Review, Mattaponi Queen by Belle Boggs
Graywolf Press, 2010
Published Balitmore Review, Spring 2011
Mattaponi. “Where the Mat joined the Ta in Spotsylavania County to become the Matta, the Po and the Ni connected in Caroline to become the Poni. In Caroline County near Bowling Green they became the Mattaponi…” (185). Like the Mattaponi River around which all the narratives circle, the characters in Mattaponi Queen come from different classes, cultures, and generations to create a picture honest and beautiful. Mattaponi Queen, Belle Boggs’ first book and winner of the 2009 Bakeless Prize, is a collection of stories connected loosely by character and theme, but the strong sense of place is always present. Set primarily in eastern Virginia where Boggs grew up, these stories take a look at the lives of people who are faced with unavoidable change in their search for belonging, understanding, and family.
Most of the stories in this collection take place in and around the Mattaponi Reservation where members of the Mattaponi tribe live on lots of land that have been passed down through generations. In “Good News for a Hard Time” Ronnie is returning to her childhood home after many years away, first at art school in Savannah and then living on military bases with her husband. At school, Ronnie embraced every stereotype, wore her hair in braids and let classmates believe the reservation was like a “teepee village”, but truthfully, the reservation is not really very different than any place else: “…trailers and double-wides and clapboard ranchers set on weedy lawns far off the black asphalt road. Pickup trucks with expired license plates. Girls who wore tight jeans and hair spray. It wasn’t exotic or special, just a big bunch of acres on the river” (13).
Ronnie is in an interesting position, as she both does and does not belong. Her father, Bruce, still lives on the reservation, and his home is where she retreats, newly pregnant, to wait for her husband who has lost an arm during his tour of duty in Iraq. Bruce, though, is not a direct descendent of the Mattaponi tribe and only has his lot of land through marriage. Ronnie’s mother left the family when Ronnie was young to pursue a new and exciting life in Los Angeles. So, Ronnie half fits; ironically, her father is a central figure in the community and seems to have none of the complex feelings of belonging that Ronnie struggles with.
Eventually, Ronnie, like so many other characters in this collection, begins to find comfort in ritual and community, though she never gets over the feeling of being incomplete. Later, in “It Won’t Be Long”, Ronnie appears again, now painting portraits of the only “full-blooded people” in order to capture the last, fading descendents of Pocahontas. She tells Skinny, “That leaves lot of people out. Me, for example. I can’t paint me” (76).
The Mattaponi has a hold on people, and draws them back. Ronnie and her husband Jeremy return there to heal, to find their places. Skinny, too, came back after a string of failures, short jail terms, and addictions to take what he felt was his rightful spot. Through his story, though, we get the impression that this hold might not last forever. For the younger generations who have less connection to the place and to their cultural heritage, the river and the reservation hold no pull.
In “It Won’t be Long”, the reader finds Skinny waiting to die. “Sure you’re dying,” Bruce tells him. “You’ve been dying for years” (71). Skinny’s Indian name is Lone Fox, but “nobody uses their Indian names anymore, not even the chief” (68). Since his divorce, Skinny’s relationship with his children—Tyler and Erin—has been little more than weekends at the mall, buying them things that they didn’t really need, then Skinny retreating into his alcoholism. He’s determined, though, to try to make things right before his time is over. In a move that seems to surprise even him, he realizes that he wants to give his culture and his land to his children. He wants Erin to have a pair of moccasins that were once his mothers; he wants Tyler to someday ask the council for his plot of land. In the hands of a less skilled, less honest writer, perhaps Tyler and Erin would have came around, been happy to see their father reach out to them, proud to learn about their heritage. With heartbreaking realism, though, Boggs shows us how today’s generation is more concerned with cell phones and city life. She doesn’t pass judgment on Skinny’s children, but allows them to be true. “Dad,” Tyler says to his father. “I’m glad all this is here for you, but it isn’t my life. It’s your life” (90).
And perhaps Tyler has it right. For those who don’t want Mattaponi, the life is stifling. Lila came back too. She went away to school, did all that she should and graduated with the dream of moving to DC to work as a principal at a school where she could really make a difference. But her mother became sick and familial obligations brought her home, only to realize that “There was no ladder to climb, not really, despite her beautiful suits, her timely paperwork, her careful and immaculate speech” (“Opportunity”, 50). At the end of the story, she realizes that she might not ever get to visit exotic locales. Her life was there, and that’s also how it will be for most of the children who sit in her classrooms. The closest they will get to leaving would be through the slideshow of Deputy Brian, who travels the world, but always comes home.
Loretta, too, dreams of getting out, and seems to be the only one through all the stories that actually does. In “Imperial Chrysanthemum” Loretta says, “It used to depress me to think of being born so close by—the idea, I guess, was that I hadn’t gotten anywhere—but now I don’t mind as much” (43). Even so, Loretta saves for a boat, The Mattaponi Queen, an old boat that will likely do no more than take her up and down the river close to home. Loretta says, “I know a boat can’t tell you anything you don’t want to know. All it ever says is get away, get away” (44). Loretta does get her boat, later in the title story of the collection where we learn the painful history of the Queen. Mitchell, the man who sells and then repairs the boat for Loretta, knows that the boat is really all about change, sometimes painful and unwelcome, but, like the river, always coming and inevitable.
Loretta says that everything in the town “used to be something more interesting than what it was now” (182). Progress doesn’t mean advancement; change doesn’t always improve the lives of those who have to live it. In the title story, Mitchell reveals that the county wants to dam up the Mattaponi River in order to create a reservoir for the larger, more important cities nearby. The reader realizes that this is a quickly evolving environment and that, someday soon, there may be no place to come home to. The land may still be there, but the internal landscape will be forever altered. “It was funny, Mitchell thought, how things changed without you knowing or being told” (191).
It would be easy to pigeon hole Mattaponi Queen as a collection about place, and, clearly that does play a very important role; however, this book is about much more than that. This book is about the changes people go through in their lives, in their families, and about how they handle those changes. People can crumble and give up, or, like the hearty characters that Boggs creates here, they can regroup, stand up, and find ways to move on. For some of them, that means coming home, which might just be the safest place (6). For others, like Loretta, it means finding a boat that allows you to realize that you were the Mattaponi Queen all along.