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BO O K REVIEW S The Last Matriarch: A Novel. By Sharman Apt Russell. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. 194 pages, $19.95. Reviewed by Bill D. Toth Western New Mexico University, Silver City Resist the temptation to compare The Last Matriarch with The Clan of the Cave Bear which it superficially resembles. Russell’s unique effort is a remark­ ably good book. As forensic history, it gives us a glimpse into a major archeo­ logical mystery— did early man have a hand in the extinction of North American megafauna?—and offers a viable answer in the process: very likely. As fiction, its nanative voice is strong and clear. Moreover, its characters strike us as real and quintessentially human, their fears and aspirations no different from ours. The result is a masterful blend of paleohistory and invention, not unlike Paul Horgan’s Great River. Russell’s river, however, is the Mimbres, in south­ western New Mexico, and this story traces the lives of a small band of Clovis People as they follow the river and its seasons, hunting the mammoth, fishing the river, and gathering edible plants and herbs along its fertile valley, some eleven thousand years ago. The story’s narrator and central figure is Willow, the clan’s resourceful and resilient matriarch, and her tale is wonderfully drawn. Closely tied to Willow’s life are the lives of her children, her two hus­ bands, and a host of collateral relatives—all comprising the small band of hunter-gatherers at the heart of the story. However, this is a “big two-hearted” story with a second protagonist, and her story is every bit as compelling as Willow’s. This is also the story of Half Ear, the equally resourceful and resilient matriarch of the mammoth herd which grazes the valley. The lives of the two matriarchs crisscross throughout the story till each is inextricably identified with the other, and their spirits ulti­ mately merge as the aged and dying Willow clutches to her breast beads made from Half Ear’s ivories. Russell is clearly interested in the extinction of megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene epoch. As a young woman, Willow and her people share the land with giant short-faced bears, saber-toothed cats, mammoth, and the like. Gradually, though, the big animals’ numbers diminish until, at Willow’s death, they are memories earned by the old people. In this light, the book’s title refers to both Willow and her “sister” matriarch Half Ear. Both represent the final cur­ tain, the end of the line. And their passing, Russell reminds us, is significant. Finally, The Last Matriarch is a work of immense lyric beauty and as much a celebration of stories and storytelling as anything else. It’s no small detail that one of the most venerated positions among Willow’s people is the storyteller, who’s responsible for reminding the others of who they are, from whence they came, and ultimately where they—and we—will all go. At the story’s end, Willow and Half Ear are long dead; yet, their voices and their stories continue, 1 0 2 WAL 3 6 .1 SPRING 2 0 0 1 whispering their interwoven lives from the cool earth, reminding us that ulti­ mately it’s the stories that matter most, that they’re all we have. And this, not surprisingly, is one very fine story. Josanie’s War: A Chiricahua Apache Novel. By Karl H. Schlesier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. 290 pages, $22.95. Reviewed by Nancy Kirkpatrick Wright Yavapai College, Prescott, Arizona Until an Apache writer tells the story of his or her people’s tortuous tran­ sition from a hunting-raiding society to sedentary reservation life, we must con­ tent ourselves with compassionate Anglo scholars and writers. Most recently, Karl H. Schlesier, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Wichita State University, has combined meticulous ethnographic scholarship with the con­ science of a responsible historian in Josanie’s War: A Chiricahua Apache Novel. Volume 27 of the University of Oklahoma’s American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series, this handsome edition comes with a dust jacket aptly illustrated by western artist Howard...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 101-102
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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