Chula the Fox
White Dog Press, 2018
When it comes to Native American, Indigenous, or First Peoples historical fiction, it is difficult to find work that isn’t culturally or spiritually patronizing, Anglo-centric, or often just plain factually wrong. There are a plethora of white writers who feel themselves quite justified in writing whatever they want on the subject towards whatever purpose strikes their fancy. Such appropriation isn’t merely problematic, it’s the kind of casually ingrained racism preventing Native voices from not just emerging (there are many, many native writers) but from getting to tell their own stories in their own voice.
Fortunately, readers are getting to see a slight rollback of this. Anthony Perry’s Chula the Fox is a midgrade novella for young readers putting the Chickasaw language and culture front and center without fetishizing it nor unnaturally bending it to fit within the narrative. Readers experience the lives of the Chickasaw people before our nation’s forced relocation of them (when they lived in what is now the state of Mississippi). It is a story mostly unconcerned with white people making it wholly its own.
Chula is a teenage boy learning and winning his place among his community. The novel begins with him hunting alongside his father and other tribe members. We see the techniques these people used to hunt and how their communities were socially organized. It is on one of these hunts Chula and his fellows are ambushed by the Choctaw. They fight bravely but several men die including Chula’s father. The loss send the boy into a spiral of rage. Chula wants revenge but he’s too young, too unproven. Thus, the story takes us through the boy’s journey to prove himself and avenge his family.
However, Perry writes no simple tale even though his prose is easy to read (and enjoyable to read aloud) and the action compelling. Chula is haunted by the violence and loss he’s experienced as is his rival, Nukni, who also lost family in the ambush. The two boys are hotheaded, bitter and, because they are adolescent, brimming with hormonal emotions they can barely understand. Both know they want revenge and both see the other as someone they can take out their anger upon. This leaves the elders the task of training these talented but wild boys. Perry does a fantastic job of inhabiting the heart and mind of his characters. We are able to genuinely feel the loss, confusion, and anger in both Chula and Nukni.
Yet as the slim novel progresses, readers are given glimpses of an alternate path for Chula and, ultimately, others. It is one that is certainly much more difficult than revenge–forgiveness. Throughout, Chula is internally torn between what he perceives as the right thing to do and what is the right thing to do. He often fails, giving himself over to anger and violence. Perry does a wonderful job of describing this as Chula and several other Ckickasaw boys compete in a traditional stick game to see who is worthy to join the tribe’s warriors.
When Chula finally does earn his way into the warrior caste, he is no less reassured and instead finds a whole new set of questions and challenges. Eventually, Chula does succeed but his path is one rarely taken in literature making Perry’s novel perhaps one of the most enjoyable (and moral) I’ve read of late. Young readers will find much here that resonates and mature readers will encounter a fantastic morality play respecting history but looking beyond it. Chula the Fox is a superb novella and fantastic entry into Native American literature.
About the Author
Anthony Perry grew up in Oklahoma and now lives in England with his wife and young children. He works as a quality improvement manager in the National Health Service in England and volunteers with hospitals in Pakistan to improve health services. He loves history and enjoys spending time with his family and traveling.
Perry has an undergraduate degree in comparative religion from Dartmouth College, a master’s degree in public health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a master’s degree in public policy from Birkbeck College, University of London.