EARTH SONG, SKY SPIRIT: Short Stories of the Contemporary Native American Experience by Clifford E. Trafzer (Doubleday/Anchor: $25 hardcover, $12.95 paper, 495 pp.) A number of the 30 stories in this collection are either enigmatic or downright inaccessible to the non-Native American reader, the authors modeling their work not on the accepted, Western literary canon but on their ancestors' oral tradition. Other stories combine the old and the modern, the Western white and the Native red, by applying conventional writing skills to Indian subjects--often to considerable effect, as demonstrated by the stories of Craig Womack, Louise Erdrich and Ralph Salisbury. The most interesting stories in "Earth Song, Sky Spirit," however, are the ones that fall between these extremes--the stories that draw inspiration haphazardly from Western and Native American traditions, and often end up as odd, ungainly, but sometimes attractive mongrels. One story from this last group that's both aesthetically and psychologically satisfying is Joseph Bruchac's "Bone Girl," and it's a benchmark for the other stories in this volume because it strives to explain why so many Native American stories deal with ghosts (indeed a favorite topic in this book, along with magic and death). Indian ghosts, writes Bruchac's narrator, "have a sense of purpose" because their living descendants, unless forced to move, "stay close to the land . . . . close to our dead. Close to our ghosts--which, I assume, do not feel as abandoned as white ghosts and so tend to be a lot less neurotic." It's a welcome funny moment in a generally solemn collection--but not, thankfully, overly political.

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