Sun, Feb 24, 2002

Shell Shaker

Women hold the key to tribe's survival in an ambitious work

By Norbert Schurer

SHELL SHAKER. By LeAnne Howe. Aunt Lute Books. 227 pages. $11.95.

Just so you know, there's lots going on in LeAnne Howe's novel Shell Shaker: several murders, gambling, a Peanutmobile, 19th-century actress Sarah Bernhardt, the Mafia, New Orleans founder Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, bone-picking ceremonies, Sufism, a dog called George Bush, Ibsen's drama A Doll House, dreams, visions, prairie fires, 18th-century Native American warrior Red Shoes and much more.

Somehow, all of this comes together in two main plot lines. On the one hand, Shell Shaker tells the present-day story of the Billy clan of the Choctaws, a Native American tribe now mostly in Oklahoma. The Billy clan is a matriarchy, with mother Susan presiding over daughters Auda, Adair and Tema. Auda is accused of murdering her partner, Red McAlester, the leader of the Choctaws, who is trying to guide his tribe back to greatness with financial assistance from a casino on their land. Of course, the mob has an interest in the gambling business as well, but it seems they are working in cahoots with McAlester — a state of affairs the Billys are ultimately unwilling to tolerate.

On the other hand, Shell Shaker imagines episodes in the life and times of Red Shoes, an actual leader of the Choctaws in the Louisiana region in the early 18th century. Red Shoes navigates among various Indian nations in his area, including the Choctaws, Chickasaws and Conchatys, and between the rival colonizers, the English and the French. In the process, at least according to the novel, he maneuvers his own tribe into an unwinnable war, eventually leading to its decimation and displacement. His main allies and enemies include the Shell Shaker Shakbatina, a kind of peacemaker within an already peaceful tribe, as well as her daughters Anoleta, Neshoba and Haya.

These stories, told variously in first and third person and in separate chapters — crossing paths only in visions and dreams — come together to address two main issues: the strength of women and the travails of the Choctaws. The tragedy of the Choctaws, to whom Howe herself belongs, is not so much that they have been systematically eradicated through the centuries and are still at best ignored and at worst exploited.

Instead, the main problem, according to Shell Shaker, is the tribe's partially unwitting, partially knowing, collaboration in its own annihilation through leaders originally elected by consensus. Red Shoes starts out trying to exploit the colonizers to make the Choctaws stronger, and McAlester brings in the Mafia because the tribe doesn't have strong enough finances to start its own casino. From there, things go downhill: To some extent, the two main men become corrupted by their power and consciously sell out the Choctaws; to some extent, they are eaten up by the forces they summoned.

But Shell Shaker is really not so much about these men as about the women who surround and finally overcome them. With her depiction of strong women, Howe, who taught at Wake Forest last year, is at her best.

The chapter that introduces the Billy sisters is spectacular, with Howe drawing from her own experience to offer impressive characters in a Choctaw activist, a broker and an actress. The women of the 18th century are presented in equally vivid descriptions, particularly the self-sacrifice of Shakbatina to preserve peace, which opens the novel.

In these figures, Howe appears to be suggesting that one main hope for Native Americans in the future lies in their women taking on more responsibility, more openly, in the political realm.

Unfortunately, toward the end, Shell Shaker runs out of steam. While earlier characterizations, descriptions, dialogue and plot ring true, the extended conclusion seems pat and formulaic — maybe not a surprise in a first-time novelist. In addition, the boundaries between 18th- and 20th-century realities and between reality and visions blur more and more. This isn't a problem per se, but the narrative is occasionally misleading in a way that serves neither plot nor message.

Still, Shell Shaker offers a new and impressive voice in contemporary fiction.

By incorporating a view of reality closer to Native American sensibilities, the novel participates in a kind of magic realism, and by centering on a murder investigation, it gives credit to genre fiction.

The variations in voice among the protagonists show that Howe knows how to imagine different characters, and those figures confirm and challenge stereotypes about Native Americans in a way that can only be productive for all readers. If you want to experience a different view of the world in terms of individuals and culture, Shell Shaker is the book for you.

Schürer teaches English at Wake Forest University.

Howe will read from her novel, Shell Shaker, at Reynolda House on March 1 at 7 p.m.

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