Reviewed by Darcy Meijer (Gabon 1982–84)
The front cover of Lauren Greasewater’s War by Stephen Hirst is an Edward Curtis photo from 1907 depicting the full face of a Havasupai woman. From the first page until the dramatic finish, Hirst relates a gripping story that could well have occurred in 1970s Arizona within the Native American Havasupai community.
Lauren Greasewater’s War comprises five parts: Cradle, Blood, Song, Shelter and War. The first four develop the themes of the novel — origin, family, spirituality and home, while the last part brings these together. In brief, New York lutenist Lauren Napier, adopted by a white family as an infant, learns her true parentage and travels to the Havasupai canyonlands in the Southwest to find out more. Strong-willed and driven by the need for senses of purpose and identity, she disputes the U.S. government’s attempts to seize her ancestral home and make it part of national parkland, thereby setting off a legal case against the government which involves the entire tribe.
Hirst vividly describes the breathtaking landscape in the Grand Canyon area. If I hadn’t lived in Flagstaff for several years, I would definitely visit on the strength of his writing alone. “The scarlet surprise of paintbrush,” “a madhouse of ravines,” and “a fierceness of stars” are among his evocative phrases. The plot moves right along, dotted with well-placed points of conflict and suspense. Like Lauren, we are outsiders becoming familiar with the Havasupai way of life and its intimacy with nature, family relationships, even magic. Hirst’s interjection of humor in action and dialogue relieve tension and exhibit a fine aspect of Havasupai culture.
My sole criticism of Lauren Greasewater’s War is that I don’t find the protagonist to be likeable. She is always blunt, usually defensive and often rude. Granted, she may have reasons, but I was rooting for her only because of the role she played in the drama. On the other hand, Hirst should be applauded for not indulging in more of the uglier aspects of government abuse of Native Americans. Another novelist might have gotten bloodier, regaled us with other shameful stories of exploitation and thievery. But Hirst gets to the core of the matter — has written, in fact, what he calls a “parable.”
I have been reviewing Peace Corps Writers books for many years now, and I’ve found that RPCVs always have a meta-cultural view, whether writing about the U.S. or another country. They are skilled at portraying the outsider’s point of view. Lauren Greasewater’s War is especially interesting in this regard since it is about Native Americans who have been cheated out of their own lands: outsiders in their own country.
Author Hirst seems to be a reliable authority on “the world that shapes this tale.” From 1967 to 1978 when he and his family lived in Havasu Canyon, Arizona, the Havasupai asked them to research and document a case to regain ancestral lands from the federal government. The results? Hirst’s award-winning book, I Am the Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People, and the historic enlargement of the Havasupai reservation.
Lauren Greasewater’s War is a fine novel, well-crafted and important. Enacted right here on American soil, it is a reminder of how much work remains to be done to secure a “land of the free” for all.
Darcy Meijer was a TEFL Volunteer in Gabon. She lives in Abu Dhabi, the UAE, and the Bay of Fundy, Canada.
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