The Dance Boots
Winner of the 2009 Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction, Linda LeGarde Grover’s Dance Boots is an elegantly written and often deeply moving collection of short stories. Like O’Connor’s fiction, these stories are regional, focusing on members of an Ojibwe community in northern Minnesota. And like O’Connor’s fiction, very little in these stories is untouched by the history of racism in America. For members of the community in these stories, and for Indian people all over America, racial hierarchies were institutionalized most visibly and perhaps most influentially in Indian boarding schools. In Grover’s stories Indian boarding schools create a profoundly disruptive legacy not only because they are structured around an irrational calculation of Indian inferiority, but also because the schools erect a looming figure of Old Testament judgment that sometimes haunts characters for their entire lives. Hennen (Helen), for instance, is a highly accomplished and well-mannered young woman at a Catholic boarding school, but then she becomes pregnant and is banished from the grounds. For the rest of her life she lives as a fallen angel in the city of Duluth, maintaining only vestiges of a ladylike demeanor as she frequents the bars at night.
Whatever the motivations of boarding school administrators— whether they desired to assimilate Indians, to convert Indians to Christianity, or to make money—the actual effects of the boarding schools in Grover’s stories are highly diverse and unpredictable. As destructive as the boarding schools were to people from this Indian [End Page 136] community, they also created the occasion for making lifelong friendships and sometimes for finding love. In “Maggie and Louis, 1914,” an unlikely love affair begins between Louis Gallette, the resident hard case who constantly attempts to run away from school, and Maggie LaForce, a recent graduate of a Catholic boarding school now employed at the Indian boarding school. While Louis spends many nights in the foul basement lockup, Maggie makes sure the young Indian girls sit up in their chairs, darn socks properly, and stay awake while they attend to their work. By all appearances Maggie is a perfect example of successful boarding school assimilation: she is on a first-name basis with the matron, dines with other members of the staff, and receives deference from the men at the school. But Maggie, unlike other members of the staff, is not so wedded to the boarding school rules that she loses her willingness to treat Louis with kindness and respect when she takes his dinner to him in his basement cell. Although Louis had planned to push Maggie into the locked room and to run away, Maggie’s small gesture make a deep impression on him. He senses a profound connection with Maggie, and perhaps an inkling of possibility, even from the fetid confines of his cell.
In The Dance Boots, good manners are more than domestic niceties: they reflect an indigenous philosophy of comity and equality among peoples that runs counter to colonial hierarchies found in Indian boarding schools or to gender hierarchies that appear in several relationships in the book. The crucial consideration in these stories is the abuse of power, not exclusively the guilt and innocence of different “races” of people, as is the case with most fiction about indigenous peoples. While boarding schools are, of course, a prime mover of racial and gender hierarchies in Indian communities, this collection of stories is mostly concerned with how people from the Mozay Point Indian Reservation accept or resist these structures of power. For example, an Indian staff member at the fictional Harrod Boarding School, known only as McGoun (he is one of the few flat characters in the book), is single-minded in his desire to punish and humiliate children at the school. What is perhaps most disturbing about McGoun is not his cruelty but the long-term effects [End Page 137] his acts have on the tortured boys, who many years later continue to carry anger and mental scars from McGoun’s abuse. In the story “Four Indians in the Mirror,” McGoun, now an alcoholic who is completely down on his luck, happens upon Louis and other former students in a dive in Minneapolis. Immediately the former students, now ex-servicemen, recall McGoun’s brutality as if no time had passed at all. One of them even kneels in front of him, a gesture McGoun demanded from the boys at boarding school before he whipped them. Louis, however, is not cowed by the appearance of his former tormentor: he drags McGoun behind the bar and beats him, almost to death. Louis exacts a measure of long overdue justice for himself and others who suffered from McGoun’s abuse, and yet it is difficult to ignore how his actions replicate the use of power and violence over the helpless, even if the helpless is a figure of such moral depravity. What is certain is that the Harrod Boarding School planted the seeds of anger in a generation of children, and long after its doors are closed, its tree of distinction continues to bear a cancerous fruit.
Other abuses of power occur in the book—in bad marriages, for instance—but ultimately the community in this collection triumphs over the legacy of Indian boarding schools. In the first story of the collection, “The Dance Boots,” Artense describes to her aunt Shirley how her university instructors discuss indigenous peoples in condescending (Orientalist) and self-serving ways. But Artense also indicates that she will have none of it: she rejects the institution’s representation of Indians with considerable insight and humor. Furthermore, Shirley offers a far different educational experience for Artense with her example of love, generosity (the gift of the dance boots), and beautiful manners. In the final story of the collection, “Bingo Night,” the community has completely reclaimed the formal education of its children, having created its own school next to the Mozay Point Indian Reservation. The school is funded by a Friday night bingo game in the school’s gymnasium, which also provides employment for members of the community and a way for the community to come together, socialize, and admire the children’s school work that teachers have hung on the walls. The two main characters [End Page 138] of the story, Earl and Alice, attended Indian boarding schools when they were children, and now, near the end of their lives, they are also part of the new era of tribally centered education. The duration and strength of their marriage is unusual in this collection, and it offers an important counternarrative to the abusive relationships in other stories. And yet even now their boarding school pasts will not let them go. Driving home from the bingo hall, Earl puts them both in danger by getting lost and stuck on the side of the road. Because of his mild dementia, he believes he is able to show off his girlfriend Alice to his pals at the boarding school, even though the now-closed Harrod boarding school is hundreds of miles away and his friends are likely dead. For Alice, every strange face is a reminder of her boarding school past: she became pregnant at boarding school and continues to search for the baby that was taken away from her. Furthermore, for reasons that are not clear, she and Earl do not have children who can look after them in their old age. Yet Alice is fortunate that her life did not spin out into ruins after boarding school, as happened to Hennen. And as the story shows, Earl and Alice are not alone: they are watched over by both human and spiritual communities in this indigenous universe.
The Dance Boots treats almost every character in the book with similar measures of understanding and even tenderness, especially Maggie, whose strength and selflessness create a moral center for the book. Grover is particularly gifted at unveiling the fullness of her characters with their understated but meaningful acts of recognition and affection: kindness in a basement cell, for instance, or the gift of the dance boots. Grover’s language, too, exact and often metaphoric, evinces beauty throughout the book, even in the most unlikely people and circumstances, suggesting that all characters, regardless of their backgrounds, deserve our full attention and care. When it comes to fiction, this is not just good manners—it’s good art. [End Page 139]
Michael Wilson is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and the author of Writing Home: Indigenous Narratives of Resistance.