The morning after Debra Magpie Earling finished writing her novel, Perma Red, she says she woke to someone in her room. Her Aunt Louise, on whom the protagonist of the book is based, was standing there before her, big as life. Her signature head of flaming red hair embellishing her face, she smiled at the niece who had been born a full decade after her death.
Though Earling never met her aunt, she had always heard stories of her mother’s older sister, the girl who had died at 23, known for her striking and unique beauty, her wildness, her feisty, magnetic spirit, and her self-destructiveness. Earling, a Flathead Indian who grew up in Spokane and who returned at 18 to her ancestral reservation in Polson, didn’t know the whole story behind the legend of her aunt until she was 14. “Until then, I don’t think I’d quite fathomed how horrible the world could be,” she says, “That people had the capacity to do some of the things that they do.”
Earling’s Aunt Louise died the day after Christmas. She was picked up by two friends, two white men, for an evening out. She had asked her younger sister to join them, but she’d begged off. It was cold and snowy, slick, ghostly roads curling through the December night. The car swerved and crashed, landing upside down across the railroad tracks. Before the train came, the two men, who had been able to climb out, plus the sheriff and other tribal officers who had arrived on the scene, managed to pry Louise from the car. She was breathing, but in critical condition. Instead of taking her to the hospital, the men set her on a flatbed car of the train. Then they simply walked away. One step, then another. No looking back. They left her lying there as though her life were worth no more than the crunched husk of the car. “The paper said there was to be a coroner’s inquest, but there never was,” says Earling. “I think the ‘official’ cause of death was head injury and exposure. But there was no proper record, no investigation. On some level, she became invisible, remaining only in the memories of those who loved her.”
Before attending the University of Washington in her 20s, Earling worked as a public defender on the reservation. She also worked, before the repatriation act, on the Culture Committee documenting the “lost” graves of her people. “There were a lot of stories like Louise’s, of people dying or disappearing with no record or formal investigation. It was daunting, overwhelming,” she says. “As I get older, I realize the power of our histories, our stories. Each time you hear a story, you come away with something new. One story can offer different power over the course of a lifetime.”
Without knowing precisely why, Earling developed a ferocious need to tell Aunt Louise’s story. The book grew out of a short story she started when she was still an undergraduate, when, ironically, she was almost the same age as Aunt Louise had been when she died.
Perma Red is the story of Louise White Elk, a young, beautiful and untamed Native American woman who is running away from herself with as much frenetic energy and vehemence as she is holding onto her need for love, for fitting in, and for finding her center, both as an individual and as a Native American. The book is set in the 1940s when Native Americans were suffering under the harshest forms of assimilation. Dominated by whites, told to slough off their culture, and forced to attend white schools, the Native Americans were fighting to retain a sense of themselves and their culture.
“Life on the reservation is different now than it was in the ’40s,” says Earling. “Since then, there has been a resurrection of culture. A journey back to embracing our traditions. We have learned that our culture—so strong and meaningful—will never disappear unless all Native Americans, as a people, totally die off.”
For Louise, attending the Ursulines,’ a white school, was too painful. Not only did she not fit in, she had no place to channel her wild, authority-flouting nature. But worse still, she was treated cruelly. “To the nuns, [the Native Americans] were all hopelessly stupid, unteachable, lost.” When Louise and one of her classmates were caught sneaking out onto the fire escape, the nuns locked them in a room. Ernestine then died suddenly, “choked to death in a fit,” the nuns later reported matter-of-factly. Without thinking, they left Louise locked in the room with the dead girl. It was not until Charlie Kicking Woman, the sheriff on the Flathead Reservation, came to check out the situation the next morning that Louise was released from the room. “I imagined Louise. It had been a full moon the night before, maybe just enough light came through the cracks of the board for Louise to witness the struggling face of [Ernestine]. Louise must have called for help. She had banged on the door. She had clawed at the walls until her fingers bled, and no one came. And even when they did come, even when they did see what Louise was calling for, they shut her back up again in this dim room with death. She had been alone all night and all morning in that closed room. The smell. The smell of bad death in a sealed room.”
Though her desire to escape the aching poverty of her family seemed bottomless, Louise could not and would not stay at the white school. Like the land on which she was raised, she runs wild, finding love and refuge where she can, then running again, her spirit a tempestuous landscape of countless hues and textures. Though bleak and downright brutal at times, the novel, above all else, is a story of love at its most raw and glorious. We have the love of family: the organic connection between grandmother and granddaughter, between sisters, between friends and cousins, no matter how distant. There is the love of the land. Like the punishing weather of Montana, life on the reservation brought with that harsh punishment a relentless light, an inevitable redemption. Then there is the love between Louise and the men who ebb and flow from her life.
Young and young at heart, Louise does not know what and who is good for her. She picks, or lets herself be picked by men who are either abusive, controlling, or out of reach. Take Sheriff Kicking Woman, excruciatingly torn between the Native American world and the white world, who cannot seem to find any semblance of balance or peace. No matter how hard he tries to do the right thing, there is always just one too many obstacles in his path. Married to a white woman who lives a lonely, ostracized life in a community which she does not understand, Kicking Woman finds himself passionately, hopelessly in love with Louise. He can’t seem to make himself turn away.
“He is probably the most human of the characters,” says Earling. “He is so vulnerable to the world, wanting desperately to please and do the right thing, but not being able to sidestep all that gets in his way. He is stuck in the middle ground of indecision.”
When Kicking Woman finally makes love to his beloved Louise, he finds himself thinking about his grandmother. Roiling in feelings of lust, satisfaction, and guilt, he can’t even enjoy the moment, keeping his truest emotions at arm’s length even from himself. “I saw the high ceiling, watched long threads of dust chase our breath. Sunlight haloed the edge of the shade, illuminated the dress she had left on the chair…I thought of my grandmother, the day she died. She had worn her hair in tight braids all her life. But my grandfather loosened her long hair after she had stopped breathing and opened up all the doors and windows of the house…All night the wind blew through her hair lifting it up to the bedposts like the pale, gray ghost of her. My grandfather sat with her body for two long days, not leaving her side, not eating, watching her still chest just to make sure she had stopped breathing.”
There is also Baptiste Yellow Knife, who grew up with Louise. Connected on many levels, soul mates one might even venture to say, the two of them have an intensely volatile relationship. “Baptiste is like the brew of all the ways in which we love,” says Earling. “For him, Louise has sibling love, passionate love, pity, love/hate, all that is ugly and beautiful in love.” There is even a question of love medicine used by him and his mother, Dirty Swallow, to woo Louise. And despite herself, Louise cannot stop thinking about him. He exists in her mind always, like hope, mirror reflections of each other.
“I think there comes a point when we choose to love someone, or not,” Earling says. “But you have to know that that choice exists. Louise isn’t aware of that choice. She’s not even aware that she thinks about Baptiste all the time. Love can be more powerful than our choices, but choice does come into play. Certainly, there is the grand pull of love between two people without any obvious or practical reason, and in many ways he is her. He is all the beauty that she wants to be.”
When Earling finished the first draft of her book, which took 20 years—a short story, a partial draft that burned in a fire, and a process of pairing down a monster manuscript of 547 pages—she knew what she held in her hand was dark, very dark. When her agent first shopped the book around, publishers were wowed by the work but continued to pass on it, saying it was just too devoid of hope. The fact was that those who read it found themselves attached to Louise, her powerful aliveness, her wildness, her quest for freedom at any cost. No one wanted Louise to die in the end, to close the book and feel totally bereft. Her agent suggested she rework the ending.
“I knew the story was very dark going in, but the story I was basing it on, the story of Perma Red—which is what my Aunt Louise was called—was important to me. I thought it was a lack in me that I had to change the end. I just kept thinking that if I were a better writer, if I had more words in my pocket, well, then I could pull it off. But later, I realized there had to be more hope. Changing the end was a painful decision. I felt as if I had sold out, but you know, when I did it, I knew right off that it was right. It all fell into place.”
Earling has also come to realize that her book is, on some levels, a final act of resurrection. “Changing the ending is a sort of a gift to my mother, to my sister [who is actually Earling’s cousin, only two weeks old when Aunt Louise, her mother, died], and even to myself.” Though “happy” is relative here, changing the ending allowed Earling to “dream again after all that grief.”
Out on the Flathead Reservation, near mile marker 100, stands the house where Earling’s family used to live, built on the original allotments of their ancestors. Though only wolverines and magpies now reside there, if you look closely on one of the window frames, you can see in faded pencil where Aunt Louise once wrote her name.