'Perma Red' is Earling's labor of love

Debra Magpie Earling writes her fiction in longhand. "I love the feel of writing," she says. "I like how it looks on the page." Earling, author of the ethereal novel "Perma Red" (Blue Hen Books, $24.95), admits to working each sentence and scene for a very, very long time. "It's kind of my downfall — I get caught up in the scenes instead of the exposition or pushing action forward."

It's also one of the strengths of this haunting and memorable story, which follows beautiful, willful Louise White Elk through her troubled life around the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana during the 1940s. Earling's deliberate pacing gives an otherworldly feel to the grim circumstances of the time, and makes real the hypnotic effect of this slim, green-eyed woman on the men around her.

Louise's story is told through her eyes and those of reservation police officer Charlie Kicking Woman, who sees her as "the girl we had all stood taller for, the girl we had all ignored our wives for, a chain of men straining to see her."

The writing of the 288-page book was a long labor of love. "I got the idea for it 20 years ago when I was a student at the University of Washington," said Earling, 44, in a recent telephone interview from her Montana home. "The first draft was lost in a fire. I wrote many other drafts of it before I was done."

In all, she put in about four years of concentrated effort reworking her book. At one point, "Perma Red" ballooned up to 800 pages, and the author cut it by more than a quarter before sending it off to her agent.

Louise, in some ways, is modeled after Earling's aunt by the same name, who died in 1947. "She was wild and tough and pretty," said Earling. ("Perma Red" was in fact Louise's nickname, playing on a quip that she was "perma-nently" Indian.) That Louise, like the character in the novel, managed to escape the bleak world of a Catholic boarding school. The school adopted Bureau of Indian Affairs' policies that forced Native American children to give up their language, customs and home lives in favor of what were then seen as more desirable practices of whites.

Louise, as portrayed by Earling, lived a life remarkable for its deprivations as well as its powerful mysticism — and the author's past is nearly as rich as that of her heroine.

Earling is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation, the daughter of a German-American father and a mother who is a Flathead Indian. She grew up in Spokane, dropped out of school at 15 and married at 17. She moved back to the Flathead Reservation a year later. She worked beside her mother as a housekeeper, "exhausted at the end of every day" until her mother asked, "Is this what you want to do with your life?"

The two decided to get their Graduate Equivalency Degrees together. "I can still remember my mother pondering fractions," said Earling, a smile in her voice.

The next thing she knew, Earling was working as the reservation's Trial Court Advocate — essentially performing the duties of a public defender.

"I had six days' training with the American Indian Law Training Program and six days of civil-law training. I was 18 years old and was responsible for defending people in the tribal-court system," she recalls. "Because we had cross-court jurisdictions with the state, I would sometimes meet my clients in the county jail."

Despite an academic counselor telling her she'd be "lucky to go to some community college," Earling went on to earn an undergraduate degree from the UW and a Masters in Fine Arts from Cornell University as a pre-doctoral Ford Fellow. She now teaches creative writing and Native American Literature at the University of Montana in Missoula. And all along the way, she's written and rewritten Louise's story.

"Perma Red" gave her a "tremendous sense of healing" when it was done, she says, in part because it pays satisfying homage to her late aunt. "It certainly wasn't easy to write 'Perma Red,' " she said, "but my heart feels right. I felt like I accomplished something I always wanted to. Now that I've done that, I'm free to write what else I am called to do."

Among those things, she includes a memoir, and a work based on the life of a Native American Kootenai woman warrior who died in battle in 1850.

"I have a thousand ideas," she said, adding with a laugh: "But I plan to blaze through all those things."

Kimberly Marlowe: 206-464-2061 or kmarlowe@seattletimes.com.

Author appearance

Debra Magpie Earling will read from "Perma Red" at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St. in Seattle. Information: 206-624-6600.