It's All Relative

Native American author Devon Mihesuah tells it like it is.

The Roads of My Relations by Devon A. Mihesuah. University of Arizona Press, $17.95.

From the pen of noted Native American author and editor Devon Mihesuah comes a collection of fictional stories tracing the lives and times of several generations of an extended yet tight Choctaw family.

Billie Fontaine McKenney, the product of a mixed Choctaw-white marriage, is nearly 100 as the book opens. It's Southeastern Oklahoma in 1922 and Billie's been in her home since her Irish Catholic daddy built it in 1836. That's where this family landed after suffering unspeakable horrors during their removal march from Mississippi. When the book ends, it's Y2K and Mihesuah has, indeed, taken us down many roads, often through Billie's voice, but also through her sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and children, as well as peripheral characters that help us experience her life and times.

Listening to Billie is like sitting down with an elderly great-aunt whose knife-sharp memories and insight are at once fascinating and horrifying. As Billie tells us, "I've traveled a lot of roads, but never alone. My relations are with me."

Through her eyes and others, the deftly drawn chronology unfolds, allowing us to experience Choctaw culture and world view through many lenses: family lore; an Indian nation's struggle; the identity/appearance/multi-heritage confusions of half-bloods; and a rapidly changing America, mingled throughout with shadowy medicine men, the Little People, bonepickers, shape-shifters and other elements of Choctaw religion.

No romanticized tale this. The bloody realism of violence bespeaks the horrors inflicted upon Native Americans, the upheaval of the Civil War, the mythological (or are they?) Crow witches who swoop down like owls to kill prey, and the sad struggles against death and hunger in all forms are painted across the land this family inhabits, yet pride and a need to have a "home" become more real in the end.

Mihesuah, professor of American Indian history at Northern Arizona University and editor of the American Indian Quarterly, is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The author drew upon family stories for this collection, but considers it fiction for its "embellishment."