Tuesday, August 14, 2012

1932 - Waterless Mountain

When a book about another culture is written, you want to know that the writer speaks with some authority. If the novel is about a farming family, you want to know that the farm things are accurate. If the story takes place in Australia, you want to know the author has either been there or has done good research. If the tale is about the Navajo Indians of the American Southwest, especially if the tale involves the philosophy and spiritual life of the people, you want someone like Laura Adams Armer, the author of Waterless Mountain.

Laura Adams Armer spent the last half of her life learning about the Navajos, spending time on the reservation, painting and drawing the beauty she found there, studying their folk lore and psychology. She was granted the unprecedented right to draw and paint their sacred sand paintings before they were ceremonially destroyed. And this knowledge helped her write a book so heavily immersed in the Navajo spiritual life without drifting into "roll your eyes sentimentality and mystical-ness."

Waterless Mountain is written contemporary with the time, which means no evil US soldiers massacring women and children, no Indian tribes raiding settler's cabins. Elder Brother likes to hunt with a gun, Younger Brother enjoys his skill with a bow and arrow. They ride ponies and herd sheep; an occasional roadster or automobile shows up. Mother weaves rugs and blankets; Father is a silversmith.

One way to describe this book is as the coming-of-age tale for Younger Brother. He knows he is destined to be a medicine man, like Uncle. He sees meaning and significance in the small things that happen around him, and he has insights and visions that set him a little apart from the more earthly-minded members of his family. The gentle and respectful handling of Younger Brother's spiritual communication with his world by the author is to be greatly commended. However, the book's timespan of Younger Brother's growing-up makes it hard to focus on one or two prime events or crises that cause revelation and change. In fact, there aren't many cliffhangers in this book.

I really enjoyed the fine details of Younger Brother's life at home on the sheep ranch with his family, washing their hair with the suds of the yucca root, cooking a 15' diameter corn cake in a ground pit for a ceremony, taking his first visit to the trading post. I can accept the inevitable bit of patronizing that is present in a book of this type, written by a white person. I felt like I gained understanding of the spiritual heart of the Navajo. But what I found myself dissatisfied with was the lack of a standard novel structure, you know, where the main person gets in danger and escapes a few times, and then the Big Moment comes where things hang in the balance, and anything could happen, and then it is resolved, either making you happy or reflective or angry at the author for letting you down in what you WANTED to happen. I found myself ready for the book to end several chapters before it really did.

If you enjoy books of Plains Indian children, one of my very favorite books is Chi-Wi, written by Grace Moon at about the same era. It is charming, well-written, exciting, and has all the right elements for a great book.

Waterless Mountain is a library book that I checked out.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

1925 - Tales From Silver Lands


Tales From Silver Lands is one of the earlier Newbery Award books. Over the years, the world changes, children change, meaningful topics that people care about change, leading authors to find new topics to write about, but one thing that never changes, and that is the love of a good myth or fairy tale.

When I was a kid, I read every collection of fairy tales in our little library. My children were the same. We came across books of Japanese fairy tales, Irish, English, and Russian fairy tales. Many contained the same basic stories, only altered in some way to reflect that society. It was always fun to come across one that was new and fresh to me, totally different from any standard tale or origin myth. Tales From Silver Lands was like this.

Charles Finger, the author of Tales From Silver Lands, traveled around South America, the continent of the "silver lands," collecting tales from the Indians he met there. He mentions some of the countries there; Uraguay, Honduras, Tierra del Fuego, Guiana, Brazil, and the area around Cape Horn. He presents himself as a wanderer in the area, sometimes with a companion, happening upon an individual or coming upon a small village. And there is always a story that is handed to him, as a gift of hospitality is given to a stranger who appears and is welcomed.

The telling of the story is oral --never mind the fact that the words are printed up in this old hard-bound, well-worn library book. Mr. Finger tells us about how he rode into a little town on his donkey, how he lingered over into the evening because the day was hot and the people companionable. And he tells us how the old woman was persuaded to tell him the story of When the Rat had a Tail Like a Horse. Then he lets her words come through his pen and to our ears.

These tales are fun and mysterious. I think the one that caught my fancy the most is "The Cat and the Dream Man." The cat is sinister. Even from the beginning, when all creatures were created harmless; the jaguar did not hunt, the snake had no venom, the bushes had no thorns-- "the cat was of evil heart and unmerciful and a curse to the world, for she went about teaching creatures to scratch and to bite, to tear and to kill, to hide in shady places and leap out on unsuspecting things." The cat is dealt with, bound by a wise man, but even the wise man can not account for the worst mischief of the cat, the fox-faced man who is the cat's dream that walks among the men.

Witches are prevalent in the stories here, and though they are not universally horrid like the European tales, most are. They are clever and very strong. When a male is the villain, he is usually a stupid giant or monster. A person could ponder on that one for awhile.

This is a wonderful collection of tales that could still be read and enjoyed today. It looks like is has been reprinted recently, so there is a chance I might actually come across it to buy for my own collection.