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Shell Shaker (2001)

It was on my undergraduate American Indian Literature course’s reading list. I adored the class, but couldn’t remember reading this book. I gave Shell Shaker a go, and am glad I did. What a fantastic book.

The story begins in 1738 modern-day Mississippi, when Choctaw Anoleta is blamed for murdering her husband’s Chickasaw wife. Anoleta’s mother, Shakbatina is a “shell shaker,” or peace maker. She offers herself for execution in place of her daughter in order to stave off war. Her offer is accepted. Shakbatina is executed.

The story then jumps to 1991 Durant, Oklahoma. Auda Billy, PhD, is blamed for murdering Choctaw chief Redford McAlester. Auda’s mother, Susan Billy and Shakbatina's descendant, confesses to the murder in order to spare her daughter, who doesn’t remember murdering McAlester, but was found passed out next to his body.

Auda had motive. McAlester’s assistant and lover, she watched McAlester go from well-intending to overcome with corruption and greed. He abused Choctaw funds, making deals with the mafia and Irish Republican Army. When Auda comes to work early in the story without wearing the dress McAlester wanted her to wear, he rapes her.

Initially, these murders seem like standalone situations. But as the story progresses, we see their connection. They are part of a major theme of corruption and the circular, interconnected nature of time. The wrongs of the past are the problems of the present, and it's up to the people in the present to seek resolution. This quest is portrayed via physical geography, like the Choctaw being spread across various states, the ramifications of leaving their homeland via the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and mainstream misconceptions about pre-European colonial North America. But there is also a spiritual, other-worldly element through which modern-day characters know they are being beckoned to see their circumstances as being part of a larger canvas.

I particularly like the Billy sisters. Auda’s sisters are Tema, an actress, and Adair, a six-figure Wall Street guru. They are intelligent, witty, and likeable. Her sisters and extensive extended family investigate McAlester’s death and his money laundering while Auda is unable to do so herself. Their interactions and adventures were powerful depictions of community and grit.

The story’s climax comes at the right time; the old and new scores are not erased, but addressed, allowing for healing and the Billy legacy as peace makers to be renewed.


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