FLATHEAD INDIAN RESERVATION, Mont. ? "Have you ever heard about my Aunt Louise?"
Debra Magpie Earling is sitting across from me. Her face is suddenly serious. She asks the question as if I should already know. At first it's not clear. I hadn't thought of Louise, the main character in Earling's debut novel "Perma Red" (Putnam Publishing Group, June 2002) as someone real. I've just finished the book, and Louise is still fresh in my mind. She's so passionate, so determined, a tempting beauty. Could she actually be real?
It's a sunny day, and sitting near the espresso counter, it's bustling all around us. But with this simple question, I am intently drawn to the answer. Just as the life, loves and challenges Louise faced in the novel have captivated me, our lighthearted conversation about writing and personal history takes a turn; I want to know more.
And that's what's unique about Earling. The way that she transports you swiftly, to sensitive places in her life ? namely the legacy of her Aunt Louise, on which the novel "Perma Red" is based.
Although she's an enrolled member of the Salish tribe, Earling grew up in Spokane, Wash. By the time she returned to the Flathead Indian Reservation as a young adult, she had already dropped out of school at age fifteen, gone back for her GED, and married at seventeen.
Working without a diploma proved difficult, especially when the only means of work was housekeeping. After another grueling day, Earling's mom came to her daughter's side. Her mother had never graduated either, but she knew she wanted something better for her daughter. "She said to me, Debra you don't want to do this forever." They set out to enroll together in GED classes at the Spokane Community College.
One day while pouring over fractions and vocabulary, a non-Indian teacher asked them a simple question. It was the first of many times ? Earling never forgot. "She asked us what we wanted to do with our GEDs. My Mom said she was just happy to have a high school diploma, but I said I wanted to go to law school."
She drew a quick response. Earling was told that she'd be lucky to make it to the regular community college, but never law school or even a big school.
Earling asked herself "Why not?" Why wouldn't she be allowed into law school? She refused to relinquish this dream. Properly so, because soon after getting the GED, her mom called with a proposition. An advertisement had been placed in the tribal newspaper for a position as Tribal Public Defender, no law degree necessary. Earling applied and landed the job. The dream had brought her home to Flathead. She was only18.
"I wanted the job so bad. I wanted to help my people, but didn't realize I was really helping myself."
Once home, old family stories rushed to her. She had heard of the Aunt Louise she had never met. Now back in the heartland, at the old Magpie allotment near Perma, threads of this elusive relative kept returning.
"A lot of men were in love with Louise. I didn't really know that until I returned to the reservation. I'd start talking to people. Talking to the old white ranchers, I'd ask anyone who'd remember her and they would say they remembered things like the color of her eyes in sunlight, how long her legs were. She was wild, tough and pretty. It was the smallest gestures that indicated to me they still loved her."
Louise's hair had been red, and long. And she had been strikingly beautiful. Throughout her short, tumultuous life she had easily maneuvered out of many attempts to pin her down. Raised by her grandmother near Perma after her mom had died young, Louise constantly found herself in and out of schools. As a truant, a last ditch effort to deal with her brought a stint in boarding school with the Ursulines. Not to be tethered by these abusive confines, so far from home, Louise remained unyielding, running away again and again. The law had no choice but to let Louise go her own way.
Sadly, her way wasn't long. On Christmas Eve, at the tender age of 23, in the year 1947, with a two-week-old baby left behind for the evening, Louise was picked up by two white men for a night out. They say she danced in Paradise [Montana] that night. As they returned the following morning on icy roads, their car careened off the highway. Louise was pulled from the wreckage, covered with a blanket and first laid in the snow. Then as her broken body was transferred to the back of a flatbed truck, without assistance she fought to stay alive. The responding sheriff and men walked away. People whispered that you could still see her moving beneath the blanket.
Louise became another young Indian woman fallen to the icy elements of winter and traumatic injuries to the body. Then she vanished, even records of her burial site out in Camas Prairie gone. All that remained were the memories of her toughness, wildness and beauty, still lingering with those who remembered. Now decades later, the tragic death still stings.
"I couldn't comprehend that kind of racism or disregard for human life. All the beautiful young people from the tribe that we want to rescue, but we don't know how to save, she reminded me of those people. So beautiful, so young," Earling said.
After so many years of absorbing stories of her Aunt Louise, Earling found her tangible, a strong spirit pulsing in the veins. "Our ancestors want us to tell their stories ? or they're people whose stories need to be told. I can't deny this story. I certainly hope I honor it."
Even though she was home and learning more about the aunt she never knew, Earling felt the need to go back to school. The story, eventually to become "Perma Red" was right there. But it had to wait. Just as restless as this influence in her life had been many years before, Earling felt the pull to leave home once more for school. Wrapping up two years with the Tribal Justice System, she headed west for college in Washington.
It wasn't easy. Although law was still fascinating to Earling, she was beginning to find more gratification in writing. Even though she was working hard and earning good grades, one professor, informed of Earling's non-traditional status and ethnic background, decided her young student would never add up to success. Earling was given another prophecy of failure. Not to be deterred, Earling graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors, magna cum laude. More importantly, however, Earling had just been notified of her acceptance to the prestigious Ford Doctoral Fellows Program. Studies were set to begin the following year at Cornell University in New York State.
It wasn't until several years later, with a Masters Degree in English under her belt that Earling made the commitment to write full-time. The story of Louise still haunted her. Heading home again, bunkered down for a long winter at her Turtle Lake family cabin, she began to give shape to the novel "Perma Red."
What emerged to the page is a story of passion, and lives led in extremes. Raw emotions permeate the novel, until there's blood around the edges. Set on the Flathead Indian Reservation, Louise dreams of love, yet barely survives cruel relationships. One minute she is struggling for conformity, the next fighting to escape mainstream norms. The spark inside of her is only a brisk wind away from engulfing entire landscapes in flames. Tempered by icy notions of three men who want her for themselves, this combination of fire and ice almost drowns Louise. With restlessness pulling her to dangerous extremes, the only chance for survival lies in finding middle ground. With searing images, Earling's poetic touch seeps into the conscience. Suddenly you've succumbed to the allure of Louise. Like an unseen wind clearing the air, while whipping up dust, and snapping trees back and forth, she is robust and delicate all at once.
During the last stages of writing the book, Earling says one night she awoke to find her Aunt Louise looking down upon her. Smiling, her aunt turned and left. Earling had changed the end of the story from a tragic death to a hopeful future, and this visit was approval. "I didn't think she wanted the book to end that way, I think she wanted a gift for my sister who was her daughter," Earling said.
Now several years and rewrites later, Louise lives. And upon reflection, looking at the many times people tried to confine another young woman, passionate in her ways, obstinate in her convictions, one can say that Louise also breathes again in a niece she never knew ? Debra Magpie Earling. "There's a beauty in the living and the dead. The dead never truly pass from us."