A review of A Fire at the Center by Karen Van Fossan

Reviewed by Peter Huff

A Fire at the Center: Solidarity, Whiteness, and Becoming a Water Protector
By Karen Van Fossan
Skinner House Books
October 2023, 288 pages, $20.00, Paper, ISBN: 9781558969100

This remarkable spiritual memoir tells the story of how one woman learned the cost of authenticity in an age of incessant empire. With an appealing blend of gentle grace and formidable soul-force, Karen Van Fossan narrates her struggle to find wholeness in the context of the Indigenous-led Water Protector movement and its determination to resist the death drive of the corporate carceral complex. The book is part confession, part dream, part indictment. It is chiefly a candid tale of awakening and activism—a dispatch from “fly-over country” where colonial quests hatched in boardrooms fester and life in river courses and around gathering fires sometimes gets a second chance. A Fire at the Center introduces us to a fresh and credible voice. More importantly, it reintroduces us to the unity of poetry and prophecy often lacking in socially engaged first-person writing.

The voice will be new to most readers but not to all. Van Fossan has a growing reputation as a regional writer, and her work in sermon and song is known in circles where activism and art converge. Her educational path has led through an improbable series of institutions, from Cambridge to America’s first Buddhist university, and she has earned her daily bread in at least two of Freud’s “impossible” professions—plus dance plus journalism plus theater plus ministry. As Ari Goldman reminds us in The Search for God at Harvard, divinity schools are not havens for the pious but halfway houses for Wall Street refugees and the equivalent of mountain retreats for seekers discerning still small voices. Anyone accounting for the accents of Van Fossan’s not-so-still voice will have to reckon with the rich variety of stations along her pilgrim way.

They will also have to reckon with Standing Rock—not so much the place that the U.S. government calls a Reservation, though place is important, but the movement that opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline and the phenomenon that made Lawrence Welk’s home state the unlikely epicenter for a global network of radical decolonization. Van Fossan offers a riveting firsthand account of the historic Standing Rock experience and the joys and challenges of Oceti Sakowin camp, the sprawling multicultural village on the plain where she was “one of a hundred thousand relatives” and whose cry of defiance and celebration—Mni wiconi (Water is life)!—captivated the world. 

Van Fossan’s Unitarian Universalist congregation, one of three in the whole state, was the only religious organization from nearby Bismarck offering material and moral support to the camp. Tensions were high, and the lie of midwestern nice was exposed daily before an international media audience. Van Fossan delivered toilet paper, washed dishes, chanted prayers, and served spoonfuls of rice by the hundreds. That was the spiritual craft of the place. And that, she says, as the long hot summer of 2016 turned to bleak midwinter and eventual forced evacuation, is how she joined the resistance: “I had become a participant in the uprising at Standing Rock via paper products.”

If every story has beginning, middle, and end, Standing Rock is the middle of this one but not the center. What grants coherence to Van Fossan’s narrative is a lifelong sense of things not right and things aching to be right. No empirical evidence suggests the universe actually bends toward justice. Activists, however, are probably born convinced it must. In Van Fossan’s case, this birthright creed leads to the dismantling of nearly the full set of modernity’s inherited orthodoxies—patriarchal, sexual, theological, political, economic, educational, and racial. Her dancer’s sense of balance keeps the story from lapsing into a scorched-earth attack on unenlightened childhood and benighted elder generations. A specter, as Marx might say, haunts memoir, and its name is Cliché. Evidently Van Fossan’s portfolio includes literary exorcist among her diverse vocational competencies. Wry and tender retellings of a Christmas Eve communion service, lessons in the wake of adolescent friendship misfortune, and a close-call with a suspicious sheriff win the reader’s trust but also warn of disenchantments yet to come. 

The real center of the book is Van Fossan’s quarrel with whiteness, a “uniform” thrust upon her by powers once rooted in altar and crown and now enshrined in courtroom and corner office. She is especially driven to track down the genesis of whiteness as a self-conscious state of being and reveal its destructive effects on political, social, environmental, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing. She leans heavily into the Columbus-Custer axis and, fond of wide horizons, extends her gaze to include ancient Europe and current agents of white nationalism—all while scanning other broad vistas for sources of spiritual healing, especially wisdom from Indigenous traditions. She is less successful in her pursuit of viable models of white allyship. The murderer John Brown hardly seems the way forward. 

In this complex process, Van Fossan skillfully avoids cultural appropriation and Pretendian fantasies and rises above the jargon wars currently eviscerating activist communities. She will likely offend linguistic police who spend more time quibbling over terminology than creating spaces of truth and reconciliation. But Van Fossan is much more interested in herself, that is, in her evolving awareness that whiteness represents the burden of knowing she has ancestors and a family history far beyond her control and her explanation. In the end, she says, whiteness is the “embodiment of an illusion.” A Fire at the Center is not another addition to the white fragility canon. It is a deep voyage into the catastrophic mystery of the colonization of the mind. 

Tragically, it is captivity of the body that drives home such realizations. We cannot take our eyes off Van Fossan’s self-portrait in custody at the site of the Minnesota Line 3 pipeline protests during 2021: zip-tied, confined in a “bright white cage on wheels” courtesy of Hubbard County, and catching a narrow glimpse of the same big sky that witnessed centuries of theft, massacre, resistance, survival, and renewal. This is one of the most powerful images in a book filled with unforgettable images and one of the most powerful turning-points in a life filled with unforgettable turning-points. Few things threaten the authoritarian state and its capitalist lords more than a woman who prays on land she does not own.

Written with hard-won insight, humble humor, and contagious love for her embattled homeland, Van Fossan’s A Fire at the Center speaks compellingly to anyone uncomfortable in their own skin and itching for a more perfect union with others. The ill-conceived subtitle suggests manifesto or social scientific analysis. What Van Fossan delivers is life—a progress report on a directed but unfinished life, painfully acquainted with ambiguity and exquisitely cast in vibrant minimalist prose. Ultimately, the shadow of the book left in the reader’s mind is neither bound wrists nor angry fist but palms, unchastened, reverently touching. The final chapter concludes with Van Fossan on the banks of one of her cherished prairie rivers, after some fifteen hours of North Dakota summer sun, with “the soles of my feet taking root, through weeds and sand and rock, to the living waters below.” Van Fossan translates Mni wiconi into the dimensions of the printed page. Seekers yearning to unite love and justice, contemplation and action, realism and hope will drink from this stream again and again.

About the reviewer: Peter Huff writes non-fiction and has taught religious studies at universities across the United States. His essays and reviews have appeared in Civil War Book Review, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Quaker History, and Quest. His books include Atheism and Agnosticism, selected for Library Journal’s Best Reference Works of 2021.