The Forgetters by Greg Sarris

Y’know, when I first said yes to this collection of short stories based on the indigenous storytelling traditions of the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok peoples, I was expecting something very different. I thought that this would be a collection of old myths given a fresh retelling. And there is a little of that, definitely, but these are for the most part an entirely original set of stories revolving around the theme of storytelling that just happen to use that particular oral tradition as its template.

Now if there’s one thing I love almost as much as I do retellings of old stories, it’s postmodern fiction, and this is that in spades. Each story is framed by two sisters, Question Woman and Answer Woman, who may be humans or may be animals and are 100% symbols that represent both the perils of forgetting and the need for there to be active participants in the art of telling stories. What is the point of telling a story, after all, if no one is there to listen? And who, in the general course of things, tells a story unprompted? It’s the kind of subtle metaphysical pondering I adore, because I love stories and the many different ways we humans convey them to one another.

But even if you’re not high on the same intellectual supply that I love to roll around in, this collection of short stories is the exact kind of literary that I admire (and y’all know how I usually use the term “literary fiction” as a pejorative.) The ten stories here all discuss what it means to tell a story and, perhaps more importantly, to learn from it, but in such a playful way that it feels less like a set of moralizing fables and more like a reminder of the many ways in which stories transmit culture, acting as the lifeblood that keeps an idea — of civilization, of values, of traditions — alive.

Not all the stories here hit that exalted mark, ofc. I was actually least impressed with the opening story, A Boy Opens The Clouds. Interestingly, that tale of a young boy who learns how to open up vistas into the past, to the delight and eventual horror of his people, felt the most infuriating. Perhaps I was only transmitting my irritation with the selfish boy to the rest of the story, tho (which is a testament to Greg Sarris’ ability to set a mood!)

The next story, Dissenters Find A Stranger In Their Camp, picks up the theme better, even if it did feel a little more heavy-handed than necessary. It’s all smooth sailing from the third story on, tho, almost like a storyteller finishing their warm up and really getting into the flow. The third through eighth stories all have that exquisite balance of subtly imparting their important message via an absorbing story, with characters who are easy to care about. Interestingly, I felt that this quality tapered off with the last two stories: I still cared about the characters in the penultimate tale, A Girl Sees A Giant Sturgeon, but felt I was somehow missing the point of the story overall. In contrast, the closing chapter, The People On Sonoma Mountain Have A Storytelling Contest, felt a little too obvious, if entirely thematic. Its greatest virtue is that it could take place at any time, from distant past to near and further future.

I think one of my favorite things about this story cycle is how so much of it spans the early to mid-20th century, firmly highlighting the experiences of both American Indians and other minorities in that time frame, and underscoring their importance in the agricultural industry of California. It’s important to have stories that remind readers that the indigenous people of America aren’t just a collection of tragic events, that they have lived and worked and coexisted with other races for as long as memory serves. Mr Sarris’ book is a gentle reminder that stories keep memory alive, and not just the old, “important” ones. American Indians have always existed throughout the history of this nation, and have their own stories that are just as meaningful as anyone else’s, peopled, just as this country is, with characters of all races. The Forgetters is a meaty reminder of that, and I’m the richer for having experienced it.

The Forgetters by Greg Sarris was published April 16 2024 by Heyday Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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