The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones audiobook

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Narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett — Crime fiction devotees wedded to gritty reality may have trouble with the premise of this book or be put off by its link to the horror genre. Don’t be.

It starts with a crime, the kind of irresponsible daredevilry four young male buddies are prone to. Ricky, Lewis, Cass and Gabe are Blackfeet Indians and as a big snowstorm starts, four days before Thanksgiving, they decide they need to put some of their own game on the holiday table. They take their hunt to the portion of the reservation set aside for the elders.

Down below a cliff, they do find elk. They shoot into the herd, killing far more animals than they can drag uphill and far more than the truck can hold. Doesn’t matter anyway. At the top of the cliff, the game warden is waiting. One of the animals Lewis shot was a young doe. When he begins to field dress her, he discovers she isn’t dead and she is pregnant. Her calf is alive inside her, and several more shots are required to finally kill her. Lewis takes her hide, intending to make something good out of this sad episode, not to waste one bit of her.

Ten years have passed since the hunt Gabe calls the Thanksgiving Classic. Ricky is working a temporary job with a North Dakota drilling crew. One night, outside a bar, he encounters a herd of elk in the parking lot. The animals panic and, in running away, do considerable damage to the parked trucks. Shrieking vehicle alarms send the bar patrons stumbling outside. They see an Indian, jump to the wrong conclusion, and chase and kill Ricky. ‘Indian Man Killed in Dispute Outside Bar.’ From the viewpoint of Lewis, Cass and Gabe, inside the American Indian experience, Ricky’s death is totally predictable.

Lewis has married a white woman, Peta, works at the post office, and has his life pretty together. Still, he starts to believe he saw that pregnant elk lying on his living room floor and outlines her image on the carpet. As he becomes more and more obsessed with this notion, he even goes to the freezer to dig out her hide – the one he wanted to do something with and never has. And, as his mental state deteriorates, the intrusion of Shaney, his Crow coworker, disrupts the home equilibrium in ways you may not expect.

To this point in the story, you could legitimately think of the elk sightings by Ricky and the half-mad Lewis as hallucinations, brought on by guilt for the former and alcohol for the latter. The situations are strange and terrible, but not totally outside the realm of logical explanation – metaphorical, not metaphysical, in its supernatural sense.

Amid much good-natured banter, Gabe and Cass concoct a plan for a sweatlodge ceremony to commemorate their dead friends. By this time, the shape-shifting elk-mother, on a desperate quest to save her calf, definitely becomes more than an illusion. As Shaney, she engages Gabe’s teen basketball star daughter Denorah in an unforgettable game of one-on-one.

What’s most intriguing about this story is how enriched it is by American Indian traditions and folklore, put into a modern context. Folktales last for generations because of their kernel of truth. While this story would never work if it was set in downtown Washington, DC, in the world of American Indians makes more sense. The way the men negotiate two totally different cultures works well.

Following and connecting with The Only Good Indians on audiobook is made easy by the stellar narration of actor Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who gives authenticity to every word. Even in the story’s most bizarre moments, never a sliver of doubt enters his voice.

Interestingly, many publishers of crime and mystery fiction say they want to see stories with paranormal elements. Presumably, they are responding to market interest. Although this story won’t be for everyone, if you give it a try, you may find it unexpectedly rewarding, as I did.

A lot has been written about Winter Counts, by American Indian author David Heska Wanbli Weiden, which has been nominated for numerous mystery and crime fiction awards. Possibly the horror label has caused The Only Good Indians to be undeservedly overlooked.

For a different folklore tradition, try The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne.

Titan Books
Print, Kindle
£14.87

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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