Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah
Published by Algonquin Books
Publication date: July 26, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Contemporary, Cultural
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In a desperate attempt to save her marriage, Turtle packs up her 6-month-old son, Ever, finds her drunk husband, Everardo, loads him into the car and leaves Oklahoma for Mexico. Her plan is to reunite Everardo with the mother he hasn’t seen in a decade in the hope she’ll pressure him into living up to his responsibilities. The visit is a welcome one and ignites Everardo’s sense of family and purpose. As the couple heads back to the U.S. they are waylaid by Mexican police outside a small town. They beat Everardo into unconsciousness in front of his wife and son, take their money and car, and leave them at the border. This brutal event is the opening of Oscar Hokeah’s debut Calling for a Blanket Dance, a stunning novel of trauma, identity, culture, and tradition.
Turtle’s mother, Lena, comes to their rescue in Texas, but she is less concerned about the adults than she is about Ever. As an old-school Cherokee, she’s unyielding in her belief that he must be cleansed by a medicine man of the violence he witnessed against his father or he will grow to live by violence himself. Turtle has no patience for any of her mother’s beliefs so she ignores her. This sets the tone for what is the passage through Ever’s life. A life that is, by-and-large, filled with varying degrees and kinds of violence starting from when Ever is repeatedly suspended from school as a little boy for fighting other children all the way through his years as a husband and father trying to harness the rage in his bones before it’s too late.
Calling for a Blanket Dance is laid out in the style of linked short stories. Each chapter introduces a new person in Ever’s life, beginning with Lena and spreading outward through his extended family from aunts to distant cousins—both American and Mexican. Although each is there to shine light on Ever, their own lives illuminate the harsh realities of being an Indigenous American or an immigrant.
Much of the novel and Ever’s life takes place in Lawton, the small Oklahoma town where most of his family lives. There is a large Cherokee Nation reservation nearby, but there’s a push-pull feeling about living there. There are government resources not found in Lawton, but the sentiment behind them and the competition for them offends some whereas for others it is the only place they feel accepted.
Hokeah fuels Calling for a Blanket Dance with this sense of community. When Ever is still little he and his cousin start spending time with their grandfather, Vincent. An alcoholic, Vincent was never present for his own family, but now, being sober, he wants to impart the traditions of the Kiowa to his grandsons. He makes regalia for them to wear to the Stomp dances, teaches them the steps and the meaning behind the dance and the attire. These attempts to continue their tribe’s traditions, butt up against the harsh economic realities of Indigenous life—Ever and his siblings move frequently as Turtle shuttles from one job to the next. This impacts their education and even more basic needs like food. When Ever becomes a father, despite his best efforts, he faces the same uncertainties his mother did and the same sorrow and fears for his children.
The narrative in Blanket Dance is enhanced by Hokeah’s innate understanding of the linguistics around his characters. A Cherokee himself, he acknowledges the area of Oklahoma where he lives to be a melding of multiple cultures and languages so his characters speak an English blending with Kiowa, Spanish, and sometimes both. It brings the characters into sharper focus, but doesn’t slow the writing or confuse the context. It just adds to the novel’s immersive feel, that of witnessing two different worlds coming together.
There is so much to absorb in this novel. The characters’ lives are difficult—drugs, alcohol, poverty, teen pregnancy. All due to a historical lack of resources and opportunity, but there’s also an amazing feeling of pride and resilience in the community, despite everything the government has done to literally eradicate their culture. Calling for a Blanket Dance is an intimate look at the trauma inherited by one family’s exposure not just to explicit violence, but the kind inherited through systemic, government sanctioned abuse. Powerful reading. I look forward to what Hokeah writes next.
If you’re interested in Indigenous fiction I highly recommend Tommy Orange’s There There.
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