All the humans revered Crane, the great orator. Where cranes gathered, their speech carried miles. The Aztecs called themselves the Crane People. One of the Anishinaabe clans was named the Cranes – Ajijak or Businassee – the Echo Makers. The Cranes were leaders, voices that called all people together. Crow and Cheyenne carved cranes’ leg bones into hollow flutes, echoing the echo maker. -From The Echo Maker, page 181-
Richard Power’s novel – The Echo Maker – is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the National Book Award. Beneath a simple story lies complex questions about self and memory. How does memory define who we are? Is our sense of self and the larger world just a series of synapses and neurons firing or is it something bigger?
The novel begins with a horrific car accident along the Platte River during the annual crane migration. Mark Schulter survives the crash, but is left with a rare and devastating brain injury called Capgras Syndrome. Believing his sister, Karin, is really an imposter who is pretending to be his sister, Mark’s recovery from his injuries takes the reader along a winding path of self-discovery, misidentification, conspiracies, and the complex and sometimes fragile nature of relationships. Powers constructs the novel around four major characters: Mark Schulter, his sister Karin, a renowned scientist named Gerald Weber, and Barbara Gillespie – a nursing home aide who is surrounded by mystery. It is not only Mark who struggles with his identity. Karin, a woman who has tried unsuccessfully to shed her past, finds herself searching to re-define it.
Making herself over, personality du jour. Imagination, even memory, all too ready to accommodate her, whoever her is. Anything for a scratch behind the ears. Scratch from anyone. She is nothing. No one. Worse than no one. Blank at the core. She must change her life. From the mess of her fouled nest, salvage something. Anything. -From The Echo Maker, page 407-
Gerald Weber is shocked to discover that perhaps he is only defined by the way others perceive him – that perhaps his life’s work is no more than a critics review: He’d let his critics convince him. Something had eroded, the core pleasure in his accomplishment. – From The Echo Maker, page 315-
This novel is meant to be read slowly – it is a thoughtful novel, and one that is challenging on an intellectual level. Powers deftly constructs a story which questions the very core of who we are and how self is defined – a fascinating treatise about what makes us human. The backdrop of Nebraska and its incredible crane migration – an astounding feat of migratory memory and ritual – is a fitting symbol of the novel’s thematic content. With a surprising twist at the end, the novel is ultimately a satisfying read.