General 5-8-2003

Roofwalker: Submerged Spirituality

Tim Carnahan reviews "Roofwalker," by Susan Power, published by Milkweed Editions ($20 hardcover).

Roofwalker is a collection of seven short stories and five
“histories” from Hamline professor and member of the Standing Rock Sioux
Tribe Susan Power. As is evidenced by her extensive academic pedigree,
including two degrees from Harvard and a MFA from the prestigious Iowa
Writer’s Workshop, Power is something of an intellectual dynamo, and a fine
craftsperson to boot.

And Roofwalker, published by Milkweed Editions, a press based in
Minneapolis, displays the steady hand of a skilled writer with a lot on her
mind. Taken out of the context of the larger work, many stories would read
as bland exercises in quiet meditation. Yet, taken as an entire work,
Roofwalker yields many insights and pleasures, not the least of which
is Power’s ability to finely craft short glimpses into the lives of Native
American women.

Her well-honed, clear prose reflects her considerable skill. Power capably
evokes an atmosphere saturated with meditative, quiet tension. Her even
delivery creates a reflective cadence that can be deceptively subdued and
helps smooth over the duller sections of certain stories. Power also
manages to run a thematic thread throughout the book, creating valuable
connections between the shorter, fleeting pieces.

There is a scene in the title story in which a young girl copes with her
father’s desertion:”I decided to circle back to my own beginning. Perhaps
that was where I should go to make things right, to bring my father home to
his lonesome family.” The scene is a good example of a central conflict:
that the past must be alive in the present in order that people deal with
the grim social realities and cultural dilemmas facing urban Native
Americans. And Power excels at taking the reader through the minds of Native
American women. She places her characters in seemingly tragic
circumstances, yet they often tap into their cultural past for courage and

The past provides for Power’s characters a spiritual buttress against
present difficulties and provides a glimpse of lost values, or of values
regained. History marbles their lives. History becomes something both
omnipresent and easily lost, and is best solidified through education and
diligent attention. History allows these characters to connect to their
heritage and the pain of assimilation and European imperialism.

In “First Fruits” a self-educated young woman confronts cultural
assimilation while a freshman at Harvard. She had spent her youth wandering
and watching spirits with her musician father, and later she struggles with
losing her sense of history, remarking: “The things that have significance
for me, an extraordinary weight, are those that are missing. Their absence
is tangible. My father has made off with the ghosts” (130).

Power’s detached first-person tone can cast a lonely haze over the
proceedings, and sometimes renders characters seemingly passive and
indifferent. She does not trivialize her characters, however, or subject
them to abuse simply to add atmosphere or make trite characterizations of
urban life.

Power also avoids caricature by developing the motivations of even the most
despicable characters. She does an excellent job building strong
relationships between her characters. Some of her stories suffer from a
limited scope, but no story is long enough to become tedious.

She treats those she writes of with care, giving each the agency to stage
small rebellions, experience spiritual awakenings, and come into contact
with lost traditions. The alienation of her characters from their heritage
and from the reservation, and the ways in which the city (Chicago)
contributes to that alienation, cast a lonely isolation over the book.

“Chicago Waters,” the final selection in the book, beautifully captures the
prevailing mood of quiet desperation, fragile beauty, and submerged
spirituality. A young child explores her relationship with Lake Michigan.
A child almost drowns herself in the massive body of water yards from her
public housing complex. Lake Michigan and Chicago become symbolic of the
tension existing within an urban Native American seeking to balance her
daily life with a spirituality deriving from a radically different social

The dangerous Lake Michigan becomes, in contrast to the confining,
suffocating urban Chicago, a chaotic temptation for spiritual submersion.
Entering in its waters offers a primary spiritual contact. To Power there
is an inherent risk in protecting a sense of history, but denying that
challenge would be to deny yourself access to fundamental cultural truths.