Watermelon Nights

Overview

In the tradition of Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie, a multi-generational epic novel about the love and forgiveness that keep an American Indian family together. Told from the points of view of Johnny Severe, his grandmother, Elba, and his mother, Iris, Watermelon Nights reaches to the past and toward the future to uncover the secrets behind each of these characters' extraordinary powers of perception. When twenty-year-old Johnny contemplates leaving his grandmother's house for the big city, he discovers ...
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Overview

In the tradition of Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie, a multi-generational epic novel about the love and forgiveness that keep an American Indian family together. Told from the points of view of Johnny Severe, his grandmother, Elba, and his mother, Iris, Watermelon Nights reaches to the past and toward the future to uncover the secrets behind each of these characters' extraordinary powers of perception. When twenty-year-old Johnny contemplates leaving his grandmother's house for the big city, he discovers there's more than his floundering used-clothing store keeping him where he is. As the novel shifts perspectives, tracing the history of the tribe, we learn how the tragic events of Elba's childhood, as well as Iris's attempts to separate herself from her cultural roots, make Johnny's dilemma all the more difficult, and his choices more crucial.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Author and academic Sarris returns to the polyglot milieu of his short-story collection, Grand Avenue, in this witty, highly textured first novel. In fact, the short stories of the prior book form a kind of prequel to the current work. Filipinos, Chicanos, Native Americans and Anglos mingle again in the neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Calif., a place of bootleg liquor, dancehalls and cockfights, where 20-year-old Johnny Severe and his family, Waterplace Pomo Indians, struggle to keep solvent by working for canneries, department stores or dairy farms. Johnny's used-clothing business is not doing well, and he longs to get away to the city. Exacerbating his restlessness is the change in the community's social climate: the Pomos are seeking federal recognition as a tribe, and everyone is trying to be more Indian than his or her neighbor. The irony is, of course, that all of them are mixed bloods, descended from the same Indian woman, Rosa, and the Mexican general who raped her. The genealogical research necessary for federal recognition and the story of Rosa serve as springboards to Sarris's aim of conveying the history of the tribe, allowing shifts in narration from Johnny to his grandmother, Elba, and his mother, Iris. Sarris handles multiple perspectives well, in a manner akin to Louise Erdrich. He is as adept at writing from a female perspective as was Michael Dorris. This is a rich, satisfying tale of plain folks trying to survive in an unfriendly social milieu, and of the ties that bind them, sometimes too closely, together. Author tour. Sept. FYI: Sarris is chairman of the Federated Coast Miwok Tribe.
KLIATT
Sarris has been compared to the late Michael Dorris, with good reason. His subject matter is contemporary Native Americans on the West Coast, struggling to make sense of their heritage and their existence. He writes well, his characters seem real, and his story is emotionally affecting. Watermelon Nights is a story in three parts. Each part could stand alone and be useful in discussions of discrimination, poverty, American history, literature, or Native American culture. The first part is about Johnny, a young Pomo Indian, trying to organize the scattered members of his small tribe and galvanize them into improving their lives. Themes in this part include individual identity, cultural identity, and homophobia. The second part, the strongest part, tells the story of Johnny's grandmother, Elba, in her childhood and young womanhood. It is a story of grinding, unrelenting poverty, alcoholism, illness, and the dismal, miserable job of surviving in a dismal, miserable environment, surrounded by unfriendly, suspicious people. It is not at all a happy story, but an extremely engrossing and moving one, well worth reading. The third part is about Iris, Elba's daughter and Johnny's mother, as a teenager. Elba manages to provide a decent life for her daughter and Iris has many typical teenage concerns, but discrimination and the pull of tradition always get in the way, of course. The traditions of the tribe are an important theme in all three parts, as is the strength of family ties. Highly recommended. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1998, Penguin, 425p, 22cm, $13.95. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Barbara Shepp; Chevy Chase,MD, May 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 3)
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious, meticulously detailed story about modern Native American life, focusing on the struggle of a small, disenfranchised tribe in modern-day California to reclaim its heritage and identity. Sarrisþs debut novel, like the tales in his collection, Grand Avenue (1994), is set in Santa Rosa, a small town on the California coast thatþs been the home of the Waterplace Pomo since the tribe was forced off of its traditional lands. One of the many ironies at work here is that, while the local whites only guardedly accept the Pomosþ presence, the town had in fact been founded by a Pomo (Rosa), who, more than a century before, gathered the remnants of the tribe together after it had been devastated by Mexican raiders. In present-day, it is Elba, an elderly woman, who has quietly labored to preserve Pomo traditions and the sense of tribal identity. Her 17-year-old grandson Johnny, who ekes out a living selling secondhand clothes, has become active in the battle to secure federal recognition for the Pomo so they can qualify for federal assistanceþand even, perhaps, reclaim some of their land. Johnnyþs mother, Elba's daughter Iris, is furiously opposed to all of this, having spent her life trying to gain acceptance in white society. The story is narrated in turn by each of these three characters, allowing Sarris (himself the chairman of the Federated Coast Miwok tribe in California) to illuminate the varied ways in which Native Americans have tried in modern times to deal with the tribal devastation theyþve undergone. Elba is the dominant figure here; her memories, both of her people's past and traditions and of her own tragic past, are haunting. Theresolution, in which the three family members and the varied (and vividly rendered) tribe members begin to draw together in the wake of violence, is both subtle and deeply moving. Despite a pace that sometimes dawdles, Sarris's vigorous prose and robust characters make for a distinctive work, marking the debut of a singularly talented novelist. (Author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140282764
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 11/28/1999
  • Pages: 432
  • Age range: 18 years
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 8.42 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    No doubt I come home with a hole in my face and words of leaving and Mom and Grandma gone right to work on the situation. For once, their heads was in the same place on the subject of me: Neither one wanted me to go. Mom knows whatever Grandma might've told her about what happened. Grandma, she sees more than even I can tell you of my own story; her sense of things is clear. Me, I'm talking just to try and make sense of it.

    Smiling and white teeth. Felix. If, like they say, a picture's worth a thousand words, then this story's got to start there--with Felix smiling at every turn, for if everything else in my brain has dribbled out that hole, this picture has not. His smile, which I might've understood for all it had to tell if he hadn't looked up so fast and said, "You and me, homeboy. We're gonna change the world, eh?"

    This pronouncement after reading a flyer about a rinky-dink tribal meeting, like it was God's last word. I never seen the guy before. He stood just inside my cousin's house, and it was Auntie Mollie or my cousin Alice I expected to see when the door opened. I'd been walking the neighborhood, passing out flyers for the tribe.

    He looked back down at the flyer. It was red, with black lettering that told the time and place of the meeting. At the top was the tribe's name, Waterplace Pomo, and below that a drawing of a pond with rocks and grasses around it. I knowed because I made the flyer and had fifty more in my old knapsack. Then he looked up. "We'll have ourselves the biggest bingo hall this side of Vegas," he said.

    He'd answered the question that hadn't had a chance to form in my brain. He'd said "we." Which meant he was part of the tribe. Which meant he was Indian. Which meant he was a cousin.

    "Yeah," I said, but what was I talking about? The flyer didn't say anything about a bingo hall.

    "What's up?" he asked. He stuck out his hand and told me his name: "Felix."

    I locked fingers, bumped knuckles. "Johnny," I said.

    He didn't have a shirt on. His hair was messed up.

    "See you at the meeting, bro," he said.

    He looked me in the face, still grinning, all the while slowly rolling up the red flyer in his hands. Then, when it was too late, I seen he had just said Good-bye, this meeting on Auntie's porch is over. I'd been doing nothing, just standing there. I felt like a fool. I'd been half a minute behind him all along.

    Then I thought quick, reached into my knapsack, and pulled out a blank genealogy chart, which I just happened to have a few of. "Here," I said, handing the paper to him, "you got to fill it out before the meeting."

    He took it but did nothing more than keep up that grinning--This meeting on Auntie's porch is over.

    "Cool," I said, and then I turned and split.

    When I was down the steps, halfway to the street, I heard him call after me. "Hey," he said.

    I turned.

    "Come back tonight and help me fill this thing out, will you?" He was waving the genealogy chart. In the other hand, he held the red flyer still rolled tight.

    "Yeah," I said, "OK." Then I made off again. I never looked back; but I felt he was still standing there, smiling.

* * *

    Then I could've kicked myself. What did I mean, Yeah, OK? Back in my truck, rounding the corner away from Auntie's house, I thought of how the guy stood in the doorway, telling me he had enough of me, making me feel like a fool, then asked me to come back and help him fill out his chart and I say, Yeah, OK. Who was this guy who come out of nowheres and planted himself like he'd been in that doorway forever?


    I didn't think whether or not I'd go back to Auntie's later. I tried to push the guy out of my mind. I had work to do, a few more places to hit. The Bills and then the folks living on the other side of the fairgrounds, the Joneses and the Ramirezes. The Bills, they're two sisters, one bigger and meaner than the next. I wasn't up to that situation so I drove back to headquarters.

    We called it headquarters but it was really nothing more than a few filing cabinets and a table and chair in Steven Pen's garage. His son Raymond sat there acting all-important, like he was tribal chairman, not his father. He had big ears, the kind that made you think of a dog seeing something, and he looked about twelve, when he was twenty, my age. Two years of college and he couldn't get a summer job, which is why he sat at the desk every day. I understood the reason he talked down to me, like he was in a higher position and knowed more--he had to make himself feel good somehow.

    "Good job," he said when I set my leftover flyers on the table. Then he looked at the flyers like he was seeing one in particular and asked, "Did you go to the Bills?"

    "No," I told him.

    "You should've," he said. "This part of town would be finished."

    Yeah, right, I thought. I'd like to see you at the Bills. My mind spit up a picture: six hundred pounds of flesh and purple sateen and pink polyester swallowing him whole.

    "I'll get them tomorrow," I told him, "first thing."

    He pulled out his genealogy chart and placed it on the table so I could see the work he'd done. Which was another thing to lord over me. Each one of us was supposed to complete our charts. It was one of a list of things we had to do to prove to the government that we was real Indians. Our tribe was trying to get what is called "federally acknowledged" so we could have a reservation and gossip and fight with each other there instead of in town on Grand Avenue, where most of us live. That's what the upcoming meeting was about, these charts each of us was supposed to fill out and turn in, which, if you ask me, look no different from dog pedigrees. But Raymond had his all filled out, or at least he thought he had. I spied the half that wasn't complete, the part for "mother."

    His mother ran off after he was born, rumor has it, with some junkie from San Francisco. His father left him with a relative here and then finished college. When he come home, he had a new wife.

    Raymond caught my line of vision. "My mother's from another tribe," he said. He looked at the wall, like he was gathering strength from something he seen there and then shot back with all his might, "But I'm full Indian."

    He fixed his eyes on me, daring me to match him. Like he knowed he'd turned over the card that ended the game. I'm light-skinned, hardly a quarter Indian. These days the more Indian you are the better, the more white the worse. Truth is, we're all mixed up. Which I could've pointed out if I'd had half a second with his chart. We all come down from one woman. Her name was Rosa and she was half Mexican. Her mother was named Rosa, too, and she was the wife of a Mexican general. Truth is, she was his wife in name only: She wasn't treated any better than a whore, a slave. Pride is a game none of us should play. But, like I said, Raymond Pen was desperate.

    "I got to work on mine," I told him, looking back at his chart. Then went one step further in letting him feel good. I told him what time I'd come by tomorrow and that I'd hit the Bills first thing. He nodded and sat back, confident. If it was possible, his ears would've rested down.

* * *

    Indians is a mean, unhappy bunch. Grandma says all peoples is that way, then she comes back around to my point of view. She says Indians can't help it on account of Rosa and that Mexican general. Meanness. It's a song, she says, that keeps getting told over and over, passed from one generation to the next. The words might change, the melody don't. She sits in the aluminum folding chair in her garden, plunk in the middle of her hollyhocks out back, and tells me, "Yeah, Johnny, heartache is an Indian's middle name." Then, looking at the sky-reaching rods of pink and white flowers, she says, "But there's more," and with that she points out things, the flowers, for instance, and says to look at them for you'll see Old Uncle smiling... listen to the birds, the frogs at night, and you'll hear him singing. And then all the stories about the old man she knowed as a kid, the medicine man who could fly to the moon and back. Them stories over and over, sometimes changed and reconnected to one another in different ways, but the same nevertheless, ever since I was a kid. And to this day, I like it there, sitting beside her. If she's in the garden, where she likes it best, I'll sit on the ground. Sometimes, if the world's eaten too much of me, I rest my head in her lap, like I done when I was a kid.

    But as much as Raymond laid one into me, I didn't go out back where I seen Grandma was sitting. I come into the house and went straight to my bedroom. Raymond wasn't bothering me at all. It was the face I seen: Felix in Auntie's doorway. And more, the man standing before my eyes, all six feet of him. Yes, he was tall, and as dark as anybody who claimed full blood. But that wavy hair and the smile, the smile that told you at least two things: that everywhere else you looked, his shoulders and chest, his skin, a thousand others had looked, too, and every one of them found what they seen perfect. His carved chest, the ripples in his stomach. The last couple hours twisted in my head. I should've been angry at Raymond, I often was after dealing with him; but all the anger in me just then was focused on Felix. Who was this stranger in my neighborhood telling me this meeting on the porch was over?

    I jumped up and ran out to Grandma. She had built a little fire on the ground, which she does sometimes, and was watching the smoke wind its way through her hollyhocks. I sat and leaned against her.

    "Long day, eh?" she said, poking at the gray hairs under her red scarf. "Mean Indians."

    Any mention of mean Indians signaled the likelihood of a storytelling session. I had to head her off.

    "Auntie Mollie, she got any cousins?" I asked.

    Grandma laughed. Her shoulders lifted and shook quietly. Her face moved in and out of the sunlight. I knowed what a dumb question I asked, and neither one of us said a thing for the longest time. Then, when I figured she'd forgotten everything, she leaned over so she was close to my ear and started laughing again. "Lots," she whispered, and gave me a gentle push.

* * *

    That was in the afternoon, about three. At eight that night, after dinner, I found myself at my desk in my room, filling out my chart. The meeting was hardly a month away, when all of us was supposed to have our charts done, and here I was Mr. Pass-Out-the-Flyers-for-the-Meeting, and I hadn't done my chart. But guilt about not doing my chart wasn't what moved me. If I was going over to Auntie's, I had to have a reason besides the fact that I simply agreed to go. I'd have my chart done so I could show him how he was supposed to fill it out. That and a quick visit to Auntie Mollie and Alice and the boys, make sure their charts was completed also.

    While Grandma banged pots and pans in the kitchen, I filled in the empty spaces on my chart, tracing from me and Mom and Grandma back to the first Rosa, which is what everybody was supposed to do to prove we was a tribe. A tribe, hell, it's a family. One big family. If Felix was a cousin, part of the tribe, I could help him fill in anything after his mother and grandmother if he got stuck, since that is where everybody's lines start crossing together, after the grandmothers and great-grandmothers. I finished my chart, using what I knowed from Grandma, then sat for the longest time, deciding whether or not I should go to Auntie's. I went to the front room, sat in front of the TV without turning it on. The kitchen was quiet, empty. From the couch I could see through the kitchen to the open back door, and beyond that, the top of Grandma's head, the red scarf in the kitchen light, like a flag signaling where she sat outside in the warm June night. I folded my chart, which was in my lap, and left.

* * *

    When I got over to Auntie's, I seen things different in the house. Something bright, something about the lights, like none of the lamps had shades; and the two little boys, their faces was full and happy while they played Nintendo on the front room floor. But mostly it was Mollie. After Justine, her oldest girl, just sixteen years old, stepped between one of the Estrada brothers and Kolvey Green when they was unloading automatic rifles on each other and got herself killed, Mollie walked like she'd been packing a hundred-pound sack of cement for the last five hundred years. Slow, bent over, and heavy. Mollie was never Miss Sunshine Ballerina. She's a big woman, heavy, not on the order of the Bills, which is weight off the scale, but heavy nonetheless, and she always moped around, like she was half awake and mad she wasn't full asleep. But tonight she was awake again. Her black eyes was full of the light there. For the first time I actually seen her pretty; how smooth and young her skin was; her lips, thin but shaped clear, the way flower petals is; and her hair, which she'd cut in a straight line just above her shoulders, it was shiny, like wet black olives.

    She was sitting at the kitchen table with Felix, who had a small treasure chest of beads and half-finished necklaces spread out in front of him. He wore a sleeveless white T-shirt, and I seen how the naked lightbulb overhead reflected up and down the length of his arms; and he caught me looking, if even for that brief moment. He nodded for me to sit down, as if Mollie hadn't greeted me and said to do so already. Alice was there, too, the second daughter, a year younger than Justine. Only she didn't hold the light that was everywhere else. She wasn't grumpy, or even uptight, worried about things the way she is a lot, but when I sat down, saying hi and catching her eyes, it was like there was nothing in them, the way water don't reflect trees on a gray day. She looked over her shoulder once at the boys in the front room, then glanced back and forth from the Indian basket she was working on in her hands to the beads on the table.

    With his pointing finger, Felix pushed his beads one at a time to the center of the table. He told where each come from and what its history was. Black glass beads from China. A turquoise chunk from Arizona. Coral disks from Egypt. He said the Egyptian disks come out of an ancient tomb, King something or other. I thought, Why in the hell are we fooling around with stuff that come out of a grave? Old-timers say never to touch that stuff. Might haunt you. But I said nothing. I didn't want to draw attention to myself. Besides, there was no time. He was pushing up one bead after another and talking nonstop. He covered a dozen countries and at least four times as many different kinds of stones. Sounded like he'd been all over the world and hand-picked each bead. All the beads was precious. Each could affect you special: The Chinese beads was for thinking, mind work, he said; turquoise had to do with the earth; and the Egyptian beads, I forget. Then there was the necklaces, most of them just started or half complete, with their combinations of beads that could affect you special too: the glass beads strung with turquoise and silver for love; cobalt blue with the coral disks for good luck. His eyes followed his fingers and below his sleeveless white T-shirt, he lifted and straightened his arms with each bead he pushed forward, causing a panther tattooed on the ball of his shoulder to stretch and step.

    When he was finished, he sat back and locked his hands over his chest, satisfied with the show he'd given. He looked over what he'd set out, all his beads and necklaces, mostly just giving us time to take them all in. Then he looked up. His eyebrows was raised, like he was asking, Well, what do you think? But his eyes told you he knowed you couldn't think nothing but it was all just great. Alice, she wasn't paying attention; she was weaving, stitching her trimmed sedge root around a willow rod in the way I seen old Pomo ladies do. Mollie was caught though, her light-full eyes moving back and forth, landing on this stone or that necklace, the way bees do with flowers, stopping a moment, drinking in what they need, and then moving on. The beads was pretty, some of them beautiful actually.

    "Where do you get them?" I asked.

    "Junk shops, flea markets, yard sales," he answered without unlocking his hands over his chest.

    "They're beautiful," Mollie said.

    Which was what he was waiting to hear. He stretched his arms over his head, his hands still locked, and grinned ear to ear, that solid row of perfect white teeth. Like he'd just got a king off your chessboard. Then he come forward in one fell swoop and took something from the small treasure chest opened in front of him, and when he opened his hand, a necklace, sky blue and aquamarine set off with one black and bright red stone, spilled from his palm and caught perfect on his middle and index fingers so it hung before your eyes in all its splendor. The showstopper.

    "Wow!" Mollie said, her eyes opening like a kid's at a Fourth of July fireworks show.

    "It'd be perfect for you," he told her.

    And then I knowed for sure he was a con. Despite the way he'd caught me off guard before, I still had the ability to see clearly, and I seen this strand of blue beads wasn't right for Mollie; didn't suit her at all, no more than a sixties ass-high miniskirt would. For one thing, my business is clothes, used clothes, matching them to people, so I have a sense of these sorts of things; for another, I seen he was doing nothing more than charming her, stringing along her attention. Even Alice was looking over, marveling at the necklace he kept stroking with his long brown fingers. He talked on and on just like before, nearly ten minutes, since this necklace had I don't know how many beads from I don't know how many different places and he wanted you to know as much. What it all added up to--happiness, good luck, peace--I didn't know then. I wasn't listening. Felix was a good talker with a smile to match.

    After a while Mollie got up and dished us out some ice cream. With the beads and necklaces still on the table like charms, we talked about different things: Mollie's job at the cannery, certain folks in the neighborhood, the hot weather. I told them about my having to visit the Bill sisters the next day. Talking kept me from being rude, from completely tuning out or just leaving altogether. It wasn't that I was disappointed with Felix, like I was expecting more from him, but that I seen what he was about so fast and clear.

    "God-awful," Mollie said about the Bills. "Hateful bitches."

    "Gives Indians a bad name," Alice said, picking up her basket again.

    "Act so dumb, don't they?" Mollie said. "Life's too short."

    She smarted, stung herself with her own words, and everybody got quiet with a picture of Justine somewheres in their minds. A short life.

    "Maybe the meeting'll change things," I said finally, changing the subject.

    "Hope so," Mollie said, pushing back from the table and getting up.

    "Did you start your chart?" I asked her.

    "Yeah, I did," she said and then started moving around the table picking up the empty ice cream bowls. When she turned for the kitchen sink, Felix got up. Even while I was sitting, I seen he wasn't no taller than me, about the same height actually, average, which surprised me since I'd been picturing him a lot taller, six feet or more. But he was put together good: broad in the shoulders, narrow and lean below, and his clothes--the sleeveless white T-shirt and the 501 Levi's cinched with a silver-studded black belt that matched his leather boots--was nothing special, but he wore them the way a healthy animal wears its skin.

    "Help me with mine," he said, and nodded for me to follow him out the back door.

    "Smoking'll stunt your growth," Mollie called after him, teasing, light and happy again.

    I looked at her and then at Felix already in the doorway, then got up and followed after him.

    We plopped ourselves on the porch steps and Felix pulled a flattened Marlboro from the soft pack he kept in his front pocket. Then he held the pack out to me.

    "Want one?" he said.

    There was one cigarette left in the pack. "Don't smoke," I said.

    "Worried it'll stunt your growth?" he said, laughing as he lit his cigarette.

    "Yeah," I said and watched the smoking match he flicked away fall in one long arch to the bottom of the steps.

    It wasn't any cooler outside, but the air was fresh, not kitchen smells. Only Felix's smoke, sharp and floating in waves in front of us. He smoked holding his cigarette between his thumb and pointing finger and leaning forward, like he was meeting the cigarette partway each time he puffed.

    "Here," I said after a couple of minutes, taking the chart that was folded in my shirt pocket and showing it to him.

    "Oh, yeah," he said as if just remembering what we was doing. He pulled the blank folded chart I give him from his back pocket, where he'd no doubt put it after I give it to him.

    "Here," I said, pointing to my grandmother, Elba Gonzales, and then back to her mother, my great-grandmother Carmelita Gonzales. "Somewheres in here our lines'll cross. Always does."

    He studied my chart, following from Carmelita Gonzales to Juana Maria and Josephina, the ones with no last names, all the way back to the first Rosa. Then his eyes jumped and I seen where they landed.

    "`Father,'" he said. "You ain't filled out nothing for `father.'"

    Either he was dumb or just plain rude. Maybe he didn't care. Point is, a blank space there, or anywheres on the chart, meant one of two things: Either you didn't know who the person was or, if you did know, you was ashamed. Both of which causes embarrassment. Particularly if you're Indian, since lots of us have blank spaces; and now with everybody wanting to be full blood and all, nobody wants to claim relations that ain't Indian.

    "John Severe," I told Felix. "That's my father's name. Like mine."

    Then I went one step further. I pointed to the empty line for my mother's father, just below the line with Grandma's name on it. "My mother, she don't even know who her father was."

    I expected him to ask questions, you know, like if Grandma was a whore, what the situation was that she didn't know the father of her baby. But he come back to my father.

    "Did you know him?" he asked. "Your father."

    "Uh-uh," I said. "He was Italian. Last name was Severino. Mom got me stuck with just Severe. John Severe."

    "My father was Mexican," he said and then took a drag off his cigarette and exhaled a long cloud of smoke before he added, "Didn't know him either."

    The crickets was loud just then, like that part of the night had all at once turned itself on.

    "Why didn't you put your dad's name there?" he asked. He was looking again at the empty line on my chart for "father."

    "Just did the Indians so far," I said. "I was in a hurry." Which was the truth, of course.

    "Why didn't you know your father?" he asked.

    Something had a hold on his brain, locked in place so his thoughts stayed focused on this empty line--my father. In case he hadn't noticed, I had no pretensions about this stuff, my family history, so I told him: "Mom and him had a thing, you know. Never stuck around. He was already married, I think."

    Just because I'll talk about stuff in my life don't mean I expect others to do the same. And even if I did want to know something personal about somebody, I don't have the nerve to ask. So I never asked Felix about his father and why he didn't know him neither. Time passed with us quiet. No sound but the crickets and him taking another drag off his cigarette. Then I seen him looking back at the empty chart on his lap, and I pointed to the line for "mother," my finger touching the piece of paper, and said, "Start there. `Mother.'"

    "Rose," he said. Then I seen his face settle, that thing in his brain let loose. "She got killed," he said.

    "How long ago?" I asked, not knowing what else to say just then.

    "Fifteen years ago; I was seven," he answered. He flicked his cigarette butt the same way he flicked the match, with his thumb and middle finger, and the cigarette, its end all aglow, sailed in an arch to the ground below.

    Without intending to, I'd pushed him into a land mine. All those questions about my father, my empty line, was a way for him not to think about that empty line on his own chart, where he knowed he'd have to start. Maybe I'd have some heavy story like his own. Maybe my father got killed. But I had no such story, and before I could say something else, I had pointed him to "mother."

    It's natural a person would want to know what happened to his mother. He must've figured as much, even though I was no ways going to ask. But he didn't answer. He talked in another direction.

    "My auntie Daisy raised me," he said. "You ever heard of her, Daisy Green?" He chuckled hearing himself say the name, and then he said it again in case I didn't get the humor in it the first time he said it. "Daisy Green, can you believe that?"

    "Wild," I said for lack of anything else to say.

    "She is ... You heard of her?"

    "Uh-uh."

    "Crazy. She is wild. Taught me to steal, all kinds of shit."

    "My grandmother mostly raised me," I said.

    "She's a nice lady."

    "You know her?"

    "No."

    "You ever seen her?"

    "No."

    "Well, how do you know ..." But I couldn't finish my question because just then I seen how he took me in. Both of us busted up.

    "Make a new friend, hell, gotta say something good about his grandmother, right?"

    I nodded and we laughed again. Then, all at once, he got up and went inside, leaving me with the night and his footsteps behind me sounding across Auntie Mollie's kitchen floor. Then he was back, plopping himself down again.

    "Here," he said, and when I looked I seen the sky blue and aquamarine necklace, his showstopper, coiled neatly in his open palm. "It's yours."

    He pushed his open hand towards me, urging me to take the necklace. I took it finally.

    "I thought you was going to give it to Mollie," I said, running the necklace bead by bead through my fingers, stopping where the blue and sea green was set off by black and bright red.

    "Nah," he said, "it's yours."

    He watched me examining the necklace. "Wisdom," he said. "Things come together in that necklace so it's wisdom."

    I couldn't see no meaning in the necklace, not wisdom or nothing else. But I got the idea while we was at the kitchen table that he was giving it to her and I think she did too. Then something rolled out of me.

    "Ain't right for Mollie anyways," I said, seeing the necklace rested in my palm now. "It ain't. Finish the one with the glass beads and turquoise and give that to her."

    "The one for love?"

    "Whatever," I said. "Yeah."

    "But she don't have a boyfriend."

    I shrugged. "Don't know," I said. "Just an idea I got."

    "Hmm," he said, resting back with his elbows on the top step. He stared out to the crickets, like he was seeing something in the night.

    When I looked over at him, I seen on the top step, behind him, his empty chart. Where it fell when he got up to go inside, or where he set it even before he got up. Either way, it was out of his way now. He didn't have to look at it. He'd gotten me completely off track, away from the chart business, away from Rose. I seen his routine clear. But I felt no need to let him know, or to match him. Earlier I'd wondered who his mother was and thought to ask how she was related to us, to Auntie Mollie or to me, but now I knowed better than to bring up the subject. That was for him to do.

    A sadness come over me. I watched him sit up and light his last cigarette. The panther stretched and stepped, but it was alone.

    Neither of us said nothing for the longest time. Then he asked me if I liked my necklace.

    "Yes," I told him, though I hadn't really thought about it.

    "Put it on," he said.

    And I did, just to go along with him.

    "Looks great," he told me. "Wisdom."

    I wondered how he'd come up with that--wisdom--and how he knowed so much about each of his beads. But again I said nothing. I let the quiet between us be our words. Later, we talked some about our jobs--his work a few months back on a pear ranch, my work on the dairy and the used clothes I sold on the side. I told him I went to junk shops too--Salvation Army, Goodwill--for the clothes I patched up and sold. When I got up to leave, explaining about morning milking and feeding schedules on the dairy, he nodded, letting me know he understood.

    "Better say good night to Auntie and Alice," I said, facing the kitchen.

    "Nah," he said. "Auntie's getting ready for bed."

    "Tell them then," I said and turned, making my way to the side of the house.

    "I will. See ya."

    "See ya."

    I looked back once before turning the corner. He was watching me, I could tell. But I seen only his white T-shirt and the orange glow of his cigarette.

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Reading Group Guide

AN INTRODUCTION TO
Watermelon Nights

"Each afternoon now, when I have finished my work, memory beckons me into the street, insists that I walk with her in the snow."

Wedged between a race track and a busy highway, South Park is the dreariest section of the Northern California town of Santa Rosa. The inhabitants—American Indians, blacks, and Mexicans—are worn down, cast aside by a society embarrassed by or simply indifferent to the poverty and the family struggles passed down from generation to generation. The Indians—Waterplace Pomo, a tribe so small that the Bureau of Indian Affairs does not recognize it—have a special connection to Santa Rosa. The town is named after their common ancestor, a woman abducted and raped by a Mexican general during the early years of California history, when soldiers vied for Indian lands and missionaries laid claim to their souls. But it is "the second Rosa," the daughter of this ill-matched pair, who lives on in the myths the Pomos of South Park share with one another. A proud, beautiful woman, the second Rosa fled her father's oppressive household and with two different Indian men conceived the children who became the new roots of the tribe. Members of the regenerated tribe found work on the dairy farms and in the orchards and canneries established by white settlers on ancient tribal lands and made their homes on a desolate reservation. The barely formed community, however, soon collapsed and eventually made their way to South Park's grim streets. There, in the last years of a century marked by dislocation and despair, long-remembered stories are retold, long-buried secrets revealed, and forgotten bonds of love and forgiveness re-established.

In Watermelon Nights, Greg Sarris weaves the voices of three Pomos—twenty-year-old Johnny Severe, his grandmother, Elba, and his mother, Iris—into a vivid tapestry. As he recounts the harsh history, as well as the rich traditions, myths, and dreams of the Pomos, Sarris illuminates the prejudices and misunderstandings that exist not only between Indians and whites, but within the tribe itself. Johnny, involved in efforts to gain federal recognition for the tribe, comes face to face with these undercurrents as he gathers genealogies from his neighbors. Even Johnny's beloved grandmother, an inveterate storyteller, falls silent when his questions probe too deeply.

Johnny has lived with Elba since the age of fourteen, forging a bond with her far stronger than the one he has with his mother, who has made a place for herself in the white world as an employee at the J. C. Penney in Santa Rosa. Like Elba, Johnny has the ability to see "a lot of things in this world special." His visions, which enable him to discern illnesses and predict behavior, connect him not only to his grandmother, but to generations of tribal visionaries and healers. The possibility of using his gift to escape South Park and pursue a career in legitimate retailing starts to intrigue him when Felix, a newcomer to the community, turns his world upside down. Seduced by Felix's easy-going charm and privy to his most intimate stories, Johnny is confident that they can help themselves and their tribe overcome the sins of the past. When Felix ultimately betrays him, the lessons of his grandmother's stories finally become clear. But these despairing stories echoing in his head are only part of the legacy Johnny takes with him as he leaves South Park. The night before his departure, a watermelon-eating festival transforms the neighborhood and the chorus of bitter voices is drowned out by words of kindness. They are, Johnny realizes, the songs of magic and love that have held the community together forever.

Elba has learned the importance of her tribe's oral tradition from Old Uncle, a legendary healer. An orphan raised on the reservation during the Great Depression, Elba was sold into marriage at eleven and survived five years, two miscarriages, and four stillborn babies before returning to the reservation to join her old friends at a hobo camp where they earn meager rewards for sexual favors. The birth of a son fathered by a kind, loving Filipino laborer brings Elba the first genuine happiness she has known since childhood; his death in a fire sends her spiraling into alcoholism. Ostracized by the self-righteous tribal elders and shattered by a horrific rape at a local bar that leaves her pregnant with an unknown white man's child, Elba sets out on the road to Santa Rosa where she eventually earns enough as a maid to buy a small house and works to preserve her ancestral culture and spiritual beliefs.

Elba's daughter, Iris, has little patience for her mother's interest in songs and visions. Smart, pretty, and eager to be accepted by the white world, she forms a fast friendship with Anna, another Indian, and together they defy Santa Rosa's long-standing social rules by going out with two well-to-do students from the local junior college. Anna, carried away by romantic fantasies, ignores a lifetime of stories about why white men seek out Indian girls and pays a dreadful price. Shocked and unsettled by Anna's experience, Iris tries to bridge the gap between her and her mother. In the end, her own son, forced to choose between his heritage and his future, reveals the true consequences of her renunciation of her roots: "He told me how I am one of the lost generation, that all my problems have to do with my being lost between two cultures, white and red."

As the story of the tribe unfolds in Watermelon Nights, the narrators' points of view play against one another, creating a compelling, finely nuanced portrait of the problems of cultural identity and assimilation at the heart of Native American history. As Patrick Sullivan wrote in The Sonoma County Independent, "Watermelon Nights has no easy answers to offer. But Sarris gives us something better—a powerful novel about deeply complicated human beings. It's easy to say that we live on Indian land. Sarris tells us what that means."

Sarris first introduced South Park and its inhabitants in Grand Avenue, a collection of linked stories that includes narrations by some of the characters in Watermelon Nights, their children, and their grandchildren. Hailed by Michael Dorris as "one of the very best works of fiction by and about Native Americans [and] one the most important, imaginative books of the year," Grand Avenue portrays with poignancy and humor the lives of yearning teenagers, jilted lovers, struggling parents, and elderly healers. Enchanted by a crippled old horse who magically responds to her touch and voice, a young girl performs a desperate act in a futile attempt to save him from the slaughter house. A mother, comforting her cancer-stricken child with stories of her ancestors, wonders if the ancient curse the tales speak of has come to claim them both. A teenage boy, goaded into entering a forbidden place, witnesses a scene that destroys his innocence. A father tries to make contact with the son he never acknowledged and finds himself caught in a neighborhood scandal.

The older generation, survivors of years of turmoil and betrayals, talk of the choices and the compromises they have made. Old Uncle has forsaken ancient teachings and now teaches a Bible class for Indians at the local YMCA. Others hold fast to the traditions of the tribe. Nellie, Elba's childhood friend, continues to weave baskets and to practice healing rites that still work wonders. Perhaps the greatest miracle in Nellie's life is Alice, a teen-aged neighbor who asks for lessons in |basket-weaving. As they work together at her kitchen table, Nellie passes on to Alice the secret that has sustained countless generations: "Talk. It's important to talk. . . Stories, the true stories, that's what we need to hear. We got to get it out. The true stories can help us."


AUTHOR INTERVIEW
A Conversation with Greg Sarris

As a child adopted by a white suburban couple, you were a young man when you uncovered your own Native American roots. Did you ever question your adoptive parents about your background when you were growing up? What inspired you to search for information about your birth parents?

I knew that my biological mother was white. On my original birth certificate the father was listed as "Unknown non-white." My adoptive mother told me there was speculation my biological father was Mexican. I had a difficult time growing up in my adoptive home—my father was abusive, and I was a dark-haired child in a family of blondes.

How did your biological parents' families react to meeting you? In what ways did learning the story of your heritage change the way you felt about yourself? Are there elements of your own life in your portraits of young Indian men like Johnny and Felix?

My biological mother's family was cautious. Her mother wondered "what I wanted." My biological mother, Bunny Hartman, died shortly after I was born. She was sixteen and the hospital gave her the wrong type blood. Her mother secretly buried her in the paupers' section of a local cemetery and told family and friends that she had "fallen off a horse." The truth was not revealed until I came along some twenty-five years later. My father's family, on the other hand, was wonderful, accepting of me straight away.

Yes, there are parts of my life in Johnny and Felix. In certain ways, I have been at different times like Johnny and Felix—kind like Johnny, mean and manipulative like Felix. Haven't we all?

When and why did you decide to become a writer?

In college. I loved literature. It was what I knew best—good gossip. Literature tells you something about someone you didn't know before. It's stories. I can do that, I thought.

Your novel is filled with violent events and personal tragedies, yet the title Watermelon Nights refers to a rare, almost magical night in the lives of the South Park community. How did you come to choose that title?

I chose the title from an actual event, an event I had forgotten, that happened in South Park, where Grand Avenue is located. My longtime friend, Lenny Gomes, was one of the first people to steal the watermelons off the truck. As he retold the story, I remembered how everyone had eaten watermelon and was happy. The image stuck with me.

Many of your stories are told from a woman's perspective. Why did you choose to do this? What difficulties did you encounter as a male writer focusing on the emotional lives of women?

I don't choose a perspective. The characters, many of whom happen to be women, choose me. I don't have difficulties writing from a woman's perspective. It's spirit. I am the reed through which the voice comes. I just write. Sometimes representing the voice on paper—sentence structure, syntax—is troublesome in the beginning, but once I have it down, the voice flows. Voices don't necessarily choose the reed, the instrument of their telling, by gender; rather, they choose by capability.

Did you do a lot of historical research in order to present an accurate portrayal of Native American life in Northern California? Did you use stories you learned from your own tribe, the Miwok, or other contemporary Indian communities?

I don't do a lot of research per se. So much of what I know is in my head—from stories I've heard in and around my community. Yes, I hear the stories from members of my tribe—and family members—and then retell them.

There is a growing interest in Native American literature today. What do you think has caused this? What books by or about Native Americans do you most admire?

The growing interest in Native American literature today reflects the larger interests in literature from diverse communities as well as Americans' growing interest in the original peoples of this land—hearing voices from the land that is America. Particularly good books by Native American writers include Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain, and the poetry of Joy Harjo and Linda Hogan.

In addition to offering an authentic picture of Native American life, what insights do your books present into American society in general?

My books are about more than just American Indians. My books are chronicles of survival, how a people survive for better and for worse. They light the dark places so we can all—all of us, Indian and non-Indian—see where we have been, where we are, and where we might go.

As chief of the Miwok tribe, you have petitioned the government for the restoration of tribal lands and for official recognition. Why is it important for Indian tribes to be acknowledged by the federal government? What do you see as the most significant problems contemporary Native Americans face?

It's important for Indian tribes to be acknowledged by the Federal government for several reasons. First, it is important for reasons associated with identity, with who we are and who we have been culturally and historically. Second, only acknowledged tribes have access to educational, medical and housing benefits afforded other tribes by the U.S. Government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Without acknowledgment, Indian people in this country risk becoming "unknown non-whites" to the larger society. I know what that's like.

Regarding significant problems . . . well, like everyone else we have many problems and assets. What concerns me is that for our well being we must keep telling our stories. Our stories can heal. They are ceremonies that enlighten. Isn't that what will keep us—all of us, Indian and non-Indian—human?


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Watermelon Nights shifts between the rural reservation of the past and the urban streets of contemporary Santa Rosa. Are the Pomos more cohesive as a tribe when they live on their own land? Is it easier for them to maintain a traditional life in isolation? Does their dependence on white employers and government assistance, whether on the reservation or in town, inevitably undermine their attempts to preserve the Indian way of life?
  2. Why is Johnny Severe, who is "hardly quarter Indian," so eager to organize the Pomo tribe? Why does he think "official" recognition will make a difference in his life? How have his grandmother's stories influenced his decision to help revitalize the tribe and its traditions? What role does his mother's renunciation of the Indian community play in his attachment to tribal culture?
  3. Does Felix's boast that he is "full Indian" reflect genuine pride or is it a way of ingratiating himself with Johnny and the others involved in organizing the tribe because, as Johnny muses, "now with everyone wanting to be full blood and all, nobody wants to claim relations that ain't Indian"? What convinces Johnny to let go of his uneasy feelings about Felix and embrace his friendship? What parallels does he see in their lives? Does their attraction to each other evolve naturally, or does Felix manipulate the course of their friendship? Why does Felix turn on Johnny so viciously?
  4. Early in the novel, Johnny says "Indians are a mean, unhappy bunch," and the raucous tribal meeting, as well as the attack on Johnny, quickly become forums for expressing the resentments, jealousies, and hatreds that simmer within the tribe. Does Elba's narrative, revealing the horrors of the past and the indignities suffered by the tribe, make you more sympathetic to the Bill sisters, Zelda and Billyrene Toms, and other members of her generation? How have their experiences shaped the lives and beliefs of Johnny's generation? Discuss the different ways Johnny, Tony, Edward, Francis, Raymond, and Alice choose to deal with their heritage. What events and memories of her own past help Elba maintain her equanimity and her hopefulness about the present and future?
  5. What does Iris's success in the spelling bee represent to her? To Elba? Do you think Elba would have supported Iris's "revenge" had she known about it? Does Iris's defiant act bring her the satisfaction she sought? How do these events shape her opinions about white society? Do they justify her initial coldness toward Patrick years later or is she herself guilty of bigotry?
  6. After Iris witnesses the terrible scene at the Roundhouse on the old reservation and learns about what happened between Anna and Mike Bauer, why does Elba say "You don't see nothing . . . I think I done wrong with you . . . Maybe I should've let you starve like the rest of us."? Do you think Elba should have tried to help Iris feel more comfortable within the community? Was leaving South Park the only choice Iris had?
  7. Despite her success in creating a comfortable life in San Francisco, several reviewers suggest that Iris is the most tragic figure in Watermelon Nights. In view of the heart-breaking events of Elba's life and Johnny's chilling encounter with tribal prejudices, why do you think they reached that conclusion? Do you think that Iris's loss of identity and a sense of belonging is more devastating than the physical and emotional trials of the other characters?
  8. The destructive impact of white racism on Indians and their culture runs throughout Watermelon Nights. Do you think this is an accurate version of history? How do the attitudes of the white community affect the Pomos' image of themselves? Of other minority groups? Is Felix right when he says "We're at the bottom of the barrel, man, and nobody wants nobody to get out. It'll make everybody confused because it we're not all at the bottom of the bucket then who are we?"
  9. Many of the stories in Grand Avenue, as well as two parts of Watermelon Nights, are narrated by women. Does this affect the tone of the stories and the "facts" they reveal? In general, do you think women assume more responsibility for maintaining traditions and shaping cultural identities? Does this differ from culture to culture, and if so, why?
  10. Elba's aunt, Chum, and her friend, Nellie Copaz (whose life is depicted in detail in several stories in Grand Avenue), are both expert basket-weavers, a skill the Pomo are known for. How is this craft symbolic of their roles within the community? What significance does Elba's garden have? How does the care she lavishes on it and the effect its beauty has on other people reflect her approach to life?
  11. In "The Water Place," a story in Grand Avenue, an old woman sums up the story of the Pomos with these words: "Look at what the Spanish did, then the Mexicans, then the Americans. All of them, they took our land, locked us up. Then look at what we go and do to one another." Discuss how this stark viewpoint applies to the events and interactions of the characters in Watermelon Nights. To what extent do the exclusionary actions and prejudices within the tribe determine the fates of Johnny, Elba, and Iris?
  12. In what ways does Sarris's chronicle of Native American history and life complement or contrast with works by Louise Erdrich, Leslie Silko, Sherman Alexis, and other American Indian writers? How do his portraits of the Pomo compare to stories you have read about other groups marginalized by society—for example, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, novels and memoirs by African Americans like Claude Brown, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin, or the works of contemporary Latino writers?
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