One of Michael Dorris’s strengths is to create settings that pull readers into the story, constructing detailed landscapes that serve a much greater purpose than serving simply as poetic backdrops. They provide snapshots of landscapes in the American Northwest, especially Montana and Washington, and of a range of homes and public spaces.
Rayona’s section of the novel begins in a hospital in Seattle, moves briefly to Tacoma, and settles in and around an Indian reservation in Montana. Rayona notices the world from the passenger seat, commenting on the small towns and the white metal crosses along the highway that show where people have died. The landscape-a blur of fields and mountains and clouds on a horizon that suggests the edge of the world-seems immense to her. But Rayona is careful to describe the details of every small scene she occupies: gas stations, houses on the reservation, the church basement where the “God Squad” holds its meetings, Bearpaw Lake State Park, a trailer she shares with a couple while she is working, and Hill County Fairgrounds, where she makes her debut in a rodeo. Rayona, having grown up in the city, approaches the reservation and the landscape around it with the keen eye of an outsider, as well as with the egocentrism and curiosity of a teenager looking for signs of her own identity in her family’s past.
Christine was born on the reservation, and her descriptions of life in the 1960s and 1970s are filled with contradictions: Catholicism and Native American traditions, patriotism and resistance to the war in Vietnam, a generation that speaks both Indian and English and knows the lyrics of the top-40 songs. Her narrative also includes scenes from Minot, a city that seemed enormous and exciting to her when she was twenty years old, and from Seattle, where she worked in a factory that made black boxes for airplanes. Each time she returns to the reservation, she sees it differently, and the reader is reminded of the way this isolated setting changes over the years.
In the final section, Ida tells of her girlhood in the 1930s and 1940s, set primarily in the house that she still occupies and-for a brief period-in a Denver convent where she awaited the birth of Christine. Although earlier sections show Ida as an older woman in a cheap black wig, listening to her Walkman as she mows the lawn and sitting entranced by soap operas, Ida’s own narrative recalls the house before it had electricity and indoor plumbing, before she began leasing parts of the land to supplement her income. She tells of the food she raises, the important position of the church on the reservation, the ways that the landscape reflects her own limited choices.
Dorris includes many cultural references that ground this novel in real places and times across the mid- to late-20th century. Pictures of Jacqueline Kennedy, Elvis Presley, and Connie Francis line the walls of Christine’s teenage bedroom. Buttons with sayings such as “Indians Discovered Columbus” allude to the Red Power movement that commands the attention of Christine’s younger brother, Lee. Ida watches The Guiding Light and, later, All My Children and The People’s Court. Televisions, electric ovens, video rentals, and satellite dishes are introduced as new at different points in the book. Traditional Native American foods such as stew and bread give way to macaroni-and-cheese TV dinners and Reeses’ peanut butter cups. Details of clothing, make-up, and hairstyles reveal social classes and the passing of time. World War II and the Vietnam War are significant events in the lives of these characters, and Christine’s own choices reflect a transition from the domesticated woman idealized in the 1950s to a woman who travels her own road-even if it is in a battered Volare. These subtle shifts in setting reveal the kinds of changes that each generation has seen, as well as the recurring conflicts that seem to rub people and cultures against one another in new ways.