Set Me Free

Set Me Free

by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780446533317
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 03/14/2007
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.62(h) x 1.25(d)

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Set Me Free

A Novel


Spoken by CAL

When I was a little boy, Maw-Maw would often take me on her lap and tell me about Our Way. I took Our Way to mean the Traditional Indian Way, the Neige Courante Way, because she was my toothless grandmother and her hair fell in two frayed plaits beside her face and she sometimes wore a buckskin dress that smelled of wood smoke and, on occasion, of the living thing that had once been in it. So I will never forget the moment I realized what Our Way really meant; the afternoon's shame is still vivid in my mind, though it shames me no more. Now I am quite fond of my boyhood embarrassment, because it is one of the few things I have from the time when Maw-Maw was the only world I knew.

I was seven years old. There were two boys who lived two houses down, with their own grandmother. This other grandmother was powerful on our reservation. This other grandmother was beautiful and well dressed. She had all her own teeth. Her hair was cut short and styled well, and her grandsons wore ironed shirts and brand-new Converse sneakers. I wanted to impress these grandsons. They were older than I. They had been to the Pendleton rodeo and showed cattle at the county fair. They could really play some basketball. I thought if I showed off for them by singing the tribal song Maw-Maw had taught me, then perhaps they would invite me to play with them. A game of Horse maybe, or Twenty-one. Nothing elaborate. "That will only be the beginning," I told myself, staring up at my ceiling in the quiet night. "Once we play together, they'll love me. They'll invite me into their world of vacuums and penny candy and blue-black Levi's. Before I know it, we'll be like brothers."

So I sang, and the whole time I thought, "I am borrowing Maw-Maw's voice." I had to imagine I was borrowing her voice to get the notes right, and to remember what I was supposed to say.

The quality of mercy is not strange, hey-eh, hey-eh. It falleth as a gentle rain from hea-ven.

Those boys started laughing at me right away. "Does that sound like an Indi'n song to you? Do those sound like Indi'n words?" And then they laughed until they cried. When they were still catching their breath, one said, "That's a loony old woman you live with. Better watch out you don't catch her crazy bugs," and they ran off and left me alone, yearning after them. I tried to take my pride in hand. I tried to quell my anger. I went inside and found Maw-Maw in the kitchen, humming to herself. I asked her for the first time in my life, "Maw-Maw, is Our Way the Indi'n Way? Or is it the Indian Way? Or is it the Traditional Way? Or is it the Neige Courante Way?" And she looked at me and laughed. The laugh she had that showed her gums and rattled her so deep, it felt like she might die right there. The laugh that scared me because I could not reach her when she was caught in it.

"All you need to know," she said when her breath had settled, "is Our Way is My Way. There is no Indian Way, fool. 'Indi'n' is just another way of saying you're Indian yourself. That has nothing to do with Our Way. Maybe there is a Neige Courante Way. Maybe there is a Lakota Way. A Crow Way. A Hopi Way. But there is also a Chinese Way. An Irish Way. A million other Ways. Really, My Way is to learn the Human Way. Maybe that's Traditional. But that's not important. This is: you are a human living under my roof. You eat my food. You will live by My Way, which is Our Way. The Human Way. Understand?" I nodded, because I was often a little scared of how much she knew, but really, I didn't understand at all.

I have only, in these last few days, realized that you may be the only person in the world who understands what this story says about my deepest truth: I do not often understand until it is too late.

When that same Maw-Maw set to dying, it was the summer I turned twelve. Two weeks into her bed rest, she had me crawl on my hands and knees and root around on the dusty floor underneath her bed. I knew her under-the-bed place was where she kept her most powerful, precious things, and so, when she asked me to do this task for her, I was afraid. It meant, for sure, she was dying.

In my search for what she wanted, I had to touch a yellowed cloth diaper, neatly folded into fourths; a bone necklace that once held powerful magic; and one silver earring tied in an embroidered handkerchief. Every time I came up for air, she prodded me with the end of her cane. "That isn't it! Keep looking!" She didn't tell me what she was looking for until I had it in my hands.


Excerpted from Set Me Free by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore Copyright © 2007 by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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