November was Native American Heritage Month. While the calendar has already turned to a new page, here are five books by Native writers you can read any time of year to delve into the rich ancestry and traditions of Indigenous communities.
“Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley (Henry, Holt and Co.). There are a lot of intersecting themes in Boulley’s powerful YA debut. The author artfully intertwines topics including but not limited to culture, sports, gender and identity through a thrilling and fast-paced story line that you won’t be able to put down. Following the wonderfully fleshed out character Daunis, a biracial, unenrolled tribal member, readers are given an absorbing introduction to experiences not often known to non-Natives. “The author’s love for and connection to her culture is so deeply engraved into the very heart of this book and it beats in rhythm with each new plot development,” wrote an NPR reviewer. “As a non-Indigenous reader, every depiction and explanation of Ojibwe philosophy and traditions felt like a gift, and every depiction of injustice felt like a call to action.”
“Heart Berries” by Terese Marie Mailhot (Counterpoint Press). In this emotion-driven memoir of 11 essays, Canadian First Nations writer Mailhot recounts her coming of age as a Nlaka’pamux woman. Growing up in a society hostile toward her existence, “Heart Berries” is her story of a life filled with abuse and mental illness, but, more importantly, healing and survival. Mailhot’s writing style is poetic and fragmented; reading her memoir feels as though it’s an intimate act, like peeking into someone’s diary. Nothing is off-limits in this raw, beautiful book: motherhood, loss, absence, want, suffering, love, betrayal.
“There There” by Tommy Orange (Knopf). A powerful and influential read that I find myself wanting to return to again and again, “There There” weaves together the stories of 12 characters from Indigenous communities to show the plight of urban Native Americans. Orange does this with an incredible amount of thought, anguish and introspection, and while the novel centers on Natives in Oakland, California, the portrait of their contemporary life — with its complexities, messiness and deportable treatment from non-Natives — pertains to many Indigenous communities in America.
“The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones (Gallery / Saga Press). Bestselling Blackfeet author Jones has more than 25 dark and thrilling books in his repertoire, for those interested in horror novels. Along with this year’s “My Heart Is a Chainsaw,” one of his most popular is 2020’s “The Only Good Indians.” Likened to the “creeping horror of Paul Tremblay meets Tommy Orange’s ‘There There,’” it is the story of four childhood friends who find themselves pursued by a vengeful spirit long after a dishonorable hunting incident from their youth. Running underneath this horror tale are themes delving into modern-day issues facing the Indigenous community.
“Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury). A meditation on grief, this memoir — written by Ward, two-time winner of the National Book Award in fiction (“Salvage The Bones,” 2011; “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” 2017) — was born after Ward lost five important men in her life over a span of five years. With the question of “Why?” running through her head, Ward wrote about the deaths surrounding her and her community, and the deaths’ relation to rural poverty and race. “The prose is bursting with pain and beauty and truth,” author Roxane Gay wrote of the memoir. “This is a book everyone should read.”