Carter Meland was in his thirties when he discovered he had Native American ancestors. A phone call delivered the news that his paternal grandfather, who Carter never knew, was Anishinabe. Further research led to the discovery that his great-grandmother was the last family member to live on the reservation in northern Minnesota.
This remarkable family history became the centerpiece of Meland’s first novel, Stories for a Lost Child. Though fictional, the novel parallels Meland’s own discovery about his family’s lineage. The writing, he says, was a way for him to process the discovery, what it means to him to be Anishinabe and the questions it sparks. “I used to think the question I was dealing with was, what does it mean to be Anishinabe?,” Meland said. “And I’ve started to realize that’s not the question for people like me that have come to it later in life. The question to me is, what does it mean to not know you’re Anishinaabe?”
The main character in Stories for a Lost Child is a teenage girl named Fiona. It’s a choice Meland made to reflect some of the students he’s had as teacher of American Indian Literature at the University of Minnesota. “I chose a young woman, in particular, because of the young women students that have shared their experience of not knowing and trying to figure out what their relationship is going to be to their tribe,” Meland says. “I know, just from the encounters with students over these 20 years of teaching, that there are other people asking these same questions. So I’m not only exploring my own questions, but I’m also sharing that experience with others who are going through their own process of coming to know what this might mean in their life.”
A story worth understanding
Meland’s work caught the eye of Minnesota’s literary community in 2018. Stories for a Lost Child was one of four finalists for the Minnesota Book Award in the Novel and Short Story category. Though he didn’t win, Meland was overwhelmed by the experience. “To be recognized with writers of that caliber was a real privilege. To be in this category with one of my writing heroes, Louise Erdrich, was just really a dream come true,” he said.
He continued, “It really was important for me to know that the book was reaching my peers, people who value literature. So that it reached the judges and the other people involved in the nominating process really sort of meant ‘Your book might not sell a million copies, but people who understand stories have decided this story is worth understanding.’”