Studies in American Indian Literatures 16.1 (2004) 72-74
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One of the defining characteristics of Diane Glancy's work is its stark, unrelenting intimacy. Distanced observation is not an option. She draws the reader inward, through all the self-deceptions of the ego, through fear and resentment, into the tensions between the hope of love and the need for freedom. Whether in poetry, drama, or prose, Glancy's narrators and characters speak from that tangled emotional interior, and it is from this place that they work to unravel their histories, spiritualities, identities, and desires.
The Mask Maker is the story of Edith Lewis, a "watered down" mixed-blood Pawnee woman who has come to an uncomfortable junction in her life. She still holds a lingering love for her ex-husband, Bill, but has no interest in returning to the cold silences that characterized their marriage; she cherishes her warm friendship with Bix, the Pawnee owner of the local hardware store, but fears the possibilities of allowing herself to love him. She's distanced and detached, unwilling to connect, but desperate for understanding. She's a mask maker by trade and inclination, and the Arts Council of Oklahoma sends her to schools across the state, where she shares her masks with bored students and their dismissive teachers. Edith's teenage sons Joseph and Benjamin are becoming more distant and ashamed of her eccentric occupation, and her frequent absences drive them further apart. She is flailing, her life is crumbling, and the safety and security she once found in the making of masks is fading.
Much like the eponymous character of Glancy's 1998 novel, Flutie, Edith is awkward with words and suspicious of stories. Words have no permanence, no enduring certainty, especially in the mouths of the men she loves, starting with her father and then moving to her ex-husband, to her sons, and even to Bix. Words "squirm around the truth [and] divide the truth into subtruths or almost truths"; she wants the masks to define themselves, not to be "masks for which words are written" (65). She wants to avoid the possibility of lies, would rather "just think [End Page 72] in masks," but she can't escape from words or the stories they tell (16). Masks are the fraying warp and weft of her world, and her mask-making is as much a need to understand herself as it is to be understood by others. Edith's creations are the compilation of scavenged and found objects, the remnant rubbish of human life from which uncertain meaning is made. She fumbles for comfort in numerous institutions—marriage, motherhood, Christianity, Indianness—but finds that each too often requires her to "[put] on a mask that someone else had made" (22). Even as she tries to create masks that reflect her world with their presence, she understands that they are inevitably haunted by emptiness—each mask is defined by the certainty of absence, "the energy that gets trapped between the face and the mask it wears" (63).
Edith occasionally connects with others, outsiders all: Mildred, a world-worn waitress; her former mother-in-law, Maybelle, who respects and understands Edith's need to make masks; and a quiet young Indian man who breaks down in tears when he tries to tell a story about his mask in class. Yet it isn't until her ex-husband decides to marry again—to create a new life for himself that doesn't include her—that Edith is driven to look behind the masks of her own life, to that emptiness and everything it represents:
What happened to a people used to hardship when they began to regain strength? What would they do without the struggle that had become a part of them and left an emptiness when they no longer had it? Is that why the lives of Edith and Bill were always torn up? Were they trying to call the...