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.