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Paula Gunn Allen: The Woman Who Owned The Shadows

The novel starts with Ephanie Atencio seemingly on her deathbed. Her husband has left her, while her children – Ben and Agnes – are staying with her mother. While lying there, ill and unhappy, she has dreams and hallucinations. These are about her life but also about who she is and what her place in the world is. Indeed, this is the theme of the book. As a part Native American but part European, she is not sure of her identity and struggles with it. Moreover, her sexuality also gives her cause for concern. Though twice married, she seems to be bisexual. She remembers her childhood friend, Elena. They were close. In fact, as far as the teachers and Elena’s mother were concerned, they were too close and Elena was forbidden from seeing Ephanie any more. (The issue of homosexuality comes up again, as she tells of Native Americans who have been brutally condemned and punished for their homosexuality.) However, while she is lying ill, a local man, Stephen comes and cares for her. Gradually, under his care, she improves somewhat. She brings the children back but it does not work. They resent Stephen and behave badly. She continues to struggle with her life, sending the children back to her mother.

She needs a change, so she packs her bags and heads off for San Francisco. She mixes in with the Native American community but also with others. She joins a therapy group, where she meets Teresa, not a Native American, and they become friends. Her children become involved in Native American dancing, which they enjoy. However, she is still unsure of were she is going. She thought of the people around her, the white people she spent time with who expected her to do things. Could not understand her lack of focus, her aimless wanderings through her days. She tends to turn inwards. She thought they disliked her silences Her incomprehensible jokes. Her diffidence, her way of not seeing what they saw. As they saw. Valuing what they valued. She did not try to explain,knowing that it was senseless to try. Part of it is language. The Indian languages are very complicated. Indians can think things that just can’t be thought in English. Or Spanish either.

One day she meets Thomas, a Nisei (a Japanese-American), who has been subject to prejudice from the whites, as Ephanie and other Native Americans have. He cooked for her and became friendly with her. One day, he tried to have sex with her and she resisted but she felt sorry for him, particularly as he said he needed her. Soon after they marry. However, it does not work out. Even though she is pregnant, she runs away from him, fleeing to Oregon. To the surprise of her doctor, she has twin boys, though one dies soon after birth. But despite the fact that Thomas is there to help her, she realises that it is not working and they divorce. And still she is lost. It was inevitable, she supposed. That she did not know where she belonged or where to go. She had left, after all. She was always leaving. Fleeing terror and delusion over each next rise. Fleeing death. The infinite fool. She tries turning back to the stories and lore of her people and looking back at her childhood, and immerses herself in these ways of finding who she is and where she belongs.

As a Native American, she and the other native Americans face prejudice. The book is full of stories of the mistreatment of Native Americans, from the Navajo Long Walk and General Custer to current expropriation of Native American lands or such things as illness of those Native Americans who work in or live near yellowcake mines on their land. Agnes, Ephanie’s daughter, comes home from school one day, complaining that they had had to read Old Yeller, a book that is about whites defending their land from Indian savages, though the whites have stolen the land from the Indians. Some Native American children manage to make fun of these prejudices by pretending to tourists that the dogs they see around are that night’s dinner, playing on a traditional prejudice that Native Americans eat dogs (some do; most do not). However, Ephanie and others clearly feel this prejudice on a day to day basis as well as the fact that, for most whites, there is just one kind of Native American when, of course, they are numerous tribes, with considerable differences between one another.

This is an excellent book about one Native American’s woman struggle with finding out who she is and where she belongs, a quest that is not generally successful, as she struggles with her dreams and worries, her role in life, her relationships and what we would call depression. However, it clearly shows that this struggle is still going on, both as regards cultural and national identity as well as sexuality, with homosexuality being clearly strongly rejected in the Native American community. There are no easy answers for Ephanie, just as there are no easy answers for many people are different, except the hope that more tolerance and more understanding will ensue.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by Spinsters Ink