Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah

Calling for a Blanket Dance employs one of my (recent) favorite literary ‘techniques’, which consists in using the short-story format to tell an overarching story. A few weeks before reading this I read Morgan Talty’s Night of the Living Rez, which also used the short-story format to tell a young man’s coming-of-age. Unlike that title, the stories in Calling for a Blanket Dance are not narrated directly by its central figure, Ever Geimausaddle, but rather, by the people around him. I usually prefer it when we either follow or hear directly from the central character themselves, rather than having their experiences recounted by second parties, however, the collective voices in Calling for a Blanket Dance are ultimately able to enrich Ever Geimausaddle’s story. Each chapter presents us with a different point of view, often of a character related to Ever (his grandfather, his mother, his sister, his nephew) transporting us from the 80s to the 2000s. Through their perspective, we gain a different understanding of Ever, an understanding that is shaped by that character and their experiences and ideas of who Ever is and what he should become. Some of these characters want to reunite him with his own heritage, such as his grandfather who after receiving a fatal diagnosis decides to teach Ever about Gourd dances. These chapters offer us snapshots not only of a particular stage of Ever’s life but they present us with a glimpse into the character whose perspective we are ‘inhabiting’. Ever emerges as an empathetic man trying to reconcile himself with his dysfunctional upbringing and relatives, as well as with his own multi heritage (Mexica, Cherokee, Kiowa).
To describe this collection as heavy-going would be an understatement. It delves into the past and present experiences of indigenous people, rendering the realities and aftermath of generational trauma. These characters struggle against vicious cycles of displacement, dispossession, poverty, neglect, illness, and addiction. At times the characters try to help one another but more often than not they are unable to steer people away from spiralling into self-destructive behavior. Yet, despite the bleak and brutal landscapes painted by these stories, we are also given moments of hope and connection that make us in turn hopeful for these characters. The author writes about these characters and their experiences with exacting candor while also demonstrating empathy towards them in a way to mind the work of Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
My only quibble is that I think that we should have given a few chapters from Ever throughout the collection (as opposed to one near the end). But like I said before, this is just a personal preference.
Overall this was a very solid debut that is as incisive as it is compelling. If you like collections such as Night of the Living Rez, Crooked Hallelujah, and Lot or books such as Nuclear Family and Monkey Beach you should definitely add Hokeah’s debut to your tbr list.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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