Review by Deborah Locke
If I could get a message to Dennis E. Staples (Red Lake Nation), it would be this. Keep going. Do more. Understand what was right with “This Town Sleeps” (Counterpoint Publishing, 2020) and build from it the next time. Your story telling is vivid with believable characters in a setting that many of us recognize.
“This Town Sleeps” is the story of Ojibwe living in a small northern Minnesota reservation town, Geshig. The story deals with the coming of age years of several high school boys and their early adult years. Two of the primary male characters are gay. Like so many books set on reservations, a murder simply must take place and that is introduced in the first few pages of the book. Addiction and child neglect also get a lot of notice, as well as ghosts and mysticism. If I had to select an overriding focal point, it would be the need to escape reservation towns before their claws squeeze the life out of you. More on this later.
The plot opens with the voice of Marion Lafournier, a young Ojibwe man who lives on the outskirts of the reservation town and is gay and lonely. He’s a college graduate and works for an accounting firm, owns his own home, and uses apps on his phone to hook up with men for sex at 2 a.m. in isolated, wooded locations. He has no use for traditional Ojibwe ways, scoffs them, and then encounters the spirit of a wolf-like dog at an elementary school playground. The dog leads Marion to the grave of an Ojibwe basketball star who was stabbed to death at age 17. As the secrets behind the stabbing unravel, Marion learns his own family secrets mired in generational trauma. The book’s conclusion presents a slightly more mature, more stable Marion who may have found a stable relationship.
The pages also reveal a host of multi-generational characters, each with tragic flaws and tragic historical circumstances. The names romp across the pages at a dizzying pace at times, creating some confusion. There’s Kayden who was murdered, then his mother’s best friend, then his mother, then a basketball coach, then Marion who was younger than Kayden but knew him, then the girl who Kayden was living with, then… I prefer fewer characters and more exposition on who the characters were, what made them tick, and their relevance to the plot.
A key character of “This Town Sleeps,” in addition to Marion Lafournier, is the town itself. Marion took the first opportunity to leave Geshig by attending college in the Twin Cities. Years passed, and after a few disastrous relationships, he returned to the area “spending a lot of time in my hometown. It pulls me back here like the door at the end of a dream that you don’t want to go through, but you can’t control your feet.”
Later Staples describes the east end of the town as not as slum-like as the north end of town, “but it’s only better in looks. No matter what neighborhood, this town can’t shed its skin.”
Finally, there’s this: “Here’s a truth about this town that many live but few will ever admit. Geshig is the weight that crushes any form of ambition…By the time children reach middle school, they know there is nothing for them beyond the highway.”
Dear reader, indulge me please. Consider this. We know and some of us live with the hopelessness of reservation communities. The meth use. The short life expectancy. The violence. The unemployment. The fear and loathing. However, some reservation families live non-violent, non-addictive, lives. I can’t think of many characters like that in the American Indian fiction I’ve read over the past year.
This is not to say that Staples’ book is rampant with misery. There’s humor there, and lyrical writing in places, and you grow to care about the protagonist, Marion. Marion evolves into a better person with a clearer understanding of where he came from. Yes, too many characters bounce around at times, and the story line can be challenging to follow. But I think that Dennis Staples could be one of the finest writers in the state if not the country. “This Town Sleeps” shows real promise.