By Paddy MacDonald
By Phil Condon ’89
Spokane: Eastern Washington University Press, 2004, 310 pp., $18.95
This novel, winner of the Faulkner Society of New Orleans Award, tracks the lives of a college-age couple and their friends during the Vietnam era. Miller Silas, the protagonist, embodies the confusion, turbulence, and disillusionment that typified many young people of that time.
By Candace Black ’80
Moorehead, MN: New Rivers Press, 2003, 56 pp., $13.95
Set against a Midwestern landscape, this collection of poetry addresses the vivid beauty and intense sorrow of ordinary experience. Childbirth, parenting, love, nature, and death are subjects of her evocative poems, as well as family, friendship, and marriage.
The Investment Club: An Appetizing Venture
By Nancy Noel Marra ’76
Lincoln, NE: Universe, Inc., 2003, 106 pp., $10.95
Marra’s book, her third, follows a group of women whose nexus is an interest in the stock market. In addition to weighing the merits of Costco, Airborne Freight, and Toys R Us, the women share their personal stories and support one another through various challenges they face outside the club.
Plants of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
By H. Wayne Phillips ’65
Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2003, 277 pp., $20.00
Mixing history with botany, Phillips invites readers to see wildflowers, shrubs, and trees as Lewis and Clark saw them. From indigo bush in Missouri to feather boa kelp on the Oregon Coast, his book melds twenty-first century knowledge with the excitement of nineteenth-century exploration.
By Otto L. Schumacher and Lee A. Woodward ’53
Spokane: Woodhawk Press, 2004, 150 pp., $19.95
This book provides a geologist’s interpretation of the spectacular scenery of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, told in a way that will appeal to Lewis and Clark enthusiasts, river travelers, and all who share an interest in the area’s natural and cultural history.
By Paul VanDevelder ’82
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004, 312 pp., $25.95
Coyote Warrior recounts an atrocity committed against three American Indian tribes, the heroic but losing battle waged by tribal chairman Martin Cross against the federal government, and how his youngest son, Raymond, returned to the land of his ancestors decades later to resume Cross’s fight.
Sixty years ago, in an effort to control the upper Missouri River, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1944. As a result, the Army Corps of Engineers gained permission to begin constructing the Garrison Dam, which would flood more than two thousand acres of prime tribal land. With little compensation, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes were forced to sign away these lands.
Martin Cross, the great-grandson of chiefs who fed and sheltered Lewis and Clark during the winter of 1804, “wore out the railroad tracks” in his tireless efforts to stop the juggernaut, but eventually all three tribes were evicted from their ancestral homelands.
The consequences for the tribes were immediate, violent, and devastating. “It tore families apart behind a thousand doors . . . disassimilating people from their origin, and ripping up their identities, tossing them to the winds of fate and misfortune like so much confetti,” VanDevelder writes.
Hundreds of homeless Indians landed in nearby Parshall, a predominantly white town: “ ‘. . . suddenly our landmarks, our social and physical landmarks, the framework for everything we were, was gone.’” Entire Indian families lived in cars and in grain sheds.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was actively “relocating” tribal members; by the early 1960s, the entire Cross family and half of the tribal membership had been moved to Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, and the urban centers of northern California.
A generation later Raymond Cross, a Yale Law School graduate (now a UM law professor), brought his father’s battle full circle when he was instrumental in passage of Senate Bill 168, which awarded the tribes $142.9 million for the unjust taking of their reservation. But the true process of re-creation, Cross believes, begins with a “reaffirmation of the spiritual laws that sustained their ancestors through the mortal trials endured by countless generations.”
Passing for Thin
By Frances Kuffel ’82
New York: Broadway Books, 2004, 260 pp., $24.00
The triumph of a 188-pound weight loss marks only the midpoint of a difficult and remarkable journey in Frances Kuffel’s memoir. With unflinching honesty and self-effacing humor, Kuffel revisits her compulsive eating, which began in early childhood.
To Kuffel, food was animate, “a completely mutual and unfailingly loyal friend.” As an obese girl, she learned the rules of survival: how to compress herself by tucking her head, curling her shoulders, and wrapping her arms around her chest; how to squeeze into the back of group photographs so only her head would show; ignore the glares when she took up too much room.
After a few false starts—Jenny Craig, the Diet Center, Prozac, and Fen-phen among them—Kuffel joins a twelve-step support group and slowly emerges from her protective cocoon of fat. But as she metamorphoses, Kuffel discovers that thinness comes with its own set of challenges. Without “the veil of unhappiness of being fat,” she’s left suddenly defenseless and with increased responsibility to take charge of her own life and well-being.
After revamping her environment, Kuffel tackles life on the “Planet of Girls,” redefining relationships with her boss, family, and friends. Now in her forties, Kuffel functions at first like a spy, taking notes as she watches a girlfriend’s head toss, the way she waves her fork as she talks, or leans into one man while speaking to another—secrets, dances, and behavior other men and women learn in their teens.
But Kuffel’s biggest accomplishment is an internal one. She discovers a central core that allows her to love, to forgive, to challenge, and “to live life . . . even when no one is looking.”
By Seth Kantner ’91
Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2004, 324 pp., $22.00
Survival—physical, emotional, and spiritual—is an abiding theme in Seth Kantner’s first novel. Ordinary Wolves, complex and multi-layered, combines a coming-of-age story with a clash of cultures.
Raised by Abe, his back-to-the-land artist father, in a sod igloo deep in the punishing north Alaska wilderness, Cutuk learns the skills necessary to live off the frozen tundra: shooting caribou; tanning hides; mushing sled dogs across miles of ice. But it’s an insular existence and Cutuk, with only his siblings, father, and an occasional traveler to break up the long winter’s tedium, occasionally has doubts about the life Abe has chosen for his family.
After years of home schooling, Cutuk attends high school in Takunak, a local village, which has recently acquired many of the dubious totems of western civilization—Bruce Lee movies on television, Miller beer, electric coffee pots, and Whammo slingshots. Cutuk’s Eskimo schoolmates treat him like a second-class citizen, and Cutuk doesn’t find the sense of belonging he’d hoped for. He struggles to learn an entirely new set of survival skills and often longs for the social ease of his sister, Iris, who “knew how to move between worlds and find a trail that was broken.”
Eventually, Cutuk follows his older siblings to Anchorage and is equally flummoxed by the frenetic city folk, whom he likens to “female mosquitoes, brave and fiercely competitive, trying to acquire blood before they die.” Cutuk ekes out a living, working construction with his brother Jerry in Fairbanks, but soon finds himself drawn back to the North. “I’d done it; I’d found jobs, friends, an amazing girlfriend, even my brother, and a bunch of dollars.” Now he’s now free to go “home where real things happen.”
Cutuk’s journey ends where it began, in the wilderness—or what remains of it. “Suddenly the past was over. It would never come back to protect us. We’d been pretending as well as any actors. The chasm between legends around the fire and surround-sound TV, snowshoed dog trails, and Yamaha V-Max snowmobiles was too overwhelming, and no hunting, no tears, no federal dollars could take us back across.”
Last Car to Elysian Fields
By James Lee Burke
Burke has taught classes in UM’s English Department
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003, 335 pp., $24.95
The usual suspects are all present and accounted for in James Lee Burke’s latest book: a woman from Dave Robicheaux’s past, whose voice was like “a melancholy recording . . . the kind that carries fond memories but also some that are better forgotten;” his former partner, private investigator Clete Purcell, “a human moving violation, out of sync with both lawful and criminal society, no more capable of changing his course than a steel wrecking ball can alter its direction after it’s been set in motion”; and a rich, amorphous collection of hit men, priests and nuns, musicians, ex-cons, street criminals, and mobsters. But, like most of Burke’s mysteries, the central moral lesions lie in the realm of the wealthy and powerful, remnants of the old plantation oligarchy, who “do business . . . with baseball bats.”
The novel opens after Robicheaux, a recovering alcoholic now working as a detective for the sheriff’s department in New Iberia, drives to his old beat in the Big Easy with his friend, Clete Purcell. Their intention is to roust a drug dealer and porno star they believe is responsible for the severe beating of a radical Catholic priest named Jimmie Dolan. Engagement in Dolan’s problems soon leads to an entanglement that includes a decades-old murder, a fatal car accident, incest, and marital treachery. Above the fray sits Castille LeJeune, a former war hero and a member of the landed gentry.
Although Robicheaux solves the mystery and metes out justice when he can, he’s unable to resolve his increasing sense of loss. The Louisiana he knew as a boy has become part of the irretrievable past. In its place is a toxic terrain of oil corporations, fast food joints, waste management companies, and drive-in daiquiri stands. Robicheaux is left emotionally adrift, longing for comforts that elude him: “Home . . . the word would not register in my mind.”
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