Sadie Hawkins Sunday Review #30: The Grass Dancer

Sadie Hawkins Sunday Review #30: The Grass DancerThe Grass Dancer by Susan Power
Published by Putnam Adult on August 3, 1994
Genres: Historical, Mythology
Pages: 300
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library

Set on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota, this novel recounts a story about the connections among generations and how the actions of our ancestors affect contemporary life. The author weaves a myriad of folk motifs into the fabric of present-day reality.

Recommended by: Ann Kristin

First Sentence: “When Harley saw his father, Calvin Wind Soldier, and his brother, Duane, in his dreams, they were wearing crowns of glass.”

Right from the beginning, I knew that Susan Power’s The Grass Dancer was a book I never would have picked up on my own. Though I’m generally up for reading about any culture, I’ve been burned by a couple about Native Americans, so I’m hesitant to read them. Still, that’s not something I’m proud of and is certainly no reason to write off all of those books, so, when this showed up in Sadie Hawkins, I figured I’d give it a try. While I didn’t precisely dislike The Grass Dancer, I didn’t really like it either, and I definitely did not understand it.

The Grass Dancer is a strange novel from a narrative perspective. Power uses multiple perspectives, varying from chapter to long chapter. Some of the perspectives are in third person and others in first. Since I read the book in chunks by chapter (seriously, they’re long), I can’t say for sure how unique the voices are in the first person chapters, but it pretty much all read like the same narrator to me. As such, I found the shifts in narration confusing.

Shifting from third to first person isn’t all that weird though. Plenty of books do that. What not as many books do is jump around in time while switching perspectives. The book opens (with no year ascribed, then goes to 1981. From there, the narrative keeps jumping backwards years at a time, all the way to 1935, at which point it finally hops back to the early 1980s. WHUT.

Each chapter is a somewhat self-contained narrative and, taken individually, some of them were quite interesting and would have made decent books if built out more. Both the 1981 story, involving Pumpkin, one of the only female grass dancers and one of the best regardless of gender, and the 1964 story about Crystal Thunder, which is about her falling in love with a white man. Race and culture and identity and romance are the main themes, and I’m totally all for that. Some of the other narratives, the one of Red Dress most especially, bored me.

Taken as a whole, though, I have no freaking clue what to make of this book. Why did it go backward? Why make it so difficult for me to piece together how everyone’s related? To follow this, I would have had to build out a family tree and keep track of names. As it is, I think I got the broad strokes, but missed the more subtle impacts the earlier timelines had on the later. Having finished, I really have no clue what I was meant to get out of this novel. What I consider the main plot, the frame story, seems, to me, unresolved and unsatisfying. Basically, I just don’t get it.

So there you go. I don’t think this was a book for me, and I don’t think I did it justice because I am baffled.

Ann Kristin, if you have insights, I’d be happy to hear them. Either way, thanks for taking part in Sadie Hawkins Sunday!

Favorite Quote:

“‘You can’t help who you love, Unci,’ she had protested.
‘Yes you can. You love yourself, you love your family, and you don’t let your feelings run around and jump into someone else’s hand.’ Mercury made a fist. ‘You grab on to your own life and push it around where you want it to go.'”

Up Next:

The next Sadie Hawkins Sunday book will be Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff. Make sure to stop by for that if you want to see my heart served up on a platter.

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3 responses to “Sadie Hawkins Sunday Review #30: The Grass Dancer”

  1. Lili says:

    All I have to say is that I have not heard of this one prior to seeing this SHS and I don’t think it’s necessary to read. At all.

  2. Rachelia says:

    This one sounds really interesting and I love learning about indigenous cultures and peoples but it does sound like the form the narration took didn’t work for you, and I don’t think it would work for me. I know from a few indigenous studies classes I took in university that some indigenous oral stories aren’t told in a linear fashion, and I’ve read a few that did that very well but this one doesn’t sound like it was one of them, sadly 🙁

  3. Ann Kristin says:

    I just saw that you had read this book, so sorry I didn’t reply to the review earlier.

    I read this book while taking an intro class on Native American cultures and literature. The Grass Dancer was used as an example of traditional storytelling in novel format and of mystical realism. I quite liked the non-linear storytelling, and shorter stories showing the interwoven families of Charlene and Harley going back generations, and how those previous generation have (and still are) shaped them and their lives.

    The Grass Dancer is probably one of those books you either like or don’t, based much on whether the style of storytelling appeals to you. I am sorry the book wasn’t to your liking, but thank you for taking the time to read it. 🙂

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