Night of the Living Rez

Source: DRC via NetGalley (Tin House)
Pub. Date: July 5, 2022
Synopsis: Goodreads

Why did I choose to read this book?

I do not usually request or read short story collections. I prefer a whole novel. But stories from indigenous communities in Maine was too good a description to pass up. A Mainer (Mainah) born and raised, I welcome the chance to hear more about where I am from. Native American history in Maine played a huge role in my K-12 education and I always want to learn more.

What is this book about?

You can read the synopsis by clicking the Goodreads link above, but as a reader this book was about the repetitive, insulated, discriminatory world that Native Americans live in when they stay on a reservation and interact with the outside world and how different generations deal with these situational pressures. It’s a glimpse into the life of a Native American life in Maine – which is a welcome addition to the body of literature that seems to favor the Plains or Southwest Native populations.

What is notable about the story?

As I was reading, my mind registered mostly hopelessness. It just is what it is, and everyone involved in this kind of life is handling it in their own way. I’m not even sure I would use the optimistic phrase “doing their best” to describe these stories, nor would i say “doing what’s necessary.” All of the characters in each of these stories seem to be buffeted about by forces beyond their control, and don’t have a chance to get their footing before something else comes along to sweep them away again.

I lived in rural Maine and I know what it feels like to have everyday be the same and the winter lasts forever and there’s no one there to help when you need it. I wish that I could say that all I wanted to do was escape but my experience was so limited that all I could see of the future was whatever was in front of me. Everything else was so big and beyond my ability to imagine – I got out accidentally thanks to my own naivete and ignorance: suddenly I was on the outside looking in, like a fish flopping outside of the tank it just jumped out of.

Reading Night of the Living Rez was like reading about my childhood, only so much worse and with infinitely less hope. Only a few escape, and those that stay do what they do to just dull the pain of having a reality in which they have very little choice or say. If you walk into this book with good intentions to help, or bad intentions to judge, you’re not listening. This reality is bigger than all of us, and its solution(s) would take so much more than anyone has ever been willing to give. Approach this book as a learner – gain a deeper understanding of the lives that we have asked our indigenous peoples to live in exchange for the retention of their traditions on a fraction of their own land – and at a bare minimum you should be furious about it.

Was anything not so great?

This book is described as “…twelve striking, luminescent stories…” but really we follow the same characters throughout. I almost didn’t request this book because I am not a fan of short story collections. These are separate stories, yes, and they jump back and forth in time, but I would argue that this is a novel that follows a native family through their lives on the Penobscot reservation. Far be it for me to say what a book is, but this was one story split into 12 chapters, not 12 different stories. I’ve been noticing more and more lately that synopses are slightly dishonest in their descriptions – I go into a book with preconceptions based on these synopses when the book is a different animal, slightly or entirely.

You want to sell this book as a set of short stories, fine, but it’s a set of chapters as a foundation of one story and I know the difference.

What’s the verdict?

This book is so important, bringing a point of view from an area of the country from which we don’t usually receive native stories. It’s very Maine and all of its parts are devastating. Well written and poignant, this one gets 4 stars on Goodreads. If you would like a dose of reality and new information about an area of the country you probably grew up thinking was part of Canada, pick this one up. What’s a little more hopelessness over yet another problem we cannot (and historically have proven we will not) solve?


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