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Mammoths of the Great Plains by Eleanor Arnason

This entry is part 39 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As always, I’m posting this a while after actually finishing the book.

Mammoths of the Great Plains is a volume from PM Press’s wonderful Outspoken Authors series, of which I’ve read a few others—and have at least one or two more waiting to be read. Everything else I’ve read from the series has been excellent, and I really enjoyed Arnason’s Hidden Folk, plus my friend Justin praised it a few years back, so I was eager to give it a try. 

The book contains three pieces, and only one of them (the title story) is fiction. That story is one that really impressed me. Arnason’s handling of the subject matter—an alternate history where mammoths survived into modern times, and a Native woman developed a preservation system for mammoth tissue in the hope of bringing them back from their impending extinction—is nuanced, thoughtful, and just plain fascinating. (Especially since it’s told in the form of a story told by the woman’s daughter to the woman’s great-granddaughter.) I’m a white Canadian, so who knows if my sense is right, but it feels like Arnason’s done her homework, approached the real-world culture of her characters with respect, and drawn a picture that feels very true what I do know about the historical experience of plains Native communities in the US and Canada. But more than that, the story impressed me with how deftly its politicality are intertwined with genuinely fascinating storytelling. And it is a political story, to be sure: it’s feminist, it’s environmentalist, it’s about racism and settler colonialism in America, but it’s also a great story, and definitely a highlight of this year’s reading.  

The second piece in the book is “Writing Science Fiction During World War Three.” It’s a speech she gave at Wiscon in 2004, except she updated it for the publication in 2010. In it Arnason asks questions about what kind of a time we’re living through, working through (and connecting) several really timely ideas about the changing nature of nation states, warfare, and the state of the world, as well as the role that speculative fiction can play in what hope Arnason finds in the very dark view produced by the intersection of those ideas. The essay feels even more timely now than in must have felt in 2004, and rattled around in my brain for days after I read it. 

The book closes with an interview: Terry Bisson asking Arnason questions, and Arnason answering them with her usual thoughtful, interesting responses, closing out a very worthwhile book. 


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