After a long and painful absence, writing her way home again

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After a long and painful absence, writing her way home again
Mona Susan Power in Saint Paul, Minn., Aug. 2, 2023. After early success with her first book, Power sank into years of depression — a new one, “A Council of Dolls,” offered her a chance to heal. (Sarah Wilmer/The New York Times)

by Leah Greenblatt



NEW YORK, NY.- When she was 4 years old she met Martin Luther King Jr., who tugged playfully on her pigtails; at 17 she found herself at the Academy Awards, mingling with a bedazzlement of movie stars. By her early 30s she had earned a law degree from Harvard, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PEN/Hemingway Award for her lauded debut novel, “The Grass Dancer.” Then Mona Susan Power’s world went dark.

A prominent Sioux lineage helped propel the Zelig-like encounters of Power’s youth: Her great-grandmother is Nellie Two Bear Gates, whose meticulous beadwork sits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; her late mother, activist Susan Kelly Power, was a stalwart of the Native Rights movement. Power’s own precocious intelligence allowed entrance into rarefied circles of publishing and academia. But depression, anxiety, and what she would later learn to identify as complex PTSD led her to withdraw almost completely from a life she felt increasingly ill-equipped to handle in the wake of “The Grass Dancer’s” success.

“It was like I won the lottery,” said Power, 61, who was born in Chicago and is now a longtime resident of St. Paul, Minnesota. “But what happens to a lot of people who literally win the lottery? They flame out, right? If you’re not prepared for it, if you don’t really believe that you deserve it … the whole impostor syndrome thing, it just got worse. There were years I could barely leave my apartment.”

Nearly three decades later, Power has found her way home — in several senses of the word — with the publication of “A Council of Dolls,” a multifaceted and deeply felt novel-in-stories drawn largely from her own fraught family history.

Like many recent creative projects, inspiration sprung from the itchy confinement of the pandemic — and in this case, a freak household accident. In late 2020, Power fell backward down the stairs, breaking her arm at the shoulder. Stuck inside with severely restricted use of her writing hand, something else jolted into place.

A friend suggested she expand a semi-autobiographical short story she had published in “The Missouri Review" about Sissy, a young Native girl in circa-1969 Chicago who is equally attached to her brown-skinned baby-doll and her fearsome, beautiful mother. The piece, “Naming Ceremony,” now forms the book’s first section.

“Then I remembered this episode from my mother’s actual life where she had a doll given to her by some mission lady for Christmas,” Power recalled. “And shortly after she got it, her mother encouraged her to give the doll away to this little girl who was dying of tuberculosis. So she did, and the doll was buried with the little girl. That stuck in my head.”

Devised in nesting chapters that move backward in time from the ’60s and ’30s to the turn of the 20th century, “Council” weaves a dense, prismatic portrait of three generations irrevocably altered by the “re-education” of Native American children at U.S. government-run boarding schools — and bound together by the various dolls that bring them comfort and companionship.

“It’s so interesting that she chose to present this through the lens of dolls, which are a really important part of the culture of Native life,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Louise Erdrich, a fellow Minnesotan and a fan of Power’s work since her “Grass Dancer” days. “And I like that she’s used it as a way of supporting her characters, saving their lives even. It’s a brilliant scaffolding for a book.”

The dolls featured in “Council” — including a glossy Black moppet that Sissy’s father must persuade a white salesperson to sell him at a Chicago department store and a deerskin figurine stitched from household scraps with painstaking care — all have approximate counterparts in Power’s personal history.

Although the book brings them to life in ways that sometimes spill over into the supernatural, she politely rejects the label of magical realism some will impose on it.




“Did my dolls ever talk back to me? No, but that can still be within the world of imagination for these girls,” she said. “If you grow up within a spiritual belief system that teaches you certain things are possible, they can become possible for you. A lot of Native people I know have seen ghosts! My mom saw spirits and I never used to, but in later life I have sometimes.”

The keen, sometimes obliterating life force of Power’s late mother, Susan Kelly Power, who died last fall at 97, is a recurring theme refracted via the mercurial moods of Sissy’s mother, Lillian, in ways the author admits she’s still grappling with. Susan, like Lillian, experienced devastating personal and cultural losses, including being pulled from the only home she’d known on the Standing Rock Reservation and subjected to systemic, often brutal abuse at two notorious Indian boarding schools. Perhaps inevitably, she passed that generational trauma on to her daughter.

Susan’s outrage could be channeled into fierce advocacy: The younger Power recalls an indomitable woman who convinced Harvard to recognize the unmarked site of its former Indian College and seemed to intimidate everyone she met, from the famously ornery future Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — then a University of Chicago co-worker — to Power’s own mentor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Frank Conroy.

Susan also frequently brought her daughter along on protests and civil actions that, particularly in the political tempest of the ’60s and ’70s, could turn violent. “There were so many frightening clashes with different authorities,” Power recalled, “and I was their little singer when they needed somebody to buoy their spirit.”

That visibility garnered the attention of filmmaker Jerry Aronson, who featured her in several memorable scenes in his landmark documentary short “The Divided Trail: A Native American Odyssey.” When it earned an Oscar nod, she was invited to be his guest at the 1979 ceremony, and still recalls with awe the effect of all that Old Hollywood glamour on a star-struck teen: a dapper Yul Brynner with Audrey Hepburn on one arm and Mia Farrow on the other; a “glowing angel-goddess” Jane Fonda, who took home the Best Actress prize that night for “Coming Home.” Bud Cort, fresh from “Harold and Maude,” even offered up a kind, clammy handshake.

“Most of them were really lovely to me,” she said. But she also remembers standing in front of the Los Angeles County courthouse beforehand, “just eating hot dogs we got off some cart because we were all starving. I’m in my Dakota regalia and this carload of folks drive by shouting, ‘Go back where you came from!’”

She laughs when she tells that story now, though the tendency to both fetishize and misunderstand Native American culture endures, in depressingly familiar ways.

That’s one reason Kiowa-Cherokee novelist Oscar Hokeah, who earned wide praise for his 2022 debut, “Calling for a Blanket Dance,” sees the continued necessity of putting books like “Council” in the public consciousness, even in an era of increased awareness and visibility.

“Mona portrays Native people in a very modern and contemporary and also a very honest way,” he said. “I think sometimes whenever readers want to see only our powwows, only our ceremonies, it can be reductive. Those are very positive things, but it’s also a version of erasure, you know? We don’t want to be seen strictly as victims, but we also don’t want to be seen as mythical creatures either.”

Power’s editor, Rachel Kahan, sees a different, more passive kind of prejudice at work, too. “Often in the literary and the entertainment world, there is this preoccupation with the new and the groundbreaking and the vanguard, and sometimes it comes at the expense of writers who do their best work later in life,” she said. “Mona has created an amazing piece of art out of all the things that have happened to her, with this incredible perspective that maybe a 30-something wouldn’t have.”

Indeed, for all its harrowing depictions of heartache and deprivation, the book is threaded through with hard-earned grace that culminate with Power’s own stand-in, Sissy, in grateful middle age.

“This story is very much about healing,” Power said. “Not that healing is ever complete. It’s a process, but you really can make huge leaps. I’m in a place now I never thought was possible — so much healthier, so much happier, so much more stable. After losing decades, really, life is just starting all over again.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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