restricted access Supernatural Forces: Belief, Difference, and Power in Contemporary Works by Ethnic Women
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Bonnie Winsbro. Supernatural Forces: Belief, Difference, and Power in Contemporary Works by Ethnic Women. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1993. xi + 218 pp. No price given.

Winsbro’s doctoral dissertation revised for publication treats selected novels by Lee Smith, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, and Maxine Hong Kingston. Among certain, not necessarily “representative,” contemporary ethnic writers, Winsbro argues, a fundamental relationship exists between belief in the supernatural, on the one hand, and development of personal and cultural identity, on the other. According to Winsbro, these writers’ common concern with belief and its effects upon identity formation amounts to a cross-cultural ground uniting the works of otherwise disparate novelists—an Appalachian writer, two Native Americans (one Chippewa and the other Laguna Pueblo), two African-Americans, and one Chinese-American. Winsbro further contends that this common concern with the relationship between belief and identity leads us to ponder how different ethnic groups deliberately both reinforce and erode the boundaries separating their cultures from the Anglo-centric mainstream. Winsbro maintains that these six writers’ works significantly differ from one another in their conclusions about the relative advantages and disadvantages, for individuals as well as for groups, of dissolving or maintaining such boundaries.

Unfortunately, Winsbro’s study is repetitious and reductively thesis-driven. In revising her dissertation for publication as a book, she might well have decided not to treat each author separately in different chapters, but instead to investigate the full range of these writers’ use of the supernatural as an expression of ethnicity, thus leaving herself room [End Page 855] to concentrate upon more of the unique features of the well-chosen, fascinating novels she discusses. As it is, by the time one has read the first two or three chapters (of a total of eight), the book begins to feel uncomfortably predictable indeed.

Related to Winsbro’s rather one-dimensional conceptualization of her task is the fact that her argument lacks a sophisticated critical keel. Her discussion consists mostly of pre-critical varieties of character and thematic analysis. Despite a debt to Werner Sollers for some of his ideas about ethnicity—a debt acknowledged in Chapter 1 and promising a rather more sophisticated level of discourse than the book delivers—Winsbro fails to reach the levels of insight that Sollers’ brand of thematically oriented criticism might afford.

A significant weakness in Winsbro’s study is her tendency to stick relentlessly to the overt business of her thesis and thus not to pursue several of the more interesting implications of her argument. Reader frustration results, for example, when Winsbro suggests that the writers she treats engage in highly innovative, cross-cultural projects implying ethnic transformations of narrative form, narrational strategies, and reader-responses, then summarily drops the subject to return to a less compelling focus on characterization and theme. An especially disappointing moment occurs when Winsbro cites Silko’s various references to Tayo and the Mexican cattle as members of a “special breed,” but then neglects to remark at a highly opportune passage in her own discussion how Silko’s textual strategies themselves, replete with deliberate efforts to establish new habits of reading, constitute a “special breed” of cross-cultural narrative. (Silko’s writings characteristically invite such metatextual readings of this and other such phrases.) Winsbro’s bibliography suggests that she knows much of the relevant critical discourse on the novels by Silko and the other writers she treats; her discussion would have been significantly enhanced by more direct engagement with contemporary critical discourse on the ways in which many ethnic writers achieve their revisionary purposes.

One further, major flaw in Winsbro’s argument results from some logical lapses and inconsistencies, particularly in key terminology that frames her argument. Repeated references to “inherited beliefs,” for example, cause unnecessary confusion. By “inherited,” Winsbro seems to mean, on the one hand, those beliefs rooted in a people’s conception [End Page 856] of absolute, transcendent truth, and on the other, those beliefs passed on by adults to children, who may or may not subscribe to them uncritically for the rest of their lives. Neither kind (nor any kind) of belief is, strictly speaking, “inherited,” and...