Perma Red: Debra Magpie Earling's Great (Native) American Novel

Jul 5, 2002 (Updated Jul 5, 2002)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Earling's sentences are simple and unadorned. Every page shimmers with poetry.

Cons:None. Absolutely none.

The Bottom Line: Deceptively simple on the surface, this debut novel is tangled with star-crossed lovers, racial tension and, ultimately, hope.

Debra Magpie Earling’s debut novel Perma Red is something of a miracle. The University of Montana creative writing professor began writing it in 1984 and, over the years, it has gone through at least nine different rewrites, trimmed from an epic-length 800 pages to a compact 288, been burned to a crisp in a house fire, and rejected by publishers who loved the writing but thought the original ending too dark and brutal.

Through it all, Earling persevered and the novel stands as a testament to her faith and patience. Perma Red wears the two decades of hard work on the sleeve of its dust jacket. I mean that as the sincerest compliment. Like the finest of wines, Perma Red’s vintage has reached the peak of perfection with a lyricism that makes most other books on the average bookstore’s New Release table look like cheap bottles of Mogen-David.

Taken at face value, there’s really nothing extraordinary about Perma Red’s plot. A sixteen-year-old girl, Louise White Elk, struggles to escape life on the Flathead Indian Reservation as she is caught in a tug-of-war between the men who love her: the volatile-tempered Baptiste Yellow Knife, the rich white man Harvey Stoner, and the soulful reservation police officer Charlie Kicking Horse. Fans of James Welch, Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie will undoubtedly hear echoes of those authors on these pages.

What makes Earling’s novel such a stellar piece of literature—the closest thing approaching a masterpiece I’ve read in recent years—is the way she gets the reader involved in the characters on the page. These are not mere pulp-and-ink creations—they are real people who continue to haunt me even now, nearly a week after finishing the book. When I reached the last page, it was a heart-wrenching moment as I knew I’d have to say goodbye to Louise, Baptiste and Charlie Kicking Woman.

Imagine, then, the emotional journey Earling must have taken when writing Perma Red. Complicating matters is the fact that Louise is based in part on Earling’s aunt who was murdered when she was 23. Earling has transformed her family history, the legendary story of an aunt who was “wild and vivacious and sexy,” into literature with universal appeal and which subtly comments on strained race relations.

Subtlety limns every page of the novel. Perma Red is set in the 1940s, yet it has a timeless aura; it is about Native Americans, but the characters could be anyone caught in the net of a love triangle; it takes place in Montana, yet you could substitute the American South or New England and it would have the same impact. Earling’s simple, graceful way with words creates a world where we can all find some part of ourselves on the page.

From the first sentence—When Louise White Elk was nine, Baptiste Yellow Knife blew a fine powder in her face and told her she would disappear—Earling draws us into the complex relationship between strong-willed Louise and the reservation’s bad boy Baptiste, a rattlesnake-deadly Heathcliff. Try as she might, Louise is unable to resist his dark pull:

When Baptiste Yellow Knife got drunk he was mean. His teeth looked big. She noticed he had tattooed her name on his hand with indigo pen ink. The tattoo was large, in wide block letters, blue pigment staining his skin forever with her name. Louise tried to imagine Baptiste poking the ink-dipped needle into his brown hand again and again, ink pooling beneath his skin, her name sinking into his blood.

Louise longs to escape not only Baptiste, but the reservation and the harsh Catholic schoolteachers, the “bad medicine” cast on her family by Baptiste’s mother, the barren, snake-haunted landscape and the ever-present undercurrent of violence. In the course of the novel, Louise is always in motion—literally and figuratively. She is running away from herself, but what is she running toward?

If Charlie Kicking Woman had his way, she’d be running straight into his arms. As tribal police officer, he is always on the lookout for Louise, a habitual truant from school. Charlie and Louise do a ritualistic dance of pursuit-capture-pursuit-capture, and even though his attraction to the teenager threatens to destroy his marriage, he can’t keep his mind, or his eyes, off her. Some people just seem to draw trouble and Louise is one of them, he tells us. Perma Red’s chapters shift points of view between Charlie in the first person and Louise and Baptiste in the third—as such, we’re drawn most intimately into Charlie’s mind.

Lives are tangled, tension mounts, characters die tragically and the land-scouring Montana wind continues to blow. Perma Red climaxes on a note which most readers will probably see coming for many pages, but yet it is a note which is ultimately satisfying—right down to the last, simple sentence: She stepped forward.

With Perma Red, Debra Magpie Earling finally steps forward after two decades and delivers a book as permanently beautiful as the Montana landscape itself. To paraphrase another Big Sky writer, Norman Maclean, I am haunted by words.

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