CHEROKEE, N.C. - Dawn Karima Pettigrew undertook the daunting task of distilling three generations of heartbreak and strife into 126 pages with her debut novel "The Way We Make Sense."
"My first poem was published when I was nine years old," said the young multiracial author. "I have been writing and publishing my work ever since. 'The Way We Make Sense' was my master's thesis when I received my MFA from Ohio State."
The tale begins in mid-century Oklahoma when Jack StandsStraight uses the daughter he feels he can spare as collateral against a Rodeo entry fee. When the debt cannot be repaid, the devout Baptist mother, Oklahoma Redpaint StandsStraight, smuggles her beloved child Indiana off to live with her parents in North Carolina.
The story's first heartbreak comes to pass and the chronicle of conflict; testing and eventual redemption of the next two generations of Redpaint women is underway.
The chapters of the novel interchange between story narrative and verse. Many times the title of the chapter is the reader's only clue as to which character is speaking. For example: the chapter entitled "School Supplies" has the subheading "What Manna Redpaint Turner really learned in K-12." This is then followed by the poem, "Pencil - weapon of choice, arrow of the New World. English - tongue of those in charge, in the mouths of those who know better. First day - God bottles the tears of first-graders, and of their mothers. He calls them holy water."
The author ages Manna from pre-school to college with this deceptively simple prose.
Pettigrew's writing style is strongly reminiscent of the American Indian narratives of antiquity. She relates her story with a sparseness of words that forces the reader to fill in the missing facts with their own personal details. The overall effect of which is a more intimate relationship with the characters.
When asked if any elements of the book were based on her own life Pettigrew responded, "It's an honor when people think that it might be based on real people and events, because it means I've told the story well, but it's still just a story."
The highly educated Pettigrew holds a master of fine arts degree in Creative Writing from Ohio State University and a bachelor's degree in Social Studies from Harvard. She is the first full-time writer-in-residence at Western Carolina University. Pettigrew is a member of the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, the Native Writers Circle of the Americas and the Native American Journalists' Association.
Pettigrew plans to continue writing and has already finished another book. "I am eagerly seeking a publisher for my second novel, 'The Marriage of Saints,'" she said.
"The Way We Make Sense" was released in 2002 by Aunt Lute Books. The non-profit Aunt Lute Foundation was formed in 1990 to produce and distribute books exploring personal truths of culturally diverse women's lives and their potential for personal and social change.
For more information, write to Aunt Lute Books, P.O. Box 410687, San Francisco, Calif. 94141, phone (415) 826-1300 or visit www.auntlute.com.