Atria Books; 217 pp., $20
by Jennifer Deitz Berry
"The Insufficiency of Maps" is a beautifully written debut novel by Nora Pierce. The author is a creative writing instructor at Stanford University, where she was also a Wallace Stegner fellow.
Her book is a coming-of-age story about a young girl with ties to the Quechan Native Americans from the Fort Yuma reservation in Arizona.
From early on, young Alice is witness to a culture in deep decline: the adults around her are caught in an uncomfortable limbo where tribal traditions and spirituality still hold a kind of mystical appeal but have lost most of their power and meaning in the impoverished and Americanized culture that now permeates the reservation. Adults on the reservation are barely able to take care of themselves, let alone the children.
When we first meet Alice, she is four years old. She and her nomadic mother Amalie are headed the wrong way on a bus with no money to pay the fare. Her mother is waxing poetic about her upcoming wedding, which as it turns out, is a fiction. They are on their way back to the reservation to reunite with Alice's father, who does manage to hold down a day job working at a nearby archeological dig site.
But he is only somewhat more stable than her mother, living out of a cramped, rundown trailer and spending most of his paycheck on whiskey and cigarettes and visits to Lenny's, the local bar in town. While they live with "Papi," there is rarely enough food to go around: Alice subsists on French fries and fry bread. At night, Alice sleeps on an old couch in a room the size of a closet.
Pierce paints a sympathetic and compelling portrait of Alice's mother. Early in the book, there is a gorgeous description of Amalie and Alice playing in the park, the two of them running with their arms spread, flying like condors, while Amalie tells her daughter a story with mythic overtones about a condor stealing a little girl off a mountaintop. Despite Amalie's dark flaws, which become more abundantly apparent at each turn, it is easy to want to hope, as Alice does, that this offbeat and wildly imaginative woman will pull herself together enough to make a home for herself and her daughter.
It quickly becomes clear that life is never going to be that simple for Alice. Not having spent much time in school, the structure and discipline of a classroom run by a nun is difficult for her to stomach. On the first day, she flies through the room on her "condor wings" and stuffs her mouth full of leaves, leaving her teacher perplexed and irritated.
Meanwhile, back at home, her mother is becoming increasingly restless, erratic, and paranoid. A terrifically rendered scene of her mother dipping her arm into a pan of boiling oil signals the direction Alice's home life is about to take.
Alice is looked after for a while by her ailing grandfather before making her way to a foster home. There, she is cared for by a family of blonde-haired blue-eyed Californian suburbanites, who, despite their earnest attempts to create a stable and supportive home life for Alice, succeed mostly in causing her to feel more alienated and isolated than she did before. Scenes of their misguided efforts to reconnect Alice to her culture -- signing her up for bead craft and dressmaking at the American Indian Center -- are painfully funny.
Ironically, however, these classes become a saving grace, of sorts. Alice is on her way to becoming a teenager by now, and although she is not at all interested in decorating leather belts with beads, the classes succeed in putting her back in touch with people who feel more like family. Alice is irritated at first when her foster mother insists she spend the night with the Chavises, a family she hardly knows, before heading out to a powwow in San Pedro.
The Chavis home is rampant with alcoholism and dysfunction, but it is also lively and spirited and comfortingly familiar to her. Being part of this world again, gives Alice another chance to look at the life she left behind and decide for herself what parts of it to keep and what parts to discard.
"The powwow looks so different from what I remember," Alice reflects. "The people do not seem magical, not shape-shifters traveling between human and bird. They just look like a bunch of people I don't know. Even the gray feathers, the bright red shawls, the purple headdresses and elaborate bead designs seem different, manufactured, as if the colors were too bright for nature."
Even at 13, Alice can see all too well that taking part in feather dances in a parking lot is not going to reconnect her to her family, her ancestry or her home in any meaningful way. But the longing for all of these things is with her just the same and is what drives her on her journey through the rest of the book.
At a few points, the novel can start to feel a bit too self-consciously literary. There is a running motif of Alice's fixation with maps and artifacts, for example. And while these details add a nice dimension to the character and to the story, it at times feels heavy handed as a metaphor for her quest to find her way and unearth her roots and her heritage: a minor complaint about a story that is genuinely moving and a pleasure to read.