THIRD IN A SERIES Home Forum's series on American Indian art and writing continues with excerpts from two notable books.
The novel ``Love Medicine,'' excerpted on the oppo site page, won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award. Tomorrow the series concludes with an interview with its author Louise Erdrich.
In ``Blue Highways'' William Least Heat Moon, of Osage background, recounts travels along the back roads of America, the highways marked in blue on maps, a journey he took after losing his job. The book, a critical and popular success, became the first bestseller by an American Indian.
ALL along the highway that early summer the land was beautiful. The sky stretched bare. Tattered silver windbreaks bounded flat, plowed fields that the government had paid to lie fallow. Everything else was dull tan - the dry ditches, the dying crops, the buildings of farms and towns. Rain would come just in time that year. Driving north, I could see the earth lifting. The wind was hot and smelled of tar and the moving dust.
At the end of the big farms and the blowing fields was the reservation. I always knew it was coming a long way off. Even in the distance you sense hills from their opposites - pits, dried sloughs, ditches of cattails, potholes. And then the water. There would be water in the hills when there wasn't any on the plains, because the hollows saved it, collected runoff from the low slopes, and the dense trees held it, too. I thought of water in the roots of trees, brown and bark smelling, cold.
The highway narrowed off and tangled, then turned to gravel with ruts, holes, and tall blue alfalfa bunching in the ditches. Small hills reared up. Dogs leaped from nowhere and ran themselves out fiercely. The dust hung thick.
My mother lives just on the very edge of the reservation with her new husband, Bjornson, who owns a solid wheat farm. She's lived there about a year. I grew up with her in an aqua-and-silver trailer, set next to the old house on the land my great-grandparents were allotted when the government decided to turn Indians into farmers.
The policy of allotment was a joke. As I was driving toward the land, looking around, I saw as usual how much of the reservation was sold to whites and lost forever. Just three miles, and I was driving down the rutted dirt road, home.
The main house, where all of my aunts and uncles grew up, is one big square room with a cooking shack tacked onto it. The house is a light peeling lavender now, the color of a pale petunia, but it was never painted while I lived there. My mother had it painted for Grandma as an anniversary present one year. Soon after the paint job the two old ones moved into town where things were livelier and they didn't have to drive so far to church. Luckily, as it happened, the color suited my Aunt Aurelia, because she moved into the house and has taken care of it since.
Driving up to the house I saw that her brown car and my mother's creamy yellow one were parked in the yard. I got out. They were indoors, baking. I heard their voices from the steps and smelled the rich and browning piecrusts. But when I walked into the dim, warm kitchen they hardly acknowledged me, they were so involved in their talk.
``She sure was good-looking,'' Aurelia argued, hands buried in a dishpan of potato salad.
``Some people use spoons to mix.'' My mother held out a heavy tin one from the drawer and screwed her lips up like a coin purse to kiss me. She lit her eyes and widened them. ``I was only saying she had seen a few hard times, and there was bruises....''
``Wasn't either. You never saw her.'' Aurelia was plump, a ``looker.'' She waved my mother's spoon off with a caked hand. ``In fact, did anybody see her? Nobody saw her. Nobody knows for sure what happened, so who's to squawk about bruises and so on ... nobody saw her.''
``Well I heard,'' said Mama, ``I heard she was with a man and he dumped her off.''
I sat down, dipped a slice of apple in the bowl of sugar-cinnamon topping, and ate it. They were talking about June.
``Heard nothing,'' Aurelia snapped. ``Don't trust nothing you don't see with your own eyes. June was all packed up and ready to come home. They found her bags when they busted in her room. She walked out there because'' - Aurelia foundered, then her voice strengthened - ``what did she have to come home to after all? Nothing!''
``Nothing?'' said Mama piercingly. ``Nothing to come home to?'' She gave me a short glance full of meaning. I had, after all, come home, even if husbandless, childless, driving a fall-apart car. I looked away from her. She puffed her cheeks out in concentration, patting and crimping the edges of the pies. They were beautiful pies - rhubarb, wild Juneberry, apple, and gooseberry, all fruits preserved by Grandma Kashpaw or my mother or Aurelia.
``I suppose you washed your hands before you put them in the salad,'' she said to Aurelia.
Aurelia squeezed her face into crescents of patient exasperation. ``Now Zelda,'' she said, ``your girl's going to think you still treat me like your baby sister.''
``Well you are aren't you? Can't change that.''
``I'm back,'' I said.
They looked at me as if I had, at that very moment, walked in the door. c. 1984 by Louise Erdrich. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company