Bridging Two Cultures

MOLLY SPOTTED ELK: A PENOBSCOT IN PARIS By Bunny McBride University of Oklahoma Press, 350 pp., $24.95 'Molly Spotted Elk, A Penobscot in Paris,'' by Bunny McBride, is the poignant story of a native-American woman's struggle to bridge two cultures. Born on Indian Island in Maine's Penobscot River in 1903, Molly Nelson was the oldest of eight children. Her father attended Dartmouth College but returned to the reservation, eventually serving as Indian representative to the state legislature for a term and later as tribal governor. Her mother wove baskets to sell to the tourist trade for most of her 90 years. Molly followed a somewhat erratic off-island path, dancing in vaudeville shows in her early teens, later spending some time as the protegee of an anthropologist who arranged for her to attend classes at the University of Pennsylvania. But dancing was Molly's passion and her way of integrating the native and the American in her heritage. Using the name Spotted Elk, she worked in popular 1920s wild west shows, danced in nightclubs in New York, sometimes gave lecture-recitals in museums, and starred in a 1930 movie, ''The Silent Enemy.'' An attempt to create an authentic docu-drama of Ojibwa Indian survival, it was filmed in Canada with an all-Indian cast. Although praised by critics, the silent movie never became a hit. With increasing confidence, Molly eventually made her way to Paris. McBride writes in her characteristic effusive style that the dancer's legs were ''strong enough to dance into the arms of international fame.'' In France, she not only danced but also tried to write a novel. The dancing was more successful, although she never achieved the renown of black American dancer Josephine Baker, her contemporary. Perhaps Molly's distaste for self-promotion kept her from becoming a celebrity. Never without male friends and admirers, Molly met and eventually married a French journalist, Jean Archambaud. His letters to her after she and their daughter escaped to America when France fell reveal a man who deeply loved his wife and child and longed to join them. He died during World War II. Although Molly lived for more than three decades after the war, her story really ends with her return to Indian Island. Using the dancer's detailed diaries, newspaper clippings, letters, and extensive interviews with Molly's daughter as source material, McBride has created a sympathetic portrait of a complex person and offers fresh insight into native-American experience.

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