Studies in American Indian Literatures 16.1 (2004) 75-77
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A Pipe for February is a gentle story about violent times. Set in Oklahoma in 1924, the young members of oil wealthy Osage families carve out a social life for themselves in Pawhuska's boom town days. John Greyeagle, his cousins Molly and Evelyn Thunder, and Ted Bearsky are all in their twenties but their circumstances have not fully prepared them for the challenges of negotiating the conflicting values of the idle rich and the traditional elders of their community. In the introduction to his novel, Red Corn states:
Our ancient culture was on a collision course with both good and evil forces of economics that would occur early in the nineteen hundreds when oil was discovered on our reservation.
Some of our people abandoned the ancient teachings and some went a little crazy with wealth. Some of our people stood back and watched and tried to make sense of it in the context of the old culture.
Like other crime mysteries, there are details and clues that go unnoticed. Tension grows for the reader as the characters begin to suspect all is not right. Several characters try to overcome their grief of yet another questionable death with lavish parties, travel, and expensive gifts. This is where Red Corn's subtly is especially nice—it is easy to understand the behavior of these young people who seek out adventure in their small town, and who would rather throw a party than investigate the circumstances.
Red Corn's quiet storytelling blends layers of regional and national history. Pop culture is represented by music and sports celebrities of the day but the novel emphasizes family connection and concern overall. The sheer frequency of meals described confirms the importance of sharing food for a wide range of social reasons. For readers familiar with the Osage murders, A Pipe for February will add one more family's [End Page 75] story as does Dennis McAuliffe Jr.'s "memoir" and family history, The Deaths of Sybil Bolton (1994). Instead of taking on the investigation for the entire crime wave as Linda Hogan does in her novel of this same period, Mean Spirit (1990), Red Corn keeps to Pawhuska. People arrive from around the world to speculate in oil, to work in the oil fields, to satisfy their curiosity regarding Indians who defy the stereotypes of the day with each Pierce Arrow they purchase, and to create opportunities for themselves whether the means are honorable or not. One newly arrived investor observes, "do you know there are eighty-seven lawyers in Pawhuska? That means about one of every one hundred people in this little town is a lawyer" (87).
Red Corn demonstrates great confidence in his subject, the history, values, and customs of Osage people. All of the Osage characters are comfortably bi-lingual in English and Osage, an uncommented upon fact of their community. Some of the English dialogue is in fact translated Osage or serves in the place of Osage—indicated in the text by italics. Frequently, Red Corn layers in the roles and duties of the Clan System and basic language instruction. Still, dialogue often feels wooden. The instructive quality of the book strikes me as Red Corn's primary motive for writing this story and the turbulent, transitional times of the 1920s offers an exciting vehicle for comment on the persistence of Osage culture.
John Greyeagle becomes the embodiment of culture in transition. Looking through a lens of 70-plus years could present some authors with the temptation to write solely from a twenty-first century sensibility. Red Corn uses this position to comment on events without judging his characters. At 25 years of age, Red Corn's protagonist seems younger, living a sheltered life among protective elders and the lawyers, Indian agents, and Pawhuska businessmen who tend to his money. Red Corn's decision to...