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Reviewed by:
  • Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer: A Story of Survival
  • Mira Bartók (bio)
Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer: A Story of Survival By Allison Adelle Hedge CokeAmerican Indian Lives Series, University of Nebraska Press, 2004206 pages, cloth, $24.95

In her powerful first memoir, Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer: A Story of Survival, award-winning Native American poet and writer Allison Hedge Coke tells us, "Memory is what compels us to act in the world. . . . And congenital memory, that of belonging by nature to landscapes, runs the deepest of all the rivers of the earth." In this lyrical, yet brutally honest account of the author's life as a mixed-blood woman who survives her mother's schizophrenia, domestic and racial violence, rape, and her own self-inflicted alcohol and drug addictions, what sustains her throughout is her profound bond to the natural world.

This connection to nature and to place, particularly the homelands of her father's Tsa la gi (Cherokee) and Huron ancestors, is Hedge Coke's lifeline to her identity and cultural past. Although her family was nomadic, constantly moving to find work or to escape some kind of hardship, they always knew their "true place" through Cherokee blood in North Carolina and Huron blood in Canada. Hedge Coke writes about her family's turbulent early life together, "we began to think of ourselves as rocks in a stream of strangler moss. Unflinching."

Although Hedge Coke felt alienated from her mixed-blood mother's white side of the family and tormented by her mother's raging illness, her father offered her a sense of strength and order through his traditional beliefs and values. Prayer, story, and song were daily ritual in her family, and the wellspring of knowledge provided by her father (and her aunts and uncles) gave her not only the resourcefulness and resilience that would later save her life, but created within her an enduring sense of wonder.

As a small child, Hedge Coke learns how to use spider webs as a blood coagulant by watching her father collect them and by listening to his stories [End Page 108] of Spider's gift of weaving to the world. Her father and his extended family teach her about growing food, finding wild plants in the woods, hunting and fishing, horsemanship, and the hidden world of rocks, rivers, earth, and stars. It's this knowledge rooted in nature that Hedge Coke repeatedly returns to, even after the most wretched of experiences.

When Allison Adelle Hedge Coke was just a baby, her mother, a musical prodigy, became seriously ill. Hedge Coke's earliest memories are of struggling with her mother's paranoid delusions, which usually resulted in violence and multiple hospitalizations. By the time she reaches the third grade, Hedge Coke has already attempted suicide several times; by age eight, she is smoking and drinking daily, and by nine she leaves home, beginning a "search and wandering, a string of leavings."

Hedge Coke encounters one life-threatening experience after another on her rocky sojourn across America. Her path is dizzying and sometimes hard to follow, precisely because the trajectory of her life is so volatile and ever-changing. One minute she is in hiding in the woods from her violent husband, the next she is seven months pregnant looking down the barrel of her brother's shotgun. But for every moment of struggle, she somehow finds deliverance in music, the earth, stars, stories, her heritage, and her imagination—all the things that sustain broken children in a world devoid of human trust.

The title, Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer, refers to the names of four essential elements that act as revelations in the author's life and carry her back to the rational world of her people and place of origin. Hedge Coke writes, "A name creates life patterns which form and shape a life; my life, like my name, must have been formed many times over then handed to me to realize." In indigenous societies, even a single name can call up a people's ancient history and humane way of being in the world. For Hedge Coke, a word such as "deer" not only stands for the animal...


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pp. 108-111
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