Fire Exit: A Novel

Image of Fire Exit: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 4, 2024
Tin House Books
Reviewed by: 

This book is about blood. Not the kind that immediately comes to mind—there is very little violence or bloodshed in its pages. The driving force of the story is blood quantum, the percentage of Native blood required to be enrolled in an Indian tribe. The story is set on and around the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation in Maine, and the author is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation. But the story is told in the voice of the character Charles Lamosway, who is not Indian, but white (cultural appropriation, anyone?).

Some 20 years in the past, Charles had fathered a child, a girl named Elizabeth, with a woman named Mary. But given his lack of Indian blood, Mary hatches a plan that will haunt Charles. “[T]he fact was, that I’d gone along for too long with Mary’s plan to lie and say that the girl was another man’s, an enrolled Native man’s, so that she our daughter, could be on the census—Mary’s Penobscot blood plus Roger’s—giving Elizabeth exactly what she needed to be enrolled. But that morning I wanted our daughter to know the truth. I was tired of holding that secret.”

For a variety of reasons, including his own complicated family history, Charles leads an aimless kind of life he describes as “not knowing, but wishing,” with “an untouchable past, present, future.” He reconnects with his somewhat estranged mother, and as she falls victim to dementia and increasingly loses touch with reality and her physical health fails, his concern for his daughter takes on new dimensions: “The blood she did not know about that ran through her body was tainted, flawed. This is why it was so important she know all this, who I was and who her grandmother was. This is why her body’s secret history was important to know.”

When Charles learns that Elizabeth suffers emotional and mental problems of her own, he pressures Mary to allow him to tell their daughter the truth.

Mary resists: “And so the past twenty-seven years of her life won’t be true?”

Charles insists: “Of course they will,” I said. “And that’s what I want to say. I want to make it clear that knowing her history will only make her more real, more true. She has a right to know.” And: “This is about her,” I said. “All about her. Maybe that’s why she’s sick—maybe she needs to know her full story. Have you thought about that? Maybe her body and mind know something is missing.”

Throughout the book, Charles struggles with very notion of blood quantum and its meaning in a person’s life. He says, “[S]he needed to know that her blood was her blood. Nothing could take that away, and nothing could even come close to capturing it, especially not percentages on pieces of paper. Because we’re more than that.”

His questions become more complicated by the family situation of a childhood friend, Gizos, a gay Penobscot boy who now lives in California with his husband, Dave, and their adopted child.

Gizos tells him, “Dave and I had a long talk before we adopted the boy. I get that it’s best to put Native children with Native families, I do, but we worried about his culture, what he, this Coeur d’Alene and Tukudeka boy, was losing by growing up with a Lakota and Penobscot. What would his culture be? Would he take Dave’s? Mine? Some mix of both?” Gizos laughed. “This is such an Indian thing to worry about.”

But being white, Charles is no less worried and confused by the whole notion of family, of culture, of being Indian, part Indian, or not Indian at all, and what really matters. He stumbles through life trying to make sense of it all, trying to sort out what family means, what blood means. “We are made of stories, and if we don’t know them—the ones that make us—how can we ever be fully realized? How can we ever be who we really are?”