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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Debra Magpie Earling

At a glance
Perma Red
by Debra Magpie Earling

Berkley Publishing
320 pages, $13
paperback

It's not every author whose first novel gets the attention that Debra Magpie Earling's has.

Here are just a few of the most complimentary remarks about Earling's novel “Perma Red”:

  • Peter Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle: “Earling's writing is ominous, tethered to a time and place and the havoc they wreaked on Indian life. Hers is a fever of a story, keenly fighting for air and answers.”

  • Jonis Agee, Minneapolis Star Tribune: "‘Perma Red' is a beautifully written novel about a young woman's flight from love in 1940s Montana -- one that establishes Debra Magpie Earling as the literary heir to great American Indian writers such as James Welch and Louise Erdrich.”

  • Patricia Schultheis, The Missouri Review: “Given Earling's lovely, expressive writing, the best way to enjoy ‘Perma Red' is to surrender to it -- to let it pull you like a lightning flash on a distant mountain range. Like sunrise spreading over a valley. Like a river named Flathead flowing through Montana.”

    Excuse that last one. Some reviewers think that criticism is itself an exercise in creative writing.

    Then again, “Perma Red” is the kind of book that tends to elicit that kind of reaction from readers. So you can see why we chose it as the May reading selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club. Not only is Earling a Northwest writer with Spokane ties, but she writes with obvious talent.

    And it takes talent to fit in with the likes of some of the club's past authors: David James Duncan, Marianne Robinson, David Guterson, Ursula Hegi and Moritz Thomsen.

    “Perma Red” (Berkley Publishing, 320 pages, $13 paper) tells the story of Louise White Elk, a 16-year-old beauty who lives on Montana's Flathead Indian Reservation, and the three men who vie for her affections.

    One of those men, Baptiste Yellow Knife, is the traditional bad boy: alcoholic, bad-tempered, belligerent toward authority and someone whom Louise can't quite get over. Charlie Kicking Horse is Baptiste's opposite, the nice guy who has a hard time getting the girl he most wants. Rounding things out is Harvey Stoner, the rich white guy.

    But the book's richness is not just in its characterization, or even plot (as one critic says, the novel “climaxes on a note which most readers will probably see coming for many pages”), but in the way it captures reservation life, giving a universal meaning to a world that others would portray as merely exotic and strange. Take the following passage, which has Louise explaining the power that Baptiste has over her:

    “There was something about Baptiste. Baptiste was from the old ways and everybody hoped he would be different from his mother. He knew things without being told. He knew long before anyone else when the first camas had sprouted. He would inform his mother the night before the flower would appear and he was always right. He knew stories no one but the eldest elder knew but he knew the stories without being told. ‘He knows these things,' her grandmother had said, ‘because the spirits tell him. He is the last of our old ones, and he is dangerous.' ”

    In constructing her novel, Earling -- a professor of creative writing at the University of Montana -- drew from various sources, including stories from her own life. The character of Louise, in fact, was inspired by Earling's own aunt, who was murdered at age 23.

    But the feelings of frustration, of anger, despair, were emotions that she herself has experienced. Daughter of a German-American father and Indian mother, and herself a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the 46-year-old Earling was just 15 and living in the Spokane Valley when she dropped out of West Valley High School. She got married at 17, divorced at 21.

    Yet refusing to give up, she attended Spokane Falls Community College. She ended up doing well enough to get accepted at the University of California, Berkeley. But after a short stay she transferred to the University of Washington where, with the encouragement of novelists Colleen McElroy and James Welch, she ended up writing stories.

    One was titled “Perma Red,” which would become the basis for her eventual novel. It took her two decades, numerous rewrites and ruthless editing to pare what once had ballooned to an 800-page manuscript down to slightly more than 300.

    “My original idea was to have kind of a multiple vision of the Flathead Indian Reservation,” she explained in a 2002 interview. “I did want to write the Great American Novel. And I realized that I had to be less ambitious.”

    Less ambitious, yes, but not less demanding of her abilities as a writer.

    These days, Earling is the recipient of a master's of fine arts in creative writing from Cornell University, with credits in everything from literary anthologies such as “The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology” to literary journals such as Ploughshares. She teaches Native American studies and creative writing to students, many of who at least, began with many more advantages than she did.

    Few of them, though, are apt to ever earn the kind of good reviews that Earling has received.

    Only the best writers inspire that kind of devotion.


    Return to Book Club Home  //  Contact Dan Webster