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Shell Shaker (LeAnne Howe)

January 22, 2010

This is the second novel by LeAnne Howe that I’ve read, and there’s a strong chance that at least one of the two books (the other one was Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story) is going to have to go in my dissertation. Shell Shaker was incredible. I love the way Howe weaves together different eras and different lives to form a novel that’s not quite historical fiction, not really magical realism, and not actually a family drama…but has elements you could find in all three of these genres. Really, this novel is in a genre all its own. The slipperiness of time in this story makes it all the more interesting to read, and the relationship of the ancestors’ lives to the present-day characters’ lives is … I can’t think of an adequate word. Something like fascinating, captivating, and engrossing all rolled into one.

Howe has created a diverse cast of characters here. Perhaps one of my favorite is the man who goes by the alias “James Joyce” — an agent who works for the IRA, speaks in stream of consciousness, and is just about as incoherent as Finnegan’s Wake unless one happens to be well versed in Irish history, legalese, and Choctaw history. Another of my favorites is Hoppy/Hopaii Iskitini (Little Prophet) — Tema’s son who recently dyed his hair emerald green and appears to be the next great leader of the Choctaw Nation. I also loved Dolores and Isaac — the couple who have endured a half-century-long courtship only to discover that they are crazy about each other. But it’s not just the quirks of the characters that make them so interesting — it’s the way Howe has breathed life into them. By intertwining their lives with their ancestor’s lives (and consequently their thoughts and emotions as well), she brings a different kind of depth to them that is hard to attain if one is writing about characters who only have one lifetime worth of history.

I also think the novel is very ambitious with its message. There are so many things Howe seems to want to communicate, and so many issues she’s got her characters addressing…yet it’s not a preachy novel. It never really gets to that point that sometimes occurs when authors use their characters as personal mouthpieces through which to spout political convictions. These characters seem so alive that their thoughts and words seem to belong to them. In fact, Redford McAlester/Red Shoes turns out to be a really complex character, and his ideology is complicated (to say the least). His perspective — one founded on greed, revenge, and resentment…oh, and love, pride, and survival — is prickly. I mean, for a large part of the novel you just don’t want to be sympathetic to him. But…then he gets a chance to speak and you realize it’s not so easy to villanize him because while many of his motives were less-than-honorable, some of them were also admirable. What do you do with that? Can’t place him easily into any category…no more black-and-white.

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