- Dana Lone Hill. Pointing with Lips: a Week in the Life of a Rez Chick. Blue Hand Books, 2014.
Source of review copy: e-book from my personal collection.
Short version: This book is not science fiction, but read it because it’s awesome. Writing a book review of something I loved feels like total inarticulate fan-flail … NOW WITH MORE ANALYSIS. So I’ve linked other reviews below, so you can read more. This Book Ate Me and It Was An Awesome Experience. Buy it and it will eat you too. It’s not science fiction, but it’s full of of stuff I want more of in science fiction both as reader and writer.
Long version follows, because you know you want to know more.
Once in a while, there’s a magical book that comes into your hands and sucks you into its world, and you can’t even remember how you found it.
In this case, the internets are implicated. If I poked around in my search history, I might be able to patch together the chain of fortunate coincidence that led me to Dana Lone Hill’s first novel, Pointing With Lips: A Week in the Life of a Rez Chick. It’s the kind of novel that you plunge into as through a portal, come out the other side transformed, and immediately leap back into. By the second re-read, I kind of knew that I was in love, and that there was no way to deal with that except by supplementing my squee on Twitter with a full analysis of why I was telling everybody to buy and read the book.
The structure is deeply sneaky, just have to warn you: the ending sends you right back to the beginning, and each rereading reveals another layer. This is the process that apprenticed me to various writers (I wrote a bit about it in my comments on Tolstoy’s War and Peace). The story works its magic on reader-you, and writer-you wants to figure out how.
So: full disclosure. I have read this novel four times, not including aerial-view examination of structure and recurring motifs. I look at my Kindle copy and I have bookmarked … well, a whole lot of things. The only reason my nose is not affixed to the screen for a fifth pass is that I promised I would write this review. In the course of those four passes, my feeling about this story has evolved from fan-flail to well-informed, well-researched, literarily informed fan-flail.
And no, it’s not science fiction, but it is the very model of everything I want to accomplish as a storyteller. So gather round, readers and writers and lovers of a good tale, because this one is too good to miss.
OK, first I’m going to unpack my reader-feels.
- I’m in awe. Like many of my mentors younger than me in chronological age, Dana Lone Hill belongs to Generation Awesome, my late 20s-early 40s contemporaries who are teaching me All the Things about how to write. A master of both fiction and nonfiction storytelling strategies, she creates a marvelous first-person protagonist, Sincere Charlie Strongheart, who invites you to ride along and chat with her. At the opening, she and her cousin are looking for a place to park at the annual Oglala Nation pow-wow at Pine Ridge, in a hot dusty summer you can almost taste.
- From that moment, you meet Sincere’s entire family network, with deep connections back in time. You get the full range of human relationships in all their drama: parents and children, friends and siblings, lovers and exes, plus a rich range of humor.
- The dialogue is sharp, evocative, and deceptively simple; the plot feels utterly natural in spite of its profound complexity. There’s love, exasperation, the dynamic tugs through a four-dimensional kinship web. The challenges are created by trauma and crisis both acute and chronic.
Trigger warning: at about the halfway point, there’s an extended flashback of sexual abuse of a child, POV the victim. There is also a fair bit of discussion of various levels of violence including domestic abuse, sibling fistfights, and historical violence more and less distant in time.
- The landscape (Pine Ridge Reservation and the border towns) is a character in the novel, a four-dimensional character I should add. Love and connection to place and kin, in the face of incredibly challenging circumstances, plays out in everyday courage, dry humor, and sibling fondness. History is layered through the entire novel.
- This novelist can talk you into anything. Just to give you a few examples of Dana Lone Hill’s magic: I’m not a baseball fan, as in, not in the least. She made me root for the New York Yankees and chill out in a Nebraska border town bar watching a baseball game and feel like I was having the time of my life. She made me want to listen to every country song she mentions by title so I can get the full soundtrack of the novel. And ok, act 1, scene 1, is an artist trying to sell her art. So yeah, that grabbed me right away: Sincere is a terrible saleswoman but her kinfolk are nothing less than silver-tongued in selling her quill and bead work to tourists and getting a really good price for it.
- Everyone has moments of enlightenment and also moments of obliviousness. The same people do some amazingly wonderful things and some amazingly awful things, and they’re the same person. Understated love of family and place runs through the entire novel in all directions, but it’s not a sentimental love. It’s a love that acts, however imperfectly, to try to manage ongoing crisis. There are neither heroes nor villains.
And now for the writer-feels:
I’m a science-fiction and fantasy writer, and so world-building is part of my job description. My colleagues and I have been talking a lot on Twitter about #ownstories, the tales built out of our own life experiences and families/cultures of origin that differ from what US mainstream (White, male, upper-middle-class, straight) have chosen to curate as worthy of being read or heard. In particular, there are certain stories that can’t be told as US-Hollywood plots.
When the world’s your stage, and anyone on earth might be reading your story, suddenly world building is part of your portfolio regardless of genre.
- Good world-building is rooted in questioning the familiar. The huge charisma and charm of Pointing With Lips is that it puts you into a different way of looking at the world, while hanging out with utterly engaging companions. As in Aliette de Bodard’s On a Red Station, Drifting (Vietnamese space opera), family and kinship are major forces; every decision has third- and fourth-order karmic echo-shock. Kinship is a human universal, but we don’t all do it the same.
- Very importantly, villains are not necessary. The antagonist/protagonist split is a product of a certain way of thinking about story. In Pointing With Lips, people might act badly, but they have other moments where they shine like the sun.
- I feel all of the characters as whole people, even when they only show up once or twice. Dana Lone HIll has an eye for human magnificence and folly, and the sense of humor to make me feel both keenly. The nonhumans are real too. The rez dogs and Sincere’s housecat are more fully realized characters than some writers’ human supporting players.
- I learned some amazing moves with point of view. Lone Hill is unsparing of her POV character; Sincere is a bright, reflective family fix-it person who nonetheless proves unreliable at parts in the narrative. (There’s more than one moment of horror when I realized that a chapter break marked an alcohol blackout). Interestingly, Sincere’s realization that This Is Seriously Not Working, I Have a Problem does not follow a Christian conversion narrative. Instead, she realizes her part in the web: that just as she cared for her siblings, it was time for them to care for her. Not that it doesn’t take multiple tellings, from people both inside and outside her family.
- Changing your life isn’t a solo act; it’s nonlinear, full of steps forward and back, and (if you are as fortunate as Sincere Charlie Strongheart) in community. The contrast with the Usual Story made me realize how many stories take as givens both individualism and Christian-conversion arc.
- The story structure is so brilliant, such a live thing, that I’m still finding connections between actions and their consequences. There’s both drama and horror in getting inside a situation where information drops out in the throes of an addictive pattern, especially when things around you normalize that pattern. Whence that pattern? That’s one of many places where the four-dimensional aspect of the world comes in. Whether it’s the casual mention of the baby cemetery attached to a former residential school, or the grandmas who know who your cousins are a hundred years back, the battle of Greasy Grass where Custer met his end, or the work of the American Indian Movement (AIM), there’s no question that Sincere and her kin know how things got the way they are.
- Culture is a living thing and cultures evolve in the face of challenge, particularly life-threatening challenge. A lot of speculative fiction writers are still working under the misapprehension inherited from Hegel et al that only certain people have “history” (Europeans) and everyone else is exiled to a static exotic/primitive periphery. The magnificent context of this novel – contemporary Lakota culture – is depicted in all its dynamic vitality. In the novel’s call-and-response, country music, traditional dance, Stephen King stories, baseball, even gangster rap, all fold into the mix and come in for comment by adaptation, syncopation, and interweaving with the events of everyday life. Yet not for a moment do you forget that you’re reading a story about life under the shadow of ongoing physical and cultural genocide.
- Thinking about history and world building, food is very significant. I’m looking at the food track in Pointing with Lips – the reservation diet based on commodities plus occasional foraged wild foods. You learn the cost of food, the very specific kind of food desert that’s background to this story – general store on-reservation that jacks its prices because they know that people would have to pay the difference in gas to get their food cheaper elsewhere.
- Trainwrecks don’t happen all at once. Chronic factors are more deadly, but Hollywood plots only cover the acute “isolated incident.” Because the narrative voice is understated and transparent, with such a strong current of humor, the sense of accumulating disaster only hit me on the third reading. From my own experience, that’s absolutely how disaster sneaks up in real life. You realize that the story you’re being told — or the one you’re telling yourself — has missing pieces. All of that disaster has long, deep roots in the history she’s been mentioning as asides: those mentions aren’t “local color” or “fun facts about Pine Ridge” but flashes and glimpses of the big machine that drives the present tense. Dana Lone Hill has a poet’s genius touch for moments of felicity — fleeting — in which all’s right with the world, when the surface is sunny and humorous. She also has a sharp eye on the internal movements of malice, the satisfactions of hatred, the ebb and flow of rivalry and camaraderie between siblings of all ages, not to mention the way that the first flutter of love can turn grownups into bashful teenagers again.
- Food and kids are way more important in history than explosions and pew-pew. I ignore a lot of stories in my genre, because the characters feel like cardboard people floating in floaty grey boxes, two-legged bits of machinery in clockwork plots whose rhythms are dictated from the outside. Whether fantasy or science fiction, they are driven by Hollywood notions of how things happen. Story forms are driven by cultural assumptions, from who is important enough to be the center of the story, to which happenings are stories at all. Pointing With Lips is unabashedly about family, food, culture: the making of children; the keeping of children; the friendships of siblings and cousins; relationships with elders and the history they bear; recovery of health, sanity, and things lost.
Explicit content ahead (you’ve been warned)
- This is a pecuniarily explicit novel and historically and culturally explicit too. The kinship web is a force and a character coextensive with the landscape. It’s not decoration but a real driver of people’s choices. Money, food, and other resources are shared in an ongoing circulation of benefit. There’s a lot of explicit dollars and cents in this story, including details of how you feed a large household on almost nothing. I like frank talk about money and survival, because — money and survival.
- This is also a culinarily explicit novel. I’m thinking about this novel alongside Michael Twitty’s work in food history and my own encounters with contemporary folks reconstructing the pre-contact diet of this part of North America. [see links below] The difference between the historic diet of the Lakota, Dakota, Ojibwe and folks eat now … is dramatic.
- Of the dishes described, I have tried some and can say that all of the hype is true. Frybread is NO I SHOULD NOT but delicious, like a savory doughnut. Wozapi – fruit syrup made with chokecherries – is ambrosia. If anyone ever offers you some, take them up on the offer because it is amazing. There’s implicit contrast of traditional foodways with commod-based cuisine, and implied drama in the feeding of a house full of people on a meager budget. (That is an art form all by itself, which needs to appear more in speculative literature.)
- And beer. Be warned there are rivers of beer. Also malt liquor, including some variants I strongly suspect are marketed more heavily in the reservation market.
- How was this book born? Not in the big time. Blue Hand Books is a small Native writers’ publishing co-operative, with offerings from nonfiction, history, religion and metaphysics, genre fiction, and memoir. Were it not for the changing landscape of publishing, it’s highly unlikely that this book would have been published at all or come into my hands. Some of the most important work out there is not being published by large “mainstream” publishing concerns.
- Reading #ownstories is important both when they are your own and someone else’s. I’m not Lakota, but this book spoke to my heart, mind, and artistic practice as a writer. Culturally specific work written by insider voices is hugely important. Many thanks to Dana Lone Hill for writing it, and for the good folks of Blue Hand Books for bringing it to the attention of the world.
Bibliography and linkfest (for reading more)
Dana Lone Hill’s nonfiction:
other reviews of Pointing With Lips (Read them! They’re both awesome!)
Blue Hand Books
Buy Pointing with Lips: A Week in the Life of a Rez Chick on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Pointing-Lips-week-life-chick-ebook/dp/B00IVTNW20
But wait … More Links! Including Food! Also Literary Analysis!
Culinarily explicit links on upper midwest indigenous cuisine
Dream of Wild Health: http://dreamofwildhealth.org/
Heid Erdrich. Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest
Food historian Michael Twitty’s Afroculinaria blog (on African and African-American cuisine)
A selection of excellent essays by SF/F writers on #ownstories and history
Aliette de Bodard’s articles on colonialism
Cora Buhlert on US story forms and other cultures
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz on cultural diversity in SF/F
Book Blogging, Linkage and the Diversity in SFF conversations