September 29, 2021

These five titles explore family and kinship in Native American communities

Across genres, grief and uncertainty are tempered by embracing community.

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Métis author Michelle Porter weaves a beguiling and intricate story out of sparse, interlocking poetic fragments in her fiction debut. Her expertise as a poet and writer of nonfiction is on full display in this genre-blending book, which is deeply rooted in Métis storytelling, matrilineal knowledge and spirituality. It feels more like a collection of stories told by elders gathered around a fire or in a kitchen than a traditional novel. This unique structure creates a surprising momentum, effortlessly drawing readers into many meandering plots.

The story follows several generations of Métis women as they face turning points in their lives. Geneviéve (Gee), in her 80s, has checked herself into rehab for drinking. Gee’s 20-something great-granddaughter Carter, adopted by a white family, meets her grandmother Lucie for the first time when she requests Carter’s assistance in her decision to die by suicide. Carter’s estranged birth mother Allie attempts reconciliation, often through texts. Meanwhile, Gee’s sister Velma has recently died and is trying to make peace with her life from the spirit realm.

However, these women and their complex relationships are not the novel’s sole focus. It also charts the life of a young bison, Dee, whose herd’s ancestral territory is now crisscrossed with fences that force bison to adjust to human constraints. Dee’s chapters are some of the most poignant in the book—she longs for freedom and adventure even as she learns that her survival is bound up with that of her herd.

Chapters from the perspectives of bison grandmothers, Gee’s dogs and the grassland itself add to a rich mix of human and nonhuman voices. In contrast to Carter’s wry and resigned narration, Dee’s voice bursts with unconstrained joy and heartache. Gee is constantly cracking jokes, her sister in the spirit world speaks with a melancholy longing, and the texts from Carter’s mother are clipped and full of simmering regret and pain.

A Grandmother Begins the Story is a beautiful meditation on the interconnectedness of spirit, land and family. It’s about what gets passed down from mothers to daughters and what doesn’t. It’s about the stories that persist through generations—sometimes hidden, but always present—and what happens when those stories break open into new shapes.

Chapters from the perspectives of bison grandmothers, dogs and the grassland itself add to the rich mix of human and nonhuman voices in A Grandmother Begins the Story.

Emily Dickinson famously pronounced that “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” providing the enduring metaphor of a spritely little bird that dwells within each of our souls. With Swim Home to the Vanished, poet and first-time novelist Brendan Shay Basham suggests that, in contrast, grief is a thing that may be best embodied by fins and gills.

Basham’s peripatetic novel recounts the extraordinary odyssey of a Diné man named Damien after his younger brother drowns in the Pacific Northwest. Still reeling six months after Kai’s body washes ashore, Damien finds himself irresistibly called to the water, the source of his loss but also the source of all life. When gills begin to sprout behind his ears, he quits his job as a chef and makes his way south—first by truck, then by foot—to a small seaside fishing village. There he encounters village matriarch Ana Maria and her two daughters, Marta and Paola, with whom he shares a certain kinship, as they too have recently lost a family member. However, the early hospitality offered by these women may not be as it seems. Rumors of their supernatural origins swirl, and Damien soon finds himself caught up in poisonous family dynamics and power struggles that threaten to consume not only him but also the entire village.

Basham binds together myth and history in Swim Home to the Vanished, drawing inspiration from the Diné creation tale as well as what is known as the Long Walk—the U.S. government’s forced removal of the Navajo people from their ancestral lands. Basham’s own brother died in 2006, and while Damien’s grief causes him to lose the ability to speak, Basham’s words course across the page, sucking readers in with their vivid imagery and raw emotions.

Basham has a particular gift for transmuting inner intangible turmoils into corporeal form; the various characters’ physical transformations from human to creature are a creative epigenetic exploration of the ways in which trauma and grief shape who we are. For readers desiring straightforward writing and an unambiguous narrative, Swim Home to the Vanished may frustrate with its dreamlike nature, but for fans of poetic storytelling, Basham’s narrative will prove a challenging yet cathartic read.

Brendan Basham binds together myth and history in Swim Home to the Vanished, drawing inspiration from the Diné creation tale as well as what is known as the Long Walk—the U.S. government’s forced removal of the Navajo people from their ancestral lands.
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Mia is of two tribes: Her mom is Jewish, and her dad is Muscogee. Mia’s dad and his new family live in Oklahoma, far away from California, where Mia lives with her mom and stepdad, Roger. Since marrying Roger, Mia’s mom has begun to take participation in Judaism much more seriously.

Exhausted by her experiences at Jewish day school and frustrated with her mother’s refusal to speak about her dad, Mia works out a secret plan to visit her dad in Oklahoma and learn more about her Muscogee heritage. While Mia initially feels like an outsider there, it doesn’t take her long to bond with an older cousin and feel at home with new traditions. But Mia’s mom quickly realizes that Mia’s not on the school trip she claimed to be and comes to get her. Will this incident be the final fracture in Mia’s family, or will it create a bridge between tribes?

Inspired by author and cartoonist Emily Bowen Cohen’s real-life experiences growing up Jewish and Muscogee, graphic novel Two Tribes (Heartdrum, $15.99, 9780062983589) examines the complex tensions and beautiful facets of a childhood between cultures and in a blended family. Cohen supports the story with a vibrant but realistic illustration style peppered with the occasional abstract image.

Where Two Tribes shines is in its portrayal of Mia as a self-possessed 12-year-old who is attuned to the importance of embracing differences rather than pretending they don’t exist. Cohen provides a nuanced picture of how Mia has in some ways come to resent her Jewish heritage because of the way it’s been placed in opposition to her dad’s Indigenous culture.

The story is somewhat unbalanced by Mia’s Jewish family and rabbi, who are portrayed more antagonistically than the other characters. For example, when Mia’s school rabbi makes a racist joke about Native Americans at dinner with Roger and Mia’s mom, it’s brushed off by all the adults as a simple mistake rather than a genuinely problematic remark. However, Mia’s family and her rabbi eventually begin to understand how they have failed Mia in certain aspects.

With its incredibly complex subject of personal identity, Two Tribes might have benefited from the additional space given by a traditional novel form to explore its themes more deeply rather than coming to a picture-perfect resolution. That said, perhaps the increased accessibility of the graphic novel format serves this book well. For children just coming into adolescence, a biracial background—especially involving two marginalized groups—can make for a tangled web of difficulties. By seeing their stories represented, things might start to make sense.

The graphic novel Two Tribes examines the complex tensions and beautiful facets of a childhood between cultures and in a blended family.

Sixteen-year-old Winifred Blight lives in a small house near the gates of one of the oldest cemeteries in Toronto with her father, who runs the crematory. For as long as Winifred can remember, her father has been in mourning for her mother, who died giving birth to her. Winifred, too, has been shaped by this absence, as she knows her mother only through the now-vintage clothes and records left behind. 

Desperate to assuage her father’s grief and form her own deeper connection with her mother, Winifred goes to her favorite part of the cemetery one day and calls out to her mother’s spirit—but she summons the ghost of a teenage girl named Phil instead. Soon, Winifred no longer aches with loneliness, nor does she care that her best (and only) friend doesn’t reciprocate her romantic feelings. But Winifred and Phil’s intimate connection is threatened when a ghost tour company wants to exploit the cemetery and Winifred’s con-artist cousin risks exposing Phil’s existence. To protect Phil, Winifred will have to sacrifice the only home she’s ever known.

Acclaimed author Cherie Dimaline’s Funeral Songs for Dying Girls is a lyrical coming-of-age ghost story that’s more interested in capturing emotion than explaining the nuts and bolts of its supernatural elements. Phil is a specter who appears when Winifred thinks of her, but her body is, at times, corporeal; in one scene, Winifred braids Phil’s long hair. The novel instead focuses on how the bond between the girls lessens the grief that roots them both in place as Phil slowly reveals to Winifred what happened in the months leading up to her death.

Dimaline is a registered member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, and Winifred and Phil’s Indigenous identities play crucial roles in the novel. Winifred’s mother and great aunt Roberta were Métis, and Winifred infers that Phil is Ojibwe. The stories Phil tells about her life as a queer Indigenous girl growing up in the 1980s are often harrowing, as she recounts moving from the reservation to the city to escape a miserable situation at school only to find herself in even worse circumstances that ultimately lead to tragedy.

Wrenching and poignant, Funeral Songs for Dying Girls is a haunting tale about what it means to search for home—not the place, but the feeling you carry with you.

This lyrical ghost story portrays how a bond between two girls—one living, one not—transforms the grief that roots them both in place.
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A line from Jessica Johns’ haunting, atmospheric and beautiful debut novel, Bad Cree, has been tumbling around in my head since I set the book down. “That’s the thing about the [prairie]. . . . It’ll tell you exactly what it’s doing and when, you just have to listen.” Johns’ protagonist, a young Cree woman named Mackenzie, tries to hear things she’s been ignoring: grief, her family, the lands she grew up on. But there’s something else lurking just outside her perception, something more dire. Strap in for a dread-filled novel that examines the impact of grief on a small community. 

Mackenzie hasn’t been sleeping well. To be more specific, she hasn’t been dreaming well. Every night, her subconscious shows her terrifying things, painful memories and, always, a murder of crows. Soon she notices crows outside her apartment window, following her to work and watching from power lines. Something is wrong, and she fears it has to do with the years-ago death of her sister. Mackenzie’s auntie pleads with her to come home, to be among her people, the Indigenous Cree of western Canada. There, with her mother, cousins and aunties, Mackenzie searches for what haunts her mind. Hopefully she can find it before it finds her. 

Jessica Johns on the lingering nature of loss—and what makes a great dive bar.

Bad Cree began as a short story, and it’s still tightly written, brisk and efficient as a novel. Johns does, however, slow down when it comes to themes she clearly cares about, such as female relationships. A bar scene midway through the narrative does a particularly lovely job at enriching the portrayal of the community of women who surround Mackenzie. Their camaraderie shows just how important these relationships can be to people feeling lost or alone.

This web of powerful, positive connections stands out all the more in the face of Bad Cree’s truly frightening moments. The dream sequences are both spectacle and puzzle, a mix of memory and fiction, but it’s clear that something beyond just bad dreams is happening to Mackenzie. The unanswered question of what exactly that is provokes a consistent feeling of dread, and the climax is tense, horrific and exciting.

Bad Cree examines how grief can warp someone, how it can terrorize a person by slowly turning reality into nightmare. But there is also a beautiful hope at the center of Johns’ vision: Grief can be tempered by embracing your community. Alone, Mackenzie is just one person, but by returning home, she becomes a thread in a human fabric, woven together to make something stronger.

Jessica Johns’ Bad Cree examines the impact of grief on a small community, mixing truly frightening moments with warm camaraderie.

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