I am a longtime fan of the Native American writer Susan Power, whose debut novel The Grass Dancer won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Fiction in 1995. And I am loving her third novel, Sacred Wilderness, published by Michigan State Press in the American Indian Studies series in 2014.
Power interweaves the stories of two women, Gladys Swan, an Ojibwe elder, and Candace Jensen, a wealthy woman who has lost herself in consumerism. When Maryam, the Virgin Mary, arrives to help Candace reconnect with her Mohawk ancestors, Candace refuses to believe in her. Gladys, Candace’s new housekeeper, can also see Maryam, who is grateful when Gladys offers to let her stay in a luxurious room in the mansion. Candace is so oblivious that she does not even sense the growing rage of a mask in her personal American Indian Museum, which is housed in a room in another wing of the mansion. Candace is in crisis, though Gladys and Maryam do what they can to help.
But on to bookishness: there are many literary bonds between the characters. Even Maryam likes a good book, and Candace and Gladys attend a reading at Louise Erdrich’s bookstore, Birchback Books, in Minneapolis.
But I especially love this description of Candace’s love of reading. To many of you, this will sound familiar.
Candace was a hungry reader who hoarded books and could not feel safe or relaxed unless a visible stack of waiting volumes perched on the table beside her favorite armchair–the only disorder allowed in her domain. She favored women authors, though quite unconsciously; there was nothing political in her choices. Louise Erdrich was the reigning queen of her literary heart, but she also pounced on every Alice Munro story she could find, for each one was a world onto itself, every bit as satisfying as a novel. She’d read Byatt’s Possession and Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant so many times she’d had to buy replacement copies, for she’d read the originals to disintegrating rags.
She needed to hold a book in her hands, touch the pages that were warm in summer, damp with humidity, cool and slippery in frozen January. No Kindle for her. That would be like hiring a stiff robot to give one a deep massage. Plus, she liked to breathe in the book, dip her nose toward the seam where the pages met and smell the sharp spice of a new book, the dusty paper of an old one.
I am still reading it, but it is one of the loveliest novels I’ve read this summer. I plan to recommend it to my “real-life” book club.