My story is the eight small wheels under my feet in the roller rink. A circle within a square, though the building is more of rectangle, and the rink more of an oval. The roller rink is a trickster hiding its magic, its floor of maple strips, waxed, polished, waiting. I hear the sound of wheels on the floor as I lace the skates on my feet. I hear the old Cherokee voices as I skate. They're from the library also. Maybe Manuscripts and Rare Books is a skating rink for the spirit world. I know the voices talk while they skate. I know I skate with the ancestors. Once they get going.— Diane Glancy, Designs of the Night Sky
In Designs of the Night Sky, Diane Glancy, author of The Cold-and-Hunger Dance and Claiming Breath, among many other books, and winner of the Native American Indian Prose Award, depicts one woman's realization of growth in her own Cherokee ancestry. By using short chapters and poetic patterns, Glancy shows the reader captivating spurts of the narrative, lyrical, and historical world of Cherokee Indians. These instantaneous glimpses reveal the life and strife of a modern Cherokee woman (Ada) as she struggles to understand the voices she hears and the family she loves. This struggle between tradition and family defines Glancy's book, as she looks to define in turn the Cherokee's place in today's society.
Each chapter in the novel appears as a separate moment for Ada, allowing the reader to take in her experiences as she relates them in first person: some are specific excerpts from things that she is reading in the library, like the Indian Removal log and the history of the Cherokee; some are her personal thoughts on and development of this cultural knowledge; and some are her interactions with her family and life during this period of her realization of her place in the Cherokee tradition. The use of excerpts, with an accompanying personal recognition and understanding, helps the reader follow Ada's thoughts about what she is reading and the voices she is hearing. Ada begins to see things in new ways and with new connections: her love of roller skating makes her feel free, just like her brother Robert's driving, and she wonders if all Cherokees search for freedom because they were removed from their native land. Questions about the consciousness of the modern Cherokee transcend the book and take the reader along the same journey as Ada, consciously realizing the place of the past, present, and future Cherokee person in literature and tradition.
Night Sky's protagonist, Ada Ronner, is a librarian in Manuscripts and Rare Books at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. She spends much of her time reading about Cherokee history and the struggles of her ancestors, trying to decipher a meaning from their past and her future. Her Cherokee ancestors survived their displacement to Indian Territory during the Indian Removal 1838, and her family has continued to live in this new homeland with its history and tradition. In the Manuscripts and Rare Books room of the university's library, she hears the voices of Cherokee ancestors and tries to decipher what they are saying, why they are talking, as well as why and if she is the only one who can hear them. She reads from the white lieutenant's log about the Indian Removal to understand how her ancestors must have felt when they were removed and relocated to a new area. Through these readings, she gets images of keelboats and the sense of rowing along the water, and a parallel sense of restlessness which she feels in her own life and sees in her own family.
Ada is her parents' only daughter amongst her three brothers. Their misdirected actions and struggles with their place in society cause her to manage much more than her own family's life. Through Ada, we can see the struggles between Cherokee tradition and contemporary experience as she ponders her brothers' problems with settling down to a family and job: Robert loves the road and wants to just keep driving and leave everything behind; Wayne has a girlfriend and doesn't spend time with his family; and Raymond has no control of his wife's conjuring up of spells (a practice not seen as respectable by the family and community). Ada too is uncertain of her feelings about her own life and family, the difference is her acceptance and realization of her place in her Cherokee heritage. Throughout the book, Ada consistently has to remind her brothers of the need for rationality and responsibility as she does not want to read about them getting arrested in the Cherokee Observer. All of her brothers have wives and children, whom they like to "dump" on her and her husband because they are the only responsible and successful members of the family.
Ada's husband, Ether, is a physics professor at the same university and is patient and helpful with her family issues as they arise. Their two daughters, Noel and Nolie, are old enough to see the inconsistencies of their family's negotiation of Christian and Cherokee values. Their consciousness and rejection of Cherokee culture illustrates how today's children are growing up with concerns about their heritage. All the while, Ada attempts to show her family through the old stories and histories how Cherokee culture and history still has a powerful place in society. With this realization comes the repetition of tradition as each daughter begins to follow both Ada and Ether's paths of honor and curiosity.
Glancy's metaphor is that Ada loves roller-skating and the freedom it gives her, using it as an escape from reality. As she can in the library, she can hear the voices of Cherokee ancestors as she skates. In listening to these voices, Ada begins to doubt the place of traditional writing in Cherokee culture. Here, the novel presents a meditation on the tension between different kinds of expression, both historical and oral. As the book progresses, we see her questioning the necessity of the written word and understanding the early struggle of trying to write down the old Cherokee stories. She tells the reader that these stories were not meant to be written down, only spoken, because the "spoken word can have many voices, but the written word only has one" (41). Ada believes that the voices she hears are from the books, trying to escape the captivity of words. Written words bind the stories to a specific thing, something unprecedented in Cherokee oral tradition. Much like the excerpts from the Indian Removal journals, we get a brief history of the development and resistance of the written Cherokee language invented by Sequoyah in 1821. However, through her knowledge of language, she begins to realize that the spoken word must become the written word as, someday, the written word will become something else too. Thus, she concludes that the written word must and will carry the Cherokee history, tradition, and stories to a new generation (that of her children and beyond), liberating them from the previous limitations of the oral tradition.
Designs of the Night Sky keeps its reader captivated as Glancy's colorful and poetic language flows from chapter to chapter. Her writing is both consistent and varied, allowing the reader to never become lost in anything but the consciousness of the narrator. This narrative word allows the reader to go back and forth with ideas, much like Ada, and come to understand the importance of the voices she hears: "I am part of the old ones as I walk. I am part of the ones who will come" (157).