The Maturation Aspect In the Grass Dancer and God’s Country—A Comparative Essay.
Both novels mentioned above deals a lot with the maturation of its characters. Each character is introduced as he/she is and the reader is then taken on a journey in which each character seems to “grow.” In some cases, as with Marder in God’s Country, the character seems to take one step forward and two steps backward, yet he does” mature” in the aspect that his narrow viewpoint of his surroundings is widened an inch or so—he begins to understand right from wrong but rather than listen to the voice of reason he chooses to do what he feels any other stereotypical white man in his place would do. Each character in the Grass Dancer begins to find his/her identity toward the end of the book, and the author uses a circular technique to present each character’s maturity—the novel begins in the present, but it goes back several generations, and then returns to the present once more, so the reader is made to understand the interconnections between the past and the present, and how the past has made the character into what he/she is today.
Harley, who is most likely the main character in the Grass Dancer, is also the first character who is introduced to us in the book. The novel beings by stating that “when Harley saw his father, Calvin Wind Soldier, and his brother, Duane, in his dreams, they were wearing crowns of glass. Drops of blood trickled down their foreheads…Four weeks before Harley was born; his father and his older brother were killed in a car crash.”(Powers, 03) Thus, in the first paragraph itself, the author successfully brings across the idea that Harley is probably someone who is in search of his identity—he dreams about the father and brother whom he did not know, and in his dreams they wear “crowns of glass”—he is obviously deeply affected by their death, yet even in his dreams he only sees them in their death. He explains to Pumpkin that when his brother died, “he took everything with him.” His mother, Lydia Wind Soldier, has not spoken to Harley since his father and brother were killed in the car crash. He feels that his mother gave her voice to his brother as a parting gift, and as a result he feels empty and lonely.
As a child, he draws this empty space as a black spot on his torso, to the dismay of his teachers, and as he grows older, the black hole “stretched to accommodate his new size. It grew as his bones lengthened and his heart swelled. It became elastic.”(Powers, 19) It is only when he later meets Pumpkin, a half Sioux, half Irish young woman from Chicago; at a powwow does he realize that he is not the only person who feels like an outcast. Pumpkin feels isolated from Sioux culture because of the fact that she is intellectually curious and loves to read—which sets her apart from her peers; and she feels like an outcast from her Irish heritage because of her involvement in the Indian community. She tells Harley that she has “plenty of soul to spare. I m rubbing it into you right now… you won’t be alone now, I’m a part of you now, like it or not” (Powers, 42) However it is not until the very end of the book, when with the help of Herod Small War, Harley is reunited with his spiritual ancestors, such as Red Dress, Ghost Horse and his brother and father does he realize that he can overcome the feeling of emptiness within his soul and regain his identity. Thus, by the closure of the novel Harley’s character “matures” into a person who comes to terms with his individualism.
In stark contrast to Power’s presentation of Harley’s character in Grass Dancer, Percival Everett’s main character in God’s Country, Curt Marder, is presented in a tongue in cheek manner, so to speak. Whereas Harley’s character possesses a quiet strength and resolution as well as sensitivity, Marder’s comic character is that of a “no count rogue in a well known historical setting” whose main claim to existence is his whiteness. When the reader is first introduced to Marder, he is watching from a safe distance as his house is being burned down, and his woman being kidnapped by a gang of rogues. He states that he had a “half a mind to ride down that hill and say something, but it was just half a mind after all, and I didn’t suspect that they’d listen at that moment.”(Everett, 3) Thus from the very first page, the reader is made to understand that the narrator is someone who obviously lacks a backbone and resolve. However, what keeps the reader turning the pages in this book is that we keep expecting Marder’s character to “mature” and develop some common sense, however it seems that each time he takes one step forward, he also takes two steps backward.
Marder’s character is deeply contrasted with that of Bubba, the black tracker that he hires (without capacity to pay) to help him find the outlaws who razed his house and kidnapped his woman. Bubba seems to be everything that Marder is not. The selfishness, greed and self-centeredness that is apparent in Marder is completely lacking in Bubba. His character epitomizes the tragic Western hero—a man of few words, of totally committed and decisive actions, and completely devoid of an egotistic nature. Like Harley in Grass Dancer, toward the end of the book Bubba matures and comes into terms with his own identity. When Bubba is first introduced, he is working Mr. Tucker’s land, mending a fence. It seems he has come to accept his fate as a black man in the 19th century.
When Marder asks him how he knows he was not merely being paid a social visit by him, Bubba simply states “your color and mine.” However, once he agrees to help Marder find his wife and the people who razed his homestead, Bubba comes onto his own. He realizes that he is as intelligent (if not more so) than most of his white counterparts. At the surprising ending in the book, he tells Marder that he “ain’t got enough interest in you to kill you… and you or somebody what looks like you or thinks like you or is you will find me and you’ll burn me out, shoot me or maybe lynch me. But you know something? You cain’t kill me.” In other words, he seems to be telling Marder that he will not die for anybody else except himself because nobody owns him.
Marder’s character, on the other hand seems to develop and mature only a little—as opposed to the characters of Bubba or Harley. Much like the character of Jeannette in the Grass Dancer, he has preconceived notions of “how things ought to be.” Toward the end of the book, the reader gets the feeling that there is a hint of a pang of guilty conscience in Marder when Custer destroys the Indian reservation/village of Big Elk. However, his character is not strong enough to do what he feels is the right thing to do, and instead he would much rather do what he feels any other “white” man in his place would do. Also, in the beginning of the book, Marder does not seem to realize that calling Bubba “boy” or “nigger” is discriminatory; however toward the end he refrains from calling Bubba such names because he seems to realize it is wrong to do so.
Jeannette’s character in Grass Dancer is somewhat similar to that of Marder in that they both have preconceived notions about race. Jeannette feels that Indian culture has long been dead. She tells Mercury Thunder that when she first arrived at the reservation fresh from college in order to study Indian culture she had thought that “this was going to be a thing about death: dead culture, dead language, dead God. I came out here to record the funeral, so to speak” (Powers, 162) However, after meeting Mercury and Herod Small War she realizes that Indian culture is far from being a dead culture—that in fact it is as vital and vibrant as it had been hundreds of years ago. At first, Jeannette tries her best to imitate Indian culture, by dyeing her hair black; however she later realizes that she does not have to become an Indian to be a part of their culture, but that, in fact, whites and Indians can co-exist in the same community without letting go of their own values or culture. When she has a baby with her Indian husband, she is told by Herod Small War that the baby has to “know both sides. Otherwise, she’ll stand off-balance and walk funny and talk out of one side of her mouth,” (Powers, 314)
Another main character in Grass Dancer that undergoes maturation is that of Mercury Thunder. As a young woman, she was a loving wife and mother to her white husband and son. However, later when her husband and child dies she decides to take fate into her own hands by practicing black magic. She feels that by doing so, nobody would ever be able to hurt her again. In a sense, her character is somewhat comparable to Bubba’s character, because she decides that nobody should be able to control her life but herself ; however, unlike Bubba, her motives in the end become selfish, and she has only her own interest at heart.
As demonstrated above, most of the characters in both novels seem to undergo maturation. The techniques used by the authors, namely the circular technique used by Susan Powers is very effective as the reader is first given a glimpse of the characters as they are in the present, but by going backward in time , and spanning several generations, the reader begins to understand the factors that influenced them into becoming who they are today. Everrett’s writing style is also very compelling—his use of satire, and the way the world is presented through the eyes of “Dirt” Marder is very effective—his shallow, superficial view of the world is effectively contrasted against the sensible, astute attitude of Bubba. The maturation of Bubba’s character is again contrasted with that of Marder’s—which undergoes very little growth.