Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘Cowboys and East Indians’

by Jenny Shank for High Country News

‘Cowboys and East Indians’

Nina McConigley

195 pages, softcover: $15.95

FiveChapters Books, 2013

In her captivating debut story collection, Casper-raised author Nina McConigley examines with wit and empathy what it means to be “the wrong kind of Indians living in Wyoming.” Although prejudice and ignorance surface, there are few bad guys in this game of cowboys and Indians, only complicated human beings.

The characters in “Cowboys and East Indians” must explain themselves frequently — they are never quite what those who encounter them expect. In the story “Dot or Feather,” a foreign exchange student from India tells a Wyoming kid dressed up as a Native American, “There are two kinds of Indians. Some wear dots, others wear feathers. You’re a feather Indian. I wear a dot.”

A gnawing sense of never-belonging troubles many of McConigley’s characters. In the title story, “Faith Henderson,” a “dot Indian” adopted at age 2, remembers how she and an Arapaho classmate, the only other non-white student at her school, took turns portraying Mary “in various school Christmas pageants, since Mary was Middle Eastern.” While attending college in Laramie, Faith tries to befriend a group of East Indian graduate students, hoping they will invite her to share their lives and culture. Instead, they take advantage of her, asking her to drive them places in her minivan. In the delightful, surprising “Pomp and Circumstances,” Chitra is an Indian immigrant whose husband’s job brings them to Casper. At an office Christmas party, she tells an anecdote about a “hijra,” a traditional Indian transvestite, and soon her husband’s boss, Richard Larson, invites her for tea with his wife. While there, Richard asks if she can help him try on a sari, and introduces Chitra to his elaborate cross-dressing wardrobe hidden in his gun locker. A weird and wonderful secret understanding develops between the three people. “It is unspoken between them,” McConigley writes. “This kind of thing can get you killed in Wyoming.”

But despite Wyoming’s harsh social rules, abundant oil derricks, and scrappy towns that aren’t “the West people were expecting,” the characters in “Cowboys and East Indians” love their state, and its wildlife and landscape color the way they experience the world. These people are as skinny as a “lodgepole pine” or as unpredictable as a prairie dog poised on the edge of the highway — and they belong to Wyoming. As in all great fiction, McConigley has delved into the particular and emerged with genuine stories that touch the universal.