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Mapping the Interior

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Pages
May 29th, 2022
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by Stephen Graham Jones

REVIEW BY MEREDITH MCKINNIE

“And that’s how I recognized him that first night, crossing from the living room through the kitchen. His boots, his bustle. His fancydancer outline. In death, he had become what he never could in life.”

Junior is the man of his house. His father has died years before, his little brother is suffering from some seizures not yet linked to any discernible cause, and his mother works so much to care for them that her presence is sporadic. Junior is not only the oldest living male, but he is the closest thing to an adult with a consistent presence. Though his family doesn’t own this modular home far removed from Indian country where he was raised, he still sees himself as its owner, a 12-year-old boy wearing the weight of adulthood long before being an adult. Poverty forces kids to grow up fast. 

Jones’ novella is an exploration into identity, cultural awareness, manhood, parental absence, and undergirding it all, the confines of poverty. Junior feels a presence in the home, a feathered, decorated Native American presence, a ghost reminiscent of the ancestors of his father, a man he barely knew. It is tempting to glorify the dead, to espouse all the praise undeserved when they were drawing breath. But it is untoward to vilify the no-longer-living. Junior idolizes his father in his absence. He fantasizes that his father’s death is the cause of the family’s financial and emotional hardship, that if only he were still around, that things would be different. Such are his thoughts when this phantom graces the household, lingers around his brother Dino, and commands attention. Junior, still a boy, protects this secret, this knowing of the undead’s presence, this desire to connect with his long-lost father causes him to summon the spirit, to crave the undead’s return. 

Blackfoot author Jones navigates this exploration of Native American heritage through the fascination with the spirit world, through his character’s desire for connection with his past, his origin, and a longing for an example of who he should become. This horror story is not as scary as it is revealing, a portrayal of history and cultural identity and the loss of personhood on native soil, an experience of living hard while consistently looking backward for how to live better. This coming-of-age indigenous tale of an Indian boy becoming a man and viewing his life through the lens of his childhood resonates as we all owe who we are to where we come from. No matter how far we run, how much we resist, the past is inevitably present in some form…albeit a ghost, a memory, or a chance to live it all again. 

“There’s a real you squirming down inside you, trying all through the day to pull up to the surface, look out. But it can only get that done when your defenses are down. When you’re sleeping.”