Earling, Debra Magpie 1957-

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EARLING, Debra Magpie 1957-


Born August 3, 1957, in Spokane, WA; married, c. 1974 (marriage ended). Education: University of Washington, Seattle, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1986; Cornell University, M.A., 1991, M.F.A., 1992.


Office—English Department, LA 133, University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812. Agent—Sally Wofford-Girand Literary Agency, Brickhouse Literary Agents, 80 Fifth Ave., Suite 1101-03, New York, NY 10011. E-mail—[email protected]


Author and educator. Flathead Reservation, Polson, MT, public defender, c. 1985-86; University of Montana, Missoula, instructor in Native American studies and creative-writing programs, 1991-98, currently associate professor of English.


Member of Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation; Phi Beta Kappa.


Spur Award for best novel of the West, and Pipe Bearer Award for best first novel, Western Writers Association, 2003, Mountain and Plains Booksellers Association Award, Willa Literary Award, Montana Book Award Honor Book designation, and American Book Award, all for Perma Red.


Perma Red, BlueHen Books (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributor to periodicals, including Ploughshares, Northern Lights, and Northeast Indian Quarterly. Work represented in anthologies, including The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology, 2003, Song of the Turtle, Contemporary Short Stories Celebrating Women, Circle of Women: Anthology of Western Women Writers, Talking Leaves: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Short Stories, and Wild Women: Anthology of Women Writers.


Although she left high school before graduation, Native American author and educator Debra Magpie Earling quickly realized the importance of education. Now an associate professor of English at the University of Montana, Earling also used her education to improve the lives of other residents of the Flathead Reservation where she was raised. With only her high school G.E.D., she became the reservation's first public defender and remained in the Tribal Justice System for two years before leaving to attend college in Seattle. Earling continued her education at Cornell University and then returned to Montana to teach at Montana State University in Missoula.

A teacher of writing and Native American studies, Earling was primarily a short-story writer before her novel Perma Red was published. The novel, written over the course of more than two decades, is inspired by Earling's Aunt Louise, who was made familiar to her through stories she heard as a young girl. Taking place in the 1940s, the novel follows Louise White Elk, who is born and raised in the Flathead. "Perma Red" becomes Louise's nickname; it refers to the fact that the red-haired, green-eyed young woman is wild and uncontrollable. As she matures, several men are attracted to her, among them Baptiste Yellow Knife and reservation police officer Charlie Kicking Woman. Sent to a Catholic school where nuns abuse their native charges, Louise runs away; she also flees a foster home and the dysfunctional white family who takes her in. Although he is a cruel, hard-drinking man, Louise is attracted to Baptiste because of his pride and his devotion to her, but the marriage does not last. She is eventually seduced by Harvey Stoner, the reservation's wealthy white benefactor, who gives her things her husband cannot; when Baptiste catches them together, he severely beats the man.

The original version of Perma Red came to a brutal conclusion in which Louise lays dying, battered and beaten, at the side of the road. This was the manner in which Earling's beautiful, vivacious aunt had met her end at the age of twenty-three. When the manuscript was first sent out, it was considered too dark, but was given a still dark but not despairing new ending.

David Abrams, reviewing Perma Red for January Magazine online, noted that "what makes Earling's novel such a stellar piece of literature is the way she immediately gets the reader involved with the characters on the page. These are not mere pulp-and-ink creations—they are real people who continue to haunt me even now, nearly a week after finishing the book. When I reached the last page, it was a heart-wrenching moment because I knew I'd have to say goodbye to Louise, Baptiste, and Charlie Kicking Woman. Much like parting with Owen Meany, Holden Caulfield, or any character of Dickens." As Susan Salter Reynolds wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Earling "comes straight at us out of the West, bypassing the conscious mind in describing her world of Indian reservations, so that we almost smell that world before we understand it.…Verbs and adjectives dance in new configurations. All this and plot too."



Booklist, June 1, 2002, Bill Ott, review of Perma Red, p. 1683.

Chicago Tribune, June 2, 2002, Teresa Puente, review of Perma Red, p. 3.

Kansas City Star, June 26, 2002, Keith Chrostowski, review of Perma Red.

Kliatt, July, 2003, Nola Theiss, review of Perma Red, p. 20.

Library Journal, May 1, 2002, Debbie Bogenschutz, review of Perma Red, p. 132.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 21, 2002, Susan Salter Reynolds, review of Perma Red, p. 15.

Poets & Writers, May-June, 2002, Joanna Smith Rakoff, review of Perma Red, pp. 59-64.

Publishers Weekly, May 20, 2002, review of Perma Red, p. 47.

Seattle Times, June 14, 2002, Kimberly B. Marlowe, review of Perma Red, section H, p. 41.


Austin Chronicle Online,http://www.austinchronicle.com/ (May 31, 2002), Amanda Eyre Ward, review of Perma Red.

January Magazine,http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (October 8, 2004), David Abrams, review of Perma Red.

Voices from the Gaps,http://voices.cla.umn.edu/ (October 8, 2004), "Debra Magpie Earling."*

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