Many Native authors will tell you what a burden—not to mention frustration—it can be when they are expected to give the so-called Native view of everything (as if there is a single view or experience). But author Linda LeGarde Grover, a seasoned educator, takes it all in stride.
“It’s been fun because people are aware of it, they are talking about it,” she said in a recent interview with Indian Country Today Media Network after a spate of readings. “It’s educational, but it’s not painful educational. It’s education by way of story.”
It has been a whirlwind couple of months for Grover, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Department of Indian Studies, and it’s not over yet. Her books and her talks have been in high demand this year.
“As I’ve gone through the programs, they seem to generate more [invitations],” she said. “I enjoy meeting with book groups.”
Grover’s two books, set on the fictional Ojibwe reservation of Mozhay Point, were chosen by no fewer than five regional communities for discussions and activities. That put Grover in the role of life-history translator, bringing a sense of local Ojibwe experience to her non-Native neighbors.
Grover’s short story collection The Dance Boots (University of Georgia Press, 2010) won the Flannery O’Connor Award Short Fiction that year and the 2011 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, which recognizes American woman writers. Grover’s second book, The Road Back to Sweetgrass, was published in 2014 by the University of Minnesota Press.
Both were chosen for spring community book discussions, and Grover did readings and talks in Duluth, Two Harbors, Cloquet and Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin. Other activities surrounded the book readings, including a pow wow, reading of children’s books by Ojibwe authors and a quilt raffle. A favorite for Grover was a performance at one reading by the Oshkii Giizhik singers, an Ojibwe women’s ensemble that also lead a round dance afterward.
This despite the fact that the stories can reflect tough truths that are familiar to Native people but less recognized—or accepted—by non-Natives. At the One Community, One Book inaugural event put on by the Duluth Public Library—The Dance Boots won as the 2015 book choice by popular vote—many questions from the nearly 70 in attendance revolved around boarding schools. Because U.S. culture celebrates education as a way to improve life, the thought of school as horrifying was difficult for some non-Natives to grasp.
“They have a really, really hard time with the boarding school stuff,” Grover said. “They’re very concerned about the experience of girls in the boarding school. It’s odd to me that the fiction seems more real to them. And yet these things happened, and things like these happened.”
Through her first-person stories, told in the voices of Ojibwe men or women, Grover leads readers to better understand what they have never experienced.
“I wanted to make the characters and the stories something that other people could relate to,” she said. “It shocks some people. They would like to know more. You certainly never learned about this in school. Where else would you learn about this?”
Audience members wanted to know as much as she could tell them.
“As we know, these policies were not successful, but it does not mean that they did not do damage,” Grover said after explaining the aim of the schools to strip out Indigenous Peoples’ “Indianness.” “There was cruelty under all the boarding schools. The purpose was to assimilate through the children, and assimilation could be very harsh. The aftereffects of boarding school are seen today in the low retention and graduation rates. We are still rebuilding, rebuilding family.”
Boarding schools have played a repeat role in Grover’s nonfiction well as her fiction. She interviewed many elders and contemporaries of her own Bois Forte Ojibwe people for a project called From Assimilation to Termination: The Vermilion Lake Indian School. She also wrote a chapbook of poetry, The.Indian.At.Indian.School. After finishing those works, she turned to fiction.
“I found that I didn’t have the heart to continue with it, which is why I began to write fiction,” Grover said of what prompted her to switch gears. “Fiction gave me a little protection.”
She also cushioned her stories by creating a fictional reservation in northern Minnesota, though she does admit it may bear a sneaking resemblance to life at Bois Forte, Fond du Lac or Grand Portage. And her characters definitely echo her own experiences, many based in the urban locale of Duluth, where she grew up and lives, and reflecting her own relations—mother, aunties, uncles, cousins.
“There are fictional people, I made them all up,” she told the book-reading audience. “I say that too, and I say it with as much conviction as I can.”
The fiction, though, is the veneer; she hopes the stories echo the real history, culture, beliefs and current conditions of the Ojibwe people.
Indeed, among her academic accolades and book honors, Grover also gets a kick out of the informal plaudits that come from Bois Forte family members who read the books and say, “Oh, yeah. It’s like being here.”