These short stories interconnect the friendships of four First Nations people — Everett Kaiswatim, Nellie Gordon, Julie Papequash, and Nathan (Taz) Mosquito — as the collection evolves over two decades against the cultural, political, and historical backdrop of the 90s and early 2000s.
These young people are among the first of their families to live off the reserve for most of their adult lives, and must adapt and evolve. In stories like “Stranger Danger”, we watch how shy Julie, though supported by her roomies, is filled with apprehension as she goes on her first white-guy date, while years later in “Two Years Less A Day” we witness her change as her worries and vulnerability are put to the real test when she is unjustly convicted in a violent melee and must serve some jail time. “The House and Things That Can Be Taken” establishes how the move from the city both excites and intimidate reserve youth — respectively, how a young man finds a job or a young woman becomes vulnerable in the bar scene. As well as developing her characters experientially, Dumont carefully contrasts them, as we see in the fragile and uncertain Everett and the culturally strong and independent but reckless Taz.
As the four friends experience family catastrophes, broken friendships, travel to Mexico, and the aftermath of the great tragedy of 9/11, readers are intimately connected with each struggle, whether it is with racism, isolation, finding their cultural identity, or repairing the wounds of their upbringing.
From “Stranger Danger”
Nellie was struggling with an English paper. She hated the class. Her professor had intoned at the beginning of class: “There are no right answers, only answers that you had to argue for. ” Nellie hated open-ended shit. She just wanted to know which argument would give her an A.
She called Everett. There was no answer. He had no answering machine but he had call display and it told him how many times she called. Right now if he would see: twelve.
She had been angry six calls ago. Now she was just disappointed. And horny.
She opened up her political science binder, it was filled with photocopied readings. She had to read about Aristotle even though she’d already read about him in Philosophy. It must be nice to straddle two subjects with the same boring writing. She went to the kitchen to refill her tea. She was drinking green tea these days, it was supposed to fire up her metabolism by getting rid of all the free radicals lurking in her body. She didn’t know what those were but Oprah said they were bad. Nellie hadn’t lost a pound but then again it was hard to eat healthy when the entire apartment smelled like pizza.
Nellie padded into the kitchen and saw a pizza container on the counter. She squelched a scream of frustration. She opened the pizza box; it was sausage and pepperoni. The top of the box was rimmed in dark where the fat had soaked into the cardboard.
Nellie spit on the pizza and spread the spit over the top of it with her finger. She was closing the box carefully when the front door opened.
She looked around the corner as Julie stalked past her. Nellie hurried behind her.
Julie sat on Nellie’s bed, her head against the wall. Julie’s bedroom was the living room so during the day she used Nellie’s. It wasn’t the best situation but Nellie didn’t feel like giving up the extra rent money.
“He’s ok, I guess. ”
Nellie started small. “Did you have fun?”
“I guess. ”
“Did you make out with him?”
“Did you want to?”
“I dunno. He’s so… bleh. ” Julie made a damn-I-just-stepped-in-dog-poop-and-I’m-wearing-sandals-face.
“Okay then. ” Nellie’s disappointment was writ clear.
“He wants to see me this weekend. So I told him I work this weekend and then he’s all like what about before work and so I said yes but I don’t want to go. He wants to go hang out at the park - what the fuck is at the park?”
“There’s ducks. ”
“You and Everett ever go to the park?”
Nellie and Everett never went anywhere together. It was her house or his. Sometimes she saw him at the bar and she would wave to him and he would act like he was gonna come over but he never got to where she was sitting.
One time she asked him to meet her at Place Riel at the University. She saw other girls meet their boyfriends there. She had explained to him how to get there, walked him through the streets one by one. He never showed up. He told her that he made it to the University Bridge but then some woman give him a weird look which made him feel weird so he turned around and went home.
“I don’t like ducks,” Nellie replied.
“There wasn’t a single Indian in that place. Me and a bunch of white people. I felt like everyone was looking at us and I couldn’t stop looking at his arms. He had this blonde hair all over them. Like lots of it. ” Julie made a face that she saved for the smell of rotten garbage.
“That’s how white people are, I guess. ” How would Nellie know? She’d never studied one up close. “Was he nice?”
“He asked me if I liked being called Indian or Native. ”
“Always say Native. ”
“I know that, Nellie. But I don’t have to answer that question if I’m with an Indian guy. ”
Nellie wanted to argue from the perspective of diversity and being open minded but she was tired and felt nauseated from the smell of pizza. So, they walked down to the Rainbow cinema where movies were three dollars on Sunday afternoons. As they stood in line for popcorn, Julie laughed suddenly and sharply.
“What’s so funny?”
“I was thinking about the date. You know when he asked me if I liked Native or Indian. ”
“What did you say?”
“I asked him if he liked white or honky. ”
Nellie rolled her eyes as Julie laughed at her own joke.
When they got home, Nellie checked the phone: Ball, N. had called. She showed it to Julie who shrugged and then turned on the TV. Nellie went back to her homework.