“Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption” by Susan Devan Harness

“Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption”

By Susan Devan Harness (University of Nebraska Press)

Susan Devan Harness’ book, “Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption,” is a memoir of an Indian girl growing up in the white rural West during the '70s and '80s and is a High Plains Book Awards Finalist in three categories: Woman Writer, Indigenous Writer, and Creative Nonfiction.

It’s about being “in between,” with no sense of self in the white world and lost to her native heritage. Removed from her reservation family at 18 months and adopted by a white couple at age two, she is told that her parents died in a car wreck, that there is no reservation family. Her journey to discovery is tainted when her relatives on the rez tell her that she is lucky to have been raised elsewhere. She doesn’t feel lucky.

The story starts when Susan is 15. Her adoptive father is an abusive alcoholic; her adoptive mother simmers with rage. Surrounded by whites, her dark skin seems dangerous to them. “That’s a word that sits on the edge of my consciousness, where its edge is as sharp as an oyster shell, cutting me if I hold it against my skin too long.” The locals and her adoptive father take every opportunity to retell the “dirty, drunk, lazy” Indian stories. To her. She looks for someone who looks like her, while trying to fade in.

Like any child with an alcoholic parent, she learns to keep secrets, to test the energy in the room, in the raised voice or hand. Susan is in her senior year when her mother becomes mentally ill and acts out. Susan tells no one. For the next 20 years she looks for her Native family, for her identity.

The part I found most painful is when Susan finally goes to her reservation. When the fantasy finally takes form, will she find her way back to a home she has never known? Read the book; it is strong in the telling of racial separation. It is an important book about losing one’s culture.

Shari Nault is a writer and the chair of the High Plains Book Awards.

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