Recently widowed, and encouraged by government relocation schemes to move Native Americans off their reservations, Betty takes her four young children from their Ojibwe roots to make a new life in Minneapolis. As Betty struggles to keep her family and her dignity intact, her younger son Lester finds romance on the soon-to-be-demolished train, The Hiawatha, while his older brother Simon secretly protects his mother by taking a dangerous job as a construction worker, scaling the heights of the skyscrapers that, once completed, will never welcome him.
Twenty years later, Simon is released from prison for a horrible crime of passion. His return to Minneapolis sets in motion the dramatic, inevitable conclusion to one family's ceaseless fight to survive.
An elegy to the American dream, and to the sometimes tragic experience of the Native Americans who helped to build it, The Hiawatha is both a moving portrait of a family, and a fast-paced, page-turning literary mystery of murder and redemption.
David Treuer more than delivers on the promise he displayed in his acclaimed first novel, Little, and confirms his reputation as one of the most talented and original writers of his generation.
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About the Author
David Treuer grew up on an Ojibwe reservation in Northern Minnesota, attended Princeton University, and now divides his time between Minnesota and Wisconsin, where he teaches English at the University of Wisconsin.
DAVID TREUER is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. He is the award-winning author of the novels, Little and The Hiawatha. He teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Minnesota.
Read an Excerpt
They let it pass. The deer is so close they can see in its eyes the dawn light seeping gray over the rotten soffits and pooling there in the parking lot of Saint Steven's Church.
By 1981 death is not interesting to the Southside of Minneapolis, but this sliver of life, wild and strange amid the parked cars, this is news. When whole families freeze to death in abandoned houses, stacked like cordwood to share what heat they have, no one is surprised. When cops shoot teenagers point-blank, people shrug. When social workers and bill collectors come to ply their trade among those who have neither society nor money anymore, they turn back thwarted and tired. Tired more than anything. If a bill collector happened to park across from the Institute of the Arts, thinking that there his car wouldn't be broken into, and walked along Twenty-fourth Street or up Third Avenue, he could see something. He might look at the faces in the green smear of park, or clustered on what steps the crumbling apartments offered, and see something behind the studied neutrality of the Indians who moved into the neighborhood in the fifties and sixties. He might glimpse an awareness, an acknowledgment of the tide of misery that sweeps the neighborhood and bends for neither mood nor season. The collector might notice that despite what the weather, society and the government throw at the city transplants, they are determined to endure. But it is March and the streets are dirty with sand and salt and the veneer of frozen exhaust. After all, it is March and the bill collectors and door-to-door men have kids and pets, they have Edina and Maple Grove, White Bear Lake and Bloomington, strung like pearls around the withered heart of the city.
They do not see the interest the homeless men take in the deer as it strides wild and alert through the church parking lot. They do not see the men reach out but stop short of actually touching the deer.
They let it pass. The men sitting on rolled foam or piles of rags stand and scoop their bedrolls from its path, and when their palms are placed out and pulled short they feel its animal warmth. They hold their hands there, fingers splayed, stealing its heat. The line forms, men and their benedicting hands, a channel of men through which the deer walks, concerned, but certain.
Those inside the church sense something happening outside. Because of the silence they have ruled out the police, who always come wearing a mantle of noise, and so they are unafraid to stand clustered and steaming on the cement steps.
They let it pass. When it leaves them behind they do not lower their hands, do not shift or move, as if asleep.
The deer approaches the end of the channel of men, its small hooves click on the frost-hardened asphalt and steam plumes from its nose. It pauses then, preparing to leave this human forest. As it steps clear, the last man reaches out and gently places his hand flat against its fur. In an instant it is running. It jumps once, and then again. In two leaps it is over the fence. The men drop their arms and rush to the chain-link, hook their fingers and watch the deer bound down the weedy and trash-strewn slope to the freeway and into the traffic.
The first car clips its legs from under it and it flies into the air, rolled up the ramp of the windshield. The yearling lands on the hood of the second and the men hear the bone mulch. Again, for what seems an eternity, it is sent toward the leaded sky. The legs mill on broken joints, a gout of blood erupts from between the pages of its ribs. The deer is lofted once more before it falls limp on the litter-strewn shoulder, its head among the brown winter weeds where black garbage bags have caught fast and flutter like crows. The deer is dead.
Some men stare at the tangle of fur and gritty flesh, others turn but do not walk back into the soup line.
"Good job, Simon," says one as he kicks at the broken glass by the fence's edge. "Good job," he mutters again.
With that they all turn in various angles of regret and spread back out over the pavement until only Simon remains at the fence. Then he, too, drifts back to the parking lot and since he has nothing to carry, moves on from their midst, crossing the street with his head down, along the alley next to the old Windsor Hotel, his face hidden in the folds of his jacket.
At eight years old Simon woke before the others. He rose shirtless in the blue light and listened to the stovepipe clink, contracting in the cold. The fire was reduced to a nest of dying coals sheathed in powdery ash inside the barrel stove. He stepped over the others, conscious always of the shifting human architecture that patterned the one-room cabin, a thief stealing a moment of privacy as he moved into the new day.
The plastic-coated window made the weather seem soft, the cold not so deadly, though the pine walls were spangled with frost, and the water bucket next to the door was skimmed with ice.
He lifted the pail, the handle sheathed in the tatters of an old shirt, and poked off the skim ice with his fingers before he tilted it, tinkling softly, into the bucket on the stove. He slid his feet into the oversized boots of his sleeping father and lifted the wooden catch to the door and in one motion he was outside, taking shallow breaths against the sharp sub-zero air, grainy with ice. The half-moon was bright enough to light the snow, casting shadows of the other cabins skyward, broken only by scattered trees. The frozen lake spread out unhurried and full between the jack pine. Simon went without a lantern. There was no wind and the pressure of his booted feet made the freshly blown snow crackle as he stepped past the mounds along the walk to where the high drifts lay unseeded with fur and the guts of snared rabbits. He dipped the bucket full. He stopped when he noticed holes punched in the snow. A jagged line of fist-sized craters zagged past the cabin, crossed the narrow road, leaped the bank and continued on the other side. He set the pail down, held his hands in his armpits and stalked out to where the tracks crossed the road. There, on the packed snow, he saw the perfect arrowhead shape of deer tracks, like marks on fine porcelain.
He stood and wondered down the tracks, knowing that with each step he was moving forward in the life of the deer, moving closer to its present. If he followed it long enough, he would catch up to it and be there at the time of its death, somewhere in the woods, impassable now because of the snow.
He walked back to where the bucket shone like lead in the moonlight and picked it up again. The coldness contained there should have weighed more, should have strained his boy shoulders. But the bucket was light. He packed it with his hand, scooped and packed until it was full, and carried it back inside, a boy holding a bucket of snow to melt on the stove for tea and oatmeal.
Simon crosses the street lined with cars that hulk in the morning cold, ice welded to the mud flaps. Even now, when Simon looks at objects bigger than himself, he seeks out their center, calculating what it would take to balance them spinning through the air, where the cables could be clipped and on what the nylon webbing could rest to hoist it, passed like a puzzle high over the city. After ten years of not being allowed to lift anything heavier than a sack of potatoes or hold any tool that had heft or edge he is still building skyscrapers.
He passes the cars and skips over the snow-crusted curb and looks with sudden shock next door. The other houses have disappeared, replaced with two poorly constructed apartment buildings, each a study in how to charge more for less.
He shakes his head and mounts the sagging wooden steps. He pauses, not sure anymore of the etiquette of visiting, the choreography of knocking and waiting, of entering someone else's space. He stands poised, knuckles raised. He is spared when she opens the door, sensing him there, wanting him to do it, to close the distance of ten years and his brother's blood. Three inches between flesh and wood, ten years between touch. She opens the door and steps forward so now she is what he will have to step through to enter the house.
"Simon," she says. Her voice speculative. She could have pointed beyond the fringe of brick buildings over the skyline and said Cloud or Orange. She doesn't move.
"Ma," he says.
She moves back a step, her hand on the doorknob.
"Ma. You look good."
She smiles a little and turns. She isn't prepared for this. She does not expect the soft humor the boys have inherited from their father. They were never much for loudness in either anger or love.
"Don't lie straight off," she says.
She leaves the door open and slides farther back. He raises his foot over the metal-cased step and sets it inside the house, his weight still cocked onto his back leg.
He won't remember stepping in, his hands shoved deep in his pockets, Betty's slow retreat to the kitchen. He won't remember how the house has changed. It will stay in his mind as it was when he lived there: the living room with two tattered couches someone was always passed out on, sleeping off a binge or "just setting for a while" after a fight with wife or husband; the old oak floors clear and waxed, not covered with carpet to hide the blood-soaked wood; the kitchen and breakfast nook still painted white, with white linoleum tiles. So memory always murders the present. All he will remember is sitting there in the cramped kitchen, the coffee swirling to a standstill in the chipped mismatched rummage-sale mugs as the silence coasts between them. It isn't a shared silence, not one tended, as fires are, throwing off invisible warmth.
"Ten years," she says, shaking her head and then steadying it as she purses her lips to meet her coffee cup.
"Ten, yeah, well, that's a long time," he agrees.
He shifts his weight, broad shoulders dipping and leveling like the wings of a large bird.
"Where are the girls?"
"Irma's off in San Diego, married. Got a kid, too."
"Oh my, my baby, no," whispers Betty, her hand flying to her cheek as if she's forgotten an ingredient in an often-used recipe. "No, she's gone. Died three years ago now."
"Ma, no. Really? How?"
"She was in a car. Got hit on the tracks up north. She didn't hurt none. At least that's what the doctor said."
Four children, she thinks. Two of them dead, one ran off as soon as she could with the first white man who said he loved her, and the last one, Simon, lost somewhere in between. At least they lived long enough to outgrow their kid clothes. Seeing all the jumpers and tiny pants would be too much. At least they didn't die when they were sucking on her tit or tugging at her skirt. They had more personality as children. After they hit their teens she can't remember much about them, their dislikes and their loyalties, their habits. Merciful, maybe, that her mind deprived her of knowing her children when they were old enough to create their own hurt.
"Aw, damn," says Simon, shaking his head. "I'm so sorry, Ma. I'm so sorry."
"Ain't got nothin to be sorry about. You couldn't help that."
They both breathe in heavily, great drinks of stale house air. As if such breathing were enough to shake out the chill of young death. Simon feels anger rising. Betty's refusal of his sympathy makes him feel that his sister's death is something Betty wants all for herself. Lester is one thing, but he is mad at her for denying him the right to be sad for his sister.
"You got anyone for yourself?"
"Naw, not me." She grimaces.
Then Simon hears the stairs squeak, a shift of feet on the aging wood, the risers gapped back from the tread like poorly set teeth. Simon shoots her a look with raised eyebrows and then urges them down toward the surface of the table. The stairs continue to let out their warnings and Simon, who still knows the whispers of this house, can hear whoever is walking down them swing out on the newel post, take three steps to the kitchen door and stop. Betty looks up from the table.
"Lincoln, get in here. Why you hangin your head like you was slow?"
Simon shifts in his chair and sees a boy enter the rare fluorescent kitchen light. Unsure, doe-eyed.
"Come on. Say hello to your uncle."
The boy moves his eyes from Simon to Betty and back. He is careful of a joke at his expense, the potential for embarrassment. Even at ten he charts each room, mapping the dangers nestled within people.
Lincoln has known only this quiet house, empty of the traffic of people. He was six when his sister Irma flew in the door with the white man she announced to Betty she was going to marry. The man stood to the side of the door and looked at his feet, pinned against the wall by Betty's withering gaze. "Well, good for you," drawled Betty. "I just came back to get my clothes," said Irma defiantly. Betty laughed. "From the looks of things it doesn't seem like you've been wearin them too much. Go on then." The man said nothing in his defense. Perhaps it was only then he realized Irma was using him to escape her mother's gravity, that she clung to him only to break her orbit around that sad house and its history. Lincoln sat on Irma's bed while she hurriedly stuffed her battered suitcase full. "We gonna move away from this cold-ass town," she said. "San Diego. You know where that is?" Lincoln shook his head. "Well it's a hell of a lot warmer than here, that's for sure. Later on you can come live with us." Lincoln said nothing. "Later on" held no meaning for him. With her suitcase in one hand she stomped down the stairs without looking at Betty. Lincoln followed her to the door, and she ruffled his hair. Irma stepped out and the man fell in behind her, swinging the door shut meekly, in pathetic deference to Betty. His blue Electra spat to life, coughed once as it idled down at the intersection, and was gone. After that Lincoln was left in a home packed to the rafters with stories Betty would never tell and trouble she'd never share. The house was full but silent.
He takes another hesitant step forward. Simon can tell he wants to hide under the wing of Betty's arm, or in the cave of her skirt but is too old and doesn't want to do that in front of a stranger.
"Didn't know you had an uncle, huh?"
The boy shakes his head. His eyes rest on the scratched linoleum floor.
"Well I didn't know I had a nephew, neither," says Simon and he tries to laugh, hacking out a few quick sobs before turning back to his coffee.
"Ten years old. Eleven this May."
"Damn. Damn it." Simon shudders in his chair.
The boy speaks. "I know what you did."
Simon stiffens, his knuckles wrapped white around the coffee mug.
"Lincoln!" Betty half rises from her chair. "What's the matter with you?"
"I saw. I saw it. I know."
"You'd better get quiet."
The boy keeps looking at Simon.
"I saw what you did. I saw you touch him and he died."
"Goddamn it, Lincoln!"
Betty rises and slaps him across the cheek.
"Leave him alone," Simon whispers. "It's okay. Really."
He looks over and sees the boy's lower lip trembling. Lincoln is trying not to cry. The three of them look in opposite directions. Their gazes jut out from their gathered bodies like spokes on a wheel, turning slowly around the kitchen.
"You'd better get to school."
Lincoln bolts across the room, swoops up his jacket and slams out of the house.
Betty looks at Simon.
"I never told him," she says. "I never told him. I didn't."
Simon looks up at the sagging ceiling tiles and shrugs his shoulders.
"Can't help it if he finds out what everybody already knows."
Betty tries to keep her eyes steady, locked on her son. She has told herself she would look at him. At his forearms braided like old willow. His river-stone eyes. The bevel of his smooth jaw. She has told herself she would look at him. That she would give him neither her shredded love nor her hatred. That she would hold him with her eyes. Not with her hands, not with those, surely. But she can't, and instead watches his hands, the quiet hands of a murderer.
Instead of turning up Third Avenue and then over to Twenty-fourth, Lincoln looks at the blank front window over his shoulder and jumps the curb and runs down the alley. His feet slap the concrete, the shock running through his thin tennis shoes and into his thin body. He is already used to the cold. He snaps his head from side to side before shooting across Clinton and slows to a fast walk as he enters the church parking lot and skirts the edge of the church. The homeless men gathered earlier for breakfast have floated away to predestined spots in the city and the asphalt is rippled and empty. He reaches the chain-link fence and slows down, his heart beating wildly, his nose pressed against the rigid mesh. He finally sees what wasn't visible from the upstairs window: the deer twisted from impact into an unnatural sleep, the once smooth fur pink with road rash and blood, and studded with ribs.
Lincoln wants to scale the fence, furt through the weeds and trash, the layers of Crown Royal and Ripple bottles losing their labels to the wet like old skin. He wants to walk down the hill and touch the deer, too. To feel the last shreds of its body heat before it turns cold, then stiff, then is picked up by the highway department and thrown in the back of an orange truck. He wants to hold its head in his lap but it is too late, it is always too late. After living for ten years without knowing, for certain, who his mother is and how his father died, he wants to be present when something happens. He wants to claim the right to say, This is what happened. See? This is how.
He turns away, crosses the parking lot again and walks, miserable and cold, to school.