A Response to 'Perma Red,' a novel by Debra Earling
For the last several years, Robert Stubblefield has invited me to talk about The Write Question with students in one of the classes he teaches at the University of Montana. We talk about specific programs, which, if students have done their homework assignments, they've listened to. Then I answer questions about the process of reading, interviewing, and creating programs for radio and the Web. I also invite each of them to send me an essay they've written in response to a writer they read during the semester.
The following essay about Perma Red, a novel by Debra Earling, was written by Bob Taylor.
I think Louise White Elk has put her love medicine on me. I drove to Hot Springs to soak the other day and thought about her the whole way. Through Arlee, Ravalli, and up towards Dixon I pictured her off the side of the road, red-brown hair falling over soft bare shoulders, green eyes and slim dark legs, in a white house dress. Louise White Elk is the protagonist in Debra Magpie Earling’s novel, Perma Red. She's a wild young Indian woman raised on the Flathead Reservation in 1940’s Perma, Montana.
I could be Charlie Kicking Woman, the Indian officer on a white-run police force who sometimes finds teenage Louise hitchhiking and takes her home. He thinks of her often, tries to keep her out of trouble, and would give up his marriage for her. I passed the Dixon Bar where Louise’s conflicted husband Baptiste Yellow Knife goes to drink even though they don’t serve Indians. The other side of Dixon, I passed Magpie Creek Road and wondered about its relationship to the book. I’ve driven Highway 200 many times and never noticed it before. I don’t even really know where Perma is. I’ve seen the sign on the highway close to where I turn off for Hot Springs but I don’t know the place.
I stopped at my usual spot to take a leak just across what I imagine is the Perma Bridge. Downriver I noticed concrete pilings leftover from an older bridge. From the old Perma Bridge Jules Bart, the white cowboy Louise liked, lassoed Louise’s sister Florence under the arms and pulled her from the Flathead River. On the last leg before Hot Springs, in the foothills where the ground becomes rocky, I drove over a swath of red on the highway. Probably a mule deer had been hit by a car. But in my mind I saw the patch of snow just over the hill where Jules Bart and Harvey Stoner, the rich powerful white man, beat Baptiste Yellow Knife until the snow trickled blood.
During my soak at Hot Springs some guys told me how to find Perma. It turns out the Old Perma Store is off the road there about where I crossed the Perma Bridge. The owner, an old man named Harold, was quick to point out the original store was gone and had sat further back long before he built his store ten years ago. “That’s the school across the highway.” He pointed to a mansion looking place. “The old school?” I said. (Louise and Baptiste attended Ursuline school before Baptiste decided he’d had enough). Harold said, “A rich woman put a million into it and then went bankrupt.” He told me there are remains of an even older wooden bridge a quarter mile down.
I drove back across the river past my piss spot, past the concrete leftovers, and found some wooden posts sticking out of the ground. Had I found the original Perma Bridge? Harold told me there really was a woman called Perma Red. But I could tell his words were hearsay. I’ll have to get the real story from Professor Earling, if she’ll tell me.
Bob Taylor studies Creative Writing at the University of Montana. He is currently in Debra Earling’s advanced fiction workshop.