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If a Navajo Rug Could Speak : GANADO RED: A Novella and Stories by Susan Lowell (Milkweed Editions: $9.95, paper; 149 pp.)

September 11, 1988|Georgia Jones-Davis | Jones-Davis, The Times' assistant book editor, found the Ganado Red rug of her dreams in Santa Fe in 1985

This is not a book about a Communist revolution in an obscure banana republic. A "Ganado Red" is a Navajo rug, a style generated in Ganado, Ariz., and so named due to the predominance of red backing the pattern.

Author Susan Lowell is one of the most exciting new female voices to rise out of the desert Southwest. "Ganado Red," the first winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, carries within its pages a truly original and distinctly regional voice. Lowell's writing in this collection of short stories and an eponymous novella ranges from flinty to delicate; sometimes it vibrates with sensuality and tragic undertones. She works with a reporter's brevity, honing in on a few but essential details. For instance, Lowell captures a moment of hallucinatory clarity in a few, unadorned lines:

". . . Hazel fixed her eyes on the gray, black, and white triangles which danced around her in a pool of blood. And when she looked up, the person in the mirror was not Hazel but D. H. Lawrence, wrapped in a blanket and crowned with feathers.

"The moon had set.

" I must have slept, Hazel thought dimly."

The writing in the novella, "Ganado Red," is luminous, but the device Lowell uses to tell her story feels forced. (It harks back to an old movie, "The Yellow Rolls Royce," the story of a gaudy, outsized car that changes hands. The gaudy, outsized object in this case is the Navajo rug.) This structural weakness resembles a "spirit line," a purposeful imperfection found in Navajo rugs that works as a "weaver's pathway" to her next rug.

This particular rug is enormous, 54 square feet, and it is too sanguine to be considered an ideal example of the Ganado Red weave.

The rug is woven in 1920 by Adjiba Yazzie. The 1918 flu epidemic has just swept through the remote Navajo reservation and Adjiba's daughter, Nonobah, has died of it.

"Weaving reminded her of Nonobah, whom she had taught. She reached for the gray wool. Horrible spirits hovered around the dead, and it was dangerous to remember them too much, but weaving gave a woman time to think."

Adjiba sells the rug for $100 to Hubbell, a legendary trader in Navajoland. Now her family will have enough credit at Hubbell's to get them through the season until it is time to sell the sheep. Adjiba is barely out of the door of the trading post when her next rug is already forming in her mind.

In 1924, the rug falls into the hands of a pair of unmarried, wealthy sisters, Etta and Hazel, who have settled in Santa Fe and collect Indian artifacts. Hazel once eloped with an Italian count, but is now enduring a spinster's existence alongside that of her sister. She fantasizes about D. H. Lawrence, who is hamming it up at parties in Taos with wife Frieda, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Mary Austin and Willa Cather. Would Lawrence take her in, she wonders, after she brings the rug home and meets with Etta's sharp disapproval: "Good heavens! It's red!"

The rug's odyssey continues in the 1980s (when it sells for $3,500)--a time of a new breed of Southwesterner: the post-'60s, savvy connoisseur of real estate and Indian art investments.

Of the eight splendid stories in the book, the most haunting is the evocative "White Canyon." A young woman vividly recalls her early childhood years spent living in a remote Utah trailer camp in the early '50s while her geologist father, employed by the Atomic Energy Commission, searches for uranium. An uncle visits from the East, there are jeep rides, birthdays, ". . . many picnics, one in the middle of the carnivorous dinosaur Allosaurus." She particularly remembers having to stay inside the trailer during a fallout storm from one of the Nevada bomb tests. Now the young woman, mother of an infant, is being operated on for a brain tumor, and the puzzle pieces of her childhood memories start to form a frightening picture: "Among the specimens in my father's mineral collection are an Allosaurus vertebra and a chunk of its femur. They are radioactive."

Lowell's tender stories stress landscape and character more than plot. Her writing reflects the Arizona landscape she frequently writes about in its deceptive simplicity, the bone-dry precision of her descriptions. Lowell never wastes words; she treats language as if it were as precious a commodity to us as fresh water in the desert. And she leaves her reader thirsting for more.

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