In the gray autumn of Seattle, Claudia, an anthropology professor, is on edge.
Her marriage is over after she found out her husband and sister were having an affair. She’s reflecting on her perennial grief over the loss of her mother and her Mexican childhood with her, and how she moved to the U.S. to live with her white father as an adolescent. And she’s heading out to Neah Bay, where she’s been working on a record of Makah culture, mainly by interviewing an elder named Maggie.
Meanwhile, Maggie’s son Peter is returning to his home for the first time since he fled as a teenager, following his father’s mysterious death. Having built a nomadic life as an underwater welder, Peter feels adrift, in many ways ready to return home for closure, but in other ways still wracked with his own grief and fear around doing so. When he arrives home, Maggie’s hoarding and her dementia are a harsh reality he must face while back in the house where his father died.
The convergence of Claudia and Peter in Neah Bay is the primary fault line of “Subduction,” the brilliant debut novel from Seattle writer, educator and investigative journalist Kristen Millares Young. But the ripple effects are many, and the book accomplishes something that only the best literature can: It asks the reader to wonder, and to reflect, and to ask crucial questions about society and identity. And it does so in a deeply entertaining and moving story.
In less than 300 pages, the fast-moving but quiet plot of “Subduction” guides the reader on a journey that feels both disruptive — like an earthquake — and serene, like the rocking of a boat in gentle waves.
The crux of the book revolves around storytelling, and what it means to belong somewhere. “The stories we tell each other matter,” Young writes, “but the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves matter the most.” The characters here are deeply flawed. Claudia, who feels like an outsider in white America, the Mexican diaspora and among the Makah people, buries herself in her work. But anthropological work contains inherent aspects of voyeurism: “… the mere act of observation can change the observed.” Claudia rewrites transcripts of her interviews with Maggie to make herself look better, less desperate for answers. “Please get over your disgust,” Claudia tells herself as she selectively deletes her own words. “Like you haven’t done that, like you’re not going to do it again.” With Claudia’s character, her decisions or lack thereof, Young asks, who tells what stories, and how?
Peter and Maggie both bear the scars of a shared trauma that has shaped their lives, but they’re reluctant to talk about it. They ride the waves of affection for, and resentment of, each other. Peter’s own misogyny complicates his character. Maggie has spent years hoarding things for her son in an attempt to outsource memory for him. In an America that actively tries to erase and assimilate people into whiteness, life’s accumulated objects are like buoys on oceans, Young writes. What does it mean to keep them? What does it mean to clear them out?
Maggie’s multifaceted character is a symbol for what is held and what is lost in our elders. “In one breath, she smelled like a powdery old woman,” Young writes. “In the next, she smelled like the sea.”
“Subduction” is about what is left when the world quakes, over and over in a myriad of ways. It’s about what it means to belong to a place, or a people, or oneself; about what polylithic America looks like. Most of all, the narrative doesn’t settle. It is an urgent odyssey that reverberates in the mind and body. In prose as drippy and lush as the moss and licorice ferns that green Pacific Northwest forests, “Subduction” shakes at the ground beneath all of our feet, avalanching us into a mess of colonialism, home and humanity.
“Subduction” by Kristen Millares Young, Red Hen Press, pp. 272, $16.95