Over the course of nearly four decades (1976 to 2013) and 12 perspectives, Oscar Hokeah, in his debut novel Calling for a Blanket Dance, traces the life of Ever Geimausaddle from his star-crossed infancy to his tumultuous adolescents to his solidifying into a down-on-his-luck everyman’s hero able to work two jobs and raise four kids on the wrong side of the tracks in his Oklahoma hamlet of Lawton. What unfolds is as much an intergenerational chronicle as it is a quilt of rich themes: gift-giving, second chances, reclaiming culture, family loyalty, and the indelible search for a home.
An alternate title might be A House for the Geimausaddles. Like V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), Turtle and then Ever’s quest to find a home is central, though Hokeah eschews much of the tedium (and hilarity) of Naipaul’s novel showing why a big family needs a domicile all their own. For Hokeah, Turtle’s and then her son Ever’s need is more elemental and tightly knit with a parent’s need to care for their children.
“Who was she (Turtle) without a home? Her house made her feel safe. It was where she kept her children safe. A house, like land, taught us how to belong and who we belonged to. If she lost herself, what did that mean for her children.”
The narrative kicks off with Turtle, half Kiowa, half Cherokee, bringing her lovable ne’er-do-well husband Everado with their new baby, Ever, home to his family in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1976. The love the Chavezs shower on them stirs up Turtle’s desire for a house of her own, to which Everado responds, “One day, he always told her, over and over. But ‘one day’ said everyday sounded more like ‘never’.” But Turtle has her “per cap” (short for per capita) money granted to her from the Kiowa tribe, which she’s saving.
Unfortunately, on their journey home, they’re waylaid by border officers who beat Everado until Turtle heroically surrenders her savings as ransom. This event deepens the divide between Everado and Turtle. What’s more, Grandma Lena worries that having witnessed such violence as a babe will doom Ever to a difficult life. Though Lena is perhaps prescient about this, the family’s generosity serves as a poultice for Turtle’s loss, all contributing to her housing fund.
Ever, for much of his life, is not so lucky. In part because of Turtle’s preference-filled scramble for a home, Ever bounces from school to school, developing first into a disenfranchised child and then into a stormy teen prone to enraged outbursts and sulking. Though, given his father, Everado’s off-scene abuses, who could blame him?
Fortunately, family generosity intercedes time and time again. Whereas in some novels, Jonathan Evison’s Small World (2020), for example, the generosity of characters can come off as writerly convenience. But the generosity of characters in Calling for a Blanket Dance is steeped in Kiowa and Cherokee gift-giving culture.
“I pulled out my wallet,” Grandpa Vincent says. “And gave her all I had left—one hundred dollars. I wasn’t going to need it anyway. You couldn’t take these things with you to the grave.”
This statement is significant as Vincent is a grumpy, recovering alcoholic who has been driven back to his cultural roots when confronted with his own mortality. This leads Vincent to craft an array of Kiowa gourd-dance regalia for Ever, inducting him into the life-enriching practice of ceremonial dances in the nick of time. It’s a discovery all the more significant, Hokeah reminds us, because such vital practices were once made illegal by systemic white supremacy of the US government.
Though he grows up hapless and lovelorn, Ever’s connection to his culture through powwows augments him into a sturdy, much-admired member of his community, which, in the end, leads him into a desperate gambit to acquire his own home. This event is precipitated by Calling for a Blanket Dance’s titular blanket dance or collection ceremony, where community members toss donations onto a Pendleton.
Another form of generosity on display is adoption. A non-Native reader may balk at characters with multiple kids and small houses being willing to adopt other children. But “we’ll adopt just about anybody”, Ever’s great aunt, Opbee explains.
In parenting his children, Ever bestows on them his patience and grace, in some ways, the work’s most significant gift. Ever’s bio and adopted children test him, as do youth in the community. But whether it’s to his children or to two toughs passing through his powwow or a powwow participant turned accidental vandal, Ever guides children with a stayed and gentle hand, inspired by his own past failures. “Little did these young guys understand what a powwow was, how it was a place to be rescued, healed, given a second chance,” Ever’s Uncle Hank narrates.
Hokeah’s tale details the durability of family and tribal unity while analyzing the rips and tears that exist. Part of why finding a home takes her so long is because Turtle doesn’t want to live on the rez among Cherokees, whom she perceives as mean. Ever hears plenty of gawo-nisgi (gossip) about nepotism among Cherokee tribal leaders.
Naturally, across cultural lines, there are even more clashes of values. Ever’s Latina cousin Araceli, for instance, expects unconditional filial loyalty from Ever toward his father, Everado, despite his abuses. As a beloved family member dies, however, both Native and Latinx parts of Ever’s family come together, receiving blessing and healing from both Native and Catholic faiths. Hokeah depicts both with respect such that the overall picture is of a family that loves deep enough to traverse the arbitrary borders of nation and race. “We’ve echoed through endless generations because we are constructed by the voices of many,” Ever says toward Calling for a Blanket Dance’s heartening conclusion.
As with most debut novels, the work has its flaws.
Following Franzen’s 4th commandment on first-person voices needing to be “irresistible”, a reader might question Hokeah’s choice to write from the first-person perspective of 12 Geimausaddle family members. N. Scott Momaday in House Made of Dawn (1961) and, more recently, Louise Erdrich in LaRose (2017) and Ivy Pochoda in These Women (2020), among others, have demonstrated how effective the close third-person can serve up the best of both worlds: frequent insights into an individual’s line of sight and voice while establishing a writer’s authorial voice.
Hokeah writes convincingly as Granny Lena, a Native American woman in her sunset years, as Araceli Chavez, Ever’s estranged Latina cousin, and as Leander Chasenuh, Ever’s adopted former gang-involved son. But several of the other characters (Hayes, Lila, Quinton, Hank) blur together such that Hokeah may as well not have written them as “I” but “we”—a loving collective observing Ever’s beleaguered procession through the decades.
Furthermore, there are times when the narrators write about scenes they don’t observe and interior motivations of others they could not possibly know about. This is a classic narratological problem for writers adopting the first-person POV. William Faulkner got around it in As I Lay Dying (1930) by imbuing narrator Darl with preternatural perceptions that allow him to narrate events he’s not privy to. Other authors use journals and/or correspondences to expand the mimetic limits of the first-person POV, such as Jonathan Franzen in Freedom (2010) and Alice Walker in The Color Purple (1982). Without such efforts, Hokeah doesn’t deal adequately with this dilemma.
Hokeah’s style can be praised as unassuming, accessible, and profound. Through Grandpa Vincent’s perspective, Hokeah pens insights like, “When we’re faced with our own mortality the only strength we have left is laughter….” and “life was unpredictable, and it allowed us to stay sane. The unpredictability helped us believe we had an infinite number of days.”
The economy of Hokeah’s writing is also notable. When Grandpa Vincent is teaching Ever and his cousin their first dance steps, he observes, “I didn’t have to explain any part of the dance to them. They watched me and the other men mimicked us. I was amazed at how quickly they followed in my footsteps. And then it scared me.” Rather than explaining further, Hokeah allows us to feel old man Vincent’s consternation at the impressionability of children—a blessing but also a chastisement in his twilight days, the prime of them spent under the influence.
Because of the prose’s economy, despite its expanse of time and diversity in perspective, Calling for a Blanket Dance is just barely over 250 pages. Certain developments in character relationships are understandably glossed over; however, two of these omissions appear as large and awkwardly-shaped lacunas in the work. These are the details of Ever’s two failed marriages. We’re told the causes of both marriages’ endings (meth addiction; depression), but Hokeah shies away from depicting in-scene evidence to ground these events. Though romantic love is not the novel’s focus, these omissions ring out discordantly.
Notwithstanding, Hokeah’s craft counts.
Through Hokeah’s telling, readers receive a charming crash course in colloquial Spanish and Cherokee, the majority of which is teased out from context, such as ma’bane (bitch), aus-guy (terrified), thaw’koi (white people), gawo-nisigi (gossip). Hokeah’s utilization of other languages enlivens readers’ awareness of variations in English; ‘might know’, we learn, is Oklahoman for ‘sure enough’. In other places, Hokeah entertains through his lyrical use of colloquialisms. After Ever requests a drink from one of his adoring but troubled loves, she jumps “to her feet like a broken spring tearing through the cushion”. At a powwow, Ever dances “like drumsticks on hide”.
Also, as craft goes, Hokeah imbues suspense into seemingly quotidian quests. Grandpa Vincent’s final days crafting regalia for his grandchildren are feverish; Great Aunt Opbee’s track-down of Geimausaddle family heirlooms is nail-biting. While Calling for a Blanket Dance lacks the explosive finish of the powder keg Tommy Orange creates in There, There (2018), Hokeah’s ending is dramatic, decisive, and satisfying in thematic unification.
Part of the final episode’s suspense is created by the drumbeat of Hokeah’s simple yet inventive structure. As the narrative marches forward in time, jumping two-three years per chapter, a reader progresses with anticipation toward Ever’s own chapter, similar to how Victor Hugo in Les Misérables (1862) saves Jean Valjean’s section for last.
Hokeah adopts the same stance of protagonist-as-legend that N. Scott Momaday does with his main character, Abel, in House Made of Dawn (1968); a classic notion that a downtrodden workaday can ascend to the heights of an epic hero. Ever does so by loving his children, a fact that earns his family’s attention and love, just as it will Hokeah’s readers.