Though Native American writers like Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo and N. Scott Momaday have been producing poignant, award-winning work since the late 1960s (Momaday’s House Made of Dawn earned the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969), the past few years in particular have seen a spate of books written by and about Indigenous peoples. Books like Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson, From the Hilltop by Toni Jensen and, perhaps most famously, There There, a 2019 bestseller by Tommy Orange, whom The New York Times described as “part of a new generation of acclaimed indigenous writers” were heralded for “shattering old tropes and stereotypes about Native American literature, experience and identity.”
The latest addition to the category is Night of the Living Rez, an unforgettable debut story collection by Morgan Talty, a member of the Penobscot Nation of Maine who has published in Granta, The Georgia Review, LitHub and elsewhere.
All 12 stories are narrated by a young boy named David, who grows up with his sometimes-absent mother, her medicine man boyfriend and his troubled sister on the reservation, or rez. As David describes it, “This reservation was for the dead.” Here there’s abject poverty, rampant alcohol and drug abuse and untreated mental health struggles. Still, Talty occasionally includes moments of levity and dark humor in even the grimmest of stories. In “Burn,” for example, David’s friend misses his ride to the methadone clinic, gets drunk to numb the pain and ends up passing out and getting his head frozen in snow. After cutting his hair free, David dryly muses, “I never thought I’d scalp a fellow tribal member.”
Told in non-chronological order, the stories paint an often bleak, sometimes tender picture of contemporary Native life. In “Earth, Speak,” David and his friend consider robbing the reservation’s museum after seeing an artifact sell for thousands of dollars on Antiques Roadshow. “The Name Means Thunder,” one of the collection’s most powerful pieces, provides context for a huge part of the family’s sadness through the story of the tragic death of David’s sister’s son.
But despite their struggles, these characters would do anything for one another, and ultimately their goal is mutual survival amid loss, a feeling David’s mother describes as being, ‘Like the whole world is warped, like something is off balance that will never be balanced again.’”
Loss and pain and inherited trauma aside, Night of the Living Rez manages to assert that hope and forgiveness are possible. As David muses, “We’ll all be happy, I thought, even if it’s for just a moment.”