- 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...