In Charles J. Musser’s novel, Gichi Manidoo, magical realism meets harsh reality when a veteran from the Afghanistan war falls for a woman trapped in an abusive marriage.
Federico and Marie meet when Federico, a real estate agent, comes to the house Marie shares with her husband Carl to ready it for sale. The connection between the two is instant, with Federico sensing they’ve met before. Their friendship quickly turns intimate, with the pair meeting for lunch and walks. But when Marie fails to show up at the park bench where they meet for coffee, a mysterious young woman, Elizabeth, arrives to tell Federico that Marie has fallen and is dying (readers later learn that her husband pushed her down the stairs). Elizabeth also says that she has a story to tell him, and he must share it.
The narrative then switches to Elizabeth’s tale of the day she finds herself walking in the woods unable to recall her name. Soon, she meets a talking meerkat named Zaagitoon, who is on a quest to free his caged friend, Bellflower. Together, they strike out to find Zaagi’s friend and Elizabeth’s past, guided —or at times, threatened—by other animals.
The chapters shift from Elizabeth’s journey to Federico’s as he struggles with his brutal memories of Afghanistan, and both are interspersed with entries from Marie’s childhood diary. As the novel evolves, the three plotlines often reflect each other (i.e., the caged Bellflower echoes Marie’s situation of being trapped in her marriage) and intertwine in surprising ways. Combined, they tell a beautiful story of healing, friendship and love.
This original tale takes its title from the Ojibwe words for “Great Spirit.” It’s imaginative and filled with poetic flair. In one passage, a young boy explains why there are no stars during the day. “The sun makes them ashamed. They can never hope to shine as brightly. So, they hide.” In another, Federico recalls the killing of a beautiful horse. “I’m almost glad … There are places and times that beauty and grace don’t belong. Better to snuff the light ourselves, sometimes, than to let the sublime be sullied by the profanity of the darkness.” Skillful line drawings appear throughout.
While the use of talking animals can be tricky, Musser pulls this off wonderfully, rendering the animals wise and enlightening. All told, this is a lovely book for intelligent readers who appreciate the use of metaphor to create an inspiring tale.
Also available as an ebook and audio book.