“A Calm and Normal Heart”: Eclectic, Witty and Searching

Chelsea T. Hicks’ debut story collection, A Calm and Normal Heart, is an eclectic, witty, sometimes bittersweet portrait of Indigenous characters on harrowing journeys of self-discovery, often between Oklahoma and California. 

In this twelve-story collection, we see a modern depiction of wholly Indigenous struggles. A woman of the Osage tribe returns from California to her small hometown in Oklahoma and attempts to understand a friend with outdated ideas about gender roles in “Tsexope.” Florence, a descendent of an Osage chief, struggles with corralling her children into her seemingly picture-perfect second marriage in “A Fresh Start.” Mary, a college student in San Francisco, attempts to connect with potential friends while celebrating Thanksgiving, a holiday she has never recognized in her own home in “By Alcatraz.” 

And all of this happens just in the first fifty pages. As the collection goes on, we meet a number of different characters and get an intimate look into their messy, aimless, and relatable attempts to find a place in the world. 

This collection is also an installment in continuing a legacy of language. Hicks, a member of the Osage tribe herself, is intentional in her inclusion of Wazhazehe, the living language of her nation. She recently described the work of writing and publishing in Indigenous languages as a “responsibility [that] can provide healing and life” in an interview with Catapult. She goes on to say: 

“I often feel like I want to give up in this. My iko went to an Indian boarding school and she did not have much of her ancestral cultural practice still available to her. I have had to reconnect to my own tribe to an extent, building on the work my parents did, and learning my own language as an adult. Why, I sometimes wonder, are we asked to survive and hold on to these cultures?... The reason I continue is because I love my culture and I have always felt my ancestors on my shoulder blades, since the first time I danced in our I^loshka ceremonial dances beside my iko with women in our family.” 

For Indigenous people such as Hicks, the past is an obvious source of pain, but connecting with it also brings joy. In A Calm and Normal Heart, these opposing and co-existent sentiments are very present in the mindsets of its characters. Written with a dry wit and strings of sharp, beautiful, lyrical prose, each story is entrenched in conflicting forces; past and present, tradition and modernity, ancestry and posterity, danger and safety, known and unknown.  

The stories do not condemn each extreme, but there is an examination of how characters try to avoid either end of these spectrums. One poignant example of this is depicted in “Full Tilt,” the only story that is linked to another in the collection. In it, we see the drama of “A Fresh Start” coming to a head in each of Florence’s children, now older, world-weary, and questioning the potential of continued existence outside of Florence’s carefully-curated lifestyle. 

“Chief invited us to help plan the next cultural trip. I’d like to take you. You’d go free if you just do a bit of work…"

"I don’t want to talk about the price of oil or whatever you fight over. I have class."

A vision of Paris came to Vera. She wore a breezy picnic sheet dress among tulips. 

Florence handed Vera her hat. "You’ve gained weight. A trip could walk that off. You’d just miss a week of class. You can do that, can’t you?”

After this, Vera goes to see her boyfriend, what seems like a rejection of her mother’s wishes for her. Florence’s other children, Lora and David John, however, seem to come to an opposite conclusion that their mother is a “beautiful person, because she never stops trying to change and get her family what [they] need.” It’s a split resolution, one that embodies the varied responses to some of the issues and characters that arise in the book.

At times, the unsettled nature of the narrative voice and chance occurrences like a shooting in “Brother” or a miscommunication and arrest in “My Kind of Woman” left me perplexed, slightly off-kilter. I would not be surprised, however, if this was Hicks’ intent. It’s a collection with modern, forward-thinking characters still rooted in ancestry and superstition, one that honestly depicts the struggles of young people as part of an Indigenous nation. In addition to the enjoyment of the stories themselves, perhaps the point is to read them and be a little unsettled. 

A Calm and Normal Heart
By Chelsea T. Hicks
Unnamed Press
Published June 21, 2022