We often read about the heartache of parents whose children have disappeared. In contrast, in Janet McAdams’s nuanced, poignant novel, Red Weather, it is a mother and father who have disappeared, and their two children grow to adulthood knowing nothing of their parents’ fate.
When the protagonist, Neva Greene, was 14, her parents dropped her and her brother off at her grandmother’s farm in Alabama and drove away. Political activists involved in a plot to uncover abuses by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the parents planned to lie low, to drop out of sight for a while to avoid being targeted by the FBI. Since that day, Neva’s had no word from them, by letter or telephone. Now in her mid-20s, she discovers a possible clue to their whereabouts. When the novel opens, she has just left her abusive narcissist husband and is traveling to Central America in an effort to find them.
To pull together even this brief plot description, however, is to draw conclusions that are only implied, to stitch together pieces of information scattered throughout the novel in the form of Neva’s cryptic thoughts and elliptical memories. The character of Neva—and perhaps the novel itself—resists being easily known. Silence, in fact, in the form of absences, departures, and disappearances, functions as the novel’s recurring motif.
The disappearance of Neva’s parents is, of course, the novel’s central trauma—the “long dark hole in the center of her life”—but there are other crucial disappearances, as well: Neva abruptly leaves her husband and gives him no indication of her whereabouts. More subtly, Neva’s immersion in her grief has made her, in a sense, absent from her own life. She had “hoped to disappear when she married Will.” She wonders what she “was thinking all those years. The years I was disappearing.” All of these departures and absences resonate with a much older history: Neva’s maternal grandfather was a Creek man from Alabama, thus part of the “five disappeared tribes” whose names Southern schoolchildren memorized: “Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole.”
In some ways this is a quiet novel, given its focus on the main character’s interior life; moreover, this main character in particular is both intensely private and emotionally numb from a lifetime of grieving. In addition, much of the action is experienced at a remove. Often a chapter or scene opens days or sometimes hours after a dramatic event, and only pages later is that event narrated in flashback. But the quietness is like the stillness at the eye of a storm, as Neva’s story takes place in a larger context of political upheaval and military conflict. The novel’s setting, the fictional country of Coatepeque, is marred by stark inequality, violent oppression, and an ongoing civil war. The disappearance of Neva’s parents is tied to their political activism as they struggled to bring the world’s attention to the forced sterilization of Native American women in the early 1970s.
Ironically, Neva’s husband Will is also a political activist. McAdams’s portrait of this character is disturbingly vivid and memorable. A well-educated white man from a privileged background now finishing his Ph.D. dissertation, Will is a progressive involved in the various solidarity movements that were popular at the time of the novel’s setting, the mid- to late 1980s. He is also pretentious, cold, and passive-aggressive, a rigid and authoritarian personality who needs someone to bully in his private life. He demands that Neva conform to his own beliefs and attend all the meetings and events he’s involved with, while ignoring her in public and insulting her in private. His behavior deteriorates finally into violence. Neva becomes more and more intimidated: “She began calling if she were going to be late. She began telling him her plans so that he wouldn’t worry. She began telling him her plans with a question mark at the end of every sentence. She began asking permission. She began staying home.” She becomes an expert at “jok[ing] with someone larger and more powerful, watching for a sign that he has either relented or grown more angry.”
The novel raises the interesting issue of identity or affiliation for someone like Neva. Her father is Jewish; her mother is the daughter of a white Southern woman and a Creek man. Neva herself doesn’t claim a particular identity and doesn’t seem to have been raised in a specific culture (Jewish, Creek, etc.), but she is acutely aware that her appearance makes her seem “a little foreign” to white Southerners. And in Coatepeque she is told by a white man from the United States that she could “pass” as Coatepequen, while a North American school principal hoping to hire her is sure that she speaks Spanish because “You look like you speak Spanish.” A German tourist tells her, “You could play . . . a Red Indian, in a film. With your coloring.” Neva reflects that she hasn’t heard that term “since she was a child. Maybe she could play a Red Indian in a movie, the way she played a white person in real life, at least most of the time.” She wonders several times how her mother must have felt, “so alone in her skin”:
What had it been like for her, growing up in a small Alabama town, watching her Creek father, always a little unsure who would shake his hand and who would turn away. . . . One hundred and fifty years and half a dozen generations after the Removal—no one outside of North Carolina even thought about Indians being in the South. How much easier it must’ve been for her mother in Atlanta, a city where you could find any color of skin, but still, it wasn’t the same as being recognized for what you were.
Our author, Janet McAdams, is a writer of Euro-American and Creek descent who has published two volumes of poetry and coedited the anthology The People Who Stayed: Southeastern Indian Writing after Removal. Her poetic voice is evident in this first novel; especially lyrical are the depictions of Neva’s brief moments of happiness: helping her grandmother in her lush garden; a trip to a black-sand beach in Coatepeque; a dream in which her family is still intact, no matter how fleetingly:
On the green hill behind her grandmother’s farm . . . her mother, her father, her grandmother, her brother were on the grass near her talking, and she thought: I should go over there, since they will be gone soon. . . . The wind was picking them up, lifting them; they hovered just off the ground near her, then a little higher. Like kites. I never knew they were kites.
McAdams has created a moving portrait of a woman who has gone through life feeling vaguely “other” because of her physical appearance, because of her all-encompassing sadness, because she has been cut off from her parents and thus a feeling of community. Other, larger issues are subtly raised as well: how the past (both an individual’s lived experience and history as a whole) intertwines with the present in perplexing ways that resist clear explanations or a linear retelling. And how crucial it is to notice and respond to the suffering of others, despite one’s personal pain.