Many voices, one pain

Former Sacramento State prof Peter Grandbois’ latest, Nahoonkara, tackles grief’s essence by demonstrating its transmission across generations in a multivocal novel that takes us from rural Wisconsin to a Colorado silver-mining town. A 19th-century tale of a single family and its sequential losses—as well as the multigenerational trauma that crafts each individual character—is told by a number of narrators in rotating chapters. Pain gets passed along, often without either the giver or the recipient knowing its source. Grandbois uses some elements of what’s usually called “magical realism”—one narrator, Killian, is a sort of brain-damaged mystic—to provide the big picture. Why does a man raise his brother’s children, or a woman turn to whoring with her husband’s employees? The amazing and masterful thing is the way that Grandbois ties this very personal, family story to the larger narrative of American expansionism; it’s not overt, but we see clearly how individual pain leads to national empire.