Writing in tradition

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From the Hilltop
Toni Jensen
179 pages, softcover: $19.95.
University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

In From the Hilltop, her first short story collection, Toni Jensen relies on her Métis heritage (a mixed Indian and European cultural group from Canada and the Northern U.S.) to explore contemporary Indian life off the reservation. It is not surprising that her writing shows the influence of other Indian writers, such as Sherman Alexie and Stephen Graham Jones, her teacher. After all, Jensen is writing in a tradition: a cultural tradition that began many thousands of years ago in North America, and a literary tradition that grew out of the oral histories of the late 19th century.

One of the collection’s best stories, "At the Powwow Hotel," is set on a west Texas cotton farm. Corn appears miraculously in the fields, followed by Indians from many tribes who converge at a hotel. A dance erupts among the people, not unlike the Ghost Dance movement of the 1890s, which promised to deliver Native peoples from white American expansion. In Jensen’s story, tradition collides with modernity and pushes the Indian cultures forward, freeing them from the deadening shackles of stereotypes. Jensen writes, "There was the sound of feet, moving counterclockwise, the smell of coffee and bread and the raw greenness of the field. And tonight, there were my legs, too, stiff at first, but surprising me by doing anything at all, and then there I was, part of it, moving." The fresh green of cultural growth emerges from the dance "counterclockwise" to the old idea of what it means to be Indian. The narrator -- and the reader -- become part of the great mystery through the dance, a blend of the old and the new, that is ever-changing and eternally constant.

From the Hilltop is a fine debut, an example of the way that lightning can strike for a talented writer like Jensen, illuminating a portal to that place from which all good stories come. If readers are fortunate, that lightning will strike again.

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