Review by Joy Ralph

Off the Path: An Anthology of 21st Century Montana American Indian Writers is a collection edited by Adrian Jawort, a writer, editor, and owner of Off the Pass Press. Jawort’s anthology series gives needed space to Native American voices in Montana spaces. These thought-provoking stories showcase not only the, at times, difficult realities in Native American communities; they also shed light on the universal commonality that small events can have large consequences. Though the collection is worthy for the voices themselves, readers desperate to find the moral of the individual stories can find those too.

*

God’s Plan by Cinnamon Spear

Spear’s work is genuinely chilling to someone like myself who is familiar with alcoholic blackouts and their consequences, personal or otherwise. It’s easy to acknowledge that life always offers a choice, but sometimes that choice is between equally difficult options. The protagonist here has been an intimate party to a great deal of chaos, and the contrast with her parents and their alcohol-impaired memories is stark. The narrative she tells herself is so polished and glib that it is easy to overlook the weight of the story’s events. It’s an emotionally wrenching piece that rewards close reading.

*

He Doesn’t Know He’s Dead Yet by Adrian L. Jawort

If you can have a warm-and-fuzzy noir story, this is it. Melancholy and bittersweet, the piece introduces readers to two brothers meeting for drinks in a bar before they go their separate ways. We all grieve differently and for varied lengths of time, and the layers of grieving here are deftly interwoven. I found it touching and memorable; it’s definitely a favorite.

*

Green-Eyed Regret by Luella N. Brien

Brien’s is another melancholy tale in this collection, a little darker than the prior two stories. The ending might be somewhat predictable, but I believe her choice is deliberate and serves to support the underlying themes. The story opens with Maddy becoming “the statistic she never wanted to be,” so that any seeming cliché points back to one ultimate instance. I also like the reminder that statistics about horrible things are horrible things happening to people, each of whose life was of value.

*

Sweetheart by Cinnamon Spear

Cinnamon Spear clearly remembers, and is able to impart to her protagonist, the dichotomy of being the age where you know everything and nothing about life at the same time. Armed with tons of theory, very little practice, and the complete self-assurance of the truly naïve, it’s possible to make huge mistakes, all unwitting. When one is certain one is doing the right thing, the resulting chaos when things go off the rails hurts twice as much due to a seeming betrayal on the part of the world and your teachers both. Difficult to watch but impossible to look away.

*

Where Custer Last Slept by Adrian L. Jawort

This tragedy is the perfect example of how incredible things can happen and yet nothing really changes in the end. Extremes of behavior and intensity of feeling in this tale don’t seem to leave a lasting mark on the day-to-day grinding by of existence. Even the effects of murder become muted, with no significant repercussions outside of the efforts of the group of friends involved to self-police the future. No matter what happens tomorrow is another day.

*

My Brother’s Keeper (a novella excerpt) by Eric Leland Bigman Brien

This is a really lovely character sketch with an unusual first person viewpoint. Genuine and realistic, and darkly humorous. Another favorite. I would like to read the full novella.

*

Bloody Hands by Cinnamon Spear

This is a story that I can see being quite intense if you have struggled with an ill-timed pregnancy or the decision to have children. I suspect this story may be the expiation of some personal demons, with the intense emotional signature such things can acquire.

*

The Stereo Typer by Adrian Jawort

Suicide, alcoholism and a noir sensibility all combine here in a resolution that I found a bit too neat, but the story is regardless a worthwhile read. It captures the nihilism that can creep into life when one struggles with issues that seem impossible to resolve.

*

The Education of Little Man False Star Boy by Sterling HolyWhiteMountain

HolyWhiteMountain examines in this somber story the concept of, per the author, “reparations for land illegally taken.” It is a bleak tale, but one that combines the complex breach into adulthood with birth, death, and a connection to the land that supersedes pastoral stereotypes into the realm of the spiritual. Here, the protagonist finds poverty even in modest wealth, a truism that will shake the empathetic reader to their senses.

*

The stories in this collection show how the repercussions of colonialism continue to impact lives and livelihoods. Racism has only partially mutated into economic snobbery and is no less potent or wrong. In spite of this Native Americans are living lives, surviving, and voicing their stories. The paths taken in this anthology are both grim and hopeful, a gritty but rewarding journey. Recommended for fans of work in the style of Raymond Carver.

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Joy Ralph grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Having spent most of her life along the I-5 corridor, she is reviewing works from authors with a connection to the region. She tweets as @cithra.