and wholly likeable. All of this makes Power (along with Hogan's very different previous novels) not only a multidimensional glimpse of Native life and belief, but a contemporary classic of American literature. For imaginative power and literary artistry, Linda Hogan is unsurpassed by any living author.
A crucial example of this artistry is found in Hogan's explorations of doubleness. It has become something of a cliche to describe today's American Indians as "walking in two worlds," and Hogan explores the complex combinations of this reality through one girl's life, but she also expands it to encompass the themes of history and of humans in nature--the obsessions as well in Shepard, Harrison and Powers.
The novel's narrator, the 16 year old girl, is ambivalent about her life as the novel begins. Omshito is a member of the fictional Taiga people, but she lives in a poor Florida swampland town with her mother (who gave up the old ways to seek salvation in Christianity and in trying to pass for white middle class), her pretty sister and the stepfather who beats her. She keeps her distance from the Old Place, the last outpost of Taiga to live a traditional life in an enclave beyond the swamp, but is drawn to Ama, an elder Taiga woman who lives in a house alone between these two worlds. Omshito likes listening to Ama's stories, but claims, "I'm not a person who believes the way she does, because it's a different world what with houses and highways."
But the order of these worlds is shaken up, first by a fierce storm ( Hogan's long narration of it is a breathtaking tour de force), and then by the central event of the novel: Ama's deliberate killing of a Florida panther, member of an endangered species, with Omshito as a witness. While this act is universally condemned by the non-Native community (which likely would have applauded it a decade earlier, and was largely responsible for the panther nearing extinction) it is a morally and culturally complex act for Omshito and her Taiga people, who identify themselves with the panther. Their stories say the panther taught them the mysteries of life.
By this time however, the few surviving panthers are all diseased and starving. Omshito is also aware that the Taiga people are as few and as endangered as the panthers themselves, and that like the panthers, they are valued only as mascots while considered inconvenient and dangerous in the modern world, while the world that sustains them is inexorably destroyed. The meaning of the panther kill cannot be separated from the clash of Native and modern worlds. The modern world objectifies nature and insists on simple answers. Indigenous cultures live in and with nature, and struggle with the complexities of the relationships.
Omshito's fated double view is embedded in her two names: at home she is Sissy, but her Taiga name is Omshito, which means the one who watches. The two worlds of non- Native and Native are mirrored in the two worlds of transcendent and visible reality, with cracks and openings (and also doors closing) between them. Some characters live in one or the other world, Ama lives between them, but everyone is somehow divided. Of the panther killing (and the resulting two trials, by the county court and tribal elders) Omshito is of two minds, seeing two truths which contradict each other, and two sides which are both wrong and both right. Omshito is the most conflicted, both at home and a foreigner in each world, but her clear-eyed observation and stubborn journey to commitment is a remarkable and revelatory variation on the adolescent search for identity and meaning.
There is a doubleness to Hogan's notion of power as well (as, in the human dominated world, is Richard Powers'). The vividly described hurricane is the ultimate power of primal nature, but nature is also a victim of human power. The panthers are "protected" while their habitat is destroyed. They are often killed by cars and sometimes choked by the tracking collars placed on them by state biologists. The dramatic panther hunt includes crossing a highway, and takes place in wooded and swampy strips with houses so near that Omshito hears a radio playing. She can still fish for bass, but they are too poisoned to eat. The spring which the Spanish once believed was the Fountain of Youth is so polluted no one can drink from it.
The doubleness extends to double meanings and ambiguity, a powerful if recently neglected tool of poetry, and also in Hogan's hands the means to express a Native experience of reality. From the start, Omshito sees not just the ground-level world, but the mastodon bones and remnants of ancient seabeds below, and the forces that gather the clouds. Her here and now is inhabited by the cycles of time that brings past and future into the present. When Omshito says "the earth was bleeding" it is an observation of a sky reddening from the horizon, but also a literal description of a wounded being. Hogan is fleshing the bones of such often quoted and little understood concepts as "Everything is alive."
Implications of the earth as sacred are also explored, including a Native meaning to the fall from Paradise, and the story involves some of the most primal human mysteries, largely absent from contemporary fiction, such as the meanings of sacrifice and scapegoats, redemption and salvation.
The conflicting notions in Native and non-Native cultures of how power is manifested of course also plays a part. Though Omshito professes not to believe in the old ways, from the beginning she shows a healthy respect for the power of some elders to kill and to cure by somehow harnessing the earth's own magic. Her mother believes more forcefully--though not without reluctance and shame--that the power of money and non-Native culture is stronger now than what her traditions teach her is true power and knowledge.
In the end Omshito rejects her mother's Christian beliefs for the old ways of the Taiga elders, yet Christianity is part of her given world now, and she sees her world also in terms familiar to Christianity. In particular she gives a new Native meaning to the idea of the fall from Paradise, with new repercussions. "It was all fallen, this poisoned, cut world....Unloved and disgraced and torn apart. Fallen, that's what this world is. And betrayed."
What in a poisoned, cut world is power? What in a fallen world is home? In Omshito's story, home is a commitment, however imperfect. Even though her beloved Ama has been exiled by her own people, Omshito's journey leads back to the Old Place. Utopia is not a home, as writer Eduardo Galeano says in a little fable, but the walk to get to its ever-receding horizon. Home is not utopia--it's just home: where your heart belongs, and makes its stand.