Book Review: Dance The Eagle To Sleep, Marge Piercy (1970)

(Uncredited cover for the 1st edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

In the turbulent 1960s, the radical socialist Students for a Democratic Society (1960-1974) were one of the most influential organizations in the nascent New Left. SDS’s 1962 political manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, proclaimed in idealized terms the importance of egalitarianism, participatory democracy, labor rights, Civil Rights, and nuclear disarmament.  Marge Piercy (1935-) wrote her first SF novel Dance The Eagle to Sleep (1970) while working as an organizer with the SDS regional office in New York (biography). In the last years of the 60s, while she was writing the novel, she describes SDS devolving into “warring factions” and her own personal disillusionment as  the Vietnam War raged on.

In this context, Dance The Eagle To Sleep (1970) can be read as the rise and fall—intense, ecstatic, meaningful, tempestuous—of an SDS-esque student-driven movement (The Indians) in a near-future totalitarian America. Piercy follows a cast of characters whose paths, visions, and routes to revolutionary activity differ. As the movement is beset by external and internal forces, what remains when the fragmentation sets in, and the end comes over all, is a resounding nostalgia of what could have been. What remains is a poignant memory of that time when everyone believed the powers of oppression could be cast off, and the raw togetherness of the community as it built a new society in the fields from within the beast. Dance The Eagle To Sleep feels like the decade’s swan song–a passionate clarion call to action and also a death dirge of what could have been.

Brief Plot Summary

The Cast in Order of Appearance

Shawn heads the popular rock band The Coming Thing (64k+ registered girls in his fan club). After high school (“The Nineteenth Year of Servitude”), the band is assigned to the Youth Services Bureau in Philadelphia. His job: use his music to further “The Plan” of the “White Knight” (the president) (11) by performing at school functions and settlement houses. Disillusioned, he enters a relationship with Mrs. Kapp, a divorced single mother who runs the the office. In her shoddy apartment, he  cooks for the first time, cares for a child…. Mrs. Kapp, at the instigation of Shawn’s angry parents, is fired and disappears. Shawn is arrested and found guilty at a court martial: “they did what the Army was supposed to. They made him a man […] Shawn the Prophet, who saw light rising out of hell as he lay with the guard’s foot on his neck in his first shit-splattered latrine” (21).

He takes his music to the streets and joins Corey’s Indians.

Corey sells drugs at Franklin High. Half Indian (on both sides) and the son of a single mother (“his teen-age old man off to the Indo-China War and splattered all over the jungle”), Corey finds deliverance and meaning in his heritage: “He had learned his identity out of the books, but he had made it real the old way, by fasting and vision.   He had made himself real” (26). Propelled by the raw power of Shawn’s voice on the radio and the historical fragments of Indian heroism found in library books, Corey comes to an epiphany—a new tribe needs to be created where humankind “could learn the good ways of being in harmony, of cooperating, of sane bravery in defense of each other” (36).

Ginny, the daughter of Polish immigrants, is shuttled through Franklin High on “the droupout track” (48): “no one had bothered to notice that she had managed to learn English since then, and that here was an alert if bruised intelligence” (49). The Indians offer Ginny a purpose, a profession, a passion. She takes charge of building a new community—planting vegetables, organizing  rural survival.

Billy lives a path charted by his mother. Due to 50s pressure, she could not become a doctor—instead, she dragged her unintelligent husband through college and fostered in her son a “quiet scorn” for his father. The brightest of his class at Franklin High and on the path towards college, Billy tutors a young black man how to read at grade level and realizes that he is complicit in training him so “the Army could use him” (41). He finds “Corey’s boys” amateurs of hating as “they hadn’t studied who was using them and why” (42). Not entirely convinced by Corey’s rhetoric and “brightly lit counter-myths” and “tableaux of great Indian leaders and peasant uprisings and guerrilla struggles” (49), Billy joins The Indians in seizing control of the school and creating a “new nation in the belly” of the old one. As police approach the school, Billy feels like he belongs for the first time. He’s possessed by military radicalism, taking the battle to the streets, organizing the resistance. Corey’s back-to-the-land visions spell a future rift.

Joanna lives an aimless life as the daughter of an Army Captain. She chaffs at the expectations placed on young women: “Joanna made a quick list of things she found obscene: powdering your face, wearing underwear that caused parts of the body to stick out of get squished in unnaturally, shaving under the arms or between the legs, dipping fingernails or toenails in paint” (53). She attends a concert where Shawn performs and meets Corey. She struggles to identify her place in the group as they view her as Corey’s girl rather than a member in her own right.

Marcus and his fellow survivors from “a summer camp for underprivileged children” shelled during the military take-over of Harlem eek out an existence in the Catskills (123). Corey reaches out as an ally. Marcus wants food. Corey wants a token African American in order to present his movement as multi-racial. As the Indians suffer defeat at the hands of the US military, he must survive on his own. He encounters the survivors and forms new personal bonds. Meaningful connections in a fragmented world….

Final Thoughts

In the first pages, Piercy’s novel comes off as an all-too-Utopian formulation of revolt against the military-industrial complex of 1960s education and society. But The Indians do not have all the answers. As Piercy herself grew disillusioned with the SDS, her characters get “louder and angrier and shriller. They were getting surer they knew the answers—all the answers” (140). Dance the Eagle To Sleep‘s best moments chart how, despite the ideals of gender equality and racial harmony, it is all too easy to slip back into 60s socially constructed modes. Women in the communes take care of children and domestic tasks. Men join the ranks of the warriors. Corey proclaims The Indians a multi-racial movement when the contacts are minor and exploratory. While the media tracks the movement’s defeat with propagandist TV programs, some members of The Indians  become stereotyped shadows of themselves, espousing empty radicalism. Others, like Ginny who found herself while working the vegetable fields, seek solace in the few personal relationships that still provide meaning.

Dance The Eagle To Sleep (1970) excels in its feminist arguments but struggles when it comes to race. According to her biography, Piercy couldn’t get her earlier feminist visions published. While male characters form the majority of the cast, Ginny and Joanna’s evolution chart the realization that women are defined by themselves, not by their relationships to men or societal gender roles (130). The Indians promote gender egalitarianism but, other than Shawn, tend to follow traditional gender roles:

“[The women] got stuck with all the inglorious daily jobs that made the place run. Unless a girl thrust herself forward insistently or forced herself into the warriors, she could spend her tribal life washing dishes and peeling potatoes and changing babies. A few men like Shawn disliked the sexual roles and consciously crossed over to help care for the babies” (125).

Moments like this scream lived experience and serve as a window into how idealism often remains idealism in the face of societal pressure and expectations—even in radical communal living experiments.

On race Dance The Eagle To Sleep is less successful. While Corey’s is of Indian descent, I found the appropriation of Native American culture (his white followers call themselves Indians!) problematic. In addition, the depiction of Marcus as sex-mad perpetuates stereotypes of black men. Joanna even has rape fantasies when her and Corey meet up with Marcus and his fellow survivors (125). Piercy is on firmer ground in her adept characterization of why Corey is desperate to make an alliance with Marcus in order to present his movement as multi-racial.

I found myself drawn in to the new rituals of community created by The Indians. The Dance holds preeminence: “Sometimes boys danced with boys and girls with girls. Occasionally groups of three or four would form. Some of the dancing was passionate, some comic, some competitive and muscular, some consciously graceful or expressive, some overtly sexual” (79). The dance, often under the influence of drugs, transports the participant to another state–where the relationships and rivalries within the community are played out for all to see.

Recommended for fans of Marge Piercy’s other SF novels, 60s/70s literary and cultural history, radical politics, or those sympathetic to the counterculture. I imagine that most readers will be put off by the contents and cast upon it that dismissive aspersion “dated”–no word annoys me more in SF reviews as all creations and creators are of their time.

Deserves a reprint (last printed in 1981) and a Gollancz Masterworks volume.

Edit: There’s a brand new edition via PM Press (US; UK)

~

Fun tangent: I listened to the following albums from 1967/68 while writing this review. Yes, it takes me this long to write a review (after hours of note taking). I get distracted by twitter.

Astral Weeks, Van Morrison (1968) (5/5)

Sweet Child, The Pentangle (1968) (3.5/5)

Aerial Ballet, Nilsson (1968) (3/5)

Spirit, Spirit (1968) (4.5/5)

Gris-Gris, Dr. John, The Night Tripper (1968) (4.5/5)

Peak Impressions, The Freeborne (1967) (2/5)

Music in a Doll’s House, Family (1968) (4.5/5)

The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, Dillard & Clark (1968) (4/5)

(Uncredited cover for the 1981 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1971 edition)

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13 thoughts on “Book Review: Dance The Eagle To Sleep, Marge Piercy (1970)”

  1. I’ve read two Marge Piercy novels: Vida and Woman on the Edge of Time. I found both very good, particularly Woman… Vida, as i recall (more than 20 years after) was about an SDS activist who became an urban terrorist (?) – a touch of the Weather Underground? – and went on the run. The book jumps between her days in the antiwar mvt in the 60s to her later anonymous and more paranoid existence.

    1. I have Woman on the Edge of Time on shelf — I’m very tempted! It’s written after she left SDS and moved to Cape Cod from New York and started gardening (and during the dissolution of her second marriage). Of the characters in this Dance the Eagle to Sleep, I read Piercy as most similar to Ginny. She finds happiness with the soil and bemoans more radical interpretations of the group’s message (espoused by Billy) to violently overthrow the state.

      I suspect there are a LOT of smallish autobiographical references incorporated into the various characters.

      I am intrigued by Vida as well. Perhaps it could be read in dialogue with this one.

      …..oh, and maybe Billy’s radical turn in Dance The Eagle to Sleep is a reference to Weather Underground (which was a faction within SDS). I hadn’t thought of that.

    2. Seems like this book might be interesting to read against Richard Rorty’s excellent long essay “Achieving our country”, in which he analyses how the Left failed in the States because of internal strife.

      Conincidentally, I just bought & listened to Astral Weeks for the first time 2 days ago. Fantastic album indeed.

      1. I am in the process of creating a section of my personal library on the 60s and 70s counterculture (I teach college US history but it’s never been a focus of mine as my PhD is in medieval history). I’ll add that one to the list.

        I bought these:
        1) James Miller’s Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago
        2) Rebecca E. Klatch’s A Generation Divided: The New Left, the New Right, and the 1960s
        3) Arthur Marwick’s The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c.1958-c.1974
        4) Jeffrey Jacob’s New Pioneers: The Back-To-The-Land Movement and the Search for a Sustainable Future

        And just completed #4.

        1. Yes, if you’re that interested in the topic, Achieving Our Country is a must – the text got a second life when Trump got elected, and people went looking for answers as to how that happend.

  2. Characters and writer both sound like a case of we humans will be humans, hopeful, ambitious, passionate, and persistently imperfect, flawed, even.
    Sometimes we forge on.
    Sometimes we despair, dissolve.
    And yet, as one song says, “something always fires the light that gets in your eyes”.
    That light and those eyes can have any one of many, many, different destinies,
    brave new world or burned out cinder.
    Or somewhere in between.
    Often somewhere between.
    Perhaps even usually somewhere between.

    1. And that’s what makes this particular take on the counterculture so fascinating. While written by a participant during the movement, it feels more like a slice-of-life than some utopian formulation.

  3. I commend you for stretching yourself by reviewing this Marge Piercy book. However, what I want to comment about was your music-listening list, and specifically one item on it — Music in a Doll’s House, Family (1968).

    Oh wow. How did you ever find out about those guys? They made absolutely no dent in the U.S., though conceivably aging hipsters in Europe and France would remember them as well — or as little — as they’re recalled in the UK.

    P.S. I’ve now looked t their Wiki and discovered they’ve been veryintermittently active again since 2013.

    1. Mark, I research, read, and press links on Youtube compulsively. I probably found Family on some list on Allmusic more than a decade ago as I am far too young to have lived through any heyday of any of these bands (I’m 33). While my dad is a fan of Van Morrison and Dillard & Clark and I grew up with that type of music, all the rest on the list were things I uncovered myself. A few of the bands above were brand new discoveries. I hadn’t heard or heard of Gris-Gris, Dr. John, The Night Tripper (1968) until yesterday.

      Allmusic review: https://www.allmusic.com/album/gris-gris-mw0000263588

      I used this list to track a few of them down: https://rateyourmusic.com/charts/top/album/1968/2
      I’ll probably work my way through 1969 next.

      Have you read any of Piercy’s SF? Perhaps her better known Women of the Edge of Time?

    2. My father, if he stops by the review, will probably get a laugh out of the music section. My only real act of rebellion was to ignore and dismiss all his esoteric psychedelic music (and The Byrds, and Jorma Kaukonen, and the more folk stuff he listened to) — yet, in times of stress, I still return to it.

  4. [1] You might have a look at DAYS OF RAGE: AMERICA’S RADICAL UNDERGROUND, THE FBI, AND THE FORGOTTEN AGE OF REVOLUTIONARY VIOLENCE by Bryan Burrough (2015) for your 1960s-70s-era reading list. Actually fairly decent reporting on the extent of such activity and goes some ways to redressing what was fairly methodically under-reported by mainstream reporting at the time except for the obvious outbreaks that couldn’t be ignored (e.g. the Symbionese Liberation Army, Jonestown, etc.)

    [2] Dr. John — as you have by now probably surmised — was a lot bigger a deal than just another psychedelic 1960s act and GRIS-GRIS is far from representative, but rather him trying to slant his New Orlean thing towards the then-existing market.

    When he died recently, they had a city-wide day of mourning. Though a white guy, he was the last of the great New Orleans pianists such as Professor Longhair, James Booker, and Allan Toussaint, etc., and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of those styles. New Orleans is where a lot of American music started and down there they still tend not to separate the styles in the way they did and do up North, in Chicago, and in California..

    [3] Family did absolutely nothing in the US and were/are invisible there. Their next two albums after that first one are worth a listen, then they kind of fade away as it became obvious to the group that they wouldn’t ever be big

    1. While I am intrigued by the book, the author is a journalist and not a trained historian — so that’s not something I’m that interested in reading (I am not saying it is without merit. That said, my analogy is a medical researcher wanting to read the work of a fellow medical researcher rather than a popular author who might have read a lot of medical research). The topic intrigues of course!

      I think I have listened to the first three or so Family albums. At one point around a decade ago, I was interested in the other bands of The British Invasion and they came up.

    2. Bandstand, Family’s 6th album, isn’t half bad. Although, I must confess, the art-house pretensions of their earlier works intrigues me more than their later hard rock stylings….

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