It took longer than it should have for me to realize that this is really an excellent little book. The style in which it is written is intentionally understated, no sentimentality, no insistent cries for social justice. It is left to the reader to assimilate the message and to infer from the events the condemnation of the economic system that has created the events. It is a book about the difficulty of bridging cultures and about the terrible sense of loneliness one woman feels who can find herself nowhere. Though a successful law school student at Berkeley and apparently living out the dreams of her father, dreams of learning the white man’s law as a way of helping Native Americans against whom that law is used as a weapon, she has had to bear incredible sacrifices in order to get where she is. She has to live without her children and the husband who sees her obsession with getting an education as simply willful abandonment of him and her family.
Even as a girl, long before running away from the reservation to the city, where she is forced as a pregnant teenager onto welfare rolls, she senses her alienation from those around her. To many (if not most) of her own people, she is seen as wanting to be white, as being ashamed of who she is and where she is from. Like her father, a chronic reader and dreamer, she is seen as being intentionally lazy, proud and incorrigible. Her own sisters and her mother conspire to have her sent away to a reservation school.
Barely escaping from a white lover who condescends to save her via marriage, shocked that his noble proposal is spurned by Cecelia, she finally gets herself enrolled in college in San Francisco. Still, she must accept welfare in order to support her child, and when the welfare people discover that she wants more money to attend college, she finds herself the target of a new indignant wrath.
So, having run to the city from the contempt of her mother and older sisters, she encounters the outraged contempt of the welfare system. Finally, she finds a new temporary champion in a white Teaching Assistant, a man who seems to see her abilities, to understand her deep and burning desire for an education. However, once she marries her new champion and he takes the only job he is offered, near the reservation she escaped from in Yakima, she finds that he, too, does not really understand why she must return to Berkeley. “[He] didn’t understand what graduating from Berkeley meant to her, since to him graduating from college was simply a matter of course.” Now that he has her, he, too, tells her that she hasn’t the mind for law school, that she lacks the analytical ability, that she really should stay home and be satisfied being his wife and a mother to her children.
‘Anthropology,’ Miss Wade read aloud, ‘English composition, Spanish, psychology.’ She laid the papers on the desk and took off her glasses, as if she could see better without them, and looked at Cecelia in a squinty-eyed fashion. ‘Are you off your rocker?’ she said. ‘You can’t handle classes like these. Anway, what good do you think they will do you, even if you do manage to make passing grades, which I seriously doubt you could?’
‘I don’t know what you mean, Miss Wade. Those are all required courses at all California universities.’
Universities? Now I've heard everything. You think you're going to university? How absurd.
‘Miss Wade, what do I have to do to get extra money to buy books and supplies now that I’m enrolled in college?’
‘What 'extra' money?’ Welfare doesn't have money to send recipients to college. Whatever gave you such a stupid idea?
‘I had a neighbor who was a welfare recipient. She went to college, and welfare paid for her books and her child care and her transportation.’
‘Maybe so, but she wasn’t taking courses like yours, I’m sure. She was taking practical training, something to help her get a job quickly and get off the rolls and stop being a leech. Some kind of vocational training—nurse’s aide, X-ray technician or dental assistant. You ... you want the taxpayers of California to send you to college to study anthropology, for God’s sake. You must be out of your mind. Do you think that’s fair?
I am telling this story clumsily, while Hale tells it artfully. From the very first scene, the reader discovers Cecilia in a jail cell, frozen between her dreams for what seem an increasingly doubtful future and a troubled past. Like Dostoevsky’s underground man, Cecilia Capture has nothing to do but to replay her past, captive both literally and figuratively, the reader is allowed to ‘overhear’ her story as her memory hopscotches wildly from frame to frame. Snapshots of alcohol-hazed attempts to find temporary respite from loneliness via one-night stands with strangers, snatching at the one sort of power allowed her in a racist and sexist culture, the power to attract by offering up her body. And between the snatched and drunken trysts, long, desperate, undernourished bouts of fevered studying, never quite sure she can master the arduous demands of law-school. Memories moving from yesterday or last week, back to her earliest memories, to the stories of her father’s own desperate (and failing) attempt to bridge two cultures through the study of law. Memories of her father’s early and boastful pride at Cecelia’s intellectual achievement and of his subsequent disenchantment and abandonment. All of this overlaid with the desire for a drink, fears that she has been cursed with her father’s alcoholism, her own sense of worthlessness, of having abandoned her own children to a man who does not understand them, and all of this mixed with a simple desire to die, to escape.
No doubt her sense of belonging nowhere is exacerbated by the fact that her mother boasts of her Irish roots, of her Irish mother, and of her hopes someday to escape to the homeland she has never seen. In moments of frustration (either with Cecila or with her intellectual but also alcoholic father, or simply with the day to day poverty they all find themselves in), her mother castigates her for being a lazy Indian, no matter that she is showing contempt for herself as well. How can Cecelia know who she is, who she aspires to be, where she belongs?
They helped their mother send away to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for application forms, which Cecilia refused to sign. Government schools were for academic underachievers, or for Navajos or Apaches who had lived in the heart of the reservation all their lives and could not speak English and knew nothing of white ways. You learned a trade if you were lucky. If you were not, you learned how to be a housemaid. You learned how to get along in the world, more or less. You learned to live like a reasonable facsimile of a white person. That was what her father always said about government boarding schools. Government school didn’t interest her any more than being a martyr did.
Perhaps I have told more of the story than you need to know. Ernest Hemingway is often praised as the master of understatement, of sparse, unsentimental prose. Janet Campbell Hale has a much more powerful and important story to tell than any that Hemingway told, and she does it with (I think) as sparse and economical and understated a style as any writer I have encountered.