Native author finds healing beneath the full moon

Woman poses next to separate photo of book cover
"A Council of Dolls" by Mona Susan Power.
Courtesy of Mona Susan Power

Mona Susan Power’s newest novel, “A Council of Dolls,” traces the echoing damage of American Indian boarding schools through three generations of women — and their dolls.

In a narrative moving backwards in time, Power explores generational trauma and how the actions of parents impact their children. The book follows three young girls: Sissy in mid-century Chicago, her mother Lillian in 1925 on ancestral Dakota lands and Cora, Lillian’s mother and Sissy’s grandmother, in the aftermath of the Indian Wars in the late 1800s.

“A Council of Dolls” is nominated for a Minnesota Book Award. Mona joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about her experience writing this historical book.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: A Minnesota author is being recognized for her latest novel, A Council of Dolls. Mona Susan Power traces the echoing damage of American Indian boarding schools through three generations of women and their dolls. Here's an excerpt of Mona reading from the book.

MONA SUSAN POWER: The Bureau of Indian Affairs doctor says I was born with a hole in the heart. It's the main thing I remember about myself and who I am.

CATHY WURZER: A Council of Dolls follows three young girls. Sissy is in mid-century Chicago. Her mother Lillian, who we just heard from, is in 1925 on ancestral Dakota lands. Cora, Lillian's mother and Sissy's grandmother, is in the aftermath of the Indian wars in the late 1800s. The book is nominated for a Minnesota Book Award. And I am so very pleased that Mona Susan Power is on the line to talk about the experience of writing this book. It's good to hear your voice.

MONA SUSAN POWER: Thank you so much for having me. I'm just really-- I'm so grateful to be able to talk to you today.

CATHY WURZER: Well, thanks for taking the time. Now, I have to be honest with you. I've heard of, of course, telling stories through the eyes of children, but not through their dolls. So tell me about the choice of doing something like that.

MONA SUSAN POWER: Well, I have to say, because I am what I call an intuitive writer, I sometimes feel as if I don't have a lot of choice in the matter. I will have characters just kind of inhabit my head with showing me different images, or I'll hear a line of dialogue. And so, while I had the intention of writing a story about a little girl and her mother and their fractious kind of relationship, I had no doll in mind.

But as I was writing a scene, all of a sudden, Ethel, a tiny Thumbelina doll, which is a doll I actually had when I was a child, suddenly was in the scene. And I thought, OK, here we go. [LAUGHS] And she was talking to her little-- I was going to say, talking to her little girl, you know, the little girl who she belongs to. So, yeah, she just kind of took over. Ethel really just demanded to be in the story.

CATHY WURZER: So what animates the dolls?

MONA SUSAN POWER: Well, I wrote them very carefully so that the reader can either believe that they actually do have spirit and agency and are very real and alive, or that they are really a product of the girls' imaginations, that the girls are manifesting a protector, a confidant they need during traumatic times. So I never have adults around them or other people hear the dolls speak or see the dolls move. It's always limited to the little girl's point of view when it comes to the animation of the dolls.

CATHY WURZER: What's the story that you're trying to get across in this book?

MONA SUSAN POWER: It's very much a story about intergenerational healing. Again, I didn't consciously set out to write this book. I wrote a short story for a writing contest back in 2019. And it was a section of part one of A Council of Dolls is that short story. And it wasn't until a year later that a dear friend said, you could expand this into a novel. And that's where the idea began to roll around in my head.

But at first, I thought that I would stick to Sissy's story in the 1960s, which is inspired by my own experience growing up in Chicago during that era. But as I was expanding upon that story, I thought, wait a minute. I want people to understand why her mother is as challenging as she is. I don't want to villainize this mother. So I thought, huh, why don't I add her story?

And then as I was developing that part of the book, I thought, wait a minute, Jack, this father, Jack, is so problematic, but I don't want people to judge him either. So I decided to make it three generations so that in any given chapter, readers might not like one of the parental figures very much and might judge them, but then in the next section, you see them as a child going through very difficult times, so perhaps you would be less judgmental and more compassionate because I didn't want to villainize these parents. If there is a villain in the book, it would be the process of colonization itself.

CATHY WURZER: I'm glad you brought up healing because, of course, folks remember you for your debut novel, The Grass Dancer, highly acclaimed, fabulous book. You were riding pretty high, and then life took a turn for you and you had some serious struggles. And I'm wondering, was there trepidation in sitting down and writing this book, given those past struggles?

MONA SUSAN POWER: Actually, by the time I sat down to write this book, I feel as if I had gotten past the worst of those days and those times, because I had spent a lot of time sort of wandering through the trauma. Sometimes we don't even know what we need to heal, so the first step is to identify, what's going on? Why am I sabotaging myself?

And so once I began to identify what was going on, then the healing work began. So I had massive breakthroughs by the fall of 2019 after years and years of working on myself. And that's when I was ready to begin life again. And I am beyond grateful to have this second chance.

CATHY WURZER: So knowing that it takes a while to heal and that it is a process, you're on the other side at this point. So what have you learned about yourself, as a writer?

MONA SUSAN POWER: I'm going to separate that out into two parts. As a person first, I've learned that we inherit so much more from previous generations than we might think. And of course, we inherit good, too. Most of us, we come from survivors. And there's a hearty strength to that and determination. And there's a lot of generosity in my families.

However, I realized, oh, I'm carrying a lot of old shame and trauma from my parents and from their parents. And I need to get rid of this. This isn't serving any of us. And so once I started to unpack all of that and just let it slide off of me, which is not easy-- at least not for me, but it is possible-- then, as a writer, I felt ready to be more fearless than I had been before. I wasn't constantly checking myself and criticizing myself.

I think, yeah, I'm not the greatest at anything. I mean, who is the greatest? Don't worry about that. Just stick with these characters. Stick with these ideas that are fascinating you, that energy of inspiration, and stop secondguessing yourself.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, that must be so freeing, especially you're in the sixth decade of life, right? So it sounds like you've just thrown off all of these shackles, and good for you.

MONA SUSAN POWER: Thank you. It is amazing. And there is a scene towards the end of this book, A Council of Dolls, where Sissy is now grown up, and she isn't exactly me. I made Sissy grown up actually more successful [LAUGHS] than I've been in real life.

And however, there is this scene where she finally gets it, where it's sort of almost like in My Fair Lady where she has that breakthrough and she's able to speak English perfectly or what have you. I know it's a horrible, misogynistic [INAUDIBLE] story.

But in my case, it's like, by George, I've got it! And the shame just-- it's like it all just left me in one huge rush. And it was a night of the super full moon. And I just had to go outside to just sort of shake it off, just shake it off metaphorically. It was just such a profound moment. So I wrote that scene in the book. It's real. It happened to me. And that just changed everything.

And what's sad, though, is, this was in the fall of 2019, and I thought, yay, I'm ready to be out in the world again. And then, womp womp, a few months later, lockdown time.


CATHY WURZER: Well, it's interesting that this happened during the full moon, I mean, because, well, full moon represents completion, abundance, transformation, those sorts of things. Very interesting.

MONA SUSAN POWER: And it was one of those super full moons where the moon looked so large, so close, almost as if you could just reach out and touch it. And so, it was really remarkable, yeah.

CATHY WURZER: There are no accidents in the universe, Mona.



CATHY WURZER: That's what they say, anyway. So, what do you hope goes through a reader's head when they get to that last page and they finish and they're done?

MONA SUSAN POWER: More than anything, that if they, too, struggle with inner demons, insecurities, self-loathing, a lot of people have these ugly inner scripts that trip us up, that, for example, if you make a mistake, that inner voice will say, well, of course, you're always making mistakes. It will heap acid on the mistake. Or if you do something good, it will say, well, look, you've had every opportunity in the world. My God, you should have done well.

And so, it took me so long to change that script around into a loving one, where I became my own best ally, and it was actually Buddhist authors who helped me, even though I'm not Buddhist, books that taught me how to retrain the mind. So really, what I'd want a reader to take away is that radical change for the better is possible. It truly is, even when we're older. Sometimes people think, well, I'm getting older now, and I'm just the way I am. No. If you want to change, it is possible.

CATHY WURZER: I love that. It's been such a treat to talk with you, Mona. I am so happy for your success, and thank you so much. And best of luck when it comes to the Minnesota Book Awards.

MONA SUSAN POWER: Thank you. Thank you very much. I really had fun talking with you.

CATHY WURZER: That was Minnesota Book Award nominee Mona Susan Power. She's the author of her newest book, A Council of Dolls.

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