The Young Adult Novels of Michael Dorris
This past April, those who study, teach, and enjoy American Indian literatures were stunned to hear of the tragic death by suicide of Michael Dorris, an accomplished essayist and novelist of Modoc American Indian heritage.1 Dorris made a place for himself among writers as a teller of multi-voiced stories with nonlinear plot lines, told from intricately interwoven perspectives-literary techniques he crafted in collaboration with Louise Erdrich to whom he was married. Dorris was known most widely for The Broken Cord (1989), an examination of fetal alcohol syndrome, a work made all the more powerful by its inclusion of the personal story of the life of his adopted son, Adam, who was born to an alcoholic mother. For those involved in teacher education, Dorris wrote at considerable length about the treatment of the American Indian experience in American public school curricula and classrooms. Whatever personal torment he may have had to endure in his life and whatever pain he may have caused others, Michael Dorris did much, through his writing, to increase awareness and understanding of American Indian cultures and to advance the causes of American Indian people. American literature benefited greatly from his artistic craft and vision.
A less closely examined category of Dorris' work is his young adult fiction. Comprised of three short novels (Morning Girl , Guests , and Sees Behind Trees ), it is a small but important body of work written for students in grades 4 through 8. In these novels, Dorris foregrounds the literary elements of setting and theme, and in so doing develops memorable characters that speak to young adult readers, characters to whom readers relate readily.
Dorris writes in a way that challenges readers, eliciting responses from them that help them better understand American Indians and themselves. By expanding the young reader's view of the American Indian experience, Dorris helps to destroy prevalent stereotypes of American Indians, which popular culture and its manifestations in schools (such as Thanksgiving "reinactments," November as "Indian month," and "Indians" as team mascots) reinforce and perpetuate. Dorris writes of the humanity of American Indians, vividly conveying his protagonists' universal human qualities. In this way, readers recognize many of the same attributes in themselves, their siblings, parents, relatives and friends. Dorris holds before young adult readers, both American Indian and non-Indian, a mirror in which they see not only expressions of unique culture but also reflections of themselves. Through response to these reflections, young adults can achieve some measure of personal growth. As elaborated below, there are compelling reasons for teaching Dorris' works to young adult readers.
For readers whose image of the American Indian is a mid-nineteenth century "war bonneted Plains warrior on horseback," the settings of Dorris' young adult novels cause dissonance. Readers expect stories about American Indians to be set in the Great Plains or in the American Southwest. Typically, these stories date from the late 1800s, covering the early reservation period. Few stories deal with life on the continent prior to the arrival of non-Indians or with contemporary issues facing American Indians in urban areas (where most live) or on reservations. Knowing that popular belief has it that American Indians on the east coast are "extinct" (or so drastically acculturated as to not be "real Indians") and knowing that (supposedly) little or nothing is known about the pre-Columbian and pre-reservation American Indian experience, Dorris chooses deliberately to avoid the predictable geography and temporal setting of typical stories of the American Indian experience. In so doing, he creates a more accurate portrayal. Michael Dorris' works illustrate beautifully the notion that fiction can be more true, that is more accurate in its evokation of time, place, and people, than the "objective" writing of historians.
According to recent scholarship, the American Indian presence in North America dates back at least 12,500 years (some scientists suggest as far back as 33,000 years).2 Archeological and anthropological evidence continues to push the date back in time rather than forward, calling into question the widely accepted Bering Strait land bridge theory. American Indians themselves cite their oral traditions that place them on the continent originally. Many tribal histories suggest an east-to-west migration pattern across the continent in direct opposition to the prevailing theory. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, many view the history of American Indians as beginning in 1492 with Columbus' landing and ending in 1892 at the original Wounded Knee massacre. Prior to this 400-year period (so the view goes), Indian life on the continent was tied up in hunting, gathering and planting. In short, Indians knew little more than what was needed to survive.
This is a distorted view, of course. Prior to the arrival of non-Indians, Indians fed themselves, organized and governed themselves, and traded among themselves. They entertained themselves, created graphic and verbal arts, and satisfied their spiritual needs. To accomplish this, agricultural methods had to be tried and perfected, trails had to surveyed and marked, negotiations between peoples had to take place, and holy people had to pass their spiritual knowledge on to the next generation. Beyond mere subsistence, American Indians engaged in all the facets of civilization.
Thematically, Michael Dorris' young adult novels reiterate and expand the concerns expressed by other American Indian writers. In addition to the universal themes of family, relationships, rites of passage, and personal identity, he considers American Indian concerns with heritage, maintenance of tribal traditions, harmonious existence with others and within the natural environment, and racism. Readers react to similarities and differences they have with the protagonists and other characters. This constant comparison forms the basis of readers' interpretive response. In Dorris' work, there is sufficient content to elicit reader response; there is craft artful enough to sustain their attention and interest.
It is life on the continent before 1492 that Dorris depicts in Morning Girl (1992), a novel set on the island of Hispanola among the Arawak people during the months preceding Columbus' landing in 1492. Far removed from the familiar, romanticized settings of popular literary and cinematic treatments of the American Indian experience, Dorris recreates an "Indian world," not the "new world," but rather a very old one. Readers meet Morning Girl and her brother, Star Boy. Readers witness life among the Arawak people, their struggle to maintain harmony, and the concurrent maturation and development of both main characters. Readers witness the connection and bonding of brother and sister, solidifying their family and contributing to the vitality of the Arawak people. All this combines in the mind of the young adult readers to forge a new picture of the American Indian experience - an experience that predates Columbus, one that stretches well beyond the American Great Plains and well back in time. This older and geographically different Indian story depicts a civilization peopled by those who, like non-Indians, must manage their own affairs. Dorris destroys the stereotype of American Indians as a savage people frozen in the past by turning it "inside out." True, the setting is in the past, but in this setting the American Indian characters act in accordance with their own world view and civilization without the "benefit" of non-Indian commentary or interpretation.
Morning Girl is told from the alternating points of view of a young girl and her brother. The perceptions of these two are interesting, but even more interesting is the unfolding relationship between them. The novel depicts the kind of sibling rivalry readers would expect and to which most can relate. Morning Girl conveys her aggravation and tension with her brother:In our house, though, my brother... messed up the niceness for me. Just being
The best evidence of maturation and growth in both Morning Girl and Star Boy is the resolution of their interpersonal conflict, the development of a strong connection between the siblings:My brother stopped where he was. His hands were filled with food he couldn't drop and waste.. There was fresh honey smeared on his chin. He closed his eyes, then opened them. He looked at me. I don't know how long we stood that way, but it was as if just the two of us were there. I was aware of the sound of babies, of waves, of the birds as they flapped their wings above the food, but I heard them through deep water. Star Boy and I reached across the space between us, we made a fishing line with our eyes and each pulled the other to the center. (pp. 50-51)
Moss, an adolescent male Iroquois, is the protagonist of Guests (1994). The novel is a bildungsroman, centering on Moss' maturation and identity development. However, Dorris situates this European literary tradition within an American Indian cultural context - "away time," the Iroquoian version of the Plains Indian vision quest. He frames the coming of age story with a tale of an impending visit of non-Indians, "guests," and the people's preparation for the visit. The tension created by the anticipated visit among various characters unifies the novel. The theme of racial difference is broached as significant differences regarding eating, gift-giving and storytelling become apparent. Grandfather's displeasure is obvious, and he justifiably concludes that the whites are not proper guests. Non-Indian readers feel some discomfort as Dorris forces them to view the world from Indians' point of view, to view themselves, rather than Indians, as "others."
During his away time, Moss wrestles with his feelings for and sexual attraction to Trouble, an adolescent who is herself uncomfortable with the role of women dictated by her tribal tradition. Trouble states that she does not like being a girl. She tells the story of Running Woman (known also as Mistake), another woman uncomfortable with traditional sex roles. Running Woman models admirable qualities of confidence and strength. Trouble seeks to broaden her role by taking advantage of her inclination toward hunting and her abilities as a hunter. Like these female characters, Moss struggles to assert himself. His new identity is reflected in a new name, Thunder.
During his away time, Moss gains an understanding of who he is. With his grandfather's help, he realizes he is an individual whose identity is linked to all in his family who have come before him:Grandfather reached across the darkness and touched my head. His hand was rough and soft at the same time. It was dry, large enough to my face in its protection. It smelled of smoke, of age, of Mother's soup, and when I breathed into it, the heat blew back and bathed me like a springtime breeze. "You are your mother, " Grandfather said. "You are your father. You are your brother and sisters who are gone before us. You are your grandmother… You are very much me… But most of all, you are you." (pp. 118-119)
A further indication of Moss' maturation, growth and development is the clarification of his intense feelings for Trouble. While eating, he notices Trouble running toward the forest. He follows her and sees she has been struck by her father. While holding her, he clearly articulates his admiration, respect, and love for her. When their eyes meet, he says, "I'll never hit you" (p. 103).
Sees Behind Trees
In Sees Behind Trees (1996), Walnut, a young Powatan Indian afflicted with severely limited sight, discovers an ability within himself to "see" through the use of his other senses. This other way of seeing, of seeing behind things, is, in many ways, a clearer form of vision. In recognition of his unique ablilty, Walnut is renamed "Sees Behind Trees." Recognizing his grandson's special ability, Gray Fire asks Sees Behind Trees to accompany him on a journey to find the land of water, a place heretofore "visible" to Gray Fire only in his dreams. Sees Behind Trees successfully leads his grandfather there. On the return journey, Sees Behind Trees finds an orphaned baby (he names Acorn) and resolves to one day lead the child on a similar quest, "to search for [Acorn's parents], search until we find them - and make the circle whole" (p. 104).
In its treatment of relationships - familial, intergenerational, and platonic - Sees Behind Trees is consistent with Dorris' other young adult works. He depicts Karna, Pitew, and Checha as a warm and loving family. This foreshadows the orphaning of Checha, Sees Behind Trees' adoption of the child, and his assumption of the adult parent role. The mutual respect and caring between Sees Behind Trees and Gray Fire, his grandfather, illustrates vividly the American Indian insistence on strong intergen-erational relationships. It is through these relationships that young American Indians learn to respect their heritage. Through tribal elders they appeciate the need for continuity in a people's experience:I had journeyed into the woods because of Gray Fire's need. He had determined our destination and I had followed willingly, eagerly, trustingly, never thinking beyond our arrival. Gray Fire was my torch in the night, the hand on my shoulder, the voice that would answer when I asked a question. He knew who I was. His presence was the shelter above my head, the path home. As long as we were together, I had in some ways never really left where I started because we carried that place etween us like a familiar blanket. (p. 85)
Also, it is clear that such relationships add meaning and joy to the late years of an elder's life.
In choosing to depict women as powerful members of American Indian societies, Dorris contributes to a fuller view of human potential. Within American Indian communities, there have always been women who transcended roles limited by tradition. In some tribes women possess great decision-making power; in others, great spiritual and healing power. Limits were not placed on the roles that Otter, a woman of power, could play. In encouraging her abilities as a hunter (traditionally a male role), grandfather says, "We were shielding her from discouragement" (p. 60). This depiction dismantles the stereotype of the acquiescent American Indian woman.
When he agrees to accompany his grandfather on his search for the land of water, Sees Behind Trees takes on adult responsibility and answers fundamental questions about his identity by discovering who he really is: "'I am Sees Behind Trees,' I said to myself without making a sound. 'I am a man. And I was. And I was.'" (p. 86). Sees Behind Trees learns to unselfishly give of himself; he learns that "the act of giving is what matters" (p. 56).
Analysis of Michael Dorris' young adult fiction indicates a core of recurring and unifying themes, including the importance of family and of intergenerational understanding in the development of healthy adolescent identity, resolution of confusion regarding role-bound behavior based on gender, and the vision quest as a means to resolve the adolescent identity crisis. These themes are consistent with a view of adolescence that emerges from developmental psychology. This view suggests that adolescents mature and develop when their view of the world is broadened, when their vision of their own potential is expanded, when their experiences lead them to a fuller understanding of who they are and what they can contribute to the well being of others.
Michael Dorris' young adult fiction does much to humanize American Indians and eradicate the deeply ingrained and popularly sanctioned mythic image of the American Indian. Raised on a steady diet of such images from Hollywood productions and popular culture, adolescents are jolted by Dorris' depiction of the pre-contact Indian world, a world without (or nearly without) the influences of non-Indians. For today's young adult readers, it is a world that is at once similar to and different from their own. Dorris writes of universal aspects of the Indian experience - family, relationships, coming of age, and identity development. He depicts Indian parents struggling as their children approach adulthood. Indian adolescents reject the advice of their parents and negotiate, clumsily at first, relationships with members of the opposite sex. These universal themes are delineated within the context of unique cultures, cultures different from that of non-Indians. As young adults, American Indians learn to respect their elders, their parents, their siblings, and their traditions. They realize their own very crucial role in the preservation and adaptation of culture to meet emerging demands. At once, young adult readers see in the actions of Michael Dorris' American Indian protagonists their own struggle with the conflicting societal and personal demands for maintenance and change.
1For more information on the tragic and complicated circumstances surrounding Dorris' death see David Streitfeld's "Sad Story: Novelist Michael Dorris Couldn't Have Come Up with a More Compelling Plot" in The Washington Post (13 July 1997, Sec. F, p. 1, col. 1) and Rick Lyman's "Writer's Death Brings Plea for Respect" in The New York Times (18 April 1997, Sec. A, p. 14, col. 5).
_____. Guests. Hyperion, 1994.
_____. Morning Girl. Hyperion, 1992.
_____. Sees Behind Trees. Hyperion, 1996.
A professor of English Education at the University of South Carolina Spartanburg and former ninth-grade English teacher in Chapel Hill, NC, Jim Charles has written extensively about American Indian literature and the teaching of it.