In Carter Meland’s debut novel, “Stories for a Lost Child,” a teenager receives a manuscript of stories from her estranged grandfather. Robinson Heroux, the grandfather, has set his tales of Anishinaabe life at the Little Big Horn, in Minneapolis and Bigfork, Minn., along the Lake Superior shore and, where else, but Outer Space?
When two astronauts representing NASA — the Native American Space Adventuring program — escape a time warp and return to Earth, their insulated plastic drinking mugs read “Grand Casino Mille Lacs.” Moreover, according to Grandfather Heroux’s stories, a Bigfoot has roamed northern Minnesota swamps from the beginning of time. Prehistory, space travel under the aegis of the Native nations, redemption, rebirth — such topics and themes appear in the manuscript that Fiona Heroux MacGowan, a half Anishinaabe-half French girl, receives in the mail a month before she enters high school.
Her homeless grandfather, the inventor of this fanciful universe, sells dream catchers “to the Indian crafts store … on Franklin Avenue.” The moonlight reflecting off of the Mississippi River downtown leads him to imagine a mysterious horse chrysalis, a stiff-necked missionary and many other fantastical events and characters. In winter, he squats in a cabin up north. In his dream-stories, he explains to her, “I spoke each [word] … aloud as I wrote … I hope you can hear my voice as you read along.”
Sometimes, Grandfather Heroux’s tales employ Anishinaabe words. “Next to some of [them], he’d written little notes … an explanation of why the word for moon and grandmother are the same, that kind of thing.” The desire to introduce Fiona to her heritage and to make amends with the family he’s abandoned keep him literally and figuratively tethered to Earth.
A parallel plot involves Fiona’s cultural awakening. Though her once-dissolute grandfather has often failed in life, she learns from him that honesty, partly embodied in the word “Misaabe,” is a guiding principle in Anishinaabe culture. This and other life lessons are important. When Meland focuses exclusively on Fiona and her summer pals, he grows less sure of himself, though. A ritual performed in a church seems far-fetched. The diction and rhythms of adolescent speech don’t always sound right.
In a novel of such scope and emotional depth, these are minor problems. Near the end, Meland regains the reader’s trust with an interesting strategem. When the town gossip, a white woman, sees Robinson Heroux on a Bigfork street, the surprising point-of-view shift works beautifully. There he is. Grandfather, Storyteller. “With a powerful downward sweep of the arms he turned to bird, to wing, to flight and sped toward the warm light of the moon.”
I wish the very best for this Minneapolis writer and his magical novel.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.
Stories for a Lost Child
By: Carter Meland.
Publisher: Michigan State University Press, 164 pages, $19.95.
Events: 6:30 p.m. July 13, Moon Palace Books, 3260 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls.; and 7 p.m. July 20, Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.