The Insufficiency of Maps

The Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers

Pierce’s striking debut introduces readers to five-year-old Alice, a young Native American girl whose short life has been lived entirely through the looking glass. Hers is a hardscrabble, itinerant life in a surreal desert wonderland of lonely bus stops and ramshackle trailer parks in the American West. For Alice and her psychotic mother, it is the only life they have ever known until they return home to their roots — the reservation.

For a time they settle down with her mother’s old love, Papi. But just when readers begin to have hope for the novel’s young heroine, the demons return to her mother’s head and the two are on the run again — first to her grandpa’s, then back to homelessness, and finally to a psychiatric hospital for her mother and a foster home for Alice. A measure of normalcy, yes; but Alice is still a stranger in a strange land — an Indian girl in a white man’s world — on a journey without signposts or landmarks to guide her along the way.

With Alice’s innocent voice, from age 5 to 14, sustaining the narrative, Pierce’s language is pure poetry. A haunting novel of a young girl coping with a troubled history — both hers and her people’s — The Insufficiency of Maps is a lyrical ghost dance of words. (Summer 2007 Selection)


“In Pierce’s forceful debut, Alice is five when she and her homeless, mentally ill mother, Amalie (Mami, she calls her), arrive at Papi’s trailer in an Arizona Indian reservation to live. Papi, a heavy-drinking itinerant laborer, may or may not be Alice’s father, but he adores Amalie (who is of Kwytz’an descent) and has been waiting for her to return after years of medication and hospitalization related absence. Afflicted with a skin ailment and subsisting largely on French fries, Alice briefly attends the local reservation school before her mother’s visions and paranoia prompt them to hitchhike back to Amalie’s father’s home in California. Amalie’s mental condition worsens, along with Grampa’s untreated diabetes: one, then the other is hospitalized, leaving Alice in foster care. At 13, Alice wants to fit in with her white American foster family and at the school she attends; but while foster sister Anne takes ballet classes, Alice is encouraged to learn bead-making and Indian dances. Yet the pull of her heritage is strong, and Alice and other Quechen (or Native) characters Pierce introduces grapple to overcome difficult legacies in this unsentimental coming-of-age story. “

—Publishers Weekly (Apr.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

“In her first novel, Pierce, a Stegner fellow at Stanford University, presents the story of a young Quechen girl from her days on the rez with her schizophrenic mother through her placement with a white suburban family. The story is narrated by Alice, who is five years old when we meet her, as Mami takes her to reunite with the Papi the girl has never met. Papi tries to bring some order to the young girl’s lifeâ enrolling her in school and teaching her traditional culture. But the twins inside Mami’s head once again gain control, and mother and child hit the road for California. They end up with Alice’s Grampa, who’s losing his battle with diabetes as Mami descends further into madness. Alice has a native intelligence, and we watch her emotional and intellectual growth as she narrates her life with an increasing awareness, but she still lacks the fundamentals to help her map out a path to success, even with the help of the well-meaning white family with whom the adolescent Alice is placed. An engrossing story of so many insufficiencies in the life of one small child; recommended for public library fiction collections and academic collections in Native American fiction.”

—Library Journal

“You can go home again, a young Native American girl discovers, even when there’s no home to go to. In this slender debut novel, set among the Quechan people of the southwestern desert, Pierce evokes a world that hardly seems worth wanting, but that exerts its pull nevertheless. Young Alice, five when we meet her, has come back to Quechan country with her mother, an alcoholic wanderer who will soon melt down in mental illness but is aware enough to bring her to the man she calls Alice’s father. He has his demons, too; as one of her chores, Mami “folds brown paper bags from Papi’s Wild Turkey whiskey bottles,” a job that yields a small mountain of sacks. Though her troubled parents are role models of a kind certain to earn a visit from Child Protective Services, Alice learns much from them; particularly valuable are constant lessons in Quechan belief, told through folktales that might make a social worker blanch. Clearly, Alice cannot remain-not after Mami suffers a breakdown-but it seems a terrible injustice that she should find herself in a suburban foster home in which “there is no noise, not even at night.” The years roll by until Alice, now 13, must go on an odyssey of her own, one that puts her in danger but in the end affirms who she is and where she belongs. The tale is a little too thin and certainly too brief, but it is well-rendered, and Pierce allows a few smiles in the proceedings that are reminiscent of Sherman Alexie, as when the announcer at a delay-plagued powwow laments the workings of Indian time: ” Almost?’ he says. Not quite? Okay.’ He looks out at everyone in the bleachers and says resignedly, You know this is why we lost the Indian wars.’ “A promising debut.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“Nora Pierce’s debut novel, The Insufficiency of Maps, explores the textures and mysteries of the fundamental human experiences — love, dependence, marginality, madness–in a poetic style which does not seek to simply explicate those textures and mysteries, but embodies them.”

—Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander

Vivid imagery more than sufficient

Sometimes, where you come from and where you’re going in life are the same place. But if you don’t know the first, can you ever reach the second?

This question is at the heart of Nora Pierce’s debut novel, The Insufficiency of Maps, which explores the childhood of a young Native American girl struggling to find a place where she fits.

Through vivid imagery and the innocent eyes of a child, the reader sees Alice’s life as a whirlwind, blowing her from home to home.

Her schizophrenic, alcoholic mother, “Mami,” moves five-year-old Alice from the city to a reservation, where they live in a cramped trailer with Alice’s “Papi.” They later hitchhike to live with Alice’s grampa.

When her grandfather moves into a nursing home, the little girl must attempt to play the role of mother. Alice makes ketchup and mustard sandwiches out of what little bread is left in the home as Mami barricades herself and Alice in the living room to try to escape from the voices she hears.

Eventually, Mami relinquishes Alice to foster care and resigns herself to a hospital. A teenage Alice must cope with being a foster child in a well-to-do white family, and when they send her to bead-crafting classes on a reservation to help her find her roots, the magic there is gone for her.

Pierce’s story highlights the struggles of a people to maintain their cultural identity amid a changing society, presenting the reader with an almost constant juxtaposition of the old and the new – the tribal traditions, dances and mystical stories that comprise the “old ways” versus the present reality of filthy trailers, mooching relatives, cigarettes and alcohol.

Old natives such as Tia Jimenez, whose wrinkled skin is covered in shawls and traditional clothing as she seems to become part of the dirt and mountains themselves, contrast with the hippie-like members of the American Indian Movement, who guzzle beer, smoke pot and talk of taking their land back, with interest, from the government.

The stories Mami – in her moments of sanity – told young Alice of a condor sweeping a young girl away serve as a refuge to which Alice’s mind returns in challenging moments.

An innocence and subtlety pervade Pierce’s storytelling, with sensory details that evoke award-winning novelist Michael Ondaatje’s descriptions of childhood in the Sri Lankan jungle in his memoir. Every character Alice comes into contact with is real; the reader can see, smell, touch the world around her.

For example, in describing a woman the reader deduces to be from social services, narrator Alice notes, “I have seen this woman before, I know how she walks, and what she carries in her suede briefcase: lollipops, all orange-flavored and wrapped in sticky plastic. … Now I see that her eyes are the color of weak tea, as if they were not steeped long enough and her pale blond hair does not move at all in the hot winds.”

Pierce weaves a beautiful story of the search for identity, of finding your way when you don’t know where you’re going and, indeed, the insufficiency of maps in getting there.

— The Anniston Star, Reviewed by Lindsay Maples