Summary: Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield
Opal Viola Bear Shield and her older half-sister, Jacquie Red Feather, live with their mother in East Oakland. In January of 1970, Opal’s mother tells them that they are moving to Alcatraz to be with “Indians of All Tribes” and occupy the island in protest against the government. The three take a bus and then a speedboat to reach the island. On Alcatraz, they sleep in the cells and have large gatherings for meals. Jacquie starts spending time with a group of teenagers, while Opal spends time with her mother.
One afternoon, Opal takes her teddy bear, Two Shoes, and sets off to find her sister. Opal has an imagined conversation with Two Shoes about how “Indians” and teddy bears were both named by “men with pigs for brains.” Two Shoes explains the origin of Teddy Roosevelt’s Bear and implies Roosevelt was not as merciful and good as people think he was. Two Shoes explains how North America used to have many more bears and Native Americans.
When Opal finds her sister, Jacquie and the other teenagers are drunk. Opal meets a boy closer to her age, Rocky, who is standing apart from the drunk group. A boat arrives that has been stolen by some of the older kids. Opal joins Jacquie and the older kids for a joyride, and Opal and Rocky hold hands. The boat is intercepted by another boat full of adults and taken to the front of the island. The older kids run away. In the evening, Opal hears Jacquie screaming at one of the older boys, Harvey. When Opal asks Jacquie what happened, she replies cryptically that she asked Harvey to stop doing whatever he was doing.
Opal, Jacquie, and their mom eventually leave the island in defeat; the government has no intention of changing any policies or meeting any of the Native Americans’ demands. Opal’s mother later dies of cancer, after choosing not to follow the advice of her doctor and instead relying on remedies from a medicine man, her adopted brother Ronald, whom they live with after Alcatraz.
After Alcatraz and the death of her mother, Opal focuses on her education. Jacquie tells her that she is pregnant from the incident with Harvey, but she knows someone that can help her get rid of the baby. Opal quotes her mother and tells Jacquie that their responsibility is to tell their stories. They are not dead; they should not give up.
Insisting that no one is too young to know their past, Vicky explains to Opal that it is her responsibility to share the stories of her people. The “machine that was the government” would never rescind the lie that allowed it to function, but each person had the power to “to make it right” by sharing their story. The world is made up of stories, she insists, which reverberate through time, creating other stories in turn. At the end of this conversation, Vicky tells Opal a truth about her own story—she has cancer. It is after this conversation that Opal finds Two Shoes and, taking stock of his deterioration, decides to leave him on the island.
Summary: Edwin Black
Edwin Black lives with his mother in Oakland. He is half-Native and half-white. He has a master's degree in comparative literature (with a focus in Native American literature) but cannot find a meaningful job. He is overweight, addicted to the Internet (social media, gaming, and gambling), and has been constipated for six days. After a series of web searches, he is concerned that he might have a bowel obstruction—caused, he is certain, by his junk food diet.
He hears a Facebook notification and goes to the computer. While logged in under his mother’s account, he has tried to track down his father, who does not know he exists. Edwin knows that his father is Native American, but not what tribe, and that his name is Harvey. He has a brief, online conversation with a man named Harvey whose picture looks just like Edwin. Harvey tells him that they are Southern Cheyenne, out of Oklahoma. Edwin is overwhelmed and says that he has to go, ending the conversation.
Edwin’s mother comes home and tries to have a conversation with him about his day. Edwin, increasingly self-conscious about being overweight, overreacts to his mother’s questions. He apologizes for being such a screw-up. His mother comforts him and tells him that she has found a paid internship for him at the Indian Center, helping with anything related to the powwow. Edwin goes to his room and listens to A Tribe Called Red, a First Nations hip hop group from Ottawa. With new motivation, he tries to do some pushups and situps. He ends up defecating in his pants and feels hopeful that things are moving, literally and figuratively.
The first female narrator voices the third chapter and shifts the novel’s focus to family and home, both of which are under assault. Evicted from their Oakland house, Vicky, Opal, and Jacquie join a protest on Alcatraz. Although the prison provides no real access to freedom for any of them, they do find community of a kind on the island. They are part of a group of indigenous people protesting the U.S. government, but the lack of structure and basic necessities leaves Opal, the narrator of the chapter, feeling alone and increasingly unmoored. Orange’s use of the first-person in this chapter emphasizes Opal’s isolation. Through the precarity of Vicky, Opal, and Jacquie, Orange introduces the special burdens placed on Native women from the legacies of “domestic” violence. If Dene Oxendene presents storytelling as an art form with political implications, Opal’s chapter shows that it is also an intimate way of bonding with family members.
Edwin Black’s chapter reverses the narrative presented in the one that precedes it, expanding the concept of the Native perspective. Where Opal’s account ends with a family destroyed—her mother is dead and her sister is pregnant as the result of sexual assault—Edwin finds his birth father. Edwin has ambitions of being a Native author, but it is through ventriloquizing his white mother that he tells the story that reveals his father. This is just one of the twists in this chapter that features humor often couched in scatological terms. Edwin lives with his mother so, although his family is not reconstituted, his stable environment is in marked contrast to the one Opal describes in her chapter. Both kinds of stories, however, are part of the Native experience.
In both chapters, characters face the prospect of growing up, but again they represent vastly different circumstances. Opal abandons her teddy bear on Alcatraz after learning that her mother is dying, symbolizing the end of her childhood. This retrospective chapter communicates how she was is thrust into adulthood abruptly. Edwin, however, is stuck in a state of not-yet-maturity, living in his mother’s house, gaming and unemployed even though he has a Master’s degree. Class plays a key role in the different situations of the characters. Where Opal has no choice about growing up, Edwin is protected, even coddled, by his mother, who helps him find a job. The chapters occur at divergent moments of the novel’s larger timeline. Opal’s story is in the past, and Edwin’s is in the present, so the stories also explore differences in Native coming-of-age experiences over time.