Shawn Lawrence Otto isn't subtle about the conflict in his debut novel, "Sins of Our Fathers." Its morally concussed hero is named John White, a Minneapolis banker who helps guide fellow mainstream — that is, white — bankers doing business in nearby American Indian territory. "I'm not interested in grinding whatever prejudices or opinions people may have about Native Americans," he tells a group early on. "This is about business."
Who's he kidding? It's never just "about business" in this context, unless you consider the sale of Manhattan in 1626 a fair trade. One key to the effectiveness of Otto's novel is how cannily he shows the ages-old exploitative methods at work today, even while John is deliberately trying to be a decent, stable person. He's got plenty to do on that front: He's rotting in a gambling addiction, estranged from his wife, mourning a dead son, and caught embezzling funds from his job. To redeem himself, he's sent to a nearby reservation to snoop on Johnny Eagle, who may be launching a rival bank.
Otto gets the pieces for John White's redemption quickly in place, and it's not long before he's making eyes with a nearby woman on the rez and befriending Johnny Eagle's son, who's struggling to tame a horse and stay clear of the local ruffians. Given all that, the novel feels at times like a master class in smooth but melodramatic plotting. (Otto wrote the screenplay for "House of Sand and Fog.") But he's much more nuanced when it comes to characterizing the feeling of entrapment John feels in his situation, and his desperation to leverage his privilege to escape it. As John plants a bug in Johnny's house, "he felt a rush of self-loathing … but in the end he was in this battle to win. This was his family and his redemption." His Gamblers Anonymous book has nothing about the problem with exploiting race to get ahead.
Otto is nearly as savvy about Ojibwe folkways as he is about Western banking loopholes, and his choice of Indian phrases helps underscore his points about the extent of the divide John tries to straddle. Early on he's taught "gichi-mookomaan" — "Sometimes it means butcher knife, other times it means white man," he's told. And Johnny muses on "biindigodaadiwin" — a kind of détente that existed even among violently opposed tribes.
Tribal councils, land-use rights and banking mechanisms that are meant to level the playing field, Otto suggests, really just paper over centuries of unresolved struggle. Biindigodaadiwin might be possible, but equality is still a long way away.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.