June 07, 2006

Between The Covers

Though not written with a particular readership in mind, the chord struck by David Oser's novel Call My Name the Wind is likely to resonate with late teens and young adults. Teachers, social workers, psychologists, especially those working with at-risk populations, would also be well advised to take a look at what Oser has wrought in this passionately felt, barely concealed morality tale that he has dedicated to "those of you who told me about your lives, hopes, aspirations, nightmares, and dreams."

They were young people when he met them, the narrative suggests, for though Oser's story begins and ends close to the present, it centers on the formative years of its two disenchanted protagonists. Looking back, it also celebrates the "suppressed spirit" in their souls that was "waiting for the right moment to surface," a spirit that would "ignite" their "dreams" and "define" their "destinies."

Given that most of the youngsters in the story are part Native Americans fleeing their homes and heritage, and the fact that the tale is set on the North Fork of Long Island, Oser's novel takes on particular significance at a time when tribes and nations are reasserting claims to land, and when assimilated Native Americans, like other minorities, are confronting the ambiguities of their ethnic identity. Call My Name the Wind is about the confusion, hate, prejudice, shame, violence, guilt, fear felt by many of these young people, and finally, about their slow release.

Seeming at times more sociology than literature, more didactic than psychologically nuanced, Call My Name the Wind, which takes its title from a Navaho legend, addresses a number of timely subjects. The settings, the language, and the situations ring true, not least because Bronx-born Oser notes that he has listened to such young people. He has been in small towns and big cities all over the country, has taught in high school and college, and has "befriended" many of the "memorable" characters who inspired his novel. His embrace is wide, and if the different parts of the narrative with their different sets of minor characters don't form an integrated whole, they nonetheless sustain interest.

Oser shows the fascination that gangs, particularly skinhead white supremacists, hold for many aimless and abused youngsters. He holds nothing back in writing about police brutality, racially motivated aggression, domestic violence, especially attacks inflicted on wives and children by impoverished sadists acting out their own frustrated and horrific lives.

At the center of Call My Name the Wind are a hero and heroine who embody the Navaho myth introduced in the Prologue, though they only faintly intuit their heritage. Matt Steele, son of a Native American mother and a drunken Irish-American father, and Gloria Palmer, daughter of a wealthy North Fork Italian powerbroker and his Native American wife, see each other by chance when they are children. Years later they meet again, as do all the Native Americans in the book, recognizing one another instinctively.

Though Matt and Gloria are likeable and readers root for them, they don't, alas, come to life. What does Gloria look like? How old is she? Does everyone really speak in a clipped-off manner, without pronouns and articles? Do all Native Americans have high cheekbones? Are the characters' lives so complex that they bear repeating? Perhaps such concerns are beside the point, for David Oser has an important message to deliver. Though Call My Name the Wind is realistically strewn with the f—word, educators should note that the book stops well short of being sensational or exploitative. Oser knows that marginalized youngsters yearn for love and want to belong, even as they deny such impulses and act otherwise.

David Oser will be at Hamptonbook in Sag Harbor on June 24.

Call My Name the Wind by David Oser. Beachcomber RD Press, Ltd. 301 pp., $14.95.

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