A Tribe Apart and Alone
Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend exposes hard choices for native youth
Crazy Horse's Girlfriend
Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend by Erika T. Wurth (Curbside Splendor; paperback; $15.95) is more than abrasive—much, much more than abrasive. Subversive, insidious, iconoclastic, perhaps, but I think Wurth had that in mind the whole time. It cracks open the layers of pseudo-spirituality, genetic “naturalness” and noble savagery that have been lacquered upon the ugly truths of modern native life. (I’ll be using the word “native” to describe the descendants of North America’s first human inhabitants. Anything else seems euphemistic.)
Wurth’s protagonist Margaritte is something like three-quarters native (she thinks); 16 years old; lives in Idaho Springs, Colo.; sells weed and saves money for an ill-defined, only dimly perceived future that is somehow better than the life she now lives.
Her friends are more familial than her family. Her dad is a full-time alcoholic, sometime mechanic; her mom is an overworked, underpaid schoolteacher who's always grading papers; there are some twin little sisters to keep an eye on, watch some “Sesame Street” with; and Margaritte spends more than her share of time in hospitals (the story begins with her getting stabbed in a drug deal gone loony and ends with her holding her nose and diving into the bureaucratic paperwork of public health).
Not particularly beautiful, not particularly a brainiac in hoodie disguise, Margaritte is good enough to get along and, considering the shit that comes her way, just getting along is more than good enough. Idaho Springs is something like 35 miles west of Denver, the kind of rural sinkhole that carries on by inertia and proximity to Interstate 70. No matter what may happen in Boulder or Aspen or Telluride or Vail or Steamboat Springs, Colorado is, above and beyond and especially beneath it all, a redneck state with a sullen horde of pissed-off cowboys, miners, roughnecks, truck drivers, loggers and their womenfolk muttering and seething on the edge of things, stockpiling ammunition and MRIs, perpetually disappointed the world hasn’t ended, confused as to whether Red Dawn was a documentary.
Out there in the wilderness of civilization, somewhere other than Idaho Springs, is Margaritte’s native heritage. It’s something she can only dimly remember from a time before her mother’s sister and brother-in-law found Jesus and turned away from the Native American Church and toward the prosperity Jesus beamed up from the Front Range mega-churches. Margaritte has a few mementos left from those days, beadwork and a peyote fan, but they are just another kind of Indian-made souvenir; she has been urbanized in a way only the American West can urbanize a child.
Margaritte has a few mementos left from those days, beadwork and a peyote fan, but they are just another kind of Indian-made souvenir; she has been urbanized in a way only the American West can urbanize a child.
She openly mocks “New Age” appropriators of native culture but has little connection to her own heritage. She’ll drive 80 miles round trip to Denver for the chance to see a foreign movie but keeps her head down in school and her nose buried in Stephen King escapism. Whatever world she will have in 21st-century America, it’s a world she’ll have to build herself without much help from anyone else.
The choice Margaritte makes as she faces what will be one of those crossroads in her life, perhaps the last real crossroads in her life, may baffle, confuse or outrage some readers. The decision she makes may seem beyond the responsibilities that should be foisted on a 16-year-old. But since no one else seems available and, like so many other American children of every class and ethnicity, these kids are raising themselves, young Margaritte makes her choice for good or bad. The end of the novel seems abrupt, and some loose ends are left not only loose, but also seemingly forgotten. I worry about those twins in front of the TV. I worry about Julia and Treena. Still, Wurth shows us enough of the young woman Margaritte is and will be to make that ending, ambiguous as it may be, credible and believable, if not actually courageous.
A note on the word “gritty”: If the word had any meaning when applied to literature, that meaning has been long lost after decades of stereotypes, clichés and flabby writing. What it once conveyed no longer applies, and it is certainly useless when discussing Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend. Still, it seems to be slung around with regularity when critics or blurbists visit their attentions to this novel. It seems akin to describing Moby Dick as a very wet book. Wurth (and Melville) deserve more.
Wednesday, Sept. 24, 7pm
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