'Grand' a despairing plea for compassion

October 06, 1994|By Judith Wynn | Judith Wynn,Special to The Sun

In the short stories of "Grand Avenue," Miwok Indian chief and NTC UCLA English professor Greg Sarris explores the Native American folk culture of marginally employed Indians in northern California -- a region that first won literary fame in John Steinbeck's novels "Tortilla Flat" and "Cannery Row."

Mr. Sarris' opening story, "The Magic Pony," recalls Steinbeck's 1938 novella "The Red Pony" -- both in its poignant evocation of a child's doomed love for a horse and its portrayal of the conflict between elderly people and their grown-up children. What relics of an unhappy past should be cast off? Which ones saved and cherished?

"Grand Avenue" focuses on a Pomo Indian clan, north of San Francisco, and their Spanish-American, Anglo-American and African-American neighbors. The tribespeoples' voices have an eerie sameness that makes it hard to differentiate them, but this appears to be Mr. Sarris' deliberate design. A grim determinism holds sway in these 10 first-person-narrated stories. It's almost inevitable that the horse stable will be burned own, the innocent girl placed in a brothel, the rich white employer's jewelry filched by a Pomo. The healing magic of hope is what keeps "Grand Avenue" from becoming a catalog of woes. "White people," one Pomo girl exclaims resentfully while she and her mother sit watching the white-owned ships that put the Pomo fisherfolk out of business. "Remember your Bible," her mother gently counsels her, "All people are equal. Some of us just behave better."

"Grand Avenue" itself is a dirt road between two rundown, converted army barracks outside Santa Rosa. Many of the Pomos moved there after a tribeswoman's romance with a white rancher's son, back in the 1920s, got them thrown off the Edenic rancheria that they had called home ever since early Spanish settlers forced them into captivity.

How the Pomos have dealt with each other since their disastrous fall is "Grand Avenue's" main concern. "Us Indians are full of evil," a teen-ager warns. "We call it poison." Spite. Envy. Deadly curses meant to drive one's enemies into deathbeds full of `snot and afterbirth.` But curses are apt to turn around and strike the curser and his/her children.

The young husband of `Secret Letters` watches his youthful ambitions fall prey to family demands: "The lure of sex," he thinks. "Was this the trap set for us with my great-grandmother's rib?"

In "The Progress of This Disease," a devout Christian Pomo woman, burdened with eight children and an alcoholic husband, bitterly recalls how her cousin destroyed her first, true love by accusing her family of witchcraft.

In "Waiting for the Green Frog," an elderly medicine woman named Nellie Copaz sums up the Pomos: "We are so full of hate and ignorance these days we can't see two feet in front of us." Nellie's old rival-in-magic Sam Tom reaches his 100th birthday and decides to move into Nellie's cozy cottage and let her take care of him, but wily Nellie tricks him out of his evil powers instead, in "Sam Tom's Last Song."

"The Water Place" ends the book on a tender note of reconciliation as Sam Tom's great-granddaughter becomes Nellie's apprentice in magic healing. "You know, after what all's happened to us, it's a wonder what we do to ourselves," Nellie tells the girl. Will the apprentice be a worthy successor to the healer? "Grand Avenue" is a moving plea that a beleaguered people show more compassion for one another.

Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Grand Avenue"

Author: Greg Sarris

Publisher: Hyperion

Length, price: 224 pages, $21.95

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