Dennis E. Staples blends history, native culture, family secrets, and personal identity seamlessly while keeping readers guessing in this new novel.
This year (or at least the typical annual events that usually mark a year) is pretty much cancelled. Shows, concerts, theatrical productions, family gatherings, sports, movies… the list goes on and on.
June is Pride month, and like all other large gatherings, the celebrations for LGBTQ+ pride have also been cancelled: No parades, no dancing, and no catching up with friends we usually see at this time of year. Milwaukee’s own PrideFest would have included the recently announced winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race (and one of my good friends), Miss Jaida Essence Hall. Alas, there will be no such celebration in Wisconsin nor anywhere across the country.
How to celebrate instead you ask? Well, books have not been cancelled, and there’s nothing like supporting up and coming gay artists and storytellers! Which brings me to This Town Sleeps by Dennis E. Staples. The book is a supernatural, coming of age, gay romance that takes place on an Ojibwe reservation called Languille Lake in Minnesota. It features two men—one Native American, one White—and the bond they share growing up in a small town, who now face important decisions in their lives together as they meet again in their mid-twenties.
One of the men, Marion, is from the reservation, is proud of who he is, openly gay, and not defined by what other people think of him. But the other, Shannon, from the nearby town of Geshig, remains closeted and hides who he is from his family, almost ashamed to admit that he is gay, or at least worried what it would do to his image in small-town Minnesota if others knew.
Marion is unknowingly attuned to the spirit realm, and follows a mysterious dog from the elementary school’s playground to the gravesite of an Ojibwe basketball star from the reservation who died under mysterious circumstances at seventeen. This prompts Marion to explore the possible connections of his death to him, to his family, and to Languille Lake, from which a larger story unfolds.
What is unique about this novel is how the author weaves the relationship of these already very different men with the lives and perspectives of others beside them: natives living on the reservation, non-natives that live or work in town, people that will never leave the town, others who aspire to leave, who do and come back, and still others who have left legacies there. Many of the secondary characters are well-developed, especially the women of the reservation. Seeing so many sides of the same small town really made me feel that I could be a part of this story.
Staples blends history, native culture, family secrets, and personal identity seamlessly while keeping readers guessing about the mystery of the dog’s spirit, the gravesite, and how the town’s past continues to affect its present residents. The town and its people could be described as sleeping: placid and peaceful on the surface, but even during sleep there is internal activity and conflict.
Often missing in today’s world is acknowledging the culture that was here before the white man came. Staples uses native words, terms, meaning, and stories within his novel that provoked me to find out more about the Ojibwe people. A native friend of mine reading this with me provided me with the proper pronunciations of the Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language) words that Staples peppers throughout the pages. I’m fortunate to have such a friend to learn from, but if you do take my suggestion and read this novel, it would be invaluable to research beyond the book as you read to get to know another culture better. It is often by doing so that we come to know ourselves better.
Which reminds me of a great quote from the First Doctor of the Doctor Who series, played by William Hartnell, who said “As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.”