The Woman Who Owned the Shadows is one of the first Native American books to feature a woman protagonist. Author Paula Gunn Allen has created a story mixed with Southwestern Native American creation narrative and stream of consciousness. The novel fluctuates between Spider Grandmother’s creation of the world and Ephanie Atencio’s struggle with divorce, sexuality, and her connection to her culture. Allen pushes a feminist view of Native American myth, history, and today’s attitudes toward American society. In this way, Allen restores feminist power to her culture.
Browsing the Goodreads reviews of The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, many reviewers commented on how difficult the novel was to read. They complained about the stream of consciousness narrative style or how ambiguous the ending made them feel, and how they felt empty after reading the book—that they had no sense of conclusion. Certainly, I don’t think Allen intended The Woman Who Owned to be easy, or necessarily fulfilling in the way many modern readers approach genre books, that is for entertainment. So certainly entertaining, one wonders though if Ephanie is totally sane, whether her struggles with homosexuality are even normal, let alone her abandonment of her children, and her abandonment of her self.
Allen uses the word “re membering” throughout her work. At first, I thought this word construction was odd—why would she separate the prefix? But “member” suggests a part of something greater. The arm, for example, is a member of the physical body. The arm is both separate from the body and belonging to the body at the same moment. One is a member of a tribe. One is a member of a nation, or belongs to a nation. And “re” is from the Latin prefix root meaning “again” or “again and again.” By separating the prefix from the root word, Allen is able to not completely remove the idea of memory from the word, and places emphasis upon Ephanie’s becoming a member of a culture, again and again. The end of the book, Ephanie falls into a new world, just as Sky Woman is pushed by her husband through a hole in the ground to the earth.
Allen not only connects Ephanie to a religious and historical Native America past but to the present and future that includes the modern world and the European encroachment upon the land. Neither world is presented in Allen’s novel as ideal. Both the past and the present are depicted with their own fragilities. Everyone is broken: Spider Grandmother, who is betrayed; Sky Woman, who is pushed to her death by her husband and left alone; Elana, who is forced by her parents to stay away from Ephanie; Stephen and Thomas, who unsuccessfully look toward women for self-completion; and Teresa, who yearns for a spirituality that she cannot fully possess.
No one seems to be able to possess anything in Allen’s novel, actually. It is a struggle to figure out personal identity in relation to the rest of the world. Ephanie’s name resembles “epiphany,” and the novel’s epiphany seems to suggest there is no salvation in life, but that we must still look beyond the practicalities of life to the spiritual for a fullness that cannot be fulfilled through companionship, security, or family. We must then re member.