Red Weather, Janet McAdams’s elegiac novel, follows a woman’s search for her missing parents
by Sarah Norris
Red Weather, the debut novel by poet Janet McAdams, tracks the story of Neva, a young mixed-race woman who’s searching for her parents. Lyrical and vivid, the mystery unfolds in Central America, in the capital of the small, fictional Coatepeque. There, mounting violence against the country’s indigenous people provides a menacing backdrop to Neva’s crisis of identity, mirroring her lifelong sense of uncertain belonging. The seventy-first book published in the Sun Tracks series of American Indian literature, Red Weather paints both menacing and hopeful portraits of contemporary Native American life.
Neva’s mother and father were Native American activists who disappeared without a trace a decade earlier and are now presumed dead. After leaving Neva at her grandmother’s house, they were never heard from again, at least not by their daughter. The book opens with Neva’s thought: “After all these years, it was hard to imagine they were still alive.” The truth, however, is closer to the opposite: Neva, a college dropout married to a bullying professor, has spent years haunted by the possibility that her parents are alive. When she discovers a cache of mysterious postcards tucked behind the frame of a picture from her grandmother’s farm, Neva suspects her parents might be living in Coatepeque. Despite the fact that they have been gone long enough for Neva and her older brother, Harker, to settle their estate, Neva decides to leave her familiar but unhappy life in Atlanta for the unknown dangers of Coatepeque.
While packing, Neva finds proof that her husband, Will, has been unfaithful to her. On top of the obvious pleasure he’s taken in humiliating and terrorizing her, this new discovery dispels any lingering doubts she has about leaving. What’s less clear is whether Coatepeque City is the best, or even a safe, alternative. Once there, Neva succeeds in making friends within a small expat community and quickly lands a job teaching tenth-grade English at the International School. Unable to speak Spanish, she rents a room in a house with two American women and sets about building a new—though presumably temporary—life for herself.
McAdams intercuts this central narrative with Neva’s memories of her marriage, her parents and brother, and her lonesome Alabama childhood. As an indigenous mixed-blood, Neva has lived much of her life feeling that she’s on the outside of both white and Native American cultures. “You’re at least part Indian,” her husband accuses her in one memory. “There’s no such thing,” she tells him. “You’re either Indian or you’re not.”
To find her parents, Neva must revisit the circumstances surrounding their disappearance. They fled when their attempts to end the sterilization of Native American women inadvertently led to the death of an Indian man who was helping them. Unlike her parents, however, Neva is not a person who speaks out against injustice. In Coatepeque, where Central American Indians are ostracized and tormented, Neva must confront her own fears: “She had lived most of her life knowing too well the cost of speaking out. She had learned it in her marriage. Smoothing things over. Ignoring. That was not bravery, but a shutdown of sorts. When the part that gets afraid goes away. Here, though, where fear was shared and not private, it was impossible to shut down, to send the fear away.” One way or another, Neva must come to terms with her parents’ choices and her own past, and she must chart the course for an autonomous future.
Janet McAams, now a professor of poetry at Kenyon College, was born of mixed Scottish, Irish, and Creek ancestry and raised in Alabama and Tennessee. Co-editor of the nonfiction anthology The People Who Stayed: Southeastern Indian Writing after Removal, she is also the author of two poetry collections, Feral and The Island of Lost Luggage (which received both the First Book Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas and the American Book Award). In 2005, McAdams founded Salt Publishing’s Earthbooks series, which publishes Native- and Latin-American poetry. Red Weather is a brilliant extension of McAdams’s lifelong interests and themes.
In 1971, Navajo students at the University of Arizona founded Sun Tracks as a literary quarterly to highlight the works and lives of contemporary Native Americans. The series has since published dozens of books of poetry, prose, art, and photography by both well- and lesser-known authors and artists, including Joy Harjo, N. Scott Momaday, and Simon J. Ortiz. In Red Weather, the editors have found a story that deeply personalizes the political, shedding light on a dark chapter of American history with empathy, realism, and a sense of wonder.
Janet McAdams will discuss Red Weather at Union Ave. Books in Knoxville on May 13 at 2 p.m.
Published Thursday, 3 May 2012