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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Review: School for Tricksters

School for Tricksters, by Chris Gavaler. Southern Methodist University Press, 2011. Review by Debrah Lechner. Fiction.

Chris Gavaler has succeeded at a very rare thing—he has created a work of fiction that will be an important contribution to the discussion of racism in this country for decades to come. He has brought to life a part of history that is brilliantly defined in the stories Gavaler has published in this volume, and along the way has also put together a quite a page-turner—a fascinating, worthwhile, satisfying read.

Carlisle Indian School is an institution that operated in the early 1900’s. Its mandate was to further the assimilation of Native Americans into white society and to erase all traces, if possible, of Native American language and culture. In a period of time where schooling could be difficult to obtain for adolescents of any race, especially those in poverty, Carlisle, as much as it was a manifestation of prejudice, was also an opportunity for education that attracted those people with few options who could pass as Native American. Gavaler’s inspiration for his fiction comes from two such students that attended Carlisle during that period: Sylvester Long, a black man who recreates himself as a full-blooded Blackfoot, and Ivy Miller, a homeless white girl who poses as Cherokee to find shelter and instruction at Carlisle. Other characters that contribute to the pace and texture of this novel are also historically documented. Among them are Jim Thorpe, an Olympic athlete, who attended Carlisle, and poet Marianne Moore, a typing teacher at the institution.

The depth of historical research that Gavaler did to pull School for Tricksters together was formidable. In his acknowledgements he mentions, among other sources, congressional records investigating corruption at Carlisle, numerous cataloged historical records on Carlisle and other Indian schools, the memoirs of students and teachers at Carlisle, the unpublished letters of Marianne Moore, a biography of Jim Thorpe, and interviews with relatives of the two main characters of School of Tricksters who “pass” at Carlisle.

This research informs Gavaler’s prose in School for Tricksters in the best way possible. These details seamlessly integrate with imaginary elements to form a world that is as real for the reader as it is for the characters. It doesn’t get better than that.

Chris Gavaler has published fiction in numerous literary venues, is the author of the novel Pretend I’m Not Here, and the recipient of four awards for Outstanding Playwright from the Pittsburgh New Works Festival.

School for Tricksters has created a lot of buzz and there are quite a number of interesting articles and discussion about it on the web that you can find with a simple search. If you’d like to get your copy of this book at, here’s your link.

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