Useful Girl

Useful Girl

by Marcus Stevens

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Out on the western plains, two paths cross: those of a young woman running away from home and a Cheyenne girl running for her life. They're both on a heroic quest, though more than a hundred years separate their journeys.

After her mother's sudden death, Erin Douglass is virtually alone in the world. When she witnesses the exhumation of a Cheyenne girl along… See more details below


Out on the western plains, two paths cross: those of a young woman running away from home and a Cheyenne girl running for her life. They're both on a heroic quest, though more than a hundred years separate their journeys.

After her mother's sudden death, Erin Douglass is virtually alone in the world. When she witnesses the exhumation of a Cheyenne girl along the side of a dirt road, life in her Montana town indelibly changes. The girl's remains, gently wrapped in a faded army coat, with silver thimbles on her right hand, are more than a hundred years old. Though her father makes every attempt to keep the discovery quiet, Erin is haunted by questions: How did this young girl end up here, in the middle of nowhere, with no marker and all alone? Who was she?

Together with Charlie White Bird, a young member of her father's road crew from the nearby reservation, Erin is determined to protect her burial ground. She and Charlie meet in secret, knowing that their encounters could threaten their divided communities. But as their commitment to their cause becomes more passionate, so, too, does their relationship. When Erin is faced with a crisis she feels she must bear alone, she runs away. With her mother's old suitcase and her granddad's journals on the Indian wars, she sets out, and as she moves farther from home, the Cheyenne girl's story vividly unfolds in her mind, guiding her toward another way out of her predicament.

Sweeping and evocative, Useful Girl reminds us that the past, no matter how deeply buried, is never far from view. It is a testament to the power of the imagination and a novel of heartrending beauty.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The life of a contemporary young woman runs parallel to that of an 1870s Cheyenne girl in Stevens's affecting, accomplished second novel (after 2002's well-received Curve of the World). Erin Douglass, 17, and her detached father, Jack, are mourning the loss of her mother ("Without her, we were an inexplicable pairing, two unconnectable dots"). The rift widens when the remains of a Cheyenne girl are discovered at Jack's construction company's work site, and Jack callously orders his workers to cover them up to avoid an expensive halt to the job. Charlie White Bird, one of the workers, is offended by Jack's disrespect and enlists Erin's cooperation to rectify the situation. They soon begin an affair that is forbidden both by Erin's father and the racially divided society of rural Montana. As Erin's problems snowball, she becomes increasingly interested in the Cheyenne girl, whom she and Charlie name Mo' 'ha'e. Meanwhile, she is reading about the Indian wars, as recorded in her grandfather's notes for a family history, and she images the life of Mo' 'ha'e while learning about her own family's role in the settling of the West. Eventually compelled to flee both her father and Charlie, Erin embarks on a bleak hitchhiking trip with no fixed destination in mind. Stevens skillfully juxtaposes the stories of Erin and Mo' 'ha'e, drawing a clear connection between them. The descriptions of late 19th-century battles and living conditions are unsettling in their vivid and authentic detail, riveting even the least historically minded reader, and the account of Erin's plight is clear-eyed and uncompromising. Writing with compassion and grace, Stevens delivers a timeless story of brutality and forgiveness. Author tour. (Apr. 30) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
One summer day, Emma tells her young daughter the story of two girls: her own story as a young woman and that of Mo'e'ha'e, a Cheyenne girl whose bones Emma tried to protect in just one of the life-changing events of a tumultuous year. The story opens with the death and funeral of Emma's mother, which leaves Emma and her increasingly estranged father alone with each other. Delivering a package to her father at his construction site, Emma arrives just as the body of a young girl is unearthed; she was buried with silver thimbles on each finger to show her worth to her family. While Emma's father demands that the body be covered over and forgotten, Emma instantly connects with a young Native American construction worker, and the two begin conspiring to bring the girl they call Mo'e'ha'e to rest. Emma's life begins to swirl out of control, and soon she is pregnant and on the run. It is not common for a man to write from a woman's point of view, but Stevens (The Curve of the World) does it credibly. Highly recommended for public libraries, especially where there is strong interest in historical fiction.-Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll. Lib., OH Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-In this introspective successor to The Curve of the World (Algonquin, 2002), Stevens weaves together the journeys of a contemporary Montana teen and an 1870s Cheyenne girl. Erin, now in her 20s, has decided that it's time to tell her six-year-old daughter, Rose, how she met Rose's father, Charlie White Bird. The rest of the story unfolds in flashback. Erin, a 17-year-old still raw from her mother's death and her father's distance, doesn't know what to feel when her father's construction company unearths the bones of a Cheyenne girl. Erin and Charlie's romance unfolds, alternating and sometimes too neatly dovetailing with her imagined story of the girl, whom she calls Mo'e'ha'e. As Erin struggles to deal with being a white girl in love with a Native American, Mo'e'ha'e gradually overcomes her hatred for a captured white boy. Erin and Mo'e'ha'e both run from their circumstances-Erin with her estranged father and Charlie in pursuit, and Mo'e'ha'e and her camp barely ahead of invading soldiers during the Indian Wars. While the novel sometimes sacrifices plot for character and the narrative is clumsy at times, with occasional jarring point-of-view shifts, the landscape and culture of Montana, both past and present, are conveyed so beautifully and completely that they become another character. Teens will relate to Erin's dilemma and will get caught up in Mo'e'ha'e's tragic life, but, unless they are historical fiction fans, may be left cold by the battle scenes.-Charli Osborne, Oxford Public Library, MI Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A dreamy, nicely detailed blend of historical fiction and coming-of-age saga chronicles a white girl's fateful summer romance with a Cheyenne boy from a nearby reservation in Montana. The sudden death of her mother has left 17-year-old Erin Douglass in the sole care of her stern, distracted father Jack, who doesn't notice how lonely and directionless his daughter is in their Riverview tract house on the Yellowstone. More trouble comes their way when Jack's crew of road-layers unearths the bones of an Indian, probably Cheyenne and a casualty of the Custer- Indian wars during the 1870s, who was buried with thimbles on her fingers to show that she was a "useful girl." Instead of informing the Lame Dear tribal authorities of the find, Jack hides the bones and tries to fire Charlie White Bird, a young Cheyenne worker who leaks the news to his people. Erin, a descendant of Indian fighter Captain Brennan, has torn loyalties but decides to aid Charlie as he seeks to build a proper cairn for the bones. This leads to a forbidden love that drives Charlie to college and Erin to a sad, fruitless runaway spree. Interwoven with her linear narrative is an invented tale of the dead girl, whom Erin calls Mo'e'ha'e and imagines to be part of a ragtag group of Cheyenne refugees moving just ahead of Brennan's scouting party, determined to purge the hills of Indians in the bloody aftermath of Little Bighorn. These alternating sections demonstrate a researched consideration of Indian and American history, revealing grisly details of hardships and brutality on both sides. Together they form a unified whole notable for its sensitive narrative layering. Despite some heavy-handed plotting to merge the two stories,second-novelist Stevens (Curve of the World, 2002) redeems the book's technical awkwardness with tenderness toward his characters, particularly when addressing the plight of women and children. A forthright exploration of Indian-white relations then and now that should provoke discussion in libraries and schools. Agent: David Hale Smith/DHS Literary

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Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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3 MB

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From the Publisher
"Through authenticity of detail and compassionate heart, Marcus Stevens's Useful Girl grants us this truth: stories are the sparks of our ancestors' lives, the embers we blow on to illuminate our own."
—Jane Kirkpatrick, author of Every Fixed Star and A Name of Her Own

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