Beyond Tragedy

This engaging collection of short stories features Native Americans dealing with fractured families

There's a spiderweb quality about this collection of short stories. They're independent but distantly related: Thrum on a strand of one, and you sense the rest quivering.

Toni Jensen, an assistant professor of English at the University of Central Florida who has Métis ancestry, draws on her Indian background for her debut work. Featured are Blackfoot, Métis and Comanche Indians. None of them live on a reservation, and they're outsiders in their communities—among only five Native American kids in a school, the only Indian in a beauty contest, one of two Indians on a college faculty.

Jensen's characters come from two loosely sketched families—the Blackfoot Ramperts and the Métis Roubideaux—and they have a Midwest-Southwest setting connection. In the opening story, "Chiromancer," Minnesotan Pete Rampert ("the only, and therefore, best-looking Blackfoot" in his high school) goes to Las Vegas to track down his skanky brother-in-law ("The Amazing Randall Mesteth, Native Psychic and Chiromancer to the Stars"). Randall's 5-year-old son needs rescuing; Pete's up to it, and with this, Jensen sets up a fluidity in family relationships.

The families are often fractured or in crisis, so responsibility for the children sometimes shifts away from the parents. The central character in the delightfully absurd "Butter" is a smart Blackfoot high school junior adopted by non-Indian hotel owners. The girl is at the Minnesota State Fair midweek, escaping tedious vacuum and dirty-towel detail, avoiding weekend crowds, hoping to catch sight of other Indians. She finds no other out-of-culture folks like herself, but does encounter a tedium break. The runner-up in her county's Dairy Princess contest, she's examining the likenesses sculpted in butter of the winners when she catches sight of a good-looking, dangerous guy packing a handgun in his shorts. Jensen builds edgy suspense by juxtaposing rotating butter heads and bad-boy attraction: "She should keep that," says a bald man, about one girl's perfect homogenized features and tight curls. Meanwhile, "All I know is that I'm inching forward ... and I'm there, next to the muscles, the short shorts, the gun."

Lapses in custodial charge abound in this collection—an aunt who loses track of her niece on a fifth-grade trip; the older sister fretting about relations with her younger brother ("The first time I try to kill Paul, he is 5, and I'm 15")—but none of the stories is as poignant as the title piece.

"From the Hilltop" illustrates how a single childhood incident can derail lives. About the fall of a 12-year-old boy from the roof of an abandoned hotel, it's told by his older brother in a story-long, unconventional "if only ..." stream-of-consciousness style. Through fragments of clauses ("If the hotel roof had been any hotter, if it had been any higher, if I had fallen too ..."), verbals ("Jeffrey giving the pipe to Bean first, Bean taking it, breathing in, holding in ...") and phrases ("Before the Comanche, no real record; before that and after— ... high heat and dumb teenagers, climbing"), and without the relief of complete sentences, Jensen paints a character caught in a loop of revisited, unresolved regret and guilt. At some point, you begin to tire of the artificiality of the technique, but the story nonetheless leaves a powerful impression.

While loss and tragedy are recurring themes, Jensen manages to take the edge off with humor, irony and a little magical realism. My favorite is the award-winning "At the Powwow Hotel." Featuring a recently widowed West Texas Blackfoot hotel owner and his 10-year-old son, the story opens: "When the cornfield arrived, I was standing in our hotel's kitchen, starting Lester's birthday cake." In a sort of reverse Field of Dreams, a fully ripened corn field suddenly materializes outside of the hotel. After that come the Indians—Blackfoot, Lakota, Laguna, Anishinaabe, Choctaw, Navajo—who've been following the field as it has mysteriously migrated south from Canada. The story resonates with gentle humor, corn symbolism (including a miffed Navajo, whose territory had been skipped: "We're corn people, right?") and the consolation of traditions.

In Jensen's stories, fathers run off; babies don't make it to term; toddlers suffer brain damage. But somehow, she manages to imbue these stories with beauty and possibility beyond the tragedy. Maybe it's the attitudes reflected by one character after another while dealing with setbacks: "But look at what we have." "We can do it later; later is soon enough." "We are together, we are together."

It's luminous, engaging stuff.