Stories about identity can be slow and introspective, but not Melanie S. Hatter’s The Color of My Soul, which moves at a disarmingly fast clip. This new novel, which won the Washington Writer’s Publishing House annual fiction award, depicts a young, African-American reporter in southwest Virginia in the early 1990s who discovers her long-absent father is white. Because the journalist, Kira, is working on a feature on the local Cherokee tribe, the plot spins together two strands—her own mixed heritage, and the unmixed background of the tribe’s young scion. Clearly Hatter draws on lots of Native American lore in this region, “where the Blue Ridge meets the Alleghenies,” and the Cherokee names are lovingly recorded: Chief Gray Wolf, Long Arrow, Singing Bird, Strong Fist, Braided Hair, and Eagle Wing.
History abounds: “The Cherokee people had been forced out of Southwest Virginia in the late 1700s when settlers were claiming the land for themselves…We made our own clothes, our own tools; whatever we needed, we made a way to survive. We paid taxes, but still the state refused to call us citizens.” The young man destined to lead the clan is ambivalent and often eager to escape, a woodworker who would rather devote himself to his art than chair meetings in community centers or make an acceptable marriage to preserve his family’s line. Kira, on the other hand, is stunned, nearly immobilized at the novel’s opening by the news that her father did not die in Vietnam and was not black.
The plot jolts her into action—principally the standard, unthinking bias in the coverage of the black community by the small Fort Lewis newspaper where she works. “They think one story on Native Americans or one story featuring a black person makes up for years and years of nothing at all,” Kira says, shortly before becoming embroiled in a dustup over diversity in newsroom hiring, story assignments, and the coverage of non-white matters. This dispute highlights the unpleasant aspects of small-town life, isolation, and thinking and motivates Kira to set her sights on a career in Washington, D.C. “These days the urge to bolt from Fort Lewis and stop only when her muscles and breath couldn’t carry her any farther was overwhelming.” Her little city, with its somewhat affluent white suburbs, shabbier black districts, dreary white trailer parks, rather separate Cherokee tribe, and boringly predictable newspaper, could be Anywhere, U.S.A., and it becomes so stultifying for Kira that by the novel’s end, she’s either in her car or on a plane and getting the hell out. These forays alleviate the near claustrophobia of the book’s Fort Lewis setting, giving the protagonist a chance to wake up from the closeness, look around at the world, and recollect that when home is no longer bearable, one can always go, or at least consider going, somewhere else.