I picked this book up because it was on a list of “perfect short novels” mentioned in The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. There are always so many new books coming out that excite me, so it can be tough to add anything to my TBR pile that isn’t contemporary. I have really been loving books written by poets lately, and really wanting something short to balance out the longer books I’ve been reading. This should have fit right in, but ultimately this wasn’t a book for me. While the writing may be evocative, it’s also rather racist (an ethnic slur on the first page? Come on!). The story had tragic notes, and I do love the concept of telling the entire story of one ordinary person. Johnson is a talented writer, so the story feels very grounded in its setting, and despite being so short the reader is deeply drawn into Robert Granier’s life, such as it is. And yet, I was overall not impressed. YMMV.
The book is set in the early 20th century – a time I am gradually coming to understand very differently than how it was presented to me in my youth. This book, like most books I’ve ever read about the time (especially those written by white people), essentially treats Native people as window dressing, white men as industrious and striving (not thieving the land from Native people), and white women as magical homestead makers. Robert’s life is full of tragedy, but the moments that Johnson presents as poignant are also some of the most repugnant, and honestly it’s not clear to me that the author grasps that. There’s a lovely full circle effect without the straight linear set up, and again the book feels truly grounded in a specific time and place. I just think I was personally too distracted by the limitations of the writer (and the character) to consider this a “great” novella. I’ll keep searching for other stories personally.