Chelsea T. Hicks
Special to Indian Country Today

Current and historic events unite with memory in “Carry,” Toni Jensen’s memoir of violence across time and place in America. “Because,” writes the Métis author, “these times and those times and all times are connected through land and bodies and water.”

From a parking lot where men traffic women and leave beer bottles and used condoms and needles, to the neighborhood of a white woman who holds her neighbors at gunpoint, Jensen insists on examining violence with equity. Of killers, she writes, “We have to look straight on at who commits mass violence, at who commits all violence, to understand the social, familial, and policy-related changes needed to shift the country toward change. We’re all in this.”

Jensen connects fracking with sexual violence in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, and in Texas — in the Wolfcamp Shale and in the Permian Basin. She travels through those places and others, interviewing trafficked women and helping protest the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock Indian Reservation. In researching and protesting, in entering and exiting jobs and marriages, she forms a peripatetic narrative calling for greater responsibility in our culture.

One chapter opens with a summary of the Sand Creek massacre, in which two-thirds of the massacred were women and children. “The taking by force of our land always has been twinned with the taking by force of our bodies, our most vulnerable bodies — our women, our children.” A popular artist’s depiction of this historical scene shows the women to be alive, but Jensen posits that this painting represents American denial. This chapter goes on to center on missing and murdered Indigenous women, a complex issue the author characterizes with startling grace.

In characterizing her own family relationships, Jensen recollects how her father once threw her body across her childhood bed, aimed at the bedroom window. She carries the pain after, always, in her ribs. She is also in touch with her father in present-day narratives. Her familial connection relates to her father’s gun ownership, as she argues that we cannot add more pressure to men who become shooters after emotional tragedies.

“It’s important for Americans to begin to see these [violent] men as our neighbors, our co-workers, our sons — because they are. Before they act, they are often considered the good guy with the gun.” The memoir bristles and soothes as the author questions who is responsible. This is a book for this moment in American history, in which it is tempting to stay in denial, but our lives are at stake. Jensen knows the cost of denial, and she warns us. “There is no worse life than a pretending life,” Jensen writes. “There is no worse house than a pretending house.”

Connection is a core value uniting Indigenous cultures, and Jensen notes the dictates of her traditional Métis culture that insist families stay connected. But she also models a way for women to leave abusive men and set boundaries. “What does it mean,” she asks, “to be a good daughter, a good mother, a good girlfriend or wife? Where in this ideal, this notion of good, is there room for honest emotion? Where in this ideal is room for struggle or for a graceful exit?”

These calls to civic engagement and familial generosity come in a controlled voice filled with tension, like the hand hovering alongside the bird on the book’s cover. This pairing of a bird and a hand depict the risks of touch, which can administer care or violence. Jensen has said the book is likely to be important and difficult for readers who have experienced childhood abuse. I am a survivor of abuse who does not speak to her father, and while reading, I decided to send my father a birthday card, imagining what it would look like to have a relationship with him again.

In reading, I reflected. I felt that books had raised me, and so did violence. I believed in both. When I moved from the east coast to the west, I broke my father’s worldview over the Mason Dixon Line. I know now that men don’t own women, but so many still act as they do. I thought of guns an ex kept illegally and showed me in shared grad school housing. “Are you afraid of me now?” he asked. And then: “Don’t tell anyone I have these.” I didn’t.

I have wanted to protect men for their bad behavior: the lover who threw and hit things or pushed me when angry; the friend who blurred lines in our relationship as he entered a position of authority over me. I thought of my own father’s guns. I want to ask men to read this book and say I miss the ones I’ve lost, but I don’t know how to hold responsibility and kindness in the balance as Jensen does.

If readers are not yet healed enough to answer their fathers’ calls and describe birds from their window views, as Jensen does for her father in a scene, “Carry” has a sympathetic response. The book is not urging the daughters of abusive men to enact the behaviors that make women stereotypically and harmfully “good.” The book is, however, asking everyone to try and spread more lightness, especially if they don’t want to.

Jensen shows that the root of violence is not in Hollywood, or in Washington, but in families. Her argument reckons with morality beyond conservative or progressive thought and pushes “Carry” beyond a polemical work, or one of non-fiction or memoir. More than pushing genre, Jensen is pushing the function of a published literary work. “I wish this book could be more of a reckoning,” Jensen writes, noting the limitations of a written document. But her argument does the work to establish a reckoning. She is insistent on attention to current and historical events — all that which is necessary to foment a reckoning with American violence.

From the 150th mass shooting of 2019, in Virginia Beach, to police brutality at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation during the No DAPL protests of 2017. The argument is that “we are no longer a civilized nation if ever we were.”

“Carry” is a starting place for change, in that the very act of reading it counters the American habit of denial.

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Chelsea T. Hicks, Osage, Pawhuska District, is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area and a recent graduate from the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. She teaches heritage language acquisition courses at IAIA and writes stories and essays incorporating Wahzhazhe ie, or the Osage language. Her work has been published in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Yellow Medicine Review, the Believer, and elsewhere.