Betty Louise Bell: Faces in the Moon (1994)

In this moving first novel, Bell (a mixed-blood Cherokee) confronts the “lost generation” of Indian women, personified by Grace, who tries unsuccessfully to enter the mainstream of the white world. Her daughter Lucie’s horrendous childhood of struggle and abuse is relieved only by a two-year stay with a great-aunt, who instills in her a sense of pride. Despite the odds, she is now a successful college professor. Returning to Oklahoma for Grace’s final illness, Lucie spends some painful solitary hours examining the shame she has felt for her mother, who lacked both the skills needed to thrive in the white world and pride in her Cherokee heritage. She finds a link to Grace as she rummages through her things is able to engage in the generations-old tradition of proudly seeking the face of her mother when she sees the moon. 

Betty Louise Bell is a half Cherokee. Faces in the Moon is her first and I think only novel. It is to a large extent autobiographical. She teaches Native American Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

It was a pure coincidence that I started her novel shortly before beginning to read Cold Mountain which contains a few elements of Cherokee history and mythology.

When Hellen, Lucie’s grandmother, dies, she tells her daughters Gracie and Rozella that she would be watching them from above and that they should watch out for faces in the moon, she would be one of them. This story is part of the stories the sisters, Grace and Rozella, tell each other when they sit at the kitchen table and smoke. The child Lucie listens to these stories. Many of them are meaningless to her. All she can see is that her mother is nothing but a fat half Indian who bleaches her hair, wears the most awful baggy synthetic clothes and goes from one alcoholic violent white boyfriend to the next.

The grown up Lucie has long left her mother and aunt in Oklahoma and lives in some of the big cities like Boston and New York. When they call her, to tell her that her mother has had a stroke, it’s the first time, in many years that she drives back to her home town. While her mother lies in the hospital bed, Lucie sleeps at her place. The ugly furniture covered with plastic, the cupboards full of tins, the keepsakes, the pictures, take her back in time and she starts to explore why she hates her mother so much.

The story that unfolds is told alternating between first person and third person narrative and long stretches in italics. It tells of her mother’s life and of Lizzie, her great-aunt, who was a full-blooded Cherokee. During some years, when her mother couldn’t cope because she had a new, alcoholic lover, Lucie had to stay with her great-aunt Lizzie. At first the child misses her dysfunctional home. Lizzie who suffers from tuberculosis and constantly spits into a tin, is very kind to Lucie and treats her like an equal. Slowly they become friends and her aunt teaches her to be proud of her heritage. The years she spends with her, are the best years of her childhood.

Many of the elements in this novel, including the sparse prose, reminded me of Erdrich’s Love Medicine. These lives are bleak and a constant struggle. Alcoholism is frequent. Gracie, Lucie’s mother, is a very typical example. She tries everything to make people forget that she is half Indian. Her hair almost falls off, from the bleaching, she would never wear anything made of natural fibres but rather sweats in synthetic dresses. She changes her boyfriends constantly. Most them are white and beat her up. She is mean and doesn’t take care of her daughter. She is half illiterate and the letters she writes to Lucie later in life, fill her daughter with shame. They sound like the letters of a child and are full of errors.

What truly shocks Lucie at Lizzie’s place is when she sees a photo of a young beautiful Indian woman with long black hair, holding a little baby. If Lizzie hadn’t told her, she would never have recognized her own mother.

Bells’s writing is sparse and tries to imitate spoken language. This is a means to emphasize the importance of oral traditions. Unfortunately I didn’t think it was very well done. The changing from the first to the third person and to the italicized parts didn’t seem to follow a logic. I could understand why Lucie had a problem with her mother but the hatred wasn’t really explained. Because she gave her away or because she was poor and almost illiterate and denied her heritage? Was hurt or shame the source of it or both?

The ending is abruptly redemptive which I found quite odd too. I didn’t mind reading the book. Not at all. It’s interesting in parts but overall a bit disappointing as the structure was confusing. I would have liked to know more about the Cherokee culture. What Bell describes seems typical of many Native Americans with a severe identity crisis. And yet, this could have been the point. Maybe she wanted to show that once people are robbed of their identity, they all become alike, no matter whether they are Cherokee or Chickasaw or Choktaw. And since they are poor and not well educated all they have is the imitation of mainstream culture.

I liked that the book seemed very realistic and didn’t try to draw a romanticized picture. And what worked very well was how the difficulties of the mother-daughter relationship are described and how she captured that moment when Lucie sat in her mother’s empty apartment, looking at all her things and knowing that she would never return.

Has anyone read this or Louise Erdrich?