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Recently widowed, and encouraged by government relocation schemes to move Native Americans off their reservations, Betty takes her four young children from their Ojibwe roots to make a new life in Minneapolis. Her younger son Lester finds romance on the soon-to-be-demolished train, The Hiawatha, while his older brother Simon takes a dangerous job scaling skyscrapers. Their fates collide, and result in a tale of crime, punishment, and redemption.
An elegy to the American dream, and to the sometimes tragic experience of the Native Americans who helped to build it, The Hiawatha is a powerful novel that confirms David Treuer's status as a young writer of rare talent.There are countless reasons why families fall apart. Fratricide, the tragic incident at the center of David Treuer's second novel, The Hiawatha, is surely one of the most agonizing. "A good job, close friends, quiet nights"--all this and more seem to beckon to Ojibwe matriarch Betty in 1961 when she uproots herself and her four children from their upstate reservation and moves the family to the inner-city promise of Minneapolis. Only when her younger son is killed by his own brother are Betty's long-decaying dreams of a better life finally extinguished, exposing not only the dark side of pursuing the American Dream, but the convoluted trails of love.
Simon, Betty's oldest child, seems doomed to misfortune, frustration, and resentment. After witnessing his father's accidental death, he feels obligated to act as family savior and protector, especially once they move to the city. His best intentions aren't enough, however, and the family eventually unravels, their devastation complete after Simon's almost inexplicable, alcohol-fueled murder of his brother. Much of the novel traces the aftermath, as Simon and Betty attempt a delicate healing, their lives muddled with both affection and remorse.
Treuer is at his best when penetrating the silent emotions of confused souls and the failed promises of human hearts. And although his observations tend to be cynical and overly broad, somewhat falsely self-assured, his knowledge of the worlds of both city and reservation is remarkably precise. In a book that can be unnecessarily gruff, Treuer exposes plainly not only the persistence of tragedy, but also the tenacity of family love. --Ben Guterson