Part ghost story, part multi-generational family saga, Dennis E. Staples’ This Town Sleeps is an impressive debut that explores the human struggle between hope and despair in a modern indigenous community.
Marion Lafournier is a young bookkeeper of Ojibwe descent who lives alone in northeastern Minnesota. Cynical and alienated, he’s the product of an isolated, economically depressed “rez” town Geshig and one of very few openly gay men in a lonely, rural landscape. While searching for a path to companionship that might extend beyond roadside, middle-of-the-night sexual affairs with closeted married men, Marion becomes entangled in two intrigues.
The first is personal. A Grindr “date” turns out to be a former high school classmate Shannon, who vehemently denies his gayness but displays chinks of affection during a late-night rendezvous. The second is more expansive. At a school playground, Marion discovers a dog of childhood legend that leads him to the gravesite of a promising high school basketball player Kayden Kelliher who was stabbed to death by a gang member. Marion was too young to know much about Kayden and his murderer Jared, but Kayden’s name triggers memories of rumors and a restless schoolmate Amos whose brother was in the older boys’ social circle.
From there, the story becomes a history of the men and women who survived the community trauma, alternating with Marion’s journey. Jared, Kayden and the mothers of all three boys enter the narrative to tell their stories leading up to Kayden’s death. But the exact circumstances of the murder are left ambiguous, too awful to speak of, suggesting hidden truths buried beneath a collective shame.
Secrets within Marion’s family also unravel when Marion seeks guidance about the revenant dog from his mother Hazel and her new husband Anni. That spiritual encounter may be linked to a supposed family curse originating from the murder of a white man by Marion’s great-grandmother. A “forest woman” called Bullhead, his great-grandmother is an emblem of the family’s Native identity and the fierce nature of their women. After killing a man who tried to force her into marriage, she allegedly carved out his jaw and preserved it for some mysterious purpose.
Staples brings the reader into a world of rich spiritual beliefs and practices while his storytelling also contextualizes Ojibwe identity. Marion’s stepfather Anni is a traditionalist who keeps a sweat lodge, brews elixirs, and takes Marion’s otherworldly encounter at face value. For young men of Marion’s generation, acculturation to the white, non-rez community has imparted a sense of skepticism about things like ghosts and visions. Returning to the rez and eating the traditional foods of his childhood conjures a mixture of feelings. The rez represents poverty, broken homes, boys recruited into violent gangs, and children already addicted to pot and alcohol. People joke about Geshig as a place no one ever escapes. It’s the reason Marion lives miles away and hooks up primarily with white guys like Shannon.
Honest storytelling makes for high impact reading, and with This Town Sleeps, Staples bares body and soul in sharing Ojibwe realities. One cannot help feeling the pain and sadness of everyone concerned with the central tragedy of Kayden Kelliher. They are all caught up in a cycle of desperation, violence and grief. Kayden was one of many Ojibwe boys pulled under an insuperable tide of poverty and corruption. Still, without spoiling any revelations, Staples offers readers another essential truth: loss can lead to redemption and renewal when examined bravely.
Staples is experimental with narrative structure, breaking up scenes from Marion’s perspective with frequent change-ups of point-of-view, even introducing first-person passages toward the end. It’s a helpful way to bring in information about Kayden that Marion wouldn’t know. Moreover, it gives voice to varied members of the small town Ojibwe community and broadens that world.
A minor discontent is the scene shifts feel scattered at times and break connection to Marion’s experience. It’s a tough balance, and the shifts will work fine for some readers while occasionally frustrating others.
Taken as a whole, This Town Sleeps is an important work of literature that will surely please readers who enjoy #OwnVoices titles, Native stories, and dark mysteries in the vein of Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters