Reviews of A Council of Dolls by Mona Power

A Council of Dolls

A Novel

by Mona Susan Power

A Council of Dolls by Mona Susan Power X
A Council of Dolls by Mona Susan Power
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  • Published:
    Aug 2023, 304 pages


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Book Summary

The long-awaited, profoundly moving, and unforgettable new novel from PEN Award–winning Native American author Mona Susan Power, spanning three generations of Yanktonai Dakota women from the 19th century to the present day.

From the mid-century metropolis of Chicago to the windswept ancestral lands of the Dakota people, to the bleak and brutal Indian boarding schools, A Council of Dolls is the story of three women, told in part through the stories of the dolls they carried….

Sissy, born 1961: Sissy's relationship with her beautiful and volatile mother is difficult, even dangerous, but her life is also filled with beautiful things, including a new Christmas present, a doll called Ethel. Ethel whispers advice and kindness in Sissy's ear, and in one especially terrifying moment, maybe even saves Sissy's life.

Lillian, born 1925: Born in her ancestral lands in a time of terrible change, Lillian clings to her sister, Blanche, and her doll, Mae. When the sisters are forced to attend an "Indian school" far from their home, Blanche refuses to be cowed by the school's abusive nuns. But when tragedy strikes the sisters, the doll Mae finds her way to defend the girls.

Cora, born 1888: Though she was born into the brutal legacy of the "Indian Wars," Cora isn't afraid of the white men who remove her to a school across the country to be "civilized." When teachers burn her beloved buckskin and beaded doll Winona, Cora discovers that the spirit of Winona may not be entirely lost…

A modern masterpiece, A Council of Dolls is gorgeous, quietly devastating, and ultimately hopeful, shining a light on the echoing damage wrought by Indian boarding schools, and the historical massacres of Indigenous people. With stunning prose, Mona Susan Power weaves a spell of love and healing that comes alive on the page.

A Council of Dolls

Both my parents are tall, my father Lakota tall from South Dakota, my mother Dakota tall from North Dakota. Dad was in the Korean War, fought near a place called the Yalu River. Mama wrote the name down for me, along with the name of Dad's medals and his Marine unit. She said I should be proud of him, as if I wasn't. She said he was so tough, being an Indian from the Dakotas, that he could stand the cold better than most troops, and he wasn't too fussy to eat anything. No one thought he'd come home alive, but he did. His older brother died over there; the one Mama was supposed to marry.

The one she said should have been my father. She said it real quiet when she thought I was asleep. But I heard her. I wonder who I would be if my uncle had been my dad. Maybe I wouldn't be Sissy who dreams herself into songs, who spills her milk at dinner, who makes Mama so angry. I have a bunch of secret thoughts, and one of them is that I'm glad Dad is my father, even if it...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. Sissy's dad says of her beautiful but violent mother: "Your mama is great at fighting for us, fighting for our community. Sometimes people take their anger and use it in a good way." How does Sissy's mama channel her rage in a positive way? Does it compensate for the damage her anger does otherwise?
  2. What role does Ethel the doll play in Sissy's life? In the final climactic scene of Sissy's narrative, she hears Ethel say "I took care of it. Somebody had to." How did you interpret that? Do we gain any additional insight at the end of the book, when we hear Ethel explain her own version of events?
  3. As you learned more about Jack's and Lillian's childhoods, did that change your understanding of who they became as adults? Did you feel ...
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BookBrowse Review


Beautiful prose, profound sentences and a well-woven story. This is a must read (Karna B). Power's writing is pure poetry. At the heart of this novel is her belief that language itself is power (Janice P). The childhood dolls of each of the women inform and enhance their stories in a most surprising and marvelous way. Although all of the other characters are important to adding dimension to this book, Ethel, Mae and Winona are essential to making this a unique novel that I will never forget! (Jeanne P)...continued

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(Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Power's deep knowledge of Indigenous history comes through in keen depictions of the Indian schools, and she illuminates the characters's struggles with generational trauma, which arise as they try to sustain their connections to the past. This story of survival shines brightly.

Kirkus Reviews
Power's book contains many evocative moments and even more lyrical passages... An occasionally moving book that's been steeped a minute too long in sentimentality.

Author Blurb Margot Livesey, author of The Boy in the Field
This tender and magical novel will stay with me for a long time. Mona Susan Power writes with dazzling empathy. The result is a heart-rending and many-layered narrative, a captivating story which is also a thrilling testimonial to the power of stories.

Author Blurb Marie Myung-Ok Lee, author of The Evening Hero
A Council of Dolls reached out, grabbed me and did not let go. Power's ability to make language sing, cry, scream, and laugh illuminates this heartstopper of a book that shines a light into the dark corners of America's history. I wanted the generational journey I was taking with these unforgettable characters—and their dolls—to never end. Read it--and be healed.

Author Blurb Sheila O'Connor, author of Evidence of V
A work of exquisite beauty and courageous truth-telling, and an unforgettable homage to ancestral suffering and strength.

Reader Reviews

prem singh

An Entrancing Winding of Flexibility and Recovery
'A Council of Dolls', written by Mona Susan Power, is a fully composed story that takes readers on an epic journey through the time period, culture and the continuing spirit of three generations of Yanktonai Dakota women. In this energetically ...   Read More

A Profound Tapestry of Resilience and Redemption
Mona Susan Power's "A Council of Dolls" intricately threads the lives of three Yanktonai Dakota women across generations, from the 19th century to the present day. Sissy, Lillian, and Cora's stories unfold against a backdrop ranging from Chicago to ...   Read More
Marcia C. (Jeffersonville, PA)

An Argument for Kindness
Mona Susan Power is a strong voice for her Native American People. Although a work of fiction, A Council of Dolls reads in part like an intensely written personal memoir describing the uprooting of Dakota children taken from their homes and sent to ...   Read More
Sheila B. (Danvers, MA)

Very intense read. Highly recommend.
I was so engaged with the characters in this book. It's the story of three generations of Native American girls, each telling their story in the first person, but also through their beloved dolls who are actually their alter egos. Their experiences ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Books About Native Residential School Experiences

Covers of books about native residential school experiences mentioned in article Recent years have seen increased awareness of the ongoing trauma created by historical residential schools for Native children in North America, which were operated by government bodies and churches beginning in approximately the mid-1800s, and lasting until the 1960s in the United States and the 1990s in Canada. Hundreds of thousands of children were forcibly removed from their families and taken to these institutions, where they were subject to mistreatment and abuse, including being stripped of their cultural practices and languages. In 2021, the buried bodies of 215 children were found at Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, prompting new mainstream consciousness of the scope and severity of this historical ...

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