Book Review: Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah

Why did I read this book?

While returning home from running errands, I listened to only ten minutes of Kerri Miller’s fifty-minute interview with Oscar Hokeah on Minnesota Public Radio, but that was long enough to be intrigued by Hokeah and his novel Calling for a Blanket Dance. When I arrived home, I ordered the book from my library through the inter-library loan program. Because a library book has a “use by date,” Hokeah’s novel landed on the pinnacle of my reading pile; and its rising to the top–like delicious cream–was richly deserved.

What is this book about?

The story focuses on Ever Geimausaddle, who is Native American and Mexican. Each chapter in the book is narrated by one of his relatives, and the last chapter is narrated by Ever. Through these family members, we watch Ever struggle as a child and an adult, and we learn about his extended family and their place in his life.

In the first chapter, Ever’s grandmother Lena Stoop introduces us to him when he is six months old. Ever and his parents, Everardo and Turtle, are returning to the United States from Mexico when they are stopped by three Mexican policemen who severely beat his father and rob his parents. Throughout the attack, Ever’s mother tries to keep him from waking. She doesn’t want him to witness the violence, but he wakes up and sees the brutality and rage.

Lena travels to a border town in Texas to pick up her daughter, son-in-law, and Ever, returning them to Oklahoma. Lena tells her daughter that she is concerned about what Ever saw. Even though he won’t remember the episode, their Native American culture teaches that babies and young children shouldn’t be exposed to violence: “They could be witched. Their spirit forever altered. A witching was almost incurable.” Lena’s daughter snaps at her mother, calling her superstitious, but then she falls silent because she, too, is worried about what her baby boy saw.

Ever’s father suffers permanent physical and emotional damage from the beating, but Ever’s mother, with the help of relatives, strives to keep her family intact. However, the memory of violence that Ever’s family experienced can’t seem to be conquered or at least forced to retreat.

What makes this book memorable?

Every time I had to put Hokeah’s novel down, I looked forward to the moment I could pick it up again. Through his masterful prose and skillful use of twelve different narrators, the reader comes to understand Ever and his family: their pain and disappointments, their hopes and dreams, their failures and successes, and their capacity for love and forgiveness.

Hokeah incorporates themes of poverty, inter-generational trauma, discrimination, marginalization, and redemption throughout the story the way an artist uses exquisite but understated brush strokes to make a painting come alive–strokes so subtle, yet so integral to the work of art, that without them, the picture would be flat and lifeless. Hokeah’s landscape of story, theme, and narration make Calling for a Blanket Dance a richly constructed novel, drawing readers in and holding them until the last page.

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