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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Larry Colton

At a glance
Counting Coup: A True Story
by Larry Colton

Warner Books
448 pages, $14.95

As we enter the second month of the second year of The Spokesman-Review Book Club, a change of pace seems appropriate.

We’re abandoning nonfiction, though. We’ll return to fiction in January and February, when we’ll likely all have more of a need to flee reality.

For December we’ll continue to, as we have through the fall, tackle actual life. And this time, Portland writer Larry Colton will be our guide. Which is good because reality is what Colton explored as it unfolded on an Indian reservation basketball court in his book “Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn.”

Colton spent 15 months living among the residents of the Crow Indian Reservation of southeastern Montana. From his rented duplex in Hardin, he would travel to the reservation and show up at everything from pancake breakfasts to school board meetings, tribal council gatherings to high school proms.

And he would attend basketball games.

Colton, a former professional baseball player who’d enjoyed a cup of coffee in the big leagues, had traveled to Montana to write about the court sport. Having heard of one talented Indian athlete after another earning all-state honors yet not advancing to the next level, Colton was interested in discovering why.

His initial interest was the boys’ team. But he soon saw that the story he was most interested in was the girls’ team, especially one 17-year-old player named Sharon LaForge, a “fifth-generation relative of one of the six Crow scouts who rode with General Custer on his fateful day.”

From his first view of LaForge, Colton was entranced, not just by La Forge’s athleticism but the special qualities that marked her as someone unique, qualities that were evident even during a mere pick-up game with three friends.

“Tall and slender, she has a quiet beauty,” Colton wrote “ — high cheekbones, dark hair, mahogany eyes — yet she is not a celluloid Pocahontas or a black velvet rendition of an Indian princess. Her appeal is subtler. It is the way she moves, a grace, languid, fluid, sexy. All without effort. She seems mysterious, detached.”

Let me emphasize that “Counting Coup” is not the story of a middle-aged white guy falling in love with a teenage Indian girl. It is, instead, Colton’s unsparing look at what happens during LaForge’s senior year — the games, the drama, the questioning look at an uncertain future — all transcribed against a backdrop of a culture that seems hard-wired for failure and in perpetual conflict with its white neighbors.

Colton involves himself in as much of the Crow culture as he can, from near-heat-stroke experiences in sweat lodges to the tension of games that go into overtime, and he relates moments that are alternately humorous and frustrating.

One example of the funny: After bicycling multiple miles from Hardin to the reservation and back, Colton finds himself being tailed by a slow-moving pickup with a flapping flat tire.

“Being new to these parts, I’m a bit nervous,” Colton wrote. “I know it’s irrational, but my heart doesn’t.”

Colton puts his head down and pedals hard against the wind. Finally, the pickup pulls up beside him. An old woman rolls the window down, stares at Colton and then speaks:

“In case you’re interested,” she says with a toothless grin, “you’re going four miles an hour.”

Yet much of “Counting Coup” pulls at the heart. It’s Colton’s attempt to write a kind of literary “Hoop Dreams,” with La Forge at the center.

And as with the two Chicago prep stars portrayed in that award-winning documentary, LaForge’s dream is to win an athletic scholarship to college. To be, in fact, the first woman hoop star from Hardin to do so.

Her dream evolves as her circumstances change, but as Colton shows, LaForge live up to her name: She continues forging ahead.

The result is, as a reviewer for Sports Illustrated wrote, “by turns uplifting and excruciating.” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer went further by calling the book “a compelling, deeply rendered portrait.”

And the professional publication Library Journal called it “highly recommended.” “A great book!” wrote the reviewer. “It’s about women’s sports, high school kids, and racial distinctions between whites and Indians.”

Colton’s title is what ends up being the book’s final statement. Counting coup, he wrote, was the traditional way for “young warriors of the Plains Indian tribes to gain honor and respect.” Of the four ways to count coup, which included stealing an enemy’s horse, capturing his weapon or leading a successful raiding party, Colton wrote, “the bravest was to touch an enemy — not kill him — but touch him on the chest.”

Colton’s message is, ultimately, one of hope. In the end, he sees the poverty, the frustration, the missed baskets and broken dreams. But he also sees the opportunity that still exists, in a larger sense, to count coup. And he sees that there are those who have yet to surrender.

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