FICTION: A companion to the award-winning collection “The Dance Boots,” this debut novel follows the lives of three Ojibwe women in northern Minnesota.
For some American Indians, sweetgrass is “the hair of our Mother, Earth,” as the late Indian languages scholar Mary Ritchie Key reports. “Each strand is not as strong as the strands are when braided together.” For the Ojibwe characters in “The Road Back to Sweetgrass,” the plant carries just such a symbolic charge, but its vanilla-scented sweetness also marks a very real place, and very real ties of blood and history to a patch of homeland on the Miskwaa River.
In this debut novel, Linda LeGarde Grover, a member of the Bois Forte band of Ojibwe, returns to the fictional Mozhay Point reservation of “The Dance Boots,” her award-winning story collection. Here we meet a new group of characters whose stories move back and forth through much of the 20th century, and through a slice of the Midwest, to return to present-day Mozhay Point — the wild rice fields, the sugarbush and the sweet-smelling land, where a buried deerskin bag containing an odissimaa, a sweetgrass-wrapped umbilical cord, holds a family’s place.
That family (“the Wazhushkag, the Muskrats who through jiibik ozhibii-igewin, the magic writing of the Indian agent’s pen … became the Washingtons”) is at the center of this book, which ends with the story of how, in the process of allotment, they lost their ancestral land — and how they nonetheless, through the mysteries of life and ritual, manage to hold onto it.
Woven into the Wazhushkag stories are those of three girls, Mozhay Pointers Dale Ann and Margie and an Ojibwe friend from Duluth, Theresa, whose loves and losses supply most of the drama of “The Road Back to Sweetgrass,” as well as some painful glimpses of recent Indian history. Dale Ann, for instance, as one of two Indian students to make it through her high school, is chosen by a federal relocation program to move to Chicago and train as a long-distance telephone operator — an “opportunity” whose sad consequences ripple through the rest of the book. Theresa, who meets the younger Washington, Michael, during their brief stint in college, drags Margie along to visit him and his father — forever changing all their lives.
Embedded in the business of daily life in the 1970s — jobs at Woolworth’s and the Skelly station, powwow dancing and fry bread prowess, ricing, maple sugaring and the dressing of a rabbit — the events that define these characters and their world, the births and deaths and binding loves, unfold with gentle pathos and wry humor, the cadences of minute detail and the sweep of history a matter of quiet confidence and unshowy grace for this gifted storyteller.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin. She teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.