When the 127-year-old remains of a young Cheyenne girl are accidentally exhumed on her father’s construction site, the heroine of Marcus Stevens’ second novel, Useful Girl, is deeply affected. Her father, anxious to finish the job on time, orders his daughter to keep quiet, and though she tries, 17-year-old Erin Douglass, still reeling from the recent death of her mother, is unable to abandon the child wrapped in a tattered army coat to an unmarked grave:
“Dad turned to me. ‘If this gets out, it will cost me plenty. Understand? I can’t afford to stop work while they figure out that some Indian died a hundred years ago from god-knows-what. If we hadn’t dug it up, nobody would’ve known the difference.’”
“I couldn’t get those bones out of my mind…I closed my eyes and the skeleton stood up before me, reorganized its joints and became a girl. I looked out at the plains, through the rain, and I imagined glimpses of her. Running. And then in darkness, someone wrapping her in that coat, laying her on the ground. I thought of all the nights and days that had passed as she lay there for a hundred years.”
Together with Charlie White Bird, a Native American working on her father’s site, Erin secretly works to protect the burial site. What transpires between the two will become Erin’s first intense experience of a relationship, one she must hide from her father. They give the child a name: Mo’e’ha’e—Cheyenne for “magpie.” Using the journals of one of her own ancestors, taken from her grandfather’s house, Erin attempts to trace the life of the young girl, trying to imagine what kind of life Mo’e’ha’e would have led in 1870s Montana. When her relationship with Charlie reaches a crisis, she turns to these imaginings to draw the strength that will guide her away from the pain of loss and confusion.
In the 1800s, when Mo’e’ha’e would have lived, the Cheyenne—believed to have moved from what is now Minnesota into the Dakotas—separated into two groups when a large portion of the tribe moved south into Colorado along the Arkansas River. The Northern Cheyenne continued to roam the plains in the region of the North Platte and Yellowstone rivers, eventually joining forces with the Sioux against Custer. Following the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Northern Cheyenne were taken as prisoners of war and moved to Oklahoma. During an escape attempt, a small group was able to flee back north where, in 1884, they were captured and placed on the approximate site of the current reservation. In the ensuing years, the government tried to merge these Cheyenne with their traditional enemy, the Crow, but its attempts never succeeded.
In addition to depicting the battles during the Indian wars and the complications of current racial prejudices with startling accuracy, Stevens’ novel also takes on a subtle and graceful tone in its storytelling. It deftly parallels the difficulties of Erin and Charlie’s relationship, inconceivable in their segregated community, with that of the courageous life of Mo’e’ha’e, weaving the strands of their stories unforgettably. Ultimately, this offers Erin a way to cope with her mother’s death, her father’s distance, and the crisis that will result in her love affair with Charlie.
What lies beyond the fundamental problems set up in the novel is Erin’s struggle to capture an identity that is only her own—the self that begins after the virtual, and eventually actual, absence of mother, father, and lover. In one moment, she remembers a period in her adolescence when she and her father routinely woke up early to stand in a spot where a creek crossed the road, listening to the doves in the bushes anticipating the sunrise. When the light finally came, Erin and her father would take their shotguns to the mass of doves to shoot as many as possible:
“I remember the first one [I hit]…I could feel its warm weight against the small of my back…There were a lot, and I remember the birds in Mom’s hands as she prepared them. She held each dove one at a time lying on its back, its wings falling to either side of her wet hand.”
The passage illustrates the skill with which Stevens captures the importance of Erin’s memory. The tangible image, ending with the dead dove in her mother’s hand, reflects the importance of Erin’s difficult journey to self-identity: “We never went again. Maybe it was because I was getting older, wearing dresses and he assumed I didn’t want to go anymore. I don’t remember. But it was quiet around the house, because more and more we were all so busy, and Dad and Mom weren’t talking much.”
Despite its epic scope, Useful Girl is both sharply focused and elliptical, managing to always head straight for the heart of things: Only the note that says something essential has the right to exist. In this way, Stevens manages to encompass and accurately portray the complexity of existence in America’s past and present.
In addition to four spirits who live at the points of the compass, Cheyenne religion recognizes two principal deities. The first is the Wise One Above; the second a god who lived beneath the ground. Stevens uses the memory of a buried girl, adorned with silver thimbles on her fingertips to show that she is useful, to act as a guide to Erin in her most desperate time of need, beautifully encompassing a tender and harrowing journey.