Cultural traditions and spirituality take center stage in “Sacred Wilderness,” the fourth book by St. Paul writer Susan Power, who was awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1996 for her debut novel, “The Grass Dancer.”
In the opening scenes of this delightful novel, Gladys Swan is marveling at the mansions on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue. She has just taken a job as a housekeeper for the very well-to-do Candace Jenssen, who lives in one of these imposing homes.
Candace is rich in material goods but suffers from an impoverished spirit because of the disconnect she feels from her husband and her Mohawk culture. Candace doesn’t know it, but Gladys, an Ojibwe elder, sees it as her mission to heal Candace by putting her in touch with her ancestors. Gladys’ co-conspirator is the magnificent Maryam, who just happens to be the Virgin Mary.
Maryam appears to Candace, who dismisses her as a hallucination brought about by a brain tumor. But when Maryam appears to Gladys, she embraces Maryam as a sister who can work with her to help Candace. The plot, you’re thinking, sounds quite far-fetched, but Power, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, is a writer with amazing gifts.
Yes, it’s a fantastical tale, but it’s so easy to suspend disbelief and happily tag along with these lovable women. You can’t help but grin when Maryam moves into the mansion’s guest bedroom, goes book-shopping with Gladys and savors Gladys’ cooking even as Candace continues to write off Maryam as an illness-related apparition.
In addition to her contemporary story line, Power, in a style that evokes the oral storytelling traditions of ancient cultures, takes readers to the Mohawk territory in the early 17th century. Here, she gives us a mesmerizing re-imagining of Native Americans’ first encounters with Christian missionaries. She also takes us back to biblical times, where we get a fresh look at the lives of Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
These interwoven stories serve a purpose beyond the fact that they are wonderfully, even marvelously entertaining. They carry a message of acceptance and understanding for people of all faiths and traditions. They show us how our connections to the past can invigorate and sustain our connections with each other in the modern world.
That’s why the superb “Sacred Wilderness” could very well be the most enlightening piece of literary fiction you’ll read this year.
Carol Memmott’s reviews also appear in the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.