MEAN SPIRIT

By Linda Hogan

Atheneum. 374 pp. $19.95

The strong, vibrant heart of a people betrayed beats throughout Linda Hogan's magical, brooding and richly textured first novel, "Mean Spirit."

Set in 1922-23 during Oklahoma's oil boom, "Mean Spirit" describes the fierce, bloody conflict between Osage Indians and whites when oil is discovered on Indian property. In this highly charged atmosphere, greedy whites resort to any means to obtain rights to the Indians' oil-rich land. They trick Indians on oil lease ownership or have them declared mentally incompetent and thereby confiscate their property. They marry oil-rich Indian women. They even resort to murder. In one year alone 17 wealthy Indians have been killed on the Osage reservation.

The novel focuses on two Osage Indian families, the Grayclouds and the Blankets. Belle Graycloud, proud and matriarchal, clings tightly to her traditional Indian culture while keeping her distance from the white world. Grace Blanket, on the other hand, was the first of her tribe to come down from the mountains to the town of Watona and enter into "the quick and wobbly world of mixed-blood Indians, white loggers, cattle ranchers, and most recently, the oil barons."

In time, Grace, through the federal government's Dawes Act, is given 160 acres of seemingly useless, dried-up land. When oil is discovered on her property, however, Grace becomes the wealthiest Indian in Watona. But a few years later, in full view of her daughter Nola and Nola's friend, Rena Graycloud, Grace is brutally slain. The killing sets in motion a murderous frenzy as Grace's land and the land of other Indians is suddenly up for grabs.

As reports of these incidents reach the larger city newspapers, they catch the eye of Stace Red Hawk, an Indian working for the U.S. Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C. He decides to go to Oklahoma to investigate but soon finds himself hampered not only by corrupt federal and local officials, but by his apathetic partners as well. More importantly, he becomes agonizingly torn between the modern world as exemplified by Watona's garishly conspicuous wealth and the centuries-old Indian traditions.

More than the battle over oil, "Mean Spirit" is about the cultural disintegration of the Osage Indian tribe as the white world intrudes upon the Indians' natural environment. This cultural conflict appears virtually on every page and the author uses oil as the chief metaphor to express it. After Grace Blanket is murdered, people who drive past her home, half expecting to see her familiar wave and smile, witness instead "an enormous crater a gas well blowout made in the earth" near her house.

"The water was gone from that land forever, the trees dead, and the grass, once long and rich, was burned black ... and not far from there, they passed another oil field where pumps, fueled by diesel, worked day and night. These bruised fields were noisy and dark. The earth had turned oily black. Blue flames rose up and roared like torches of burning gas. The earth bled oil."

But when the author shows us the Indians in their native environment in the beautiful hills far from Watona's oil-stained vices, it is as relieving for the reader as leaping back onto Huck Finn's raft after one of his frightful, shoreside adventures. It is here that Linda Hogan, herself a member of the Chickasaw tribe, reveals to us a culture so harmoniously in tune with nature that it appears -- indeed, is -- magical. It is a world where an Indian, lying on the ground, can feel the earth moving through his body. A place where people pay special heed to their dreams and routinely take advice from voices in the river and the hooting of owls. A place where a meteorite pendant can save an Indian squaw from a rifle blast and where a man can actually return from the dead and live among his friends as if nothing had happened.

While a wide streak of "magic realism" runs through "Mean Spirit," it nevertheless addresses achingly real problems that most current novelists would probably choose to shy away from. My one criticism is that Stace Red Hawk, in whom the author has invested such a wonderfully insightful, cultural consciousness, definitely should have been introduced much sooner into the story. Other than that, Linda Hogan has given us, in beautifully spare and unpretentious prose, a powerful work filled with characters we come to care for.

The reviewer frequently writes about contemporary fiction.