Because so many people tell her their troubles, Sissy Roberts describes herself as a human wailing wall. A Sioux Indian woman living on the Redbud Reservation in South Dakota, she sings and plays guitar with a mostly Country and Western band, and no matter where the band travels, someone is bound to tell her their sad story. This is one of the reasons Tom Holm, an FBI agent, asks her to find out who killed Buffalo Ames, another Sioux, who was found dead after being involved in a brawl at the Longhorn Bar, where the band was playing. Since Sissy feels more loyal to her people than to a government agency, she respectfully declines, but she still keeps her eyes—and ears—open.
As the tale of Buffalo Ames’ killing continues, we follow the band to rodeos, powwows, honky-tonks, VFW halls, restaurants, and carnivals. The band’s venues are interesting, but even more interesting is the peek into the daily lives of the Native Americans scattered across South and North Dakota.
Sissy’s relatives and friends provide the heart of the book. And it’s a strong heart. Like the rest of us, they have troublesome relatives, unfaithful lovers, crummy bosses, longtime grudges, betrayals, and hopeful dreams. Because of the lack of employment opportunities, one of the most common dreams is to leave the reservation, but when the young people realize the difficulty of leaving and finding a job, they often give way to despair. Even the talented Sissy often feels this frustration. “There’s this don’t-care- about-anything fog hanging over this whole place,” she says to a fellow band member. “No one tries to fix anything. Every day is more of the same and every week is like the one before and every year and nothing ever gets better.”
The writing here is exquisite, strongly reminiscent of bestselling author Jo-Ann Mapson. Washburn never gives in to the sentimentality that has marred so many other reservation-set novels; she keeps her story taut and to the point. Yes, there’s a murder, and yes, there are suspects, but more than anything, The Red Bird All-Indian Traveling Band is a tale about love and loss, about the strong bonds of the heart that keep us at home when we long to be somewhere else.