One woman writer bucks the Ellie trend

ASME this week has justifiably been slammed for a batch of Ellie finalists that names no women writers in the so-called major categories. I say so-called because I happen to think public interest ranks right up there. The naming of finalists (and eventually winners) always prompts me to read important pieces I missed the first time around. That was the case with this Harper’s feature by Kathy Dobie in the February 2011 issue.

I dare anyone to read the story, “Tiny Little Laws: A plague of sexual violence in Indian Country,” and not feel sick with shame and rage. Dobie’s reporting included a deep dive into reports and stats, plus five weeks on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas, where the Bureau of Indian Affairs blocked her access at every opportunity. She persevered to tell a searing tale of rank injustice for rape victims. Thanks to a tangle of overlapping jurisdictions, impotent laws, and negligent law enforcement — all of which Dobie explains with clarity in powerful, simple prose — sex crimes routinely go unpunished. She shows the effects: flashes of vigilante justice, but more often a culture of helplessness and hopelessness. Dobie writes,

On many reservations, women have given up on the idea of justice and have come to consider sexual assault as just another part of their rough lot. When I asked the head of a women’s shelter on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota for the prior year’s figures on reported rapes, she said there hadn’t been any, and then laughed gruffly. “We used to have thirty to forty reported rapes a month,” she told me. “Now we get one.” Since no other crime statistic was going down and the reservation was, in fact, getting more lawless every year—her shelter kept filling up with bruised and beaten women who, if you asked gently, would almost always reveal that yes, they had been sexually assaulted at this or that time in their lives—one official report of rape a month could only mean that rape victims had stopped going to the police.

Dobie gives voice to victims, and to the few who give them aid and comfort, with scenes a reader can’t soon forget. At times the story feels scattershot, skipping from one problem to the next. But then that’s the point: an accumulation of wide-ranging horrors; a broken, unjust system. There’s another point this makes as well: Dobie did women writers proud with this one.

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