Friday, August 6, 2021

A Neglected American Novel: "The Grass Dancer" by Susan Power


So far, in this (I hope) unpretentious series on neglected American women writers, I have dawdled in the mid-twentieth century.  I have paid homage to The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, published in 1975, and Elizabeth Enright's The Riddle of the Fly and Other Stories in1955. 

But I can't stay in that period forever. With regrets, I scratched out notes on Sue Kaufman's witty 1967 novel, Diary of a Mad Housewife,  because I have read this masterpiece too many times.  For my third short piece, I have chosen to write about Susan Power, a Native American novelist.  Born in Chicago in 1961, educated at Harvard and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Power is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and has written three books of fiction. And I just reread her first novel, The Grass Dancer, published in 1994.  Luckily, it is still in print.

While making the rounds of bookstores in the '90s, I was doubtless drawn to the cover illustration, a depiction of tall green and reddish grasses sweeping at an angle towards the greenish sky. And near the corner of the cover, a pair of colorful  beaded moccasins have been kicked off in the grass.

And so I bought the book and went home and avidly read it. In 1995 The Grass Dancer won the PEN/Hemingway Award.


Susan Power

And it was well-deserved.  I marvel at Power's lyricism and pitch-perfect storytelling.  Set on a reservation in North Dakota, her striking narrative goes backwards in time, tracking the interrelated lives of characters in the same community on the res. It begins in 1981, goes  back in time chapter by chapter, to 1864, and then comes back full circle.  These vibrant tales snap with wit and vigor - and the time goes fast.

Power is a master of magic realism and the spirit world. Witches cast spells and ghosts communicate with the living.


In the opening story, Charlene Thunder attends a powwow.  She  has a crush on the handsome boy, Harley Wind Soldier, who can't seem to get free of the tragedy of the death of his father and  brother in a car crash.  Since they died, his mother Lydia hasn't said a word.  She sings at powwows, and all the women tape her songs, but this hardly makes for a happy home.

Charlene's grandmother, Anna Thunder, a witch who has changed her name to Mercury Thunder, hates to see Charlene waste her time on Harley Wind Soldier.  Power writes,

Charlene's grandmother Mercury Thunder watched from her chair, shaking her large head at the girl's foolishness.

"Those Wind Soldiers are very bad news," she had warned just a week earlier.  But Charlene ignored her.

"You can't help who you love, unci."

"Yes, you can.  You love yourself, you love your family, and you don't let your feelings run around and jump into someone else's hand."  Mercury had made a fist.  "You grab on to your own life and push it around to where you want it to go."

Alas,  Charlene does not attract Harley Wind Soldier, who  is thunderstruck by the sight of Pumpkin, a vibrant red-haired young woman wearing the costume of a grass dancer.  The grass dance is for men, but she insists on competing and no man resents her win. She becomes the grass as she dances.  And then, tragically,  literally, she becomes the grass.

There are so many vivid characters, so many brilliant metaphors, such lovely prose, and I was spellbound by Power's perfect timing and mastery of time.   One can see the influence of Louise Erdrich, but Susan Power is a remarkable writer in her own right, and she has been overlooked.  If you missed The Grass Dancer in the '90s, add it to your TBR list now).  I have also read two of her other books, one published by a small press, the other by a university press, and they are even more obscure.  (That's what online shopping is for.)


  1. Although I regret your decision to pass on Diary of a Mad Housewife (totally loved that book & the movie was pretty good), I enjoyed this review very much. As far as I'm concerned, Susan Power has indeed been overlooked--she's totally new to me! I, too, would have bought this book based on the cover, which is great.
    Although I enjoy stories enlivened with elements of the supernatural, I must admit that a little magic realism goes as long way for me. Judging from your quotes & summaries, however, it sounds like Power got the right mix.
    Since I started reading book blogs, I can't imagine life without onlline shopping! It can be frustrating at times, the prices can sometimes be awful but, oh, the wealth of wonderful things you can find (I have a Hortense Calisher novel on the way!).

    1. Diary of a Mad Housewife IS brilliant. And I liked the movie, which I finally watched on Youtube.

      Yes, Power's magic realism consists more of Indian lore, rather like Louise Erdrich's playing with the supernatural. And I hope you'll like the Calisher novel and let me know what you think.

  2. I am also glad you are continuing your blog here. I've been reading about a horrifying event -- the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee. I bring this up because reading about it taught me how the Dakota territories had many Native tribes there. I wonder how they are treated nowadays with the cruel bigoted GOP in charge of these states. The book sounds marvelous but I too prefer realism.

    1. Power is a lyrical writer and I think you would like her. Publishers are forever pushing new Native American writers, some of whom are very good, like Kelli Jo Ford, but somehow they forget about the "old" ones. I do recall last year that Native Americans wanted to close their roads during a giant motorcycle rally in North Dakota. Am not sure what happened there, but I know there was a huge spread of Covid in the state as a result of the motorcycle rally.