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Maud’s Line, by Margaret Verble.

August 6, 2015

Maud’s Line, by Margaret Verble.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2015), Hardcover, 304 pages.

Indigenous reading challenge

2 stars

A novel set in Cherokee land in northeastern Oklahoma in the 1920s, featuring a young woman seeking to escape her hardscrabble life, written by a Native American woman who shows little respect for her ancestors.

Margaret Verble has an Ed.D. In education and has written extensively about health education. She has published several stories, but this is her first novel. In her blurb, Verble identifies herself as a certified member of Cherokee tribe, and she claims that the book is based on the stories of her Cherokee grandmother. Yet I doubt I have ever read a book by Indigenous author as dismissive of their heritage as this one. Typically such authors value their past and their ancestors, even when they are torn about giving it up.

Verble seems to know little about the Cherokees or northeast Oklahoma.  Despite claiming her book is historical fiction, she does little to establish the particular history of the Cherokees or why they faced the problems they did in the 1920s. Instead she repeats stereotypes about them as violent, drunken, and given to casual sex. The only positive quality her characters exhibit is their close family ties, but such bonds are not unique to the Cherokee.

SPOILERS
More disturbingly, the main plot line is Maud’s intense desire to get away from life she seems forced to live. In the end she achieves this goal by marrying a white man who will take her to live in Tulsa, a boom town where she can live in a house with a refrigerator and indoor plumbing.  I hesitate to call this a love story, because Maud seems more motivated by a more comfortable lifestyle than by love. While Maud acknowledges she will miss her relatives, she never exhibits a sense of regret over what she is rejecting.

I grew up in southeastern Oklahoma, in the Choctaw Nation, about 100 miles from Fort Gibson, where Maud’s Line is set. As a child, I camped in the Cookson Hills which are part of Maud’s story.  Yes, poisonous snakes are present and deadly, but having grown up nearby, I was annoyed by her exaggeration of their abundance.  As an historian I know the history of the place and its people.  I am distressed to read a book which treats them so superficially.

In addition, I care deeply about racial and ethnic diversity and how reading literature by people of diverse backgrounds can expand our understanding. I try to refrain from criticizing an author for not writing the book I wish they had written. But I am bothered by a book that limits our visions and defines Indigenous culture as something which people must escape—with the help of a white man.  Perhaps Verble’s grandmother felt that way, but for a novel to celebrate such behavior seems shallow.

I do not recommend this book.

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