Book Review: Indigenous author explores charged issue of blood lines in his debut novel `Fire Exit’

Morgan Talty has followed up on the success of his prize-winning story collection “Night of the Living Rez” with a poignant first novel that explores the charged question of what constitutes identity — family or tribe?

“Fire Exit” is narrated by a white man named Charles, who lives across the river from the Penobscot Nation in Maine. For years he has watched from afar as Elizabeth, the child he fathered with a Native woman, grows up on the reservation with her mother, Mary, and her Native stepfather, Roger. He longs to tell her the truth about her paternity, but Mary insists on keeping it a secret.

Charles’ desire is driven in part by a history of mental illness in his family. When the novel opens, his mother, Louise, who has suffered for years from bouts of severe depression, is also exhibiting symptoms of dementia. She is at risk of losing any memory of their shared history as a family, a history that Charles wants Elizabeth to know.

Sadly for Charles, biology has been destiny. The son of a white mother and father, he was raised on the reservation by Louise and her second husband, Fredrick, a Native man. But at age 18, he had to leave the reservation because of a tribal law that barred anyone who was not Native from living on the land. It was that same law that prompted Mary to tell him, after she found out she was pregnant with his child, “The baby can’t be yours.”

Charles, however, has little use for the complicated, controversial “blood quantum” rules that many tribes use to keep track of citizenship, which are based on the idea that the amount of “Indian blood” in an individual can be quantified. Despite his racial identity as a white man, he feels connected to the people and the land where he grew up. “It was Fredrick’s love that made me feel Native. He loved me so much that I was, and still am, convinced that I was from him, part of him… That was how I felt about Elizabeth.”

The conflict between Mary and Charles comes to a head when Elizabeth, who has grown up to be a deeply troubled young woman, goes missing and Charles is enlisted to help find her during a nor’easter of epic proportions. It is a gripping ending to a thoughtful, heartfelt exploration of what it means to be part of a family and a community. Is it a matter of blood, biology or simply the bonds of love?