In 1854, Chief Seattle purportedly gave a speech. In 1887, Dr. Henry A. Smith published a translated version, based on his own notes. Since then, its validity has come under intense scrutiny. Was Smith even there? How well could a white colonial doctor have reconstructed a speech given three decades earlier in a different language? Lately I’ve been interested in Smith’s account precisely because of its highly probable fabrication: Might it just be about Smith struggling with whiteness?
I kept thinking about this appropriation—and the many other dubious versions of Seattle’s speech—when reading Kristen Millares Young’s new novel Subduction. It’s a book, like its name suggests, about powerful frictions. About sex and race and culture and nature and memory. About the past sliding beneath the present, until every so often things start to tremble. But it’s also about stories—who tells them and how.
The book kicks off as Claudia, a Latina anthropologist, is unmoored: She’s on a ferry leaving Seattle for the Makah Indian Reservation to do research. She also has recently discovered that her husband is having an affair with her sister. So she’s looking to escape into the narratives of others, such as Maggie, a Makah woman whom Claudia began interviewing the summer before. Claudia approaches Maggie’s knowledge, and her hoarded possessions, with vocational greed. “For all intents and purposes, Claudia’s presence was predicated on one thing. Maggie would give her what she wanted, would tell her things about spirit animals and songs that she wasn’t supposed to reveal to anyone outside her family.”
In alternating chapters, Young cuts between Claudia and Peter, Maggie’s son who’s returned home following his mom’s dementia diagnosis. Peter is haunted by his father’s murder years before, which he remembers fitfully, in sudden shards: “Blood and oil spreading on plaid linoleum, pooling around his dad, spread eagle and unmoving.” He’s now left his work as an underwater welder to help his mom and make sense of his life.
Much of the book concerns the relationship that develops between Claudia and Peter as they try to outrun their troubled pasts. It’s the sort of thing you read a little queasy, through slightly parted fingers (oh the bad decisions!). Each uses the other. She wants information on the Makahs to forward her career. He wants her to unearth his mother’s memories of his father’s murder. Both want each other, and the sex gets, well, seismic—the punctuation falling away like glasses from shelves in a big one: “he was roaring she was begging oh please oh please they were shuddering, echoes of aftershocks, and he was gone, legs and arms collapsed.”
Most of the writing is punctuated and lovelier, sentences taut yet lush. Young takes in the natural sublimity of Neah Bay with the same grace as she charts Peter and Claudia’s rocky internal topographies. And she sets the personal drama against historical forces, like those other anthropologists who’d colonized Makah stories in the name of research. We get a section on James Swan, a paragraph citing historian Joshua Reid. In certain stretches, you can smell the highlighter fumes as Young, a longtime Seattle journalist, revels in material: “Spaniards first came to take possession of Makah land in 1775. Driven away by constant skirmishes, they left little but the Ozette potato from Peru.” Claudia is a researcher, of course, but these passages rarely fuse with her point of view. They feel like digressions, history lessons. Which is a shame in a book about the powers and dangers of storytelling.
Other narrative gestures fare better, like how Makah legends echo in the characters' lives. Or how Claudia approaches narrative with a grim self-awareness. She wants to “rewrite the story of what happened last night”—sex with Peter—to “reclaim some of her power.” When she does set about writing what happened, she elides the affair. Later, writing down a Makah story another character told her, she hopes “people understood that hers was a memory of what happened, not its transcription.”
I left the novel asking not only about its narrative, but about the stories I told myself about its stories. For a book about the impositions of cultures and people upon each other, that feels like a fertile line of inquiry.