It's hard to think of a more literally or symbolically powerful object than a seed — a bond to the past, a source of sustenance in the present, and a promise for the future, a seed is physically tiny but enduring beyond measure.
In her moving and monumental debut novel, "The Seed Keeper," author Diane Wilson uses both the concept and the reality of seeds to explore the story of her Dakota protagonist Rosalie Iron Wing, the displaced daughter of a former science teacher and the widow of a white farmer grappling with her understanding of identity and community in the face of loss and trauma. "I was soothed by plants," Rosalie thinks early on, as a newlywed, as she establishes her own garden, "comforted by the long patience of trees."
Wilson, a Mdewakanton descendant enrolled on the Rosebud Reservation, currently lives in Shafer, Minn. She is also the author of the memoir "Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past," which won a Minnesota Book Award and was chosen for the One Minneapolis One Read program, as well as the nonfiction book "Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life." Significant to her focus in this latest book, she has served as the executive director for Dream of Wild Health and the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance.
Epic in its sweep, "The Seed Keeper" uses a chorus of female voices — Rosalie, her great-aunt Darlene Kills Deer, her best friend Gaby Makepeace, and her ancestor Marie Blackbird who in 1862 saved her own mother's seeds — to recount the intergenerational narrative of the U.S. government's deliberate destruction of Indigenous ways of life with a focus on these Native families' connections to their traditions through the seeds they cherish and hand down. With that, Wilson juxtaposes the detrimental shifts in white mass agriculture — the "hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, new equipment" that exhaust the soil, harm the people working it, and pollute the rivers and groundwater.
When her father dies of a heart attack when she's only 12, rather than letting her live with her extended family, the authorities send Rosalie to grow up under the abusive and racist conditions of foster care. We meet her in 2002 at age 40 when the novel opens, as she thinks of herself as "an Indian farmer, the government's dream come true."
In the wake of her husband's death, she has felt called to return to the cabin of her birth, and from there, through her reflections, the reader experiences an interwoven tapestry of oppression and resistance.
The threat of disasters both natural and man-made, meteorological and industrial, loom over Wilson's indelible cast of major and minor characters, as does the pressing question: "Who are we if we can't even feed ourselves?"
Wilson opens her book with the poem "The Seeds Speak," in which the seeds declare, "We hold time in this space, we hold a thread to / infinity that reaches to the stars." This novel illuminates that expansiveness with elegance and gravity.
Kathleen Rooney is the author of "Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" and, most recently, "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey."
The Seed Keeper
By: Diane Wilson.
Publisher: Milkweed Editions, 400 pages, $16.
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