By Dan Verner
My initial impressions of books are often wrong. As I started reading this first novel by Haymarket resident Tamela Ritter, which details the story of Naomi and Tim West, brother and sister who live with a dysfunctional and abusive mother on an Indian reservation in Montana, I thought, “This is an engaging read.” The more I read the more I realized I was wrong. This tale of suffering, separation, redemption and healing is not just engaging—it is riveting.
Naomi tells her part of the story in a flashback memoir, interspersed with her brother’s adventures told in third person. Naomi is a kind of Scout Finch but without the benevolent presence of Atticus. Her alcoholic mother brings home a series of “uncles,” and alternately abuses and coddles Naomi and Tim, who rely on each other for comfort. Naomi delivers arresting lines in the course of telling her story. One chapter begins, “The first time my mother tried to kill me, I was six.” Of her mother’s frequent trips to the local bar, she says at one point when she needs her help, “All my parental guidance was in the saloon, so I figured I’d better stay (there).”
Later on, when she is introduced to her mother’s husband, she is less than convinced that he will be different from the other men she has showed up with and says, “Larry, no offense, but we’ve heard this before.”
Larry replies, “Uh-huh, your mama told me you were a pistol.”
“I rolled my eyes, wishing I had a pistol.”
Tim’s part of the novel involves his search for a true home. Since he is half Indian, he is bullied by the boys on the “rez” and learns independence and tenacity as he goes on a difficult pilgrimage, wandering like a latter-day Huck Finn without a Jim. He is the “wounded healer” of the novel who finally reaches and creates a home for himself, his sister and his grandfather.
The episodic nature of the story functions as a kind of jigsaw puzzle in which the meaning of each bit is gradually revealed by its relationship to the other parts. It is realistic, at times brutal, at times wistful, but always effective as it moves between the worlds of dysfunction and a vision of an ideal existence. Without giving too much away, the three main characters arrive at an understanding that an ideal existence for them is the most real of all possible worlds.
Tamela Ritter has written an important and touching book. It deserves reading by a wide audience, and I hope it will find that audience.