Beauty in Ruin

With its Western grit and enduring Native American heroine, this strong debut novel reads like a modern-day fairy tale—just don't expect a prince to make things perfect.

PERMA RED by Debra Magpie Earling (Putnam Pub. Group, $24.95) Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600 7:30 p.m. Sat., June 15

FOR LOUISE White Elk, the precocious, red-haired protagonist of Debra Magpie Earling’s elegant debut, the reservation is a place filled with mystery, danger, and temptation. Perma Red, the story of Louise’s slow rise from shaky, knock-kneed adolescence into a disillusioned and wiser womanhood, is a stunning fairy tale about tradition, ritual, and rebellion.

Misfortune is a constant presence in this moving, often tragic coming-of-age story, which takes place on the Flathead Indian Reservation of western Montana. Louise, the unluckiest of all of Earling’s unfortunate characters, is the pivot around which all the others turn: Charlie Kicking Woman, the hapless, culturally ambivalent cop who patrols the reservation; Baptiste Yellow Knife, a childhood nemesis who pursues Louise with an angry intensity; and Harvey Stoner, the rich, disaffected white man who owns half the reservation. Much of Louise’s misfortune results from her own impetuous tendency to strive too far, to flee from her problems, and to ignore her intuitions. She runs away from home again and again, gets involved too quickly with dangerous men with dark motives, and withstands beatings, near starvation, accidents, and the loss of loved ones with stolidity and forbearance.

If Earling’s story sounds melodramatic, it is—in the same way that a fairy tale is a melodrama with a moral. Ultimately, this poetic parable is about one person’s struggle to triumph despite poverty, loss, and despair. But although Louise does, in one sense, triumph, Earling is interested in adversity, not contentment, and provides no happy fairy-tale ending.

Erica C. Barnett