EXTRA INDIANS by Eric Gansworth

Book Quote:

“People are always wishing on falling stars…they speed-wish, going as fast as they can, the lines they have rehearsed all day, maybe wishes they’ve written on the steam in the bathroom mirror after their morning showers or on napkins at lunch, ink bleeding their desires away into accidental coffee spills, but still they do it, and try to get it before the star burns dead away and cancels their dreams on account of their too-slow brains.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (JAN 31, 2011)

Extra Indians, the latest tour de force from Eric Gansworth, is a rollicking, engrossing, and big-hearted novel that defies expectations at every hair-raising turn.

Tommy Jack McMorsey – a West Texas flatlands native, Vietnam vet, flawed husband and father, and long haul driver – travels from Texas to northern Minnesota annually to watch the meteor showers and wish upon the stars. But on one cold night, he chances upon a deluded Japanese tourist who is searching for the buried ransom money from the Coen brothers’ movie Fargo. When she wanders off and dies of exposure, McMorsey finds himself thrust into the spotlight of an intrusive media campaign, dredging up ghosts from his past.

One of these “ghosts” is Fred Howkowski, an Indian man whose life he saved once in Vietnam. But once was the charm; McMorsey can’t save his best friend again when Howkowski drifts to another kind of “shoot,” pursuing a Hollywood speaking role as an “extra Indian.” To complicate matters, upon arriving stateside, Howkowski entrusted McMorsey to raise his son – T.J. – who is tormented about why he was given up in the first place. And then there’s art history professor Annie Boans, the love child of McMorsey and Shirley, the woman he was romantically entangled with and whom he has never forgotten.

The eventual meeting between Tommy Jack and his two children – the adopted son he raised, the daughter he never knew about – is just the foundation of a story that digs deep to explore powerful themes: how the past continues to haunt and inform the present. How images and stereotypes intersect with reality in Native America. How what is thought and what is spoken are often disjointed. How there is really no such thing as a “single truth,” no matter how hard you search.

And search they do. Gansworth – a natural born storyteller who breathes life and complexity into his cast of characters – has a lot to say about how we pursue “the truth” in an era of reality T.V.; a crew for a reality-based T.V. show that specializes in unsolved mysteries shows up at his door with its own agenda, with predictably terrible results. He delves into “the truth” of Hollywood, where, according to Howkowski, “they cover me in this orange dye to make me darker for the screen, and it looks like blood every night when I try to wash it down the bathtub drain.”

But most harrowing and heartbreaking of all is “the truth” of Vietnam – the resonance of that misguided war and the inescapability of one’s actions. Eric Gansworth saves two of the most haunting memories for last; one can thoroughly understand how anyone who experienced these horrors can never be “whole” again.

Gansworth suggests that the truth is complex and that knowledge isn’t power nor is it liberating. McMorsey ponders, “How do you tell these secret parts of your life…” They’re not secret because you need them to be, but secret because they are the moments you share with one other person, and here on, the camera everything about you is at least once removed. Their machine keeps rolling magnetic tape from one spool to another, copying your image over and over again, but they never get it right. No matter how closely they try to document your moves, they only get one angle…”

It is, in the end, impossible to read this book from a one-angle perspective. A road trip detours into something more mysterious, which, in turn, opens up questions about Vietnam and the past, the endurance of love, the search for identity, and the secrets we keep and reveal. There is no closure, only progress. In other words, this book is about life itself.

It helps to know that Eric Gansworth is a First Nations Author, a member of the Onondaga Nation. The character of Fred Howkowski appeared in The Ballad of Plastic Fred and Indian Summer. According to an afterword by the author, he “began to understand that the story of Fred Howkowski was not over yet. He kept showing up, a ghost wandering at the fringes of my other work.” He is finally – and expertly – laid to rest.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 7 readers
PUBLISHER: Milkweed Editions (November 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Eric Gansworth

NativeWiki on Eric Gansworth

EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Other Native American authors:

Louise Erdrich

Sherman Alexie



January 31, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Character Driven, Contemporary, Wild West

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