BOOK REVIEW: Red moccasins for a Snow Queen

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THe grass dancer Susan Powers Picador £9.99

There is a chilling moment towards the end of The Grass Dancer when a character chooses to be evil. It is powerful because Susan Powers tells her story backwards. As chapters peel away from the our own time to the 1860s, explanations are offered for events which will take place in the future, but which we, as readers, have already witnessed.

When Anna Thunder first exploits her dark powers, she has already whipped up a freak storm to eliminate a rival and turned young men into glassy-eyed sexual servants. A daughter runs away; a man sleeps with his wife's twin sister. Things happen, Anna sa ys, because "I have willed it. And I am not a fairy tale."

But there is a fairytale quality about Anna the reservation witch. She describes herself as a "Snow Queen" and makes red beaded moccasins (the fatal "red shoes") for her niece. Anna's relentless path is map-ped out the night her infant son dies. No doctor comes because the cousin sent to fetch him takes a daughter dancing instead. Putting the magic moccasins on the daughter's feet, Anna dispatches her to the next world: when the niece dances she cannot stop.

Powers, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, sets her novel on a North Dakota reservation. This is familiar territory to fans of her fellow Native American, Louise Erdrich. The novel is steeped in Indian lore: the importance of dreams, the continuous existence and influence of forebears, an awareness of cycles and patterns in time.

But whereas Erdrich's novels have an elegiac quality which comes with a certain distance, Powers seems to be writing from the hub of the reservation. Her cast of characters includes delinquent dogs, a Yuwipi or interpreter of dreams, and the spirits of the star-crossed lovers Red Dress and Ghost Horse.

The Grass Dancer interweaves the story of two families - the Thunders and the Wind Soldiers - and reveals the present by exposing the secrets of the past. Time is circular as well as linear. And sometimes it apparently stands still with its many repetitions. Lovers generations apart retreat to the same haunts, and whisper the same fears, as if words like spectres linger in the air. When Anna takes her grandchild from her absconding daughter, she claims "a soul for a soul", echoing eerily the death she masterminded in retribution for her son's.

Powers is good on dialogue. Her characters are believable. But she fares less well in the historical chapter about Red Dress whose destiny is to remind her descendants they are "Dakota". The narrative is mystifying (why does Red Dress have to kill three soldiers?) and the sensibility too modern. Would a 19th-century Indian really contemplate a "vision of America: a place where animals were bred for food behind neat fences, mountains were leveled, valleys filled, rivers straightened, and gr ass trained with a ruler"?

Even so, this is a confident first novel. Grass dancers traditionally prepared the field for a pow-wow by flattening the grass with their feet. The dance was also one of victory performed by warriors. "You are dancing a rebellion", says the ghostly Red Dress. It is the act of dancing which keeps the Sioux's defiant spirit alive, and in writing about it Powers does the same.

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