Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land

Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land

Toni Jensen

We’re reading our first memoir for goop Book Club. Carry is Toni Jensen’s striking, poetic record of what it means to be an Indigenous woman in America. Read one of our favorite excerpts from the beginning of the book, get a copy of Carry, and mark your calendar for a live conversation between Jensen and our chief content officer, Elise Loehnen, on September 30 at 4 p.m. PT.

Toni Jensen Carry
Toni Jensen
Carry
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From Chapter 2 of Carry

III.

The fall after I turn four years old, I wear my first leotard and pale pink shoes to dance class and then, after, to the bar to pick up my father. Our class includes six girls and one boy, and together we learn to point our toes, to round and elongate our arms, to tuck in our butts when we plié. I have long brown hair that is straight at the top and wavy at the bottom. I’m sturdy and round-faced. I forget often to tuck in what teacher Marianne calls my derrière.

The dance class building abuts the bar where my father has a favorite stool, where my father waits in the late afternoon for class to end. Exira, Iowa, is a no-stoplight town, holding fewer than a thousand people but more than one bar. My family lives a few miles down Highway 71, still in Brayton. My mother is working, so my father is assigned the task of fetching and driving me home.

To be clear, my father is at this bar most afternoons or early evenings whether it’s dance class day or not. To be clear, at four years old, I know already my father is the sort of drinker who brings home either a jovial self or a monster. To be clear, there’s no trauma story here, in this moment—my father’s guns this day remain tucked away at home, way up on the high shelf.

The building housing the dance studio sits two stories tall with the studio on the second floor, tucked around back. The wide, almost square room holds big windows that frame the door. It holds music, mainly classical. It holds worn linoleum floors and teacher Marianne, who points her own toes with precision, who delivers her directions to us in a steady, strong voice. Teacher Marianne has the same sort of rare power and grace as my grandmother—no one shouts or shoves in a room either of them inhabits.

I think of the music Marianne plays in the same way I think of the songs my grandmother sings as we walk the hills around her farm—songs without words. My grandmother mostly hums melodies but sometimes breaks into what I recognize as words, but not words in English. She points out plants, telling me what they do, how they grow, how they’re helpers, naming them and singing her songs and doing more naming. Both types of songs, in the hills and in dance class, provide comfort. Both anchor my childhood in a rare, peaceful way.

“Teacher Marianne has the same sort of rare power and grace as my grandmother—no one shouts or shoves in a room either of them inhabits.”

I know now this place, this dance class studio, to be a regular place, to be perhaps even somewhat shabby in its construction. I know now it’s not a fancy place most likely by anyone’s standards. But this fall I feel so fancy in my leotard and tights, and this place feels so fancy.

I imagine the cost of these lessons is made possible by the extra hours my mother works or through a grandparent’s generosity or both. Part of why it feels fancy is because I know, even this young, my presence here to be precarious, anomalous, rare. I know already we don’t have money for a good many things, so I know this is special.

Toward the end of each dance class, teacher Marianne turns us loose to chassé in circles around the room. According to Webster’s, in French chassé simply means “to chase,” and that’s what our feet do, back feet chasing front feet, as we bend our knees and point our feet, moving at something close to a leap/run. We’re together, our hair and cheeks flapping. We laugh and smile wide and breathe hard.

After class, I’m the only one to move by myself down the back steps of the two-story building and up the side steps of the building next door. My father the first day had shown me how. We practiced. By this day, I’ve almost mastered plié and chassé. I’ve well mastered the art of down one staircase and up another. I’ve mastered the art of keeping secret from my mother that my father doesn’t pick me up, that I go over to pick up him.

I hold the secret close because I love both dance class and the bar. I love the songs without words, mirrors at the front, my soft shoes scuffing on the wide expanse of linoleum.

The bar holds low ceiling tiles, dim fluorescent lighting, and metal stools where I sit and am allowed to kick my feet against their rungs. My father drinks beer, and I drink orange soda and snack on barbecue potato chips.

Country music plays on the jukebox or radio, usually old-school country, what my father calls real country music. The other country music that sounds like pop or Top 40 is called horseshit or horseshit country.

Today it’s old-school country, and I know my father hasn’t been drinking too much because he only sings along for one stanza to see if I will, too, so I do though it’s not my favorite thing to sing in front of people. I can sing. I know this already to be true, and it’s a thing I love privately but not publicly, except for church and the bar with my father.

It’s almost pheasant-hunting season, so my father wears camouflage pants, worn leather boots with tie-up laces. He’s been out scouting a new place to hunt. He tells the bartender and other men about it while I crunch chips. They laugh and the bartender offers each of us a refill, and I say yes after my father does.

“My father’s drinking is about many things, not the least of which is the
pressure to fit in, to comply with the dictates of whiteness.”

There’s a danger in writing about my father’s drinking—I know this. Native men, including Métis men, so often are depicted as drunk, hopeless, more drunk, more hopeless. My father is Métis and also he drinks. We’re far from culture and homelands here in Iowa. We’re not returning. My father’s drinking is about many things, not the least of which is the pressure to fit in, to comply with the dictates of whiteness.

When I show him day drinking, then, please note there are other day drinkers lined up beside him on their stools. Please note all of them are this thing America calls white. They are all striving to be better at whiteness, at prosperity. They are all failing. They all go home each night to their families with beer on their breath, with pockets a few dollars short.

These are not stories of people embedded deeply in culture, but, rather, they are the stories of the people who left. These are American stories; these are stories of trying to move into the American space we call whiteness, about trying to live, instead, there.

“These are not stories of people embedded deeply in culture, but, rather, they are the stories of the people who left.”

This isn’t a story, then, so much about being Indian in America or even being Métis in America. It’s a story about being those things and striving toward whiteness; it’s about the cost of that striving.

At four years old, I don’t, of course, understand any of this. I love the bar. I fear and love my father.

Later in the fall, we’ll ride home sometimes with birds in the back of the truck, and later in the winter, with pelts from the trapline. We ride home with a shotgun for the birds or a handgun for the trapline. We ride home hoping my mother does not yet have dinner on the table. We ride home with our secret.

IV.

In the summer that year, for the annual Fourth of July celebration, I perform at the bandstand in the park with a few of my dance compatriots, and my father and his band perform, too. They do covers of country songs and switch some of the words to include our town’s name or to make them more patriotic for the occasion.

My father’s face holds a sheen of sweat, and he swipes at it with a folded bandanna he pulls from his jeans pocket. It’s a warm day, but I know also how long he’s spent in the beer tent and, before that, in the bar. I’m not invited into the bar in the summer because there’s no dance class.

There’s no orange soda before or after my performance, but we do all have cotton candy and ride the Tilt-A-Whirl, round and round like a chassé until we’re dizzy and satisfied.

Once when my father was about four years old, his father took him into town for the Fourth of July parade and carnival, and somewhere in the crush and mix of people in from out of town, my grandfather lost my father. He looked and looked for him, not wanting to have lost him, of course, but also not wanting to return home to my grandmother without him.

Upon my grandfather’s return, my grandmother is reported by all to have said in a steady voice, “Go back to town and find him or don’t come back at all.”

Their farmhouse sat on top of a high hill, a mile or so outside town. When my grandfather made his way down the sharp gravel drive and turned onto the highway to town, there, coming up the steep hill, was my father. He had known his way home. He told his father thank you, but he didn’t need a ride up the driveway. I’m home, he said. I’m already home.

I love this story like I loved the dance studio, the bar, the hills surrounding the farmhouse. It’s okay, I’ve learned, to love the things that make you, even if they also are the things that unmake you.

We don’t know the year I’m four that we only have a decade left with my grandmother. We don’t know how fast the time will go. My grandmother’s presence could stop any meanness in a room. She held us together. She held together our better selves. She helped keep at bay the worst of my father, or more accurately she helped keep him from being all the time his worst self.

“It’s okay, I’ve learned, to love the things that make you, even if they also are the things that unmake you.”

She’ll pass on the winter I turn fourteen. By that spring, my father will be drinking and raging almost all the time.

If in a life, in the telling of it, you’re going to give so much of the after, you must also give the before. The year I’m four years old, I’m stitched together tight by love and land and story, and if these things later become my unstitching, what I’m left is a life’s work, learning how to chase a thread and move with it, learning how to make something from leftover ribbon and thread.

Excerpted from Carry by Toni Jensen. Copyright © 2020 by Toni Jensen. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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