Interesting but not a compelling book. Kent Nerburn has done wonderful things as a writer, committed as he is to exploring, documenting, and narrating Native life and stories. He makes me mightily envious, and I respect him greatly.
But The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo suffers from the problem most books that intend to describe spiritual experience do. For years I taught a wonderful book titled Salvation on Sand Mountain in a writing class as an example of successful non-fiction and memoir. Sand Mountain had real qualities; I loved it, really. But finally it couldn't do what Dennis Covington wanted it to do so badly; it couldn't bring us into what he considered his own authentic spiritual experience.
Vivid spiritual experience (and I'm not saying this as a veteran of such events--I'm not) is tough, if not impossible, to describe, not because words are so limited in meaning, but because vivid spiritual experience goes where words simply do not go.
What Nerburn wants so badly to do here--maybe even too badly--is to describe something of Native spirituality from the inside, not as some kind of anthropologist would but as someone who is, like himself, not Native experienced it. In that way the book is typically Nerburn, and we should thank him for writing it.
On the other hand, The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo simply cannot do what he intends. It's a grand try, but I found it tedious at times, not because the intent was cheap or simple but because it seemed he needed so badly to document the path to his enlightenment that soon enough the reader--me at least--got weary. I simply found the book hard to stay with, even though I love books about Native history and culture.
Also, I must admit that I was hoping the book would do a more thorough job of explaining and describing what exactly went on at the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians (the actual name of the place!), an institution that ran for years just down the road, east of Canton, SD. The book's exploration of the Hiawatha Asylum (I'm serious--that was the name) and its history is very limited, mostly a backdrop to the quest for understanding Nerburn undertakes.
To my mind, he's done better. His weaknesses derive from the sheer limitations of the story-telling here. Not even Kent Nerburn can describe mystical experience from the inside. Anthropologists can, of course, but their descriptions come from the outside.
Dennis Covington very effectively describes his relationships with the Scotch-Irish snake-handlers on Sand Mountain. What he couldn't do--what no one can really--is describe snake-handling.
Think of it this way. In the book of Acts we have a wonderful story of the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road. What we don't have is Paul's play-by-play of what exactly happened in his mind and heart when his life changed forever. Biblically, the closest thing we have, perhaps, to the inside story of revelation may well be the book of Revelation itself.
The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo is interesting but, to this reader, finally not compelling.