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Kent Nerburn is a storyteller, and The Wolf at Twilight ranks right up there with my favorite works of fiction. It has the same quality of insight, the same wacky sense of humor, the same surprising combination of comedy and tragedy, and the same rich cast of characters that made his previous book Neither Wolf nor Dog the winner of the 1996 Minnesota Book Award.
Every page has surprises. The book is a unique blend of fiction and non-fiction that can be read on many levels. It’s a mystery, for one thing, and can be read and enjoyed as a well-crafted mystery story filled with revelations and insights.
It continues the story told in Neither Wolf nor Dog about the Lakota elder, Dan. But this time we’re brought along on Dan’s search for his lost sister who disappeared decades ago into the Indian boarding school system. Kent is challenged to solve an eighty-year old mystery — seemingly an impossible task: What happened to Dan’s little sister, Yellow Bird, after she was taken from her home and put in a boarding school? She was never heard from again.
Kent recently posted an interview that was, as usual, really insightful. Here are just a few excerpts:
I wanted to tell more of Dan’s story, so readers would have a further glimpse into the world of contemporary Native American life and its spiritual insights and beliefs…. Dan once said to me, “People learn best by stories, because stories lodge deep in the heart.” I wanted to tell a story that would lodge deep in the reader’s heart, and would do so in a way that reveals some of the dark truths of Native experience while giving voice to the bright truths that Native reality contains….
The dark truth is the tragic, often horrific reality of the boarding school experience where Indian children were taken from their parents’ homes, stripped of their language and identity, and made to become someone they were not. It’s a truth of childhood rapes, forced labor, unbearable loneliness and dislocation, and an indoctrination into self-hatred that has repercussions to the present day.
The bright truth is the beautiful and deeply insightful way of teaching, learning, and understanding that the boarding schools tried to destroy, but which still beats at the heart of the Native experience….
In the book, Dan gives a long teaching about the circle of life. Here’s a piece of it:
“We do not look at our children as ‘full-growns waiting to be.’ We see them as special beings who bring us the freshness of wonder. They keep our hearts soft and our hands gentle. They keep us from thinking only about ourselves. They give the elders a reason to live, because we entrust the elders with the shaping of their hearts and setting their feet straight upon the path of life.
This is part of a long teaching. The tragic and the comic are inseparably intertwined, as are the sacred and the ordinary. To me it is one of the key elements of Native culture that the rest of us should embrace. The spiritual is ever-present in their lives, no matter how ordinary or even debased the particular situation might be.
Part of my interest in Native issues is due to circumstance. I live between three reservations in the woods of northern Minnesota where the white footprint does not run deep. Living and working among Native people where the land still feels like theirs makes it easy to care about the world as they see it and live it.
But part of my interest is because of my belief that a true spirituality should grow naturally from the land. America is Indian land, and the Indian peoples have shaped their spiritual understanding in a way that feels authentic and integrated. We all have much to learn from it, and I want to do my part to assist in that learning.
We are all common children of a common land, and there are wrongs that must be acknowledged and healing that must take place. But more than that, there is a richness in Native tradition — spiritually, culturally, and morally — that has much to teach us all. We need to find a way to listen to that richness without trying to appropriate it or twist it.
My job, as a writer, is to serve as an ally to the Native people to get their story told to the extent that they want it shared, and to help bring the depth of their spiritual insight to bear on the world in which we all live."
In my opinion The Wolf at Twilight is a masterpiece. It is a book that should become a classic, read for generations because it’s so entertaining, even funny, and yet so deep and profound at the same time, with words of wisdom I have never encountered anywhere else.