John Roskelley ’71 Geol.
Di Angelo Publications: 2023
Nine-year-old Beth Louie is walking home with her little brother when a pickup comes barreling down the remote reservation road. It’s dark. The drunk driver doesn’t see them.
Beth pushes six-year-old Danny down a ravine and out of the truck’s path. She’s struck and killed—her small body tossed into the gorge, dirt kicked over her blood in the road. Investigators quickly see the scene has been tampered with. Will the killer—evidence points to a White rancher—be brought to justice?
This historical thriller, John Roskelley’s first novel, centers around a 1954 hit-and-run that claims the life of a young Nez Perce Fancy Shawl powwow dancer. While the book begins with the kids’ walk from the school bus stop on the Colville Reservation, this is no children’s book.
Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums digs into a dark part of America’s history, and its themes—largely relating to racial prejudice and discrimination against Indigenous peoples—are heavy and uncomfortable. Roskelley discusses generations of “systematic reeducation to erase from the children’s memories the traditions and language of their tribe. An intentional cultural lobotomy.”
Not only does he explore the emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse of federal Indian boarding schools, he delves into the perspectives of Latino and other migrants, and examines issues and events that bring them together. Dam building. Tree-fruit growing. Horse riding. Homelessness. Teen pregnancy. Poverty. Alcoholism. Depression.
While the narrative is a work of fiction, it’s set against a real landscape in the early twentieth century. Roskelley deftly weaves fact with fiction, shifting locations and chronologies. The main narrative occurs in the mid-1950s, but backstories pull readers into the first five decades of the twentieth century across Washington: Wapato, Yakima, Omak, Spokane, Seattle, and Everett.
Fancy Dancer deals with difficult subjects. The detailed drama presents a well-researched look into troubling aspects of eastern and central Washington’s past, the regions’ Native peoples, and shared history that—unlike a novel’s resolution—people are still reconciling.