Can you help me make the Great Native American Novel reading list?
December 7, 2013 6:04 AM   Subscribe

I like to learn about different places and cultures by reading fiction set in those places and with characters from those cultures. Can you recommend to me a contemporary novel about American Indians? I'm particularly interested in books about Native American communities in the continental US.

I realize that "American Indians" is a big, diverse group, but any notable fiction with American Indian characters would be good start for me. I'm not really interested in reading science fiction or fantasy novels, but any other genre (literary fiction, mystery, chick lit, etc) would be fine. I'd prefer novels set in the last 30 years or so. Thanks so much!
posted by bluefly to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Try Louise Erdrich. She's written a number of novels, but you might start with Love Medicine. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
posted by Area Man at 6:20 AM on December 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Also, Tony Hillerman's excellent mystery novels.
posted by zanni at 6:28 AM on December 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

Definitely Erdrich and Alexie. Personally I'd recommend starting with Alexie's Reservation Blues.

With Erdrich, I'd also start with Love Medicine.

Other giants in this field include M. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko.

You might also like to watch some films. You could start with Smoke Signals, which is streaming on Amazon (based on an Alexie novel; screenplay co-wriiten by him).

All things being equal I'd start with books actually by Native Americans, but Ian Frazier (not Indian -- New Yorker writer) has written a good literary nonfiction work that reads as easily as fiction: On the Rez.
posted by third rail at 6:38 AM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

David Treuer's literary novels.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:39 AM on December 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

You might like Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water, although it has some magic realism mixed in.
posted by dlugoczaj at 6:44 AM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

You also could delve into a lot of different experiences by reading a variety of Native American contemporary short fiction. Here's a good anthology of short fiction by native american women, most of whom were born in the second half of the 20th century:
posted by third rail at 6:48 AM on December 7, 2013

I see dlugoczaj beat me to the Green Grass, Running Water punch. Technically you asked for US books and this one is Canadian, but the Canada-US border is a recent European invention, and one that pays little heed to the existing borders between Native American nations. Green Grass, Running Water is smart, delightful, and very pointed.

Another really good Thomas King novel, and one without the magic realist flourishes of GG,RR, is Truth and Bright Water. It really digs into just how little sense that US-Canada border makes, from a Native perspective.
posted by erlking at 7:15 AM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anther vote for Louise Erdrich, I love her. I'd recommend reading several of her books though, because they are all loosely about the same community, but each focuses on a different group of people, or a different time in their lives. So the main characters in one book are peripheral in another, and sometimes you get different people's versions of the same story. This kind of layering and circular storytelling is a big part of the experience and you'll miss out if you just read one book.

Love Medicine is great, but my favorite is Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.
posted by ella wren at 7:51 AM on December 7, 2013

You might like Laughing Boy. Bit of an odd duck, that book: written 1929, white author, Native characters, modernist stream of consciousness style. Won the Pulitzer.
posted by Diablevert at 8:21 AM on December 7, 2013

Here are some resources for you:
Dictionary of Native American Literature, edited by Andrew Wiget. It includes sections on oral literatures. It's filled with short biographies and bibliographies of most of the best-known contemporary Native American authors. Here are a few of the names, authors from 1967 to the present (not including the two I mention further on):
Vine Deloria, Jr.
Louise Erdrich (as others have mentioned!)
Joy Harjo (love her poetry, it's powerful)
N. Scott Momaday
Leslie Marmon Silko (beautiful writing)
Gerald Vizenor (huge name)

Roots of Survival - Native American Storytelling and the Sacred, by Joseph Bruchac, a well-known, contemporary Native American author. It's nonfiction, but a wonderful read. Great for getting context on Native American storytelling, and the pitfalls inherent in a lot of (not all, but a lot of) non-native writing about Native America.

Spider Woman's Granddaughters - Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women, edited by Paula Gunn Allen, herself a contemporary Native American author and scholar. A wonderful collection of short stories and excerpts from larger works, this is a great introductory work.
posted by fraula at 8:39 AM on December 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you're looking for notable fiction with Indian characters, I can't think of a finer, more disturbing novel than Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. It takes place in the mid-1800s, so doesn't fit your time criterion, and Indians are not the main focus; but it's a fantastic book and well worth the read.
posted by Paris Elk at 9:00 AM on December 7, 2013

Linda Hogan
posted by mareli at 9:57 AM on December 7, 2013

Another vote for Reservation Blues as the Alexie novel you ought to start with. It's magical realism, which I know not everyone loves, but it's absolutely one of my favorite books.

He's written a few other novels and a great many short stories as well. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Toughest Indian in the World are both excellent short story collections.
posted by duffell at 4:13 PM on December 7, 2013

Fools Crow is an absolutely wonderful book set in Montana, focusing on Blackfeet Indians.

Very different, but also very good, is Caribou Rising, a short little book by environmentalist/activist Rick Bass--he's writing about a native group in Alaska, and their present-day relationship with caribou.
posted by Grandysaur at 4:32 PM on December 7, 2013

Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony is great.

Also, try these books:

Last Standing Woman by Winona LaDuke

Walking the Rez Road by Jim Northrup

Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway (Canadian author)
posted by gudrun at 5:46 PM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of these recommendations. I'm halfway through Love Medicine, and it's really good! I'm learning a lot of history, but through a wonderful story. It will take me a while to get through the rest of this list, but I've copied all the authors and book titles into a text file and put it on my phone for whenever I'm in a bookstore next.
posted by bluefly at 12:56 PM on December 27, 2013

Funny, this actually came up in a conversation with my cousins a while back. They strongly recommend anything by Tony Hillerman.
posted by tilde at 12:51 AM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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