Book Review by Heidi Simmons
Quiet Until the Thaw
by Alexandra Fuller – Fiction
Studies have shown that those who read literature are more empathetic than those who don’t. I suppose this is true because literary narratives provide insight, awareness and perspective into people and places we would otherwise never have known and experienced. Alexandra Fuller’s debut novel Quiet Until the Thaw (Penguin, 228 pages) tells a poetic story about the challenges of Native American life.
The generational tale takes place on the Lakota Oglala Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.
The locals refer to it as Prisoner of War Camp #334, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and Oglala Lakota Native American Reserve.
During a terribly hard winter in 1944, two boys are born on the rez. Rick Overlooking Horse who is a hundred percent Native American, and his cousin, You Choose Watson, born to an Indian girl and white man. Both boys were brought into the world by their grandmother Mina Overlooking Horse who raises the children.
Rick was quiet from birth, so they checked to make sure his tongue was not frozen. The other child was loud, and when Mina asked his father what the baby’s name was he said, “You choose.”
The two boys grew up in the same lean-to, with the same poverty and disadvantages. Off the rez, the outside world was changing. There were riots and a Native American revolution. But it did not change the difficult life on the reservation. There was no work, no money and no food. There was only violence, drugs, loss of their Native culture and tribal infighting.
When the boys were drafted by the United States government to fight in Vietnam, You Choose ate eight pounds of sugar and failed his medical exam. Rick, with no way out, served overseas and was disfigured in combat. You Choose tried the outside world and ended up in prison.
The cousins eventually come back to their home on the reservation where You Choose turned to politics. Rick become a medicine man.
When orphaned twin Indian boys are born on the rez, Rick takes them in. He teaches the children the ways of their ancestors and instills in them the beauty of their philosophy and culture.
Quiet Until the Thaw is a poetic and thoughtful narrative. Author Fuller drops the reader into the heart of the reservation in the midst of its struggles and changing lifestyle.
The story is not only about peace, violence and injustice, but the strength, endurance and significance of Native American people and their culture.
Using an omniscient voice, Fuller writes from the perspective of one living inside the teepee, on the reservation and immersed in the lifestyle of poverty, government repression and dominance.
Her story is an honest, touching, sometimes humorous vision of daily life with Mina and her grandsons and finally the twins.
The language her characters use is as organic as the Wahupta “herb” that Rick Overlooking Horse grows to use as currency.
When a young Indian girl describes the eight men she has “been with,” it reveals the dangers, the chaos, the loss of innocence, and the hardship of having a rewarding and safe life on the reservation. Never using the word rape, the Indian girl simply states that she did not choose the first five men—an uncle, a drunk, etc. This is just how life on the rez unfolds.
The reservation’s nurse who delivered the twins has become jaded and knows that inevitably the drug-addicted newborn children are doomed along with their Indian mother. Yet, she does not hesitate to go outside the “law” to protect the children from the white world and to preserve their Native American inheritance.
This juxtaposition is the friction that makes Quiet Until the Thaw such a compelling and beautifully told story of Native American life. There are no casinos, but there is a wealth of wisdom and dignity that comes from being connected to the earth and your ancestors from which we can learn.
The chapters are short yet poignant. I am in awe of Fuller’s ability to conjure a rich indigenous life and its spiritual beliefs. She does not judge, stereotype, color-coat or politicize. She just allows the people, time and place to fully exist on the page.