Counting Coup/by Larry Colton
Warner Books, $24.95
"A skinny 17-year-old Indian girl just can't be this good," marveled Colton the first time he saw Sharon LaForge sink a spectacular lefthanded reverse layup. It was the early 1990s, and Colton had gone to the Crow reservation in Montana to puzzle over the mysteries of Native American basketball: Why are so many reservations obsessed with hoops? Why do so many talented high school players fail to get college scholarships? LaForge's face caught Colton's attention as much as her game did, partly, he confesses, because she was so pretty, but more important, because she seemed at one moment the picture of concentration and the next "miles away." Perhaps it was his imagination, but he sensed she was "being torn in half, and consequently hurt like hell."
It was not his imagination, and Colton's dramatic, intimate story of LaForge's senior year at Hardin High is by turns uplifting and excruciating. There is nothing especially lovable about LaForge. She's an ordinary kid with deep-seated problems that are common among the Crow. She rarely sees her father; on the reservation, "involved fathers are as scarce as halibut," writes Colton. Nor does she see much of her hard-drinking mother, Karna, except on certain game nights when Karna comes tottering into the gym, shouting and waving to her daughter, whom she calls Babycakes. This is humiliating to the otherwise tough LaForge, who, on one occasion, has to wipe her tears with the shoulder strap of her jersey before attempting a crucial free throw. She misses.
There is also prejudice. When LaForge's team, the Lady Bulldogs (half Crow and half white), travels to a Catholic high school in Billings, the crowd taunts them with "Don't look now, squaw!" and "Go back to the rez!" No adult intervenes.
Faced with these challenges, and many others, LaForge makes bad decisions about school, dope and men. As she spins toward disaster, Colton grows increasingly distressed about her future and how her life will turn out. "I'll finish my book...and then what will become of this girl?" He becomes far more involved in her life than he had intended, nudging her toward college, even persuading Bobby Knight to visit a Hardin practice and give an inspirational speech. But that's not nearly enough, and Colton, after returning to his home in Portland, grows so upset by his subject's self-destruction that he cannot finish writing his book and quits working on it.
It is what happens over the next few years, to both author and subject, that makes the book so compelling, but it would be unjust to spoil its ending. There are no easy answers to the social problems LaForge's story represents. However, the book's title, Counting Coup, refers to a Plains Indian tradition, in which a warrior can gain honor by touching an enemy's chest in battle without killing him. Ultimately, Colton reports, Sharon LaForge has "counted many coups."