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?

34 thoughts on “Betty Louise Bell: Faces in the Moon (1994)

  1. I’ve never heard of this book or author before, but I’m interested in Native American literature and think this looks like a good read. It’s sad that alcoholism and identity crises are such common themes.

    Thanks for the review!

    • You are welcome, yes it is sad. But that happens to many native people all over the world. Louise Erdrich is a great writer but I enjoyed reading this book too despite some flaws.

  2. Wonderful review, Caroline! I haven’t heard of Betty Louise Bell and so this book is a new discovery for me. The story looks quite sad from your description – it is sad when people have to give up their identity and follow the mainstream. Because when they discover later that they are outsiders in the mainstream, it is difficult for them to come back or go forward. Life is so tough when one is an outsider.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I’m gald you liked the review.
      What you say pretty much sums it up. But being part of a culture that isn’t valued takes a lot of slef-confidence and there are reasons that the mother gives and which explain why she turned her back on her own culture. Since the book is in large parts autobiographical it is even sadder. Sad but very interesting. I liked their story telling ritual at the kitchen table best.

  3. This sounds quite interesting. I’ve taken some classes before on Native American culture, and loss of identity (largely owing to the forced Westernization and cultural assimilation in Native American schools) is a major issue.

    I’ve read Erdrich’s “The Birchbark House,” but it was so many years ago that not much stands out but the title.

    • It is interesting and worth reading despite some of my reservations. Erdrich is a far better writer but quite special. I need to read more of her but think she often writes novels that read a bit like short story collections.
      I would have like to read another novel by Bell but there is none it seems. I would have liked to see where she goes from here.
      I have a degree in cultural antropology but studied mainly the Oijbwa, Kwakiutl and a some of the plains Indians and Pueblos. I’m not familiar with the Cherokee. It’s sad but there still is a strength in the novel, the power of the women, they stories they tell. I’m already looking forward to the next book. Momaday I think.
      There were bits in the book I didn’t understand about the Indian hospital and some Cherokee census that sounded very bleak…

      • I think you’ll like Momaday. His writing is rather lyrical and almost solemn.

        The class I took on Native American cultures was more of a survey of the biggest groups, which made it interesting to compare the similarities and differences between each tribe. It’s something I find very interesting, and I wish that I took more anthro courses in college….

        • Good to know, about Momaday. I think he must be very different from Erdrich. I hope I can read him soon.
          It is fascinating. I loved my studies. I concentrated more on the religious aspects of the different groups but we were encouraged to read their fiction as well.

          • The Momaday book that I read was “The Way to Rainy Mountain.” It had such a unique structure! The story would be told by alternating between the author’s experiences, Kiowa myths, and Kiowa history, which gave it a very poetic feel and made the present flow as an extension of the events and traditions of the past.

            • That sounds very intriguing. I would love to read that very much. I have feeling something like this was what Bell tried to only it didn’t work.
              The two Momaday books I have are House Made of Dawn and In the Bear’s House. I’ll have to write down the one you mentioned and when I’ve read the other too, I’ll get to it.

  4. Louise Erdrich really captures the Minnesota and Dakota Native American dilemma – trying to preserve what’s left of the culture while the dominant culture tries to “assimilate” them, often by force. Most of the novels share characters which ties them together; some stories read in isolation only make sense when seen in light of the whole. That said, some of her books are much better than others. Living in Minnesota, I find that struggles she describes are still going on, hidden from the mainstream culture but very much in evidence when you scratch beneath the surface.

    • Thanks, for your comment, that’s what i would have thought only I’m too far away to really know but it seems on a much smaller scale the same all over the world. Mainstream culture crushes everything. First the languages are lost and then the rest follows.
      From what little Erdrich I read I even thought that inside of a novel parts differ a lot. I want to read more of her anyway, I found she captured the dilemmas, as you say, well and the writing is interesting.

  5. I haven’t read this or Erdrich. But I do own a copy of the Birchbark House. I’ve heard good things about her writing. Not sure if I will pick up Faces in the Moon. It sounds interesting, but I think the way it was written would get to me.

  6. I’ve never heard of Betty Louise Bell, but I did have to read a short story from Erdrich. I think since mostly their stories are so sad it’s best to take them with some sort of humor which is why I like Sherman Alexie a lot. I did like that short story from Erdrich though…

    • You remind me that I wanted to read Sherman Alexie, thanks. Love Medicine was super bleak. But that’s how it is, saddly, they only portray the reality many native Americans live in. I’m discovering a few though, who wnet beyond that point, some, like Alexie, with humor, others by rediscovering their heritage.

  7. Too bad this didn’t quite work as well as you had hoped. I like the sound of it, but the shifting from first to third person sounds a little abrupt. I like getting different perspectives, but not if it jars too much. Still, it sounds like this makes for a good jumping off place in terms of finding other books about the same subject. I am sorry to say I have read very little Native American literature, but Louise Erdrich is high on my list of authors to read.

    • The odd thing was that the point of view didn’t chnage, it was always Lucie but back and forth in 1st and 3rd perosn. No clue what that wa all about. It had a lot of potentaia, i think and is not a bad book at all just not exactly what I hoped for.

  8. Wonderful review Caroline. I like how thorough your review, you cover the book really well. I know it’s not my kind of book and I can see it’s not the best book you have ever read either.

    I wonder why she had bad relationship with her mother. That kind of thing always make me wonder, whose fault was it? the child or the mother?

    • Thanks, Nov. I tried to do it justice. Some elements were good and someone else might really like it.
      I’m not completely sure but I think she was really asahmed of her mother. Her mother always sent her away because of her boyfriends and of course, that distance made her see her mother in another light. I still found it a pretty strong reaction. She must have felt very neglected. Her aunt was very critical of the mother as well. Maybe if the grandmother hand still been alive it would have been different. The boyfriend hit her mother and she still stayed with him. Lucie must have lost respect.

      • Ah!! I understand her feeling….I would have lost respect too if I were her.I never could understand why some women stay with their man when they are often being hit. That kind of women are sooo weak and I hate it, we women should be strong

        • I agree. Still it happens all the time and often women choose a sequence of brutal boysfriends, not just one. But leaving is easier said than done. These women have their reasons why they can’t leave and it has soften something to do with their childhood as in the case of Lucie’s mother.

  9. With a “confusing structure” and language that tries to emulate the spoken word, perhaps I’ll pass on that one! Its interesting to read your review however which reveals the difficulty for descendants of indigenous people in relating to the ethnic ancestors

    • I can understand your reaction, it’s a mixed bag, for sure, but since I consider this be some sort of project, I expect to read all sorts of books. Some will be great I’m sure.

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