a literary review
This debut collection of twelve short stories focuses on the lives of Indigenous people in present-day, rural Oklahoma. Author Savannah Johnston (see author interview), an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, roots all her stories “in at least one truth,” with many of her characters experiencing struggles, defeats, and small victories that Johnston herself has lived through.
In the title story, “Rites,” which opens the collection, the twelve-year-old main character narrates the rituals, both familiar and distinct, as her family gathers for the funeral of her grandfather. The deceased Papa Tushka and his role in this family come vividly into focus with small, ordinary details:
“I sat next to Mama on the couch when she called our relatives. She had Papa’s rolodex on her lap and was flicking quickly through the cards, running the tip of her finger over each number as she swung the dial on the old rotary phone. Papa filed Aunt Judy under U, penciling in ungrateful. Mama choked when she saw it, smiled a little, and began to cry again.”
The language is spare, delivering what is necessary in compressed prose that reads like poetry.
“Papa’s grave was beside a plum tree. Our house, a split-level clapboard heap, sat slightly askew on top of Digger’s Hill, next to the cemetery.”
In “Carrion,” a young boy finds himself hungry and alone in the wild with his dog and her pups after his father breaks a bone and dies from infection. The boy attempts to navigate the impossible situation with help from stories his father has told him. The lines of advice are spaced throughout the story, but even taken out of context, they portray a harsh way of life, while reading like a song:
“Don’t carry what you don’t need, Pop said. …
The bobwhite is the man in the long coat’s messenger, Pop said. …
Crying is a waste of resources, Pop said. …
Hunters hung the heads of their kills on walls in painted lodges, Pop said. They killed for the sake of the kill. We are not like them.”
The entire collection is filled with hard, brutal truths. “You already know it’s no use crying around here, huh?” a father whispers to his infant son in a breathtakingly executed story called “Shells I.” These are the rites we go through in life, the rites we perform in the hopes of getting through them. Savannah Johnston’s stories speak to these realities, focusing closely on details then opening the lens wide, opening a path to maybe — just maybe — coming out the other side. Rites is not only the right book for right now. It’s meant to endure.