Ghosts, murder, forbidden love roam northern MN in Ojibwe writer’s new novel

Published 6:50 am Tuesday, March 10, 2020

By John Enger

The beginnings of “This Town Sleeps” came to Dennis Staples on a bleary, 2 a.m. car ride.

The man who helped Staples come out as gay had recently died of an opioid overdose. Their romantic relationship ended years before, but the loss still unmoored Staples.

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“I was in a place of mourning,” he said. “Death was on my mind.”

He did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep. He drove through his hometown of Cass Lake, past the school playground where he spent his childhood. There’s a merry-go-round there, that nobody ever played on, because of a rumor that a dog had crawled under it and died, and its spirit lingered.

“There’s an Ojibwe tradition of fearing the dead,” Staples said. “Or fearing the dead that won’t stay dead. It was a visceral memory.”

When he got home he found a pen and wrote this line:

The dog went under the merry-go-round to die. On the night I brought it back to life, a train passed through town.

Over the next four years, that thought grew into Staples’ debut novel.

“This Town Sleeps” weaves together the story of a murdered teenager, a forbidden romance and generations of Ojibwe legend — all told through the eyes of a twenty-something narrator, who bears a striking resemblance to Staples himself.

There are some differences, of course. Staples has long drawn meaning from traditional Ojibwe beliefs. His narrator mistrusts them, and is forced to come to terms. Staples works at a casino. His narrator, at a dentist’s office.

Beyond that, he admitted the book pulls a great deal from his own life.

Staples is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, but he grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation. His family was big and their house was small. Instead of a bedroom, he had a corner of the living room. He was always around for this grandmother’s traditional stories, but also bore witness to the desperation and substance abuse that plague so much of northern Minnesota. The chaos of life on the reservation gave him a huge amount of material for his fiction, but sometimes it was too much.

Dennis Staples just released his first novel, “This Town Sleeps.” The story is told through the eyes of a gay Ojibwe man who bears a striking resemblance to Staples. John Enger | MPR News

So he found his own escape.

“From sixth grade on I constantly had books checked out of the library,” he said. “I was that weird kid who was always reading.”

He wrote too, from a young age. Mostly fantasy and horror. It wasn’t until he left high school that he started writing in earnest about what he really knew.

Tragedies are remembered for a long time in Cass Lake, he said. Rumors live forever. People still remember the dead dog under the merry-go-round, and that likely never happened at all. And the teenage basketball star whose murder forms the backbone of “This Town Sleeps” — Staples said he could have been any of a number of young Native men whose deaths have become local legends.

And there’s another theme that he lifted from his childhood. The pull of the reservation. His narrator spends a good chunk of the book trying to build enough momentum to break free.

Staples still remembers the lecture his buddy’s parents gave them when they were kids.

“They told us, ‘there’s more to life than this reservation,’” he recalled. “‘You have to finish school and get out of here.’”

Staples went to Bemidji State. Then, he enrolled in a distance learning MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico. He still lives in Bemidji. It’s 20 miles from his hometown.

The publication of his first book at age 27, and the positive reviews that followed, could give him the momentum he needs to finally leave. But he doesn’t plan on doing that. Escaping the reservation — the town that sleeps — was a useful narrative device, he said. But he’s not his narrator. It’s fiction after all, not a memoir. He’s come to love the area.

And for now, he said, he still really needs that casino job.