by Debra Magpie Earling
Published by Putnam
288 pages, 2002
Reviewed by David Abrams
Debra Magpie Earling's debut novel Perma Red is something of a miracle. The University of Montana creative writing professor began writing it in 1984 and, over the years, it has been through at least nine different rewrites, trimmed from an epic-length 800 pages to a compact 288, burned to a crisp in a house fire, and rejected by publishers who loved the writing but thought the original ending too dark and brutal. Through it all, Earling persevered and the novel stands as a testament to her faith and patience.
Perma Red wears the two decades of hard work on the sleeve of its dust jacket. I mean that as the sincerest compliment. Like the finest of wines, Perma Red has reached the peak of vintage with a lyricism that makes most other books on the average bookstore's new release table look like cheap bottles of bad wine. In a review blurb, Sherman Alexie says it best: "Like the Loch Ness monster, Sasquatch, and Amelia Earhart, this book has been circling around my life. I caught glimpses of it, heard people talk about it, saw murky photos of Debra Earling reading from it. And now here it is: the missing link, the Rosetta Stone, the cure for every damn disease there is."
Taken at face value, there's really nothing extraordinary about Perma Red's plot. A 16-year-old girl, Louise White Elk, struggles to escape life on the Flathead Indian Reservation as she is caught in a tug-of-war between the men who love her: the volatile-tempered Baptiste Yellow Knife, the rich white man Harvey Stoner and the soulful reservation police officer Charlie Kicking Horse. Fans of James Welch, Louise Erdrich and Alexie will undoubtedly hear echoes of those authors on these pages. What makes Earling's novel such a stellar piece of literature is the way she immediately gets the reader involved with the characters on the page. These are not mere pulp-and-ink creations -- they are real people who continue to haunt me even now, nearly a week after finishing the book. When I reached the last page, it was a heart-wrenching moment because I knew I'd have to say goodbye to Louise, Baptiste and Charlie Kicking Woman. Much like parting with Owen Meany, Holden Caulfield or any character of Dickens. Imagine, then, the emotional journey Earling must have taken when writing Perma Red. Complicating matters is the fact that Louise is based in part on Earling's aunt who was murdered when she was 23. Earling, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, has transformed her family history, the legendary story of an aunt who was "wild and vivacious and sexy," into literature with universal appeal and which subtly comments on strained race relations.
The novel is ambitious in scope, yet reading it can be a distinct, intimate experience. Earling has managed to pull off what looks like an effortless bit of magic: creating a very specific world populated with very particular characters. And yet… and yet… Louise could be anyone and the Flathead reservation could be anywhere. Perma Red is set in the 1940s, but it has a timeless aura; it is about Native Americans, but the characters could be anyone caught in the net of a love triangle; it takes place in Montana, yet you could substitute the American South or New England and it would have the same impact. Earling's simple, graceful way with words creates a world where we can all find some part of ourselves on the page.
From the first sentence -- When Louise White Elk was nine, Baptiste Yellow Knife blew a fine powder in her face and told her she would disappear -- Earling draws us into the complex relationship between strong-willed Louise and the reservation's bad boy Baptiste, a rattlesnake-deadly Heathcliff. Try as she might, Louise is unable to resist his dark pull:
When Baptiste Yellow Knife got drunk he was mean. His teeth looked big. She noticed he had tattooed her name on his hand with indigo pen ink. The tattoo was large, in wide block letters, blue pigment staining his skin forever with her name. Louise tried to imagine Baptiste poking the ink-dipped needle into his brown hand again and again, ink pooling beneath his skin, her name sinking into his blood.
Louise longs to escape not only Baptiste, but also the reservation and the harsh Catholic schoolteachers; the "bad medicine" cast on her family by Baptiste's mother; the barren, snake-haunted landscape and the ever-present undercurrent of violence. In the course of the novel, Louise is always in motion -- literally and figuratively. She is running away from herself, but what is she running toward? If Charlie Kicking Woman had his way, she'd be running straight into his arms. As tribal police officer, he is always on the lookout for Louise, a habitual truant from school. Charlie and Louise do a ritualistic dance of pursuit-capture-pursuit-capture and, even though his attraction to the teenager threatens to destroy his marriage, he can't keep his mind off her. Some people just seem to draw trouble and Louise is one of them, he tells us.
Perma Red's chapters shift points of view between Charlie in the first person and Louise and Baptiste in the third -- as such, we're drawn most intimately into Charlie's mind. Lives are tangled, tension mounts, choices are made, characters die tragically and the land-scouring Montana wind continues to blow across the reservation without pity. More than anything, Perma Red charts the course of a spiritual journey; Louise, Baptiste and Charlie all reach their destinations by taking often-predictable steps.
Perma Red climaxes on a note which most readers will probably see coming for many pages, but yet it is a note which is ultimately satisfying and fills the reader with hope -- right down to the last, simple sentence: She stepped forward.
With Perma Red, Debra Magpie Earling finally steps forward after two decades and delivers a book as permanently beautiful as the Montana landscape itself. I find it hard, if not impossible, to shake Earling's book from my mind. To paraphrase another Big Sky writer, Norman Maclean, I am haunted by words. | July 2002
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.