Book Review: Pointing With Lips, Dana Lone Hill (2014)

April 2nd, 2014 12:49 pm by Kelly Garbato

“Ain’t gotta lie to kick it.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free pdf copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaway program. Also, trigger warning for discussions of rape, violence, and drug and alcohol use.)

Born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Dana Lone Hill offers us a glimpse inside “a week in the life of a rez chick” with her debut novel Pointing With Lips. We meet 32-year-old Sincere Strongheart – “Sis” for short – the titular “rez chick,” just as she’s trying to sell some of her jewelry to the tourists who have flocked to town for the annual Oglala Nation Fair and Rodeo. (“People from all over America and the world are fascinated with us, maybe because we are still here after all the bullshit America put us through.”)

During the course of the week, we follow Sis as she spends time partying with her best friends Boogie and Zona; evading brother George, a cop who’s constantly throwing his siblings in the drunk tank; quits/is fired from her dead-end job at the Great Sioux Shopping Center, the one and only grocery store on the rez; rescues her sister Frieda’s kids from one of her drug-fueled sex parties; and flirts with friend Ricky and border town white guy Mason. There’s also the town parade (Planned Parenthood was banned for life when it handed out condoms instead of the more standard, diabetes-inducing candy) and brother Misun’s going-away BBQ, complete with plenty of family drama.

Against this backdrop, we see Sis slowly slide from social drinking into the bottomless pit of alcoholism, which has claimed the hopes, dreams, and lives of so many of her friends and family.

Sis has three children – 6-year-old Jasmine and 12-year-old twins Craig and Creighton – but is mother to many, including her six siblings. (Well, except for Mark’s twin, Misty, who moved off the rez and changed her name.) With all the time Sis spends worrying about others, her slow descent has gone mostly unacknowledged, even as Sis has witnessed firsthand the damage this “smallpox in a can” can wreak. Brother Mark is alcoholic and homeless, despite his family’s repeated attempts to help him, and sister Frieda is in constant danger of having her children taken away by DSS. Their own mother Velma began drinking heavily after the death of her baby Rita, and a nine-year-old Sis was sexually assaulted at one of Velma’s drunken parties.

Lone Hill doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the scourge of alcoholism among Native populations. Pine Ridge is a dry reservation; the sale of alcohol is banned, and even “possession by ingestion” is a crime. Thus we see Sis and her family making frequent trips to nearby border towns in Nebraska, patronizing white-owned bars in order to buy beer and liquor, effectively taking this money off the reservation. Then they’re forced to either rent a motel room or drive home while still inebriated. (Drinking and driving is a frequent occurrence in Pointing With Lips, and often quite literally, e.g., chugging a beer and driving simultaneously vs. getting behind the wheel of a car when already drunk.)

Likewise, the local police spend a disproportionate amount of time enforcing the rez’s liquor laws, while violent crimes go mostly ignored. Meanwhile, there appear to be few or no resources for this who wish to get help, and those who seek it are met with impersonal, uncaring social workers – many of them white people brought in from border towns.

Says Sis: “Most of the border towns around our reservation have a troubled history with our tribe due to racism, discrimination, hate crimes, etc., but I think Gordon might take the cake in that department. Back in 1972, an Indian man from our reservation was beaten, stripped, stuffed in a trunk, and publicly ridiculed, then left for dead. Out of the five people originally charged, only two were prosecuted on manslaughter charges with seven years served and a thousand dollar fine between the two.”

His name was Raymond Yellow Thunder. Pointing With Lips may be a work of fiction, but it’s one that’s deeply rooted in fact.

Along with alcoholism and racism, poverty is a constant presence on the rez. Sis reveals how the rez’s only store price-gouges its customers, charging triple the off-rez prices. And they have the gall to do this while selling dream catchers and Native pride tees that were manufactured in China (!). Most of the food for sale is of gas station quality: beef jerky, chips, sunflower seeds, and the like; “commod” food seems little better. If people on the rez want fresh produce, they mostly have to grow it themselves or reclaim wild-grown foods from shared spaces.

Pointing With Lips is at both a highly readable book and a socially important piece of fiction. Lone Hill tells a story of personal self-discovery and growth that also introduces the reader to the longstanding oppression of Native peoples and the resulting hardships of reservation life. Over on her blog (the source of this review’s title), the author describes Pointing With Lips as “chick lit” – and, while there’s plenty of soap opera-style drama to be found, it’s so much more. (Not that there’s anything wrong with chick lit, mind you.) Lone Hill grapples with weighty issues here, including domestic violence, child neglect and abuse, rape, addiction, racism, poverty, food justice, sexuality, identity, and more.

Oftentimes downright painful to read, Pointing With Lips offers a hopeful – yet appropriately ambiguous – ending that both does Sis’s story justice, without giving any easy answers. (Also, I loved the Inception-like plot twist at the end!)

My only real complaint is the frequent use of gendered slurs (“bitch,” “pussy”) and sex-shaming language (“whore,” “slut,” “hooker”), including against Boogie, a gay man. While Boogie does call out the narrator for using “derogatory and racist” language against her own people (Misty, for example, is an “apple”), I can only assume that he’s okay with sexist slurs, since he himself uses the term “bitch.” Towards the end of the book, Sis begins to reconsider her negative and judgmental attitude towards other women, so I guess that’s a start.

Additionally, the book could stand another round of editing; I spotted a number of grammatical and punctuation errors – enough to be mildly distracting, but not necessarily egregious. Some of these “mistakes” are clearly intentional, meant to reflect the way people actually talk. Others, like missing quotation marks and whatnot, look like they just escaped notice.

A strong 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 on Amazon.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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