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Book Review: 'The Road Back to Sweetgrass'

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The Road Back to Sweetgrass is one of those books I wanted to stay up all night reading. But I didn’t, because then it would have been over and the exquisite prose was something I wanted to savor a little longer.

Linda LaGarde Grover’s (Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe) debut novel tells the story of three American Indian women whose lives are intricately linked as they negotiate love, loss, poverty and redemption from the 1970s through the first decade of the 21st century. In the last few pages there is the satisfying feeling that it all makes sense at this moment in time and that the women are successfully finding their way into the historical and mythological life of their people.

Well-told though the story is, The Road Back to Sweetgrass is most notable for its writing and its closely-observed and beautifully expressed perspective on contemporary American Indian life.

For example, “Margie’s frybread was so light it all but rose from the plate, so tender as to be all but unfelt in the mouth, so tasty that the very thought that the moment couldn’t last forever brought to the eater an undertone of sorrow that added an intangible brine, like a grain of salt from dried tears yet to be wept.”

Grover is also capable of turning her pen to sarcasm. Having asked one of two American Indian students in her college-level Indian studies class what his band is, white professor Dr. Rogers-Head replies, "’Ah, the Miskwawa River Band.’ She paused, shook her head. ‘Such tragic victimization at the hands of American imperialism.’ Pressing her lips together, the professor nodded, pulled her head back and up, a bridled horse [author ’s italics], drew in a deep breath slightly larger in volume than her nostrils.”

The story gracefully integrates the history of U.S.-American Indian relationships in myriad understated passages, from termination to allotments to young women being forced to give their babies up for adoption. In this example, a federal recruiter is on the reservation to convince Dale Ann to go to Duluth and learn to be self-supporting as a switchboard operator. “’College isn’t for everyone, you know…. And just think, Dale Ann, what this will mean to your family. Not only will you set an example for other young people at Mozhay Point [a fictional reservation in northern Minnesota], but you can send money home to help…. This can make the difference to your family; your sisters and your little brother can have a chance at life, and this would all be because of you, Dale Ann.’”

This is a novel not to be missed.

Grover won the Flannery O’Connor Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for her short story collection, The Dance Boots.