by Tim Carnahan   May 8, 2003

Tim Carnahan reviews "Roofwalker," by Susan Power, published by Milkweed Editions ($20 hardcover).
Roofwalker is a collection of seven short stories and five “histories” from Hamline professor and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Susan Power. As is evidenced by her extensive academic pedigree, including two degrees from Harvard and a MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Power is something of an intellectual dynamo, and a fine craftsperson to boot.

And Roofwalker, published by Milkweed Editions, a press based in Minneapolis, displays the steady hand of a skilled writer with a lot on her mind. Taken out of the context of the larger work, many stories would read as bland exercises in quiet meditation. Yet, taken as an entire work, Roofwalker yields many insights and pleasures, not the least of which is Power’s ability to finely craft short glimpses into the lives of Native American women.

Her well-honed, clear prose reflects her considerable skill. Power capably evokes an atmosphere saturated with meditative, quiet tension. Her even delivery creates a reflective cadence that can be deceptively subdued and helps smooth over the duller sections of certain stories. Power also manages to run a thematic thread throughout the book, creating valuable connections between the shorter, fleeting pieces.

There is a scene in the title story in which a young girl copes with her father’s desertion:”I decided to circle back to my own beginning. Perhaps that was where I should go to make things right, to bring my father home to his lonesome family.” The scene is a good example of a central conflict: that the past must be alive in the present in order that people deal with the grim social realities and cultural dilemmas facing urban Native Americans. And Power excels at taking the reader through the minds of Native American women. She places her characters in seemingly tragic circumstances, yet they often tap into their cultural past for courage and insight.

The past provides for Power’s characters a spiritual buttress against present difficulties and provides a glimpse of lost values, or of values regained. History marbles their lives. History becomes something both omnipresent and easily lost, and is best solidified through education and diligent attention. History allows these characters to connect to their heritage and the pain of assimilation and European imperialism.

In “First Fruits” a self-educated young woman confronts cultural assimilation while a freshman at Harvard. She had spent her youth wandering and watching spirits with her musician father, and later she struggles with losing her sense of history, remarking: “The things that have significance for me, an extraordinary weight, are those that are missing. Their absence is tangible. My father has made off with the ghosts” (130).

Power’s detached first-person tone can cast a lonely haze over the proceedings, and sometimes renders characters seemingly passive and indifferent. She does not trivialize her characters, however, or subject them to abuse simply to add atmosphere or make trite characterizations of urban life.

Power also avoids caricature by developing the motivations of even the most despicable characters. She does an excellent job building strong relationships between her characters. Some of her stories suffer from a limited scope, but no story is long enough to become tedious.

She treats those she writes of with care, giving each the agency to stage small rebellions, experience spiritual awakenings, and come into contact with lost traditions. The alienation of her characters from their heritage and from the reservation, and the ways in which the city (Chicago) contributes to that alienation, cast a lonely isolation over the book.

“Chicago Waters,” the final selection in the book, beautifully captures the prevailing mood of quiet desperation, fragile beauty, and submerged spirituality. A young child explores her relationship with Lake Michigan. A child almost drowns herself in the massive body of water yards from her public housing complex. Lake Michigan and Chicago become symbolic of the tension existing within an urban Native American seeking to balance her daily life with a spirituality deriving from a radically different social consciousness.

The dangerous Lake Michigan becomes, in contrast to the confining, suffocating urban Chicago, a chaotic temptation for spiritual submersion. Entering in its waters offers a primary spiritual contact. To Power there is an inherent risk in protecting a sense of history, but denying that challenge would be to deny yourself access to fundamental cultural truths.