One of my goals for 2015 is to read more multi-cultural and Anglophone texts, so that I have a better grasp on world literature, as well as the non-white American and British writers who comprise the canon. As far as native American (or indigenous American or First People) literature is concerned, I’ve read a small handful: Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Silko’s Ceremony, Greg Sarris’s Grand Avenue, and several collections by Sherman Alexie (my favorite is still his YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian). I was curious about N. Scott Momaday, and this was the book available on my library’s shelf.
The Ancient Child is a heavily imagistic, surreal text about a man named Locke Setman, a young woman named Grey, and Billy the Kid. Yes, Billy the Kid. Locke (also known as Set) lost his parents at a young age, and was adopted by a man named Bent. He is an artist who has just become acclaimed. One day, he receives a telegram urging him to come to his dying grandmother’s side, with the admonition “Tell Cate.” Cate, short for Catlin Setman, is his dead father. Confused by the message, Set returns to his Kiowa roots and there meets Grey, a budding medicine woman. Grey herself moves backward and forward in time, returning to the grandmother and Billy the Kid. That storyline is hard to follow. Then Grey and Set converge, as he turns to his calling–the transformation into the bear.
This novel ended up being a mixed bag for me, because I appreciated the novel more than I liked it. I will say, though, that Momaday is a fantastic writer. He knows how to create shapes, lines, and images with rich, evocative language. While I did not love the novel, I was impressed by his style. I especially thought this passage was gorgeous, because it spoke to the writing process that I have undergone with my dissertation:
But once in a while she would write something that pleased her, that seemed very close to what she wanted, and that satisfaction was like no other that she knew. It was the satisfaction of having done what it was in her to do, of having reached the best that was in her, of having been true to her purpose, to herself. (186)