An Englishwoman travels to South Dakota with her American boyfriend Adam, who has agreed to represent Henry Blackfoot, a Sioux man who’s initiated a lawsuit against a local white farmer whose land, he claims, has Sioux sacred sites on it. But once Adam arrives, he discovers that it’s just as much about Henry’s relationship with Marta, the farmer’s wife, as it is about sacred burial grounds. Henry Blackfoot is a compelling man, but he’s not the noble Indian Adam was looking for. The narrator, meanwhile, finds herself peculiarly attracted to, even obsessed by, Blackfoot. What follows is less of a structured narrative than it is a dive into the narrator’s attempts to understand herself, America, and her homeland.
The question of what is America and what is Indian country looms large in the story: as the opening lines say, “There is a wound in this country, a gaping wound, wide as the open sky that graces it, hidden deep in the earth and covered with the sentimental growth of wheat. It is Indian country.” A few lines later, the narrator concludes that this may be God’s Country, but in that case, “one would be tempted to believe that the Good Lord had sick ideas about white and red and yellow and black skins, and that even when the Indians built their churches to him, even then he left them unrewarded with a dank plot of land, and worse still, no will to make it blossom green with rare scents. To see these people one feels sad with oneself. For to have myth and magic in one’s past, to be part of the childworld, believing in mountains becoming men, and such, seems to be the stuff of which failure is made.”
Throughout the story the narrator, Adam, and the Dakotans they encounter wrestle with this problem: that this glorious, sacred landscape has been covered over with a thin but disfiguring layer of the trashiest detritus of modern civilization, corrupting the native peoples along with it, who hide from their troubles in alcohol, and look to sleazy Wild West Shows for a renaissance. “You can’t go seeing the land like this,” the narrator wants to tell one of the local boys, “day in, day out, missing her beauty, the way she is, just because she was once the garbage can shaped by government treaties. This land wakes up in the dawn with more ecstasy than I’ve seen in Italian sunsets over the Arno, with more grace than the summer light dancing on Mediterranean waves. For now, the land is startling, mauve rim of the horizon, cutting the moon’s huge face as she sinks, and the Badland buttes stretch to eternity, prisms of light making rainbow waves, one after the other, over her wrinkled rivers of still mud. You can’t go on seeing the land castrated, sad just because they left her to you as a prison, a way of keeping you out of the fertile land, where the farms are white and Jesus prospers.”
But there’s nothing the narrator or anyone else is able to do to save the self-destructive characters from their destruction, and the narrative becomes increasingly disjointed as it becomes increasingly violent and tragic. As she confronts the awakening sexuality of Blackfoot’s daughter, the narrator is carried back to her own awakening sexuality, which now rules her life so that she chases after Adam, Blackfoot, and a tribal policeman she happens to encounter as she’s driving along with Blackfoot’s daughter, whom she may have kidnapped in order to save her from her own budding desires. Intense, dark, and fragmented, with possible parallels begun but never fully explored between the Badlands and the narrator’s own England–both are full of ancient sacred burial grounds–and between the persecution of the Native Americans and Adam’s Jewish father, who had to flee Nazi Germany, “Badlands” is a rich, slow, challenging read, with scenes of disturbing sexuality juxtaposed with scenes of lyrical beauty. A story not for everyone, but for those who wish to flex their reading muscles while plunging into the most beautiful, most terrible part of America, highly recommended. The photographs in the new edition, taken by the author during her own travels across South Dakota, add another layer to this already multi-layered work, and are beautiful and evocative in their own right.
My thanks to NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.