Walking the Rez Road, by Jim Northrup

My friend, John Tamminen bought this book for me at my signing in North Minneapolis at Eat My Words. I thought he said it was funny. I remember that he chuckled in his quiet, private way and handed me the book.

Thanks, John. I kept reading so as to find the funny part, and now I’m doubting that’s what I heard. Even so, that idea carried me through to the end.  I would not call Jim Northrup’s writing funny, but it is everything else you could think of, including, of course, being Indian. So, my thanks is genuine. I’m glad to have and to have read this book.

Walking the Rez Road, I believe is an important book.  You can tell that, first of all, because Northrup is a poet as well as a story teller. It is an important book because it brings the audience–who I have to suppose is largely white, at least for sales I hope some white folks read him–right into the livingroom of the Indian home.  Of course, he brings us other places: out in the rice flowage, out on the lake spearfishing, barreling along the Sawyer gravel roads and on the highways too, usually on tires that may or may not last the whole trip, to casinos and bingo games, to California and back (they weren’t impressed with California). Northrup writes of love, bragging, fellowship, lust, luck, boredom, white folks, Sawyer, Minnesota, tragedy, pain, and tenderness.

The story I am in love with presently is “Stories and Stories” which he starts out in this way: “Luke Warmwater’s kids were crabby.” (Funny yet John?) Well, maybe it is funny, but if they were your kids, you wouldn’t think so. He continues: “There was nothing good on TV.” (Always true but not so funny.) If you are so bored that TV won’t sedate you, what do you need? A story, of course. “He gathered his children around his chair.” (This is warming.) He told them about the time everyone was crabby (“There wasn’t a dance or funeral close by.” Now that is a funny line. Nothing better for crabbiness than a funeral.) He tells them about Grandpa telling him and other crabby kids stories.

Let’s pause.  This is a story. Luke Warmwater is fictional. He tells a story. In his story Grandpa tells stories. So, this is a story of a story of a story. If Northrup is a writer, Indians like stories. He’s a writer.

Okay, Luke tells of Grandpa telling about brave warriors. He tells as he taps a drum “only he can see.” Grandpa tells of Perch Lake where he saw and shot a big deer. He shoots and misses. He shoots again, and misses. He shoots, his trigger finger moving in slow motion, and misses. When the kids protest he tells them “before [the gun] went off this time, he looked at us with smiling eyes and said, ‘I didn’t have a gun.’ We knew this was the last story of the night.  Some of us were repeating ‘I didn’t have a gun’ as we went to sleep.”

The tour de force resounds as Luke Warmwater comes out of his story: “His kids were either sleepy or asleep. He got up and carried them to bed.”

“Stories and Stories” is light hearted and tender. It is the story I most want to remember as an Indian story for nowhere else have I encountered an Indian image like this. And why not?

Thanks for the book, John. Thanks for writing the stories, Jim. It’s not funny.

Tell it like it is!

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