Skip to main content

Week 20

Louis Owens Dark River (1999)


"Motions of Fire and Form." Mixedblood Messages, 167-183.

"Finding Gene." I Hear the Train, 3-15

Owens acknowledges that the raw materials for his novels are drawn from his own experiences and those of his family. He also suggests that while pre-Columbian tribal peoples might not have had a westernized sense of individual identity, the late twentieth-century Native American author inevitably will. In Mixedblood Messages and I Hear the Train, he strives to leave clear evidence of the relationships between his family’s complex, marginalized history, their individual characters, their shared experiences and his works of fiction. Most poignant is his acknowledgement in I Hear the Train that his elder brother’s experiences as a Vietnam veteran and his attempts to deal with the sense of loss this in turn inflicted on him led to his writing his second novel, The Sharpest Sight. Arguably, his most mature tribute to his brother Gene and war veterans like him, who continue to suffer twenty-five years on, is in my opinion the characterization of Jake Nashoba.

For all the postmodern games and trickster aesthetics of Dark River, Jake Nashoba is a tragic hero, journeying ineluctably towards the heart of darkness, playing over and over the pointless futility of America’s apocalypse now. The clues are there from the start, but the implicit reader is unlikely to take them too seriously, since they are balanced by a textual playfulness that suggests survivance rather than vanishment. Paradoxically, this realistic mixed blood protagonist will get involved in the deadly hyperreality of Rambo-esque war games.

Knowing that he draws on personal and family experiences shouldn’t lead us to assume that he writes “transparent” texts. Especially in Dark River there is a critical creative intelligence at work. The implied author of Dark River signals to his readers that “nothing’s going to change and it’s not so great but basically okay.” The rituals of the healing sing won’t be transformed into a hybrid, optimistic literary text this time. But neither will the author fulfil reader expectations of dead-end, self-destructive Indians, vanishing themselves with humor. Trickster-like, the implied author simultaneously announces that the plot might do both of these contradictory things as well, after a fashion.

Points for Discussion
  • Think about the role of fake Indians in the text.
  • Think about non-Indians wanting to "play Indian."
  • Consider the cultural spaces in the text, including the reservation, its buildings and the dark river valley.
  • Why does Jake refer to Ernest Hemingway?
  • How should we read the Spider Woman story here?
  • What are your reactions to the ending?
  • In what ways might this text be a critical/creative response to Silko's Ceremony.
Further Reading

David Brande & Margaret Dwyer. Reviews of Dark River. SAIL. Winter 1999: 71-77.

Dennis, Helen May. Native American Literature: Towards a spatialized reading. Routledge paperback, 2009 (first published 2007), Chapter 12.

Purdy, John. Clear Waters: A Conversation with Louis Owens. Western Washington University.

Owens, Louis. I Hear the Train: Reflections, Inventions, Refractions. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Owens, Louis. Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Holm, Tom. Strong Hearts Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans of the Vietnam War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Barbara Mikkelson. "Iron Eyes Cody."

Please read the scanned extracts from Louis Owens non fiction prose:
"Motions of Fire and Form." Mixedblood Messages, 167-183.
and "Finding Gene." I Hear the Train,3-15.