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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : A Dynamic First Effort That Proves to Be the Real Thing : THE GRASS DANCER by Susan Power ; G.P. Putnam's Sons, $22.95, 288 pages

August 04, 1994|MICHAEL DORRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Grass Dancer" is a look through an inverted telescope into the rich tapestry of Dakota society. Moving a century backward from the early 1980s and reclosing the loop in the present, its series of related, beautifully told tales unravel the intricate stitch of related lives, the far-reaching consequences of chance acts, the lasting legacies of love and jealousy.

Susan Power, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, has written a first novel that hums with serious intention and reads like a sad and lovely lament. The high plains reservation setting is rendered with the kind of authentic realism--the little but crucial details--that only the most acute observer notices, and her prose is both strong and lyrical.

As with other books that deal with the social dynamics of small communities, "The Grass Dancer" is concerned with the power of thwarted or stunted kinship--mothers who lose their daughters, fathers who die before they are known by their sons--and with marital love gone wrong or betrayed.

The bitterness of one generation literally haunts the next, and the next. Frustrated spirits often meddle in human affairs, and indeed the boundary dividing the living and the dead is occasionally so blurred that a man can marry his fiancee's ghost.

Magic suffuses the world that Power poetically describes. Eyelashes baked in chocolate cupcakes instantly turn high school boys lusty, a tiny fragment from the sheet of one bed sewed onto that of another is a prescription for unwilling adultery--or at least that's how people explain seemingly irrational occurrences to themselves and each other.

People, especially the young and innocent, can be puppets in the hands of unscrupulous elders whose manipulations, in the long run, are balanced only by the goodness of ancestors even older, even wiser in the ways of power.

In what might be the book's most powerful story--an archetypal tale of a sibling love-hate rivalry--two sisters do battle using their unfortunate children as pawns.

"They looked like two opposites, like people with blood running from separate rivers. Chaske, whose baptism name was Emery Bauer Jr., after his German father, was sturdy and tall for his age, his powerful calf muscles bulging like little crab apples under the skin. His hair was creamy yellow, the color of beeswax, and his eyes were a silvery gray, so pale they were almost white. . . .

"Dina, on the other hand, was a blueprint of the women in our family, long-legged and graceful, thick braids grazing her narrow hips. Her little heart-shaped face was dark brown, the color of a full-blood, and her eyes were black and onyx studs."

In the end, both perish, each from the meanness of their respective aunts--whose true animosities are toward each other, but whose children are too-easy targets.

The world that Power describes pulses with vitality and passion. Characters roll forward like gusts of wind, smacking into each other, changing direction, temporarily blowing the same way, exhausting themselves with the force of their will.

Even though they may pretend otherwise, everyone wants something--a lot--although achieving a goal is no guarantee of contentment. When they get what they wanted, they immediately want something else just as badly. And once in awhile, just when they teeter on the edge of finding satisfaction, they misread the signals, make a mistake, lose their chance--and forever regret their blunder.

Power is a terrific writer--energetic, fresh, political, daring. She succeeds most impressively when she relaxes into the simple rhythm of her stories, trusting the reader to understand their mythic elements without underlining them too boldly.

The symbolism at the heart of this striking novel--the grass whose beauty and movement, whose very soul the best dancers strive to catch and imitate--is unadorned, timeless: "She became a flexible stem, twisting toward the sky, dipping to the ground, bending with the wind. She was dry and brittle, shattered by drought, and then she was heavy with rain."

"The Grass Dancer" is a book wonderful both for what it is and for what it promises. Susan Power is the real thing.

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