The Insufficiency of Maps: A Novel

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9780743292078: The Insufficiency of Maps: A Novel
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In this debut novel by award-winning Nora Pierce, a young girl must discover the meaning of self and family as she struggles to find her place between two contrasting realities.
On the reservation, Alice lives in a run-down trailer. Both her parents are alcoholics. She seldom has enough food and she rarely attends school, but she is free to follow her imagination. She is connected to the life and ancestry of her people and the deep love she receives from her family and community.
When her mother succumbs to schizophrenia, Alice is removed from her home and placed with a white foster family in the suburbs. This new world is neat and tidy and wholesome, but it is also alien, and Alice is unmoored from everything she has ever known and everything that has defined her.
As she traces Alice's journey between two cultures, Pierce asks probing questions about identity and difference, and she articulates vital truths about the contemporary Native American experience.

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About the Author:

Nora Pierce teaches creative writing at Stanford University, where she was also a Wallace Stegner fellow. An award-winning writer, she was a Rosenthal Fellow in the PEN Center Emerging Voices program. She lives with her husband and child in California.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE

Our beginning, as far back as I can remember, my hand in hers. We're on the bus and we are short forty cents. Mami drops our fifteen pennies and they scatter across the floor of the bus. They roll under the seat of an old man in a dark green uniform with a ragged name tag on the pocket. He picks them up and carefully puts them in Mami's hand. "How much do you need?"

"Forty cents," she says.

He holds out two quarters. Mami says, "Go ahead, angel." I balance my way back to the driver and drop them into the coin slot. Mami takes my hand and we sit next to the man who gave us the money.

"Guess what?" She leans in close to him. "I'm getting married tomorrow. Going to the chapel." Her eyes grow wide. "Ding-dong, the bells are gonna ring!"

He grins, wrinkles cutting into the corners of his mouth. Then he winks at me, "Lucky man." A large woman seated across the aisle from me takes a tissue out of her purse and gestures toward the little black bits of dried blood on my legs. I've been scratching little bumps for days. "Chicken pox," Mami says. But they look like mosquito bites. The woman looks Mami up and down, but Mami just smiles.

The old man eyes our plastic bags and muddy shoes. "Looks like you've come a long way."

"We're going home," Mami says. "My father moved us away to the city when I was as small as my little girl here."

We've been walking all day to catch this bus. We came from a place far away, mostly walking, and the world around us changed from pale gray and wet to red and dry. I can't remember where we were before we started walking, except that it was so bright and bugs made loud sounds and we slept outside and counted the stars. We drew pictures in the mud of how we would rearrange them if we could. It is this lost place I am dreaming about, leaning against Mami's shoulder when the driver wakes us.

"It's the end of the line," he says. "Where exactly are you trying to get?" Mami digs out a postcard, hands it over to him.

"Lenny's? On route nine? That's all the way at the other end of the line. On the number four bus."

Mami stands, gathers our shopping bags and says, "Transfer, please."

He shakes his head. "You can't transfer to anything out here."

She stares at him while the empty bus exhales black fumes. No one moves but me. I lean into Mami's hips and watch the smoke rings rise outside the window. "All right," he says finally. "Just stay on the bus."

When we do get off, it's late at night. The driver steps off the bus to point us in the right direction, and we start up the dirt road.

"Where are we going?" I ask.

"To the reservation to see your father," Mami says.

"When are we going to get there?"

"Don't know, angel."

"Are we going to have happy dream come true?"

"Yes," Mami says. "Happy dream come true."

She hangs a blue plastic shopping bag on her ponytail and sings, "Wedding bells are ringin' in the chapel, ding-dong the bells are gonna ring!"

She smiles, takes my face in her hands. "And you can be the flower girl."

"Yeah," I say, "and you can be the other flower girl."

Mami rips some weeds from the ground. "Like this," she says, and points her toes, prancing along the road, stretching her neck high. She flings weeds to either side of her. I tiptoe behind and throw little sprigs of grass in the air.

"You know what this means," Mami says. She races in a circle around me and mocks a donk on my head. "The condor fight!"

I fall over dead.

She scratches and scratches the air above me.

"Now my dear." Mami leans over me, making her voice shaky. "Now you are dry bones."

I open my eyes and look up at her. "Tell the story, Mami."

"All right," she says. "Late at night a condor swoops down from his cave, and carries off a young girl." As she speaks, I ride the air with my hands as wings. Mami picks me up and swings me around till everything blurs. She smells like cut grass. Her long hair is the color of water at night, thick and slippery on my cheek. The stars whoosh around. All around us the trees and phone poles are still and listening. When she sets me down, there is a swift movement on the road. Headlights. A purple arc of soft light spreads across her arms and she whispers.

"The condor takes the girl to the top of the mountain and hides her in his cave. But her grandmother finds her, takes her home, and hides her in a barrel. The condor comes to the grandmother's house and pokes at the barrel. He scratches and scratches with his talons. When the condor finally leaves and the grandmother runs to the barrel..."

We both mock horrible screams, covering our eyes and pointing to the barrel. We shout in unison, "Dry Bones!"

Lenny's Bar is just outside the reservation. It has a neon sign that spills pink all over the road in front of it like a crazy bunch of fancy-dancers in a scattered pattern. I dance too, pretending I'm one of them, showered in pink. Pink all over my arms, pink on my nose, pink on my cheeks, pink on the top of my head, crazy beautiful, kaleidoscopic pink melting into the gravel. And Mami and I dance in it. Up and down like war dancers in the sun. Pink, pink, pink.

Inside the bar it's almost pitch black. We walk through drifting webs of smoke as Mami searches for her groom. She walks right up to a man in the middle of a conversation with a skinny, stringy-haired white woman, and says softly, "Goddamn drunken Injun." He turns around and squints at her.

Then a big smile, "Amalie!"

Mami lifts me up, and sits me on the bar in front of him. "Sober up," she says to him. "You don't even recognize your own daughter." Then she looks into my eyes. "This is your papi," she says.

The stringy-haired white woman slams her beer bottle on the bar. "She ain't nothing but, but...a little bastard like her mother."

Papi's sleepy eyes round. He's trying to get a good look at me. But Mami reaches through us and slaps the woman.

Papi picks me up and we go out into the pink. A big splotch of it melts into the top of his long black hair. He puts me down and then squats to look at me with his black eyes. He puts his face up to mine, rests one hand on his knee. A beer is still sweating in the other.

"Well," he says. He smells like whiskey and cigarettes. "Are you a pretty angel like your mother?" I reach up to touch the pink spilling down his nose and cheeks. He laughs. Then I squeeze my eyes shut really tight and I dance for the ghosts all rising up around me, knees up, knees down, arms waving like an airplane. And Papi is laughing. He stumbles around behind me, singing "hiya-howa, hiya-hiya, howa-hiya." He grabs me up and says, "Sure glad your mami came back to me." I break free and run around him, whipping up the dirt, singing "Ding-dong the bells are gonna ring, ding-dong, dingidy dong!"

Papi's trailer is made up of four rooms: a large living room with knobby orange shag carpet, a long hallway of yellow-brown linoleum with little bumps marking the intersection of rooms, a kitchen and bathroom, and a bedroom at the end of the hallway. I sleep in the front of the trailer in a closet-size room. The walls are plain paneling, except for a cherub that Mami has cut from the wrapper of an Angel Soft toilet paper package and tacked to the wall over my bed. It is so hot that the air seems to be tinted deep red. There is just enough room for a fan at the foot of my bed and I wet my head in the sink and push my face up to it to cool off. Mami doesn't seem to sleep anywhere. She spends all day on a lawn chair outside, talking to the old people and bumming cigarettes from anyone who walks by.

I want Mami to have a wedding, but she won't cooperate. "You're the condor," I say to Papi. "And Mami, you're the young girl." But we never get to the walking down the aisle part. Papi lifts Mami up and over his shoulder. "Good-bye Alice," he says. "We're off to the ears of the mountain." Then he carries her inside and they shut the bedroom door.

Since we are home now, the home Mami always told stories about, I'm going to throw away all of our bus tickets. I find them tucked inside a plastic shopping bag in the closet, a fistful of limp bus transfers and tickets, and I go outside to bury them. The dirt outside the trailer is hard on top, so that I have to use a rock to scrape through. But underneath, it is soft and moist. I push the tickets in deep, cover the spot with stones. I find an empty plastic bucket under the trailer. Little bits of sagebrush and marigolds swim in the dirty gray water. I drag it out and stand on it. I can see through the kitchen window, which is propped open with a fan. Inside, Mami and Papi are seated at the kitchen table, their hands linked, their heads leaning into each other.

Papi says, "Because I got this place when Old Auntie died, and anyway, I wanted to come back for us. It's a home I could ask you to come to, not some apartment full of a dozen other Indians and an eviction notice every ten months."

Mami's head drops a bit, her smile turns down. "What about that woman?"

"She don't mean nothing to me, Lee. It's you I want, you're the only thing I ever wanted."

He takes her face in his hands, kisses the top of her head. "I won't ask you any questions, Lee. I don't care where you been. And Alice. Look, this is our home, okay, all of us."

Loose strands of her hair fall out of the messy bun she's made, and Papi tucks them behind her ear. "Shit," he says, "we were young, right? All that stuff happening with you, it scared me. But there ain't nothing wrong with you except being away from where you're supposed to be. I just want you to know that I'm sorry I let you go. I still don't think it's right what they done to you. You don't need no hospital, no medicine. I'm sorry I didn't come, Lee." He covers his own face with his hands, breathes deep. "I'm sorry, baby."

I think, What hospital? What medicine? He holds her hard. It looks as if he is hurting her. He says, "You'll stay, right?"

The bucket bows under my feet, and tips over so that I bang my arm a...

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ISBN 10:  0743292081 ISBN 13:  9780743292085
Publisher: Washington Square Press, 2008
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