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book review

‘Crazy Brave’ by Joy Harjo

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‘How the ’60s changed my life” is a long-exhausted narrative, but Joy Harjo might be the one person who could successfully — and thrillingly — revive it. “Crazy Brave” is the story of how Harjo survived abandonment and abuse, an oppressive evangelical church, the temptations of alcohol, and youthful struggles with failed marriages and single motherhood to become one of our most acclaimed Native American poets. But it is also a larger saga about the survival of spirituality and creativity in the face of generations of dispossession, racism, and familial dysfunction.

The dynamic between the individual tale and that of the group is purposeful from the book’s first pages. “We enter into a family story, and then other stories based on tribal clans, on tribal towns and nations, lands, countries, planetary systems, and universes,” writes Harjo. “Yet we each have our own individual soul story to tend.” This has been Harjo’s poetic strategy — to root the stories of native peoples in specific narratives, tales, myths, and images — and in “Crazy Brave’’ it becomes her autobiographical strategy.

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Harjo’s own story is as personal as “the black Cadillac my father bought with his Indian oil money” and “my mother . . . holding my small hands in hers, jitterbugging me across her spotless kitchen floor, the sun streaming in on beams of yellow starbursts.” Yet it is also generational: When, at 16, in 1967, she finally escaped her stepfather’s abusive home for the Institute of American Indian Arts, she and her newfound peers “sensed we were at the opening of an enormous indigenous cultural renaissance . . . The energy crackled. It was enough to propel the lost children within us to start all over again.”

As an intergenerational account, “Crazy Brave” reveals the persistence of alcohol abuse and domestic violence in native communities, as Harjo finds herself, like her mother and grandmother, married to an abusive man who drowns his own pain in alcohol. But it also reveals the persistence of art, as she reaches back for inspiration to her musical mother, storytelling grandmother, and artist grandmother and aunt.

Finally, “Crazy Brave” is the chronicle of a people. As she narrates her own journey, Harjo weaves in water monsters and forced sterilization, the myths and histories that shaped her. Unfortunately, when she waxes most universal, her prose falls most flat. The life truths she declaims hover dangerously near platitudes: “Someone accompanies every soul from the other side when it enters this place. Usually it is an ancestor with whom that child shares traits and gifts.” Fortunately, such declamations are rare and brief.

Studies of resilience have found that a supportive adult usually marks the difference between those who overcome trauma and those who don’t. Many memoirs follow this pattern. But while a few adults reach out to Harjo — notably the arts institute staff — what is most striking about her story is that she repeatedly saves herself, if not always by the safest route.

Harjo’s early childhood in Tulsa was two stories at once: a bucolic domestic idyll created by her mother and the hell of her father’s violent drunken rage. When her mother finally left Harjo’s father, she married a man who also was cruelly abusive. Harjo suffered at home and escaped into nature, books, school, art, and music (but not, notably, writing). When she became a teenager and her stepfather’s attentions became as disturbing as his abuse, she turned to alcohol, but soon realized that she needed to escape for real. She contemplated running away to Haight-Ashbury, but knew that would lead her nowhere good. Instead, Harjo found her way, with the help of her mother, to “Indian school” in Santa Fe. There, “in the fires of creativity at the Institute of American Indian Arts . . . my spirit found a place to heal.”

Music was one of the ways that Joy Harjo escaped a troubled and abusive life at home.

Yet at school, there were still many stories. Harjo made friends and art, fell in love and discovered the stage, playing a leading role in a student performance that toured the Pacific Northwest. But her brilliantly creative friends cut themselves and drank too much; the townspeople of La Grande, Ore., yelled “Dirty Indians” and threw rocks at the touring students; and when the tour ended, Harjo found herself a hungry, pregnant teenager back in Oklahoma, living with her husband’s mother who was determined to get rid of her by witchcraft.

Still, her instinct for self-rescue pulled her forward. Reviving her “abandoned dreams,” she returned with her husband and children to Santa Fe and art. In Santa Fe, she went to college, studied painting, became involved in Native American activism, and met her second husband, a poet, activist, and terrible drunk. Trying to balance her life as a successful student and caring mother within an abusive marriage, she began to have panic attacks. At that point, Harjo finally discovered poetry and rescued herself once more — or, as she puts it: “It was the spirit of poetry who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love.” The book ends a few pages later.

“Crazy Brave” tells a story of survival, but stops on the cusp of a story of poetry. If that story is anywhere near as fantastic, terrible, and beautiful as this one, we can only hope Harjo writes it soon.

Rebecca Steinitz, a writer and editor who lives in Arlington, can be reached at rsteinitz@gmail.com.
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