Chapter 1: 1988
Thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts and his family live on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. At the start of the novel, Joe helps his father, Judge Bazil Coutts, dig out seedlings that have sprouted in their house’s foundation. Joe’s mother, Geraldine, a tribal enrollment specialist, has gone to her office to pick up a file. Later, Joe reads a book on Native American law that belongs to his father. When Joe’s mother fails to return, Joe and his father borrow a car to look for her. She drives by them looking upset, so they turn around and follow her home. They find Geraldine sitting in her car, covered with vomit and blood and smelling of gasoline. Joe holds her as Judge Coutts drives to the hospital.
At the hospital, Geraldine tries to reassure Joe, but he sees that she’s severely wounded. A state trooper, a local police officer, and a tribal police officer must all interview Geraldine because no one knows whether the crime happened on Native American land—and the location must be identified in order to establish whether federal, state, or Native American officers have jurisdiction over the case. Aunt Clemence, Geraldine’s sister, explains to Joe that his mother has been raped.
Chapter 2: Lonely Among Us
Geraldine comes home from the hospital, and Joe returns to school, where he reconnects with his friends Virgil Lafournais (Cappy), Zack Peace, and Angus Kapshaw. The four boys usually hang out together, united by their love of Star Wars. Cappy is Joe’s closest friend. Geraldine is too traumatized from the brutal attack to leave her bedroom. Judge Coutts takes a leave of absence from his job. Joe’s Uncle Whitey and his wife Sonja, an ex-stripper with whom Joe is infatuated, lend Joe’s family their guard dog, Pearl. Joe and Cappy help Randall, Cappy’s older brother, hold a prayer ceremony in a sweat lodge. The ceremony goes comically wrong when someone accidentally throws hot pepper on the fire. Before this happens, Randall has a troubling vision of a silver-haired man bending over Joe.
Geraldine starts cooking again after Judge Coutts deliberately makes a horrible stew. As she cooks, Judge Coutts goes to his office to retrieve some files. When he returns through the kitchen, Geraldine doesn’t hear him, and she drops a casserole when he touches her. Then she goes upstairs and shuts herself off again. Later, Judge Coutts shows Joe the files and explains that they are going to find the criminal.
Chapter 3: Justice
Judge Coutts and Joe study old case files, looking for people with motives for harming their family. Judge Coutts focuses on two cases involving the Larks, a white family he once ruled against because their store overcharged Native Americans and encroached on Native American lands. Judge Coutts tells Joe how Mrs. Lark gave birth to twins and rejected the weaker twin, a girl. He explains that Albert and Betty Wishkob, a Native American family, unofficially adopted the girl, Linda. After Albert and Betty died, the Larks sought custody of their now-adult daughter, trying to grab the Wishkob family’s Native American allotment. Judge Coutts ruled against them again, and Linda Wishkob’s siblings led a boycott of their store. Judge Coutts adds that the Larks are dead now, but their son, Linden Lark, blames him for the failures of the Lark family.
Joe reads about another case involving Vince Madwesin, Angus Kapshaw’s stepfather and the same tribal policeman who had interviewed Geraldine at the hospital. Madwesin once ejected a drunk from a sacred ceremony held at an old round house near Reservation Lake. Suddenly, Joe realizes that the old round house is where the attack on his mother happened.
Chapter 4: Loud as a Whisper
Joe and his friends ride their bikes out to Reservation Lake. When Joe enters the round house, he knows his mother was attacked there. He smells gasoline. He imagines the rapist trying to get rid of a gas can and, guided by this vision, finds the can in the lake. The boys comb the site for more clues. They smoke cigarettes and eat peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. They find some unopened cans of beer and drink them.
Later, the boys bike to Grandma Thunder’s house, knowing the old woman will feed them. As usual, Grandma teases the boys with sexual jokes. Joe gets home late and sneaks into the house. Judge Coutts and Uncle Edward, Aunt Clemence’s husband, talk and drink whiskey in the kitchen. The men worry about Geraldine and speculate about another possible rapist, Father Travis, a new priest who is an ex-Marine. Drifting off to sleep, Joe wonders about the file that his mother had gone to her office to collect. Later that night, Joe looks out and sees a figure with silver hair. The next morning, Judge Coutts agrees that Joe probably saw a ghost. Joe tells his father about going to the round house.
Chapter 5: The Naked Now
Geraldine won’t leave her bedroom, so Joe and Judge Coutts plant her spring garden with her favorite flowers. When Judge Coutts heads out for more plants, Joe takes food up to Geraldine. He talks about gardening and asks her about the file that she went to get on the day she was attacked. She denies there was a file but seems very frightened. When Joe swears that he will kill her attacker, Geraldine orders him not to pursue the man. Joe realizes that she knows the identity of her attacker.
When Judge Coutts returns, Joe shows him the gas can from the lake. Judge Coutts orders Joe to stop playing detective, and Joe gets on his bike and pedals away, furious. He rounds up his friends and they go to Mass so that he can meet the new priest, Father Travis. Later that evening, the boys spy on Father Travis. They get past a pack of snarling dogs, sneak through the cemetery and their ancestors’ graves, and peek through a window. They watch the movie Alien over Father Travis’s shoulder. Then they watch the priest undress and see that his genitals are terribly scarred. After Father Travis catches the boys, he gives them an angry lecture about why he cannot be the rapist, and then he lets them go.
Chapter 6: Datalore
Judge Coutts can’t help talking to Joe about the case. He asks Joe to help him interview Linda Wishkob. She meets them in a café, but they only talk about the weather. Later that day, Cappy and Joe play a video game at Joe’s house. Linda Wishkob appears at the door. She watches them silently as they play, and then she goes upstairs to visit Geraldine. The next day, Linda visits again, this time bringing Geraldine a loaf of banana bread.
Joe and Judge Coutts persuade Linda to talk about herself. She explains that when she was born, she had a congenital deformity that caused her head to be misshapen, so Grace Lark, her birth mother, chose to let her die. Betty Wishkob, a janitor at a local hospital, took Linda in, and Betty and her husband lovingly raised Linda as their own. Fifty years later, Grace Lark contacted Linda to persuade her to donate a kidney to her cruel, violent twin brother, Linden. Linda nearly died after the kidney transplant. Although they opposed her actions, Linda’s Wishkob siblings have stood by her through all her ordeals. Geraldine has helped her too. Linda admits she made a terrible mistake by helping Linden because Linden has done terrible things.
Chapter 7: Angel One
Joe spends a morning watching Mooshum, his elderly grandfather, who lives with Aunt Clemence and Uncle Edward. Joe tells Mooshum about the silver-haired man whom he and Randall have seen. Mooshum advises Joe to consult the Ajijaak, his father’s crane clan. Joe bikes to the lake and spots a heron. Then Joe looks down and sees a doll at the bottom of the lake. He retrieves the doll and discovers that it’s stuffed with cash. Joe quickly bikes to Uncle Whitey’s gas station and shows the doll to Sonja, who immediately takes charge of the situation. She and Joe divide the cash—which totals more than $40,000—into small envelopes, then drive around depositing the money into various banks. Sonja swears Joe to secrecy and warns Joe that he might now be in danger.
Joe bikes home to find Judge Coutts talking to Soren Bjerke, the FBI agent working on Geraldine’s case. Joe reminds the men about the file his mother has (although she is now denying that she has it), and insists that they look for it. Judge Coutts demands that Joe tell him everything. Joe confesses to drinking beer by the round house but says nothing about the money he found.
Chapter 8: Hide and Q—Part 1
In an attempt to get Geraldine to talk about the attack, Judge Coutts and Joe start eating dinner in her room. Judge Coutts tells stories, and Joe reports on his new job at Whitey and Sonja’s gas station, but his mother will not say a word. When Judge Coutts shares the news that Curtis Yeltow, a corrupt and racist politician, wants to adopt a Native American child whose mother is missing, Geraldine finally breaks her silence. She tells them about Mayla Wolfskin, a young Native American woman who had been trying to enroll her baby in their tribe. Mayla had called Geraldine in a panic and begged her to bring her baby’s enrollment file to her, but when Geraldine arrived, a sack was thrown over her head, and she was dragged away and raped. After the attack, the sack was removed, and Geraldine found herself in the round house with Mayla, who was also tied up, her baby crawling nearby.
The attacker was also present and alternated between screaming at Mayla and saying that he loved her. He then poured gasoline on Mayla and Geraldine, and when he left to get matches, Geraldine managed to escape. Out of fear for Mayla and her child, Geraldine still refuses to name her attacker. Judge Coutts takes his exhausted wife to the hospital, and Joe stays with Whitey and Sonja. When Joe notices that Sonja is wearing diamond earrings and new clothing, Sonja admits to Joe that she took money from the doll. But Whitey thinks his wife got the earrings from a man, and he beats her badly. Joe quits his job.
Chapter 8: Hide and Q—Part 2
Joe stays with Aunt Clemence and Uncle Edward. He sleeps in the same room as Mooshum, who talks in his sleep. While asleep, Mooshum recounts an old story about Akii, a woman accused by her husband of being a wiindigoo, a person possessed by an animal. Her son, Nanapush, refuses to obey his father’s order to kill Akii. Nanapush and his mother escape. Nanapush hunts the last remaining buffalo, and the buffalo gives her life to keep Nanapush and his mother alive.
Geraldine comes home and tries to resume her life. Joe and his friends go swimming at the lake. They encounter a church youth group and decide to join them after catching sight of Zelia, a beautiful Mexican girl. Cappy and Zelia immediately fall in love. Later, Judge Coutts tells Joe that Geraldine’s rapist is under arrest. Unfortunately, because Geraldine can’t remember exactly where the attack happened, it is not known which court has jurisdiction over the case. Zack arrives with exciting news: searchers found Mayla Wolfskin’s car in the lake. The boys bike over to watch. As the car rises out of the water, Joe sees a scrap of cloth inside—a scrap that matches the doll.
Chapter 9: The Big Good-bye—Part 1
Aunt Clemence throws a party for Mooshum’s 112th birthday. Mooshum and Grandma Thunder exchange stories of their past sexual prowess, and Mooshum accidentally sets his hair on fire when he blows out the candles. Music and dancing go on for hours. Joe sees Sonja wearing an expensive new shirt and cowboy boots. Cappy sneaks off to meet Zelia. Joe goes home. His parents come in and go to their room together, and Joe feels safe.
The authorities trace the baby whom Curtis Yeltow has tried to adopt, and Geraldine identifies Mayla Wolfskin as the child’s mother. Now that she knows the baby is safe, Geraldine reveals the identity of the attacker: Linden Lark. Joe’s parents return to Bismarck to pursue the case while Joe stays with his aunt and uncle. One day, when Clemence and Edward are away from home, Sonja comes over with a birthday present for Mooshum: a strip act. Joe insists that Sonja let him watch, threatening to tell people about the money if she refuses. Sonja’s act is cheap and weird, but it captivates both Mooshum and Joe. After Sonja dances, she lashes out at Joe for being as bad as all other men.
Chapter 9: The Big Good-bye—Part 2
Cappy confides to Joe that he and Zelia had sex in the church basement. Joe goes home, and when he hears Geraldine screaming, he knows that Linden Lark has been let off. In a rage, Joe berates his father and accuses him of wasting his life. Judge Coutts tries to explain the long-term goal: to establish Native American jurisdiction over their own lands. Joe leaves in disgust.
Later, Cappy confesses to Father Travis that he had sex in the church basement, and Father Travis responds with rage. Cappy runs for his life, with Father Travis on his heels. The whole community turns out to watch their race. Cappy gets away, but barely. The race immediately becomes legend, with Mooshum adding memories of another legendary race from his own youth. Whitey tells the family that Sonja has left him. Joe tells Cappy about the doll and the money. They go to the place where Joe and Sonja buried their bank passbooks. He discovers that Sonja left him $200 in cash and $10,000 in the bank for his college education, but she has taken off with the rest of the money. Joe splits the $200 with Cappy.
Chapter 10: Skin of Evil—Part 1
Linda Wishkob warns the Coutts family that Linden Lark is back in town. Judge Coutts insists that Geraldine stay home with the doors locked and Pearl on guard. Geraldine gives Joe and Judge Coutts a shopping list. At the grocery store, they spot Linden. When Judge Coutts tries to strangle Linden, he suffers a heart attack. Down in Fargo, Joe and Geraldine stay at a hotel while Judge Coutts is in the hospital. Judge Coutts’s secretary tells them that people have beaten Linden and that Linden had been bragging about having a rich girlfriend, who Joe suspects is Sonja. Geraldine vows to stop Linden, and Joe fears that Linden will kill her. Joe realizes he must kill Linden himself.
Later, Joe approaches Father Travis and pretends to be interested in joining the church. Knowing Father Travis is good at shooting gophers, Joe tells him that he hopes to learn how to shoot. Instead, Father Travis lectures Joe about evil and claims that every evil results in some good. Cappy mocks the priest’s words and offers to teach Joe to shoot. Cappy has been hunting since he was two.
Chapter 10: Skin of Evil—Part 2
Cappy borrows one of his father’s rifles and takes Joe out to practice shooting. Joe is a terrible shot. He has to use the cash Sonja left him to buy more ammunition. Joe talks to Linda Wishkob and learns that Linden plays golf early in the morning. Cappy and Joe make plans to fake the theft of the rifle and then ambush Linden. Joe and Cappy carry out their plan during the summer powwow, when everyone camps out. Cappy and Randall’s father, Doe Lafournais, works as the powwow announcer. The boys watch the traditional dances, eat their favorite Native American foods, and flirt with girls. Joe meets Margaret, his future wife.
Later, in the dark of night, Joe and Cappy steal the rifle, cut across the fields, and hide it near the golf course. Joe stakes out the golf course. Linden arrives on the third morning. Hiding in the bushes, Joe waits until he has a clear shot. He shoots and hits Linden in the stomach. He shoots again, but then his fingers won’t work. Suddenly Cappy appears. He takes the rifle away from Joe and kills Linden by shooting him in the head. Then Cappy picks up the rifle casings, and they get out of there.
Chapter 11: The Child—Part 1
Cappy and Joe realize they never made a plan for getting rid of the rifle. Joe remembers the old Wishkob place. They borrow one of Randall’s old cars, drive there in the pouring rain, and hide the rifle under the front porch. Cappy lets Joe off at Whitey’s gas station. Whitey watches Joe closely as he tells him that Linden is dead from a clean shot to the head. Then Joe goes outside and vomits. Cappy comes in. Whitey feeds them sandwiches and lets them take some booze outside to drink. The boys consume a bottle of Four Rose and fall asleep. Joe staggers home, where his parents tell him about Linden’s murder. Joe says that he’s glad Linden is dead and that whoever killed him should get a medal. Joe thinks his mother can see the murderer in him. Joe falls ill, and while he recovers, the police investigate Linden’s murder. Whitey tells the police that Cappy and Joe were sleeping behind his station at the time of the shooting, and admits to giving them booze. Tribal policeman Vince Madwesin brings Geraldine a pickle jar, and Joe remembers leaving the jar at the golf course.
Chapter 11: The Child—Part 2
Joe rides out to the Wishkob place, where Linda tells him that she discovered and disposed of the rifle. Linda thinks her brother, Linden, murdered Mayla Wolfskin and buried her somewhere on the reservation. Judge Coutts talks to Joe about justice, and he admits that everyone feels safer because Linden is dead. Judge Coutts explains that, after talking it over with Geraldine, he’s decided to do nothing more about Linden’s murder. He even suggests that Linden might have been a wiindigoo, an evil spirit whose killing was justified under ancient tribal laws. But Joe and Cappy still have nightmares about what they’ve done.
Later, Cappy receives a threatening letter from Zelia’s parents, who have moved their daughter to Helena in order to prevent Cappy from seeing her again. Joe, Zack, and Angus decide to drive to Helena with Cappy. They borrow Randall’s old car again and buy booze using a fake ID. Joe is sleeping in the back seat when the car flips over. Cappy dies in the crash, and a silver-haired policeman takes Joe to the hospital. Geraldine and Judge Coutts arrive at the hospital, and Joe suddenly perceives them as old. They don’t seem angry, but Joe realizes they know everything. The family drives home in silence.
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