Dakota Dream

by James Bennett

Sometimes you find the most interesting books unexpectedly- I came across this one in a secondhand store on a trip this past weekend to Pacific Beach (and it was culled from a library in Anchorage- stamped top edge). Wasn\’t sure at first, but this turned out to be a pretty good read, the story kept me interested all through.

It\’s about a teenager who\’s bounced around in foster care and is now living in a group home while he waits for his next placement. He\’s something of a loner and a bit distanced from other people, but has this ongoing fascination with Native Americans, especially the Dakota (or Sioux) tribe. He knows the history, legends, customs, religious beliefs, etc. His most treasured possessions are a real peace pipe and some authentic moccasins. But his differences get him into trouble, adults in the institution and at school see his moccasins and his general attitude as troublemaking. He really dislikes the system (kind of reminded me of Holden Caulfield) but rather than becoming bitter or fighting, turns his attentions inward to his dream: to become a Dakota tribe member. Literally. A dream spurs him to believe this is his destiny, and when he talks about it too much people start to think he\’s mentally unstable and he winds up in an institution for what\’s supposed to be a short stay. Not really a surprise. In fact the way he rambled on about his fixation with Dakota culture to people made me wonder at first if he was neurodivergent or an unreliable narrator. Nope. He just needs a place to fit in, and wants to live among the people he feels an affinity for- the Dakota. All these adults around him think he\’s simply crazy, for wanting to live in a different manner. And for doing things like trying to make a real dugout canoe, or attempting to dye his skin darker.

So he steals another kid\’s motorcycle (rationalizing to himself why this is okay, as he holds himself to a high standard of honor gleaned from his reading about Dakota culture) after fixing it up some, and runs away to a nearby reservation. It\’s not exactly as he imagined, but he actually gets to meet the chief, who after listening to him carefully and posing some questions, has him undergo ritual purification and isolation in a four-day fast to seek a vision that will direct his future.

I won\’t say more- except that the ending was satisfying, although I would have enjoyed the other direction I hoped it might go in. The story is not told completely linear- it goes from present to past and back again a few times- but in large chunks so not annoyingly. I did wish there was more time spent on what happened after he got to the reservation, instead a bulk of the story is about his frustrations in the group home and what leads up to his decision to run away. I found the character of his social worker a bit puzzling- it\’s pleasant that she was a new, \”green\” social worker and nice to the kid- he really needed that- but she just didn\’t feel like a real person to me. The other background characters are a bit flat- the chief is a good one- but then it\’s all told through the close viewpoint of the main character, so perhaps that\’s why.

Rating: 3/5                 182 pages, 1994

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