Trail of Lightning: The Importance of Indigenous Representation in Literature

I wrote this review as a sample for my students. I liked it so much, I decided to share it with all of you.

The question of who should be telling certain stories is being discussed throughout the creative world. One might understand how people who’ve always had unencumbered freedom to pursue telling any story they wished might feel threatened by the notion of there being certain stories they should leave for someone else. Although the following adage has disputed origins, it is an apt description of why these creators might feel their voices are being suppressed: When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. It isn’t oppression to inform creators they aren’t qualified to tell a particular story just because they feel inspired. It is the correction of privilege. Through assertive craft choices such as the use of first-person, present tense story-telling, Rebecca Roanhorse makes it clear that Maggie Hoskie, the kick-ass Diné heroine of Trail of Lightning, will not put up with anyone else trying to speak for her.

Rebecca Roanhorse, who lives in New Mexico, is an Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo/African American author of speculative fiction. She also describes herself as Navajo in-law, which might mean her partner is Navajo. It could also mean something along the lines of being adopted into the Navajo nation, or it could simply mean that her legal status affiliations are Navajo. As a Canadian, I’m unfamiliar with how these affiliations are expressed in the United States. 2018 has been a good year for Roanhorse, who’s been nominated for several prestigious writing awards, and has already won some of them. She’s won a Nebula, Hugo and Campbell Award as well as being a Sturgeon, Locus and WFA finalist. Roanhorse made her debut as a novelist in June with The Sixth World: Book One, Trail of Lightning, published by Saga Press. On top of all these impressive credentials, she is a graduate of Yale Law School. (www.rebeccaroanhorse.com)

 

Maggie Hoskie lives in a world most people would describe as apocalyptic. Evidence the world has gone through catastrophic upheaval is all around her. However, the residents of Dinétah most likely always viewed the bit of land reserved for them after the United States glutted themselves on the rest as a refuge from the outside world. Through an almost prescient prediction of what the future might hold, the leaders of the Navajo nation built a wall around Dinétah which turned out to be their saving grace when the Big Water catastrophe began, drowning huge parts of the outside world. These gone-to-hell world-building details are common in post-apocalyptic stories, but Roanhorse lets us know this isn’t just another end-of-the-world novel:

I remember the first time I saw the Wall. I had expected something dull and featureless. A fifty-foot-high mountain of gray concrete, barbed wire lining the top like in some apocalyptic movie. But I had forgotten that the Diné had already suffered their apocalypse over a century before. This wasn’t our end. This was our rebirth. (Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning 23)

For some readers, having the American/Canadian colonial myth they were taught in school challenged might come as a jarring experience. These are likely going to be the same readers who have never needed to spend time searching novels for voices like their own—characters who share their language, cultural background and who understand history books have some drastic flaws. To tell such readers they might have to work to understand a different experience of the world—one where huge parts of the United States being underwater could be described as rebirth rather than apocalypse—sends a clear message that in this book, under-represented Indigenous readers will be placed first. That fact alone sets it apart.

Early in the novel we discover Maggie Hoskie is a complicated hero—a word she doesn’t want to apply to herself. We see this in one of the first descriptions of herself that she gives:

These Diné know the old stories sung by the hataałii, the ancient legends of monsters and the heroes who slew them, even before the monsters rose up out of legend to steal village children from their beds. And now they are looking to me to be their hero.

But I’m no hero. I’m more of a last resort, a scorched-earth policy. I’m the person you hire when the heroes have already come home in body bags. (Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning 2)

Throughout the novel we see Roanhorse extend Maggie’s ambivalent feelings about her status as a hero into equally conflicted feelings about her clan powers.

When Kai is introduced, he comes across as a pretty boy who seems to put a lot of effort into being pretty. This leads us to prejudge him as shallow; a knee-jerk judgement many characters in the book make about him. In one conversation with Clive the following is said:

“You danced with Kai?”

“More than once. And he’s not bad. Although, I still can’t believe he’s a medicine man.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, shouldn’t there be a rule against medicine men being that damn sexy?”

I agree, but say, “If it’s any consolation, he hasn’t finished his training.” (Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning 215)

 

We soon discover that despite his movie-star good looks, Kai has an extensive knowledge of Diné stories and ceremonies. Maggie is forced to reassess her first impressions of Kai when Tah, an elder she deeply respects, tells her the young man will save their people. As readers we end up forced to give our first impressions of him a similar reappraisal. Our growing respect for Kai makes us more inclined to believe him when he tells Maggie she’s wrong about how she sees herself.

Maggie spends a great deal of time telling us that she has been polluted by evil—how it entered her the night she lost her grandma, and it festered inside her until it oozed out during the incident at Black Mesa. She believes this is why Neizgháni left her. Our admiration of Kai forces us to consider the possibility that she has been wrong about this belief, but in the process reminds us of some of the terrible choices she’s made because she believed it to be absolute truth.

One of the best examples of a moment where this happens is when Kai says:

One of the first lessons Grandpa taught me. Clan powers are a gift, not a curse. We may not understand them, why they were an instrument against dark times, against the coming of evil. A good man can use a hammer to build a house. A band man can use it to kill his neighbor. The hammer is the same. (Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning 234)

Kai also says:

“Who convinced you that all you are is a killer?” His voice is louder now. “That Living Arrow is some sort of curse? That your past makes you some kind of monster? (Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning 233)

I can’t help thinking there are Indigenous readers who might relate to the difficulty Maggie has accepting she isn’t all the ugly things she’s come to believe of herself; people who have endured generations of colonial violence who might find in Maggie Hoskie the kind of hero they have been searching for in literature.

Rebecca Roanhorse hasn’t just given us another bad-ass monsterslayer in the character of Maggie Hoskie—at least she hasn’t given us one who sticks to the monsters we’ve become used to be slayed in genre fiction. The scariest monsters Maggie has to slay are inside of herself. One might even go so far as to say they represent the monsters many Indigenous people carry inside of themselves because of generations of colonial trauma. One wonders if the real rebirth will happen when Maggie finally accepts she isn’t a monster after all.

Bibliography

Roanhorse, Rebecca. Trail of Lightning. New York: Saga Press, An Imprint of Simon & Schuster, INC., 2018. Print.

—. http://www.rebeccaroanhorse.com. 2018. Online. 14 October 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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