On the reservation, Alice lives in a run-down trailer. Both her parents are alcoholics. She seldom has enough food and she rarely attends school, but she is free to follow her imagination. She is connected to the life and ancestry of her people and the deep love she receives from her family and community.
When her mother succumbs to schizophrenia, Alice is removed from her home and placed with a white foster family in the suburbs. This new world is neat and tidy and wholesome, but it is also alien, and Alice is unmoored from everything she has ever known and everything that has defined her.
As she traces Alice's journey between two cultures, Pierce asks probing questions about identity and difference, and she articulates vital truths about the contemporary Native American experience. Utterly authentic and lyrically compelling, this novel establishes Pierce as an important voice in American literature.
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Our beginning, as far back as I can remember, my hand in hers. We're on the bus and we are short forty cents. Mami drops our fifteen pennies and they scatter across the floor of the bus. They roll under the seat of an old man in a dark green uniform with a ragged name tag on the pocket. He picks them up and carefully puts them in Mami's hand. "How much do you need?"
"Forty cents," she says.
He holds out two quarters. Mami says, "Go ahead, angel." I balance my way back to the driver and drop them into the coin slot. Mami takes my hand and we sit next to the man who gave us the money.
"Guess what?" She leans in close to him. "I'm getting married tomorrow. Going to the chapel." Her eyes grow wide. "Ding-dong, the bells are gonna ring!"
He grins, wrinkles cutting into the corners of his mouth. Then he winks at me, "Lucky man." A large woman seated across the aisle from me takes a tissue out of her purse and gestures toward the little black bits of dried blood on my legs. I've been scratching little bumps for days. "Chicken pox," Mami says. But they look like mosquito bites. The woman looks Mami up and down, but Mami just smiles.
The old man eyes our plastic bags and muddy shoes. "Looks like you've come a long way."
"We're going home," Mami says. "My father moved us away to the city when I was as small as my little girl here."
We've been walking all day to catch this bus. We came from a place far away, mostly walking, and the world around us changed from pale gray and wet to red and dry. I can't remember where we were before we started walking, except that it was so bright and bugs made loud sounds and we slept outside and counted the stars. We drew pictures in the mud of how we would rearrange them if we could. It is this lost place I am dreaming about, leaning against Mami's shoulder when the driver wakes us.
"It's the end of the line," he says. "Where exactly are you trying to get?" Mami digs out a postcard, hands it over to him.
"Lenny's? On route nine? That's all the way at the other end of the line. On the number four bus."
Mami stands, gathers our shopping bags and says, "Transfer, please."
He shakes his head. "You can't transfer to anything out here."
She stares at him while the empty bus exhales black fumes. No one moves but me. I lean into Mami's hips and watch the smoke rings rise outside the window. "All right," he says finally. "Just stay on the bus."
When we do get off, it's late at night. The driver steps off the bus to point us in the right direction, and we start up the dirt road.
"Where are we going?" I ask.
"To the reservation to see your father," Mami says.
"When are we going to get there?"
"Don't know, angel."
"Are we going to have happy dream come true?"
"Yes," Mami says. "Happy dream come true."
She hangs a blue plastic shopping bag on her ponytail and sings, "Wedding bells are ringin' in the chapel, ding-dong the bells are gonna ring!"
She smiles, takes my face in her hands. "And you can be the flower girl."
"Yeah," I say, "and you can be the other flower girl."
Mami rips some weeds from the ground. "Like this," she says, and points her toes, prancing along the road, stretching her neck high. She flings weeds to either side of her. I tiptoe behind and throw little sprigs of grass in the air.
"You know what this means," Mami says. She races in a circle around me and mocks a donk on my head. "The condor fight!"
I fall over dead.
She scratches and scratches the air above me.
"Now my dear." Mami leans over me, making her voice shaky. "Now you are dry bones."
I open my eyes and look up at her. "Tell the story, Mami."
"All right," she says. "Late at night a condor swoops down from his cave, and carries off a young girl." As she speaks, I ride the air with my hands as wings. Mami picks me up and swings me around till everything blurs. She smells like cut grass. Her long hair is the color of water at night, thick and slippery on my cheek. The stars whoosh around. All around us the trees and phone poles are still and listening. When she sets me down, there is a swift movement on the road. Headlights. A purple arc of soft light spreads across her arms and she whispers.
"The condor takes the girl to the top of the mountain and hides her in his cave. But her grandmother finds her, takes her home, and hides her in a barrel. The condor comes to the grandmother's house and pokes at the barrel. He scratches and scratches with his talons. When the condor finally leaves and the grandmother runs to the barrel..."
We both mock horrible screams, covering our eyes and pointing to the barrel. We shout in unison, "Dry Bones!"
Lenny's Bar is just outside the reservation. It has a neon sign that spills pink all over the road in front of it like a crazy bunch of fancy-dancers in a scattered pattern. I dance too, pretending I'm one of them, showered in pink. Pink all over my arms, pink on my nose, pink on my cheeks, pink on the top of my head, crazy beautiful, kaleidoscopic pink melting into the gravel. And Mami and I dance in it. Up and down like war dancers in the sun. Pink, pink, pink.
Inside the bar it's almost pitch black. We walk through drifting webs of smoke as Mami searches for her groom. She walks right up to a man in the middle of a conversation with a skinny, stringy-haired white woman, and says softly, "Goddamn drunken Injun." He turns around and squints at her.
Then a big smile, "Amalie!"
Mami lifts me up, and sits me on the bar in front of him. "Sober up," she says to him. "You don't even recognize your own daughter." Then she looks into my eyes. "This is your papi," she says.
The stringy-haired white woman slams her beer bottle on the bar. "She ain't nothing but, but...a little bastard like her mother."
Papi's sleepy eyes round. He's trying to get a good look at me. But Mami reaches through us and slaps the woman.
Papi picks me up and we go out into the pink. A big splotch of it melts into the top of his long black hair. He puts me down and then squats to look at me with his black eyes. He puts his face up to mine, rests one hand on his knee. A beer is still sweating in the other.
"Well," he says. He smells like whiskey and cigarettes. "Are you a pretty angel like your mother?" I reach up to touch the pink spilling down his nose and cheeks. He laughs. Then I squeeze my eyes shut really tight and I dance for the ghosts all rising up around me, knees up, knees down, arms waving like an airplane. And Papi is laughing. He stumbles around behind me, singing "hiya-howa, hiya-hiya, howa-hiya." He grabs me up and says, "Sure glad your mami came back to me." I break free and run around him, whipping up the dirt, singing "Ding-dong the bells are gonna ring, ding-dong, dingidy dong!"
Papi's trailer is made up of four rooms: a large living room with knobby orange shag carpet, a long hallway of yellow-brown linoleum with little bumps marking the intersection of rooms, a kitchen and bathroom, and a bedroom at the end of the hallway. I sleep in the front of the trailer in a closet-size room. The walls are plain paneling, except for a cherub that Mami has cut from the wrapper of an Angel Soft toilet paper package and tacked to the wall over my bed. It is so hot that the air seems to be tinted deep red. There is just enough room for a fan at the foot of my bed and I wet my head in the sink and push my face up to it to cool off. Mami doesn't seem to sleep anywhere. She spends all day on a lawn chair outside, talking to the old people and bumming cigarettes from anyone who walks by.
I want Mami to have a wedding, but she won't cooperate. "You're the condor," I say to Papi. "And Mami, you're the young girl." But we never get to the walking down the aisle part. Papi lifts Mami up and over his shoulder. "Good-bye Alice," he says. "We're off to the ears of the mountain." Then he carries her inside and they shut the bedroom door.
Since we are home now, the home Mami always told stories about, I'm going to throw away all of our bus tickets. I find them tucked inside a plastic shopping bag in the closet, a fistful of limp bus transfers and tickets, and I go outside to bury them. The dirt outside the trailer is hard on top, so that I have to use a rock to scrape through. But underneath, it is soft and moist. I push the tickets in deep, cover the spot with stones. I find an empty plastic bucket under the trailer. Little bits of sagebrush and marigolds swim in the dirty gray water. I drag it out and stand on it. I can see through the kitchen window, which is propped open with a fan. Inside, Mami and Papi are seated at the kitchen table, their hands linked, their heads leaning into each other.
Papi says, "Because I got this place when Old Auntie died, and anyway, I wanted to come back for us. It's a home I could ask you to come to, not some apartment full of a dozen other Indians and an eviction notice every ten months."
Mami's head drops a bit, her smile turns down. "What about that woman?"
"She don't mean nothing to me, Lee. It's you I want, you're the only thing I ever wanted."
He takes her face in his hands, kisses the top of her head. "I won't ask you any questions, Lee. I don't care where you been. And Alice. Look, this is our home, okay, all of us."
Loose strands of her hair fall out of the messy bun she's made, and Papi tucks them behind her ear. "Shit," he says, "we were young, right? All that stuff happening with you, it scared me. But there ain't nothing wrong with you except being away from where you're supposed to be. I just want you to know that I'm sorry I let you go. I still don't think it's right what they done to you. You don't need no hospital, no medicine. I'm sorry I didn't come, Lee." He covers his own face with his hands, breathes deep. "I'm sorry, baby."
I think, What hospital? What medicine? He holds her hard. It looks as if he is hurting her. He says, "You'll stay, right?"
The bucket bows under my feet, and tips over so that I bang my arm against the jagged aluminum steps. There is sharp pain, and then a prickly tingling, as if my arm is falling asleep. Mami comes out of the trailer, picks me up and holds me in her lap. She rocks me on the steps, blowing softly on the bright pink welts. I watch the peroxide fizz inside the scratches on my arm.
I am trying to have a vision dream, but I keep dreaming about frozen french fries that Papi buys from the rez store. They come in a blue-and-white package, cost sixty-seven cents, and take, Mami says, exactly eleven minutes to cook. Papi is gone all day, working, and Mami and I search each room for forgotten change, uncovering pennies beneath the linoleum, and turning over cushions, looking for nickels. One day we find almost a dollar, and Mami sends me to buy french fries. The drop-down freezer in the store is a mess of soupy melted food and limp boxes in icy water. I pull the package out of a shallow pool at the bottom, bring it up to my nose to smell, and then drag it across my forehead to cool off. The girl working at the store laughs at me. Her little fan whines from behind the counter. I run all the way home, but just as I get to the little gravel path in front of the trailer, I trip. The box flies in front of me and spills open. The soggy french fries roll all over and their ridges fill up with dirt. When I go in to tell Mami, she sits down on the couch and bites her lip. We go out together, pick them all up, and wash them in a colander.
When the evening comes and it cools off inside, Papi and I play Go Fish in the front room until we fall asleep on either side of the couch, with our legs still crossed and the cards scattered between us, but Mami never seems to sleep. I wake up when she turns off the radio and shakes a blanket out over us. Late at night, she carefully folds brown paper bags from Papi's Wild Turkey whiskey bottles and stacks them on top of each other in a drawer. She's saving crinkled piles of them for my lunches, even though I never take a lunch anywhere. In the morning, before Papi goes down to the road to wait for the work trucks, he finds them in the silverware drawer and piled on top of the pans in the cupboard.
After brushing my teeth, I walk out into the kitchen to find Mami draining hot water from the spigot into a mug of instant coffee. Her hair is all gone.
"I've got twins in my head, Alice, little girl twins." She rubs the back of her head. All the black hair has turned a fuzzy gray. "They told me to shave it."
"Twins?" I follow her into the bathroom. "Are they pretty?"
"I don't know," she says. "They sound pretty."
I climb onto the toilet to look into the mirror. We look alike, especially our eyes, though her skin is darker. Mami's eyes are always growing wide. I smile into the mirror, inspecting my teeth, copying the way I've seen Papi do it.
"Your smile is prettier," I say.
"Let me look." She turns my chin left and right. "Yours is shiny," she says. "Like the sun in the middle of the day. Like yellow bird feathers." She uses her thumb to pull my chin down and look a little closer. "Like an angel from God sent down to bless me."
I cup my hands around her ear and whisper into her head, "Can I shave mine, too?"
She cuts most of it off with the scissors first. Then I stand on the toilet and she whizzes the electric shaver around my head until it's all gone.
"You look like Kumastamxo."
"Kumastamxo!" I say. I wave my magic hands around the top of her head. "Go away," I command the twins. "Leave my mami alone."
It's too hot to stay inside the trailer in the afternoon, so I follow Mami outside when she goes for a cigarette. When I open the screen door, she jumps out from under the wooden steps and sprays me with the hose. I scream and duck, but she keeps spraying till I'm drenched. Then she falls over laughing, the green hose still convulsing, leaking little brown lines in the dirt and gravel. I grab it while she's laughing and spray, spray, spray. As I chase her around the trailer, Papi's truck pulls up. He sticks his head out of the driver's side window and stares. Our prickly hair, drenched from the hose, stands up in jagged patches so that the scalp shows through.
"What's this?" he says. "Are we joining the marines?"
I point the hose at him, "Kumastamxo!"
"It's the new style," Mami says. "Everyone in Paris is mad for it. Got a cigarette, handsome?"
Papi gets out and kicks the door shut with his foot. He holds something gently in his hands. Mami takes the cigarette from his mouth and he leans close to me so I can cup my palm over his. A tiny frog jumps into my hand. Ticklee! It jumps out and I chase after it.
Copyright © 2007 by Nora Pierce
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Pierce's finesse in relaying the landscape of a child's life through the delicate filter of her young perspective is brilliant. It's terribly challenging to write a child's first person point of view in an adult work, and Pierce accomplishes it masterfully. Through this naive lens the author gives tremendous insight into cultural wealth and poverty, mental illness and the soaring imagination inextricably tied to it, as well as the emotional hurdles of a child displaced by virtually everyone. What stability little Alice lacks in family and tribe Pierce returns to her tenfold with a compassionate and responsive audience.
Very enjoyable story. Its told from the view point of Alice starting at age 5 until the age of 14. The story follows the life of Alice as her mother suffers from mental illness and comes to killing her. Then the years spent in the foster care system. Excellent first novel for Ms. Pierce.
The Insufficiency of Maps by Nora Pierce is a compelling but flawed story concerning an endearing, imaginative, and confused child struggling against adversity. The story begins with Alice, a five-year old Native American girl telling us about the bus trip she is taking with her mother. They are taking an exhausting, exciting journey so her mother can be married. They end up in an impoverished Indian reservation in Arizona where Alice is introduced to a man who may be her ¿Papi.¿ The next two-thirds of the book covers a few short months in the child¿s life. The reader learns everything through the quiet, all-observing, eyes-wide-open voice of vulnerable little five-year old Alice. We can¿t help but fall in love with this child! Through the child¿s inexperienced young voice, the reader is able to recognize what the child cannot. While she gets to know her Papi, plays around his dilapidated trailer, makes friends, goes to school, and later goes with her mother to live with her grandfather in Los Angeles, we are consumed by fear. We cannot put this book down, so fearful are we for the young child at every turn. We see Alice exposed to poverty, endangered by malnutrition, and victimized by neglect. Her caregivers are absent, alcoholic, or mentally or physically ill. They all love her, but are incapable of fulfilling her most basic needs. It is heart-wrenching and utterly compelling.In the last third of the book, Alice becomes orphaned, and is taken into the foster care system. She begins living with a family in the white suburbs of Los Angeles. Alice seems lost in this completely alien culture. Trying to find her way, she becomes obsessed with maps. In a succession of brief chapters, Alice grows up. During this period, we see Alice only through quick glimpses¿a series of sketches, nothing full enough to reimagine clearly how the child is changing. All too quickly we are at the end of the novel. Alice is suddenly 14, and she is finally able to put some important thing in perspective and take matters into her own hands. The novel ends with an unexpected and satisfying coming-of-age experience that puts Alice squarely on the path toward self-realization.Pierce¿s prose is elegant, literary, spare, and lyrical. The dialogue is excellent. Overall, I was pleased and impressed. In particular, the author successfully transports the reader into life on a modern-day Indian reservation, and exposes us clearly to the disabling upheaval of foster care. I look forward to reading more by this talented author; however, I have mixed feelings for this work as a whole. For the first two thirds I was absolutely enthralled; I could not stop reading; I was completely captivated and compelled. But at the point where Alice is transferred into foster care, the book abruptly changes pace and voice. Alice seems to have the very life drained from her. As a reader, I could no longer imagine Alice or believe in her as a middle-schooler, preteen, or adolescent. Thus the overall three-star rating on a book that might easily have earned five stars.
I must agree with the review of MsBaba below. I was intrigued and spell-bound by the child's perspective of poverty, malnutrition, neglect, and alienation from mainstream culture in the first parts of the book. However, when she became part of the foster care system, Alice's "voice" lost something. The latter story line didn't ring true or authentic somehow. Nonetheless, I applaud Pierce for this look at the Native American subculture and its effect on children of alcoholics or the mentally ill.
Narrated in first person, this is the story of a 5 or 6 year old Native American girl who is living with her mentally unstable mother as they bounce around between relatives and friends. Because of her mother's state of mind, it seems that whenever the child begins to put down roots and feel somewhat comfortable, her mother picks up again and flees with her to somewhere new. Eventually, the child is taken into state custody and is placed in a foster home with a white middle class family. While they are well-meaning and do their best to provide her with a sense of stability, they also decide that she needs to keep some exposure to her Native American roots, which in this particular case, might not have been the best choice. (I kept asking myself why the foster parents didn't treat both girls the same and enroll their foster child in the same activities as their natural child.) The story follows the girl's life into her teen years, where her conflicted feelings and sense of not really belonging anywhere begin to impact her behaviors. At least half of the story is supposedly narrated when the child is five, but the language used, though spare, suggests someone much older. However, I felt the story did a good job overall of showing the difficulties for children trying to assimilate into a different culture, and the difficulties well-meaning adults have in trying to do what's best for them. I think the story's ending was written with an intention to be hopeful, with the girl reaching some closure with regard to her mother who she learns has died. However, I couldn't help but feel she would remain a lost and troubled child.