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by Toni Jensen
Reviewed by Kathleen Ambrogi

I'll confess that when I read short stories, I often feel as if I'm having a snack, when what I want is a full meal. Not so with Toni Jensen's dazzling collection, From the Hilltop. In just a few pages, she manages to fill in the past, present and enough of the future to leave a reader satisfied. After I finished these stories, the only thing I was hungry for was more Toni Jensen. She's that good.

Here's what you can count on:

These stories don't invite the dangling of toes. You'll be fully immersed from the first sentence. Case in point: "When the cornfield arrived, I was standing in our hotel's kitchen, starting Lester's birthday cake." That's from "At the Powwow Hotel," an irresistible tale of a bereaved family and a walking cornfield. And consider this for a knockout first sentence: "I was in Raider's doghouse, my knees up under my chin," or, "The day after the third baby was born dead, the dog appeared at the end of the lane." Don't even glance at the next story if you want to turn off the light and go to sleep. One peek, and you'll be hooked.

These stories are personal. Mostly through first person narrators, you'll see directly into the hearts of characters who are both unique and immediately recognizable. Some of them are young, like the girl who dreams of being a Dairy Princess and having her face carved in butter at the State Fair, or the runaway boy genius who crawls out the window rather than follow his teacher's orders. Others are world-weary, like the professor who's been fired for flagrantly courting a much-younger student, or the reclusive alcoholic whose sister enlists her as chaperone for a school field trip. It only takes one page to hear each voice clearly, and to enlist in the protagonist's battle for survival.

Finally, these stories focus on the lives of contemporary American Indians. Although there are no tales on the reservation and Indian-ness is not the point of every tale, the characters carry their heritage with them like ancient scrapbooks, faded and difficult to decipher, but nonetheless precious. From story to story, recurrent themes begin to feel like old friends: dark-haired individuals surrounded by blondes, lost relatives somewhere to the north, Blackfoot and Métis, mixed race and uncertain parentage, a yearning to find what's been lost.

But don't get me wrong. Although there's plenty of drama, and a fair portion of pain, these are more than anything stories of hope. The characters are still in process, but they're scrappy, decent, unflinching in their struggles to protect their families. And we know they'll ultimately triumph because they carry the hearts of warriors.

I loved getting to know every one of them, and I can't get over the feeling that I'll run into some of them again some day. Maybe at the grocery store or the local bar. Like I said, Toni Jensen is that good.