Thursday, February 23, 2017

Not recommended: SCAR: A REVOLUTIONARY WAR TALE by J. Albert Mann

You know that advice.... or that teaching... where you're supposed to look for the good? Where you're supposed to highlight the good and not focus on the bad?

It sounds like good advice, but it is also an approach that affirms the status quo. Today, I read Scar: A Revolutionary War Tale by J. Albert Mann. It came out in 2016 from Calkins Creek/Highlights. It got pretty good reviews from the major journals. No stars, but still, good reviews. I could imagine myself saying a lot of what those reviews did, because some of what they said is ok.

But.

I bring a different lens to my reviews. What did this author say, about Native people? Is it accurate? Is it biased? In this case, what did Mann say about Native people in Scar? Is it accurate? Is it biased?

Here's the description:
Sixteen-year-old Noah Daniels wants nothing more than to fight in George Washington’s Continental Army, but an accident as a child left him maimed and unable to enlist. He is forced to watch the Revolution from his family’s hard scrabble farm in Upstate New York—until a violent raid on his settlement thrusts him into one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution, and ultimately, face to face with the enemy. A riveting coming of age story, this book also includes an author’s note and bibliography.

The battle is the Battle of Minisink. I don't want to do a deep dive into it. I'm focusing on how Mann writes about Native people. Mann gives us two characters. Noah, the white teen, and a Mohawk teen who he finds himself next to. Both are near death. The story is told from Noah's point of view. When he realizes he's right next to a Mohawk teen who is badly injured, too, he decides to help him. He looks at the Mohawk teen and notices a scar on his face. So, he decides to call him Scar. That was, for me, strike one. Would you do that? Look at the physical attributes of someone and call that person that name? That's pretty audacious and thoughtless, too.

Come to think of it, this name reminds me of another character named Scar... You know who I am thinking of? That bad guy in The Lion King. 

In that time they're dying together, Noah cares for Scar. He keeps him alive. That is white saviorism. That's strike two! Both teens will die by the end of the story, but there are 144 pages in this story. A good bit of it is about the battle, but there's also other parts.

Like... the Mohawks! They scalp the white people! Noah is afraid to get scalped. Noah wraps the body of Mr. Little, who got scalped. Mr. Packet got scalped, too. And Dr. Tusten! Sticking with my baseball analogy, I'll call all that scalping "strike three" in this book.

Can I have one more strike? I know it is not fitting my baseball theme, but anyway... early in the book there's a part about what Mohawk men do. They fish and fight. They don't farm or plant wheat. That, we're to understand, is women's work. Mohawk men fish and fight. Is that accurate? Hmmm... Maybe, but I don't want to look that up.

And let's look a bit at Joseph Brant. Veteran warrior. Known for cruelty in battle. And yet... he's also known to take risks to save settlers from being scalped or burned. Burned? As in burned at the stake? Like we see in Westerns? I don't know... that's another one of those things that gets put forth as something-Indians-did. But is it?

Bottom line: I do not recommend J. Albert Mann's Scar: A Revolutionary War Tale published by Calkins Creek (Highlights) in 2016.




Not recommended: THE DREAMCATCHER by Barrett

Due out from Sapphire Books, in 2017, is The Dreamcatcher by Barrett (no first name provided). Here's the description:


High school is rarely easy, especially for a tall, somewhat gangly Native American girl. Add a sprinkle of shyness, a dash of athletic prowess, an above-average IQ, and some bizarre history that places in the guardianship of her aunt. Then normal high school life is only an illusion.
Kai Tiva faces an uphill struggle until she runs into Riley Beth James, the extroverted class cutie, at the principal’s office. Riley shows up for a newspaper interview, while Kai is summoned for punching out a classmate. 
Riley is the attractive girl-next-door-type whom everyone likes. Though a fairly good student, an emerging choral star, and wildly popular, she knows she’ll never live up to her older sister. She makes up for it with bravery, kindness, and a brash can-do attitude.
Their odd matchup is strengthened by curiosity, compassion, humor, and all the drama of typical teenage life. But their experiences go beyond the normal teen angst; theirs is compounded by a curious attraction to each other, and an emerging, insidious danger related to mysterious death of Kai’s father.
Their emerging friendship is tested as they navigate this risky challenge. But the powerful bond forged between them has existed through past lives. The outcome this time will affect the next generation of Kai’s people.

I ordered, and started reading a copy provided by NetGalley. If you haven't signed up at NetGalley, do it! Up front, in the book is a Disclaimer, presented in three parts. Let's start with the first part:
This novel is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people or places is unintended. The legends and Native American references are essentially fiction based on factual details.
My comments: The first two lines are standard. But that last line... Is the author telling us that the legends in her book are fiction based on factual details? What does that mean? Is the author telling us that she's making up legends and presenting them in a way that we're to take as Native? But not?! Now the second part of the disclaimer:
The author regards the Lakota Sioux Nation with the utmost respect and admiration. Accordingly, a percent of the sales will be donated to a Standing Rock and Pine Ridge charity for the care of their children.
My comments: If you read AICL regularly, you know that I view those kinds of statements as opportunistic. Authors who use them seem to be saying "Look at me! I'm a good and generous person!" Barrett may be a good and generous person, but does she have to broadcast that, in her book? What does she gain by doing that? 

Years ago when I was a post-doc at the University of Illinois, a pro-mascot group sponsored an essay contest. The winner of their essay on why the UIUC mascot was a good thing wasn't going to win something, personally. Instead, a monetary sum would be given--in that person's name--to a women's shelter... at Pine Ridge... or... Oglala... I'm fuzzy on that detail. When the women's shelter learned about the topic of the essay, they rejected the money. They did not want to be used by that pro-mascot group. What charity, I wonder, is Barrett donating to? And, though "a percent of the sales" sounds great, the fact is that Barrett's cut of the sales of the book is likely going to be tiny. Sapphire is a small press. 

And the last part of the Disclaimer is a doozy:
If fiction could come true, the souls of the warriors would return to help defend the land for future generations. Absent that, it falls to the neighbors and friends of the indigenous people to help preserve their heritage.

My comments: Come on, Barrett! COME ON, Sapphire!! "souls of the warriors" drips with romanticism and it reads as if there is nobody--right now--who is defending the land for future generations. And then, Barrett writes, if those warriors don't do it, then... "neighbors and friends" will have to help Native people "preserve" their heritage. Let me just say: I'm trying super hard not to be ultra snarky. 

Moving on!

The first page is "In the Beginning..." There's a "White Crow Nation" gathered to sing the dawn. But a "fierce wind" in the west blows dust and cold and dark clouds. That fierce wind, Barrett tells us, is "the Black Crow" nation.

These two nations, she writes, represent the "Dark and Light sides of the Great Sioux nation" -- and they (of course) battle for control in a struggle that gets replayed with every generation, with new leaders... And, it continues into modern times when "clever medicine people" trick and manipulate others, to gain power.

My comments: Actually, I'm hanging my head. Dark and light? Manipulative medicine people? That's a new one. Most writers give us medicine people at the other end of the scale, but neither one is ok. Medicine people ought not be in children's books--especially those written by people who are not Native. There are things there that non-Native writers do not fully understand and should just stay away from. 

Chapter One

Kai is at school. There's a bully named Zach who grabs Johnny Little Elk and calls him a "half-bred midget." Johnny yells "leave me alone" and Zach replies "What're you gonna do about it, call squaw momma?" Kai intervenes, and Zach calls her a "big ugly redskin." Kai gets in trouble for punching Zach. She meets Riley.

-----------------

Dang! My NetGalley copy evaporated before I could finish reading the book. I saw enough, however, to say that I cannot recommend Barrett's The Dreamcatcher. That's the way NetGalley works. You get a copy for a short time. I couldn't stand this book. I stopped reading it. When I went back, it was gone.

It'd be great if it doesn't get published, at all, but I see it on Amazon already. It was apparently released on January 15 of 2017.

Bottom line: I do not recommend Barrett's The Dreamcatcher, published by Sapphire.

Published in 2016: Books by/about Native peoples

We will be updating this page whenever we read something published in 2016.

If you compare what I have here with the CCBC list, you will notice that AICL received some books that CCBC did not, and vice versa. An asterisk indicates a book that appears here and on the CCBC list.

Recommended (N=16)


Not Recommended (N=18)

Reviewed but not able to put in recommended or not recommended (N=1):



Not Yet Reviewed (N=17)
  • Akulukjuk, Roselynn. (2016). The Owl and the Lemming. Inhabit Media. Canada
  • Bruchac, Joseph. (2016). The Long Run. 7th Generation, US.*
  • Bruchac, Joseph. (2016). Brothers of the Buffalo: A Novel of the Red River Way. Fulcrum Publishing, USA. 
  • Bruchac, Joseph. (2016). Talking Leaves. Dial Books for Young Readers, US.*
  • Crate, Joan. (2016). Black Apple. Simon and Schuster. US
  • Daniel, Tony. (2016). The Dragon Hammer. Baen/Simon and Schuster, US.
  • Florence, Melanie. (2016). Rez Runaway. Lerner, Canada.
  • Flanagan, John. (2016). The Ghostfaces. Penguin, US.*
  • Holt, K. A. (2016). Red Moon Rising. Margaret K. McElderry/Simon and Schuster
  • Kwaymullina, Ambelin. (2016). The Disappearance of Ember Crow. 
  • London, Jonathan. (2016). Bella Bella. West Winds. US.
  • Modesto, Michelle. (2016). Revenge of the Wild. HarperCollins, US.
  • Peratrovich, Roy A. (2016). Little Whale. University of Alaska Press.
  • Petti, Erin. (2016). The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee. Mighty Media Junior Readers.
  • Robinson, Gary. (2016). Lands of Our Ancestors. 7th Generation, US.
  • Sammurtok, Nadia. (2016). The Caterpillar Woman. Inhabit Media. Canada.
  • Smith, Danna. (2016). Arctic White. Holt/Macmillan

A Close Look at CCBC's 2016 Data on Books By/About American Indians/First Nations

Eds. note: See AICL's list for 2016

On February 15, 2017, Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin released its statistics on the numbers of children's books by/about American Indians/First Nations and People of Color during the year 2016. 

This is vitally important work that CCBC has been doing for many years. Two important things to know about these statistics (I am not critical of CCBC at all in noting these two things; doing some of this work myself, I know how very hard it is to do, to get books, and then to categorize/analyze them).

The data is based on books that are sent to them. Small publishers generally cannot afford to send books out to review journals, bloggers, or centers like CCBC. That means books by small publishers who do great books by/about Native peoples may not be included in the data. It also means, however, that books by small publishers (or self published books) who do stereotypical books by Native people may not be included.

The data is statistical. It is a count. It is not about the quality of the books on the list. To see what they recommend, see CCBC Choices. 

CCBC sent me the log of Native books for their 2016 counts. For the last few years I have been taking a close look at their log, focusing on fiction (as tagged by CCBC; books tagged as picture books are not included in this list) published by US publishers. Here's what I see. 

Note! 
Books in blue font are ones I recommend. 
Books in red font are ones I do not recommend.
Books in bold are from "Big Five" publishers.
Book in plain, black font are ones I have not read, with one exception (I have mixed feelings about Alexie's book.)

Fiction, US Publishers (books in bold are by one of the Big Five publishers)

Here's the list of fiction written by Native people (N = 4):
  • Bruchac, Joseph. The Long Run. 7th Generation
  • Bruchac, Joseph. Talking Leaves. Dial/Penguin
  • Erdrich, Louise. Makoons. HarperCollins
  • Smelcer, John. Stealing Indians. Leapfrog Press (Note: Smelcer's claim to Native identity is contested)

Now here's the books on the CCBC list, by writers who are not Native (N = 17):
  • Abbott, E. F. Mary Jemison: Native American Captive. Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan
  • Carson, Rae. Like a River Glorious. Greenwillow/HarperCollins
  • Flanagan, John. Brotherband: The Ghostface. Penguin
  • Flood, Nancy Bo. Soldier Sister Fly Home. Charlesbridge
  • Heacox, Kim. Jimmy Bluefeather. Alaska Northwest Books
  • Hitchcock, Bonnie Sue. The Smell of Other People's Houses. Wendy Lamb/Penguin
  • Inglis, Lucy. Crow Mountain. Scholastic
  • Harrison, Margot. The Killer in Me. Hyperion/Hachette Book Group
  • Lewis, Ali. Timber Creek Station. Carolrhoda Lab
  • MacColl, Michaela. The Lost Ones. Calkins/Highlights
  • Mann, J. Albert. Scar: A Revolutionary War Tale. Calkins/Highlights
  • Massena, Ed. Wandmaker. Scholastic
  • Oppel, Kenneth. Every Hidden Thing. Simon and Schuster
  • Patel, Sonia. Rani Patel in Full Effect. Cinco Puntos Press
  • Reeve, Kirk. Sun Father Corn Mother. Sun Stone Press  
  • Stokes, Jonathan. Addison Cooke and the Treasure of the Incas. Philomel/Penguin
  • Velasquez, Crystal. Circle of Lies (Hunters of Chaos, Bk 2). Aladdin/Simon and Schuster


Who publishes what?
In 2016, the Big Five published two Native writers (Bruchac and Erdrich). Of those two, I've read and recommend Makoons. Bruchac's book is out for review.

In 2016, the Big Five published eight non-Native writers (Abbott, Carson, Flanagan, Hitchcock, Harrison, Oppel, Stokes, and Velasquez). Of those eight, I've read and do not recommend Carson, Hitchcock, and Harrison (not all reviews are online yet). I also do not recommend some of the non-Native books from small publishers: Flood, MacColl, Mann, Massena (not all reviews are online yet).


A comparison between 2015 and 2016

---------------------------------------------------2015--------------2016-------
Books by Native writers............................3......................4............              
Books by Non-Native writers....................7.....................17...........


From US publishers, there were 10 in 2015. For 2016, it is 21. That is a huge change, but it is due to non-Native writers. Of the 17, I've read eight and found all of them lacking in some way. What will I find if I read the other nine? Based on experience, I'm not optimistic. Ernie Cox, at Reading While White, reviewed Abbott's book about Mary Jemison. I trust his review. I think it would end up on my not recommended list.

There's more to do, in terms of analyzing CCBC's data. That's what I've got, for now.

___________________________________

Update, Feb 23 2017, 10:20 AM -- back to list titles in fiction/Canada, and picture books in US and Canada. 

Fiction, Canadian Publishers. (Note: none in either category are by Big Five publishers.)

Native Writers (N = 2):
  • Currie, Susan. The Mask That Sang. Second Story Press
  • McLay, R. K. The Rahtrum Chronicles. Fifth House


Non-Native Writers (N = 4)

  • Bass, Karen. The Hill. Pajama Press
  • Koner, Miriam. Yellow Dog. Red Deer Press
  • Ouriou, Susan. Nathan. Red Deer Press
  • Richardson, Eve. Saving Stevie. Red Deer Press


It is interesting that there are not any books from the Big Five. The Big Five are in Canada, too, with "Canada" tagged on.

For example, Robbie Robertson's Testimony is published by Knopf Canada, which is part of Penguin Random House Canada. It is non-fiction, by the way, and it isn't meant for children. It came out in 2016. My guess is that it wasn't sent to CCBC. Robertson is Native. Another example is Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road. It is published by Penguin Canada. It came out in 2008, in the adult market, but is assigned to high school students. Boyden is not Native.

___________________________________

Picture books, US Publishers:

Native writers (N = 2):

  • Alexie, Sherman; illustrated by Yuji Morales. Thunder Boy Jr. Little Brown
  • Connally, Judy Shi, and Lawana Tomlinson Dansby; illustrated by Norma Howard. My Choctaw Roots. Choctaw Print Services.


Non-Native writers (N = 3)

  • Burton, Jeffrey; illustrated by Sanja Rescek. The Itsy Bitsy Pilgrim. Little Simon
  • Lai, Trevor. Tomo Explores the World. 
  • Marshall, Linda Elovitz; illustrated by Elisa Chavarri. Rainbow Weaver = Tejedora del acoiris. Children's Book Press/Lee & Low.

___________________________________

Picture books, Canadian Publishers (none in either category are by Big Five publishers)

Native writers (N = 9)
  • Avingaq, Susan and Maren Vsetula; illustated by Charlene Chua. Fishing with Grandma. Inhabit Media
  • Baker, Darryl; illustrated by Qin Leng. Kamik Joins the Pack. Inhabit Media
  • Dupuis, Jenny Kay (and Kathy Kacer); illustrated by Gillian Newland. I Am Not A Number. Second Story Press
  • Highway, Tomson; illustrated by Julie Flett. Dragonfly Kites/Pimithaagansa. Fifth House
  • Kalluk, Celina; illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis. Sweetest Kulu. Inhabit Media
  • Mike, Nadia; illustrated by Charlene Chua. Leah's Mustache Party. Inhabit Media.
  • Robertson, David Alexander; illustrated by Julie Flett. When We Were Alone. Highwater Press
  • Smith, Monique Gray; illustrated by Julie Flett. My Heart Fills With Happiness. Orca
  • Van Camp, Richard; illustrated by Julie Flett. We Sang You Home. Orca.

Non-Native writers (N = 1)
  • Currie, Robin; illustrated by Phyllis Saroff. Tuktuk: Tundra Tale. Arbordale



Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Debbie--have you seen Sara Biren's THE LAST THING YOU SAID?

A reader wrote to ask if I've seen
Sara Biren's The Last Thing You Said. 

Biren's young adult novel is due out on
April 4, 2017 from Amulet Books
(which is part of Abrams Books).

Here's the description:
Last summer, Lucy’s and Ben’s lives changed in an instant. One moment, they were shyly flirting on a lake raft, finally about to admit their feelings to each other after years of yearning. In the next, Trixie—Lucy’s best friend and Ben’s sister—was gone, her heart giving out during a routine swim. And just like that, the idyllic world they knew turned upside down, and the would-be couple drifted apart, swallowed up by their grief. Now it’s a year later in their small lake town, and as the anniversary of Trixie’s death looms, Lucy and Ben’s undeniable connection pulls them back together. They can’t change what happened the day they lost Trixie, but the summer might finally bring them closer to healing—and to each other.
The Last Thing You Said got a starred review from Kirkus, but the reader who wrote to me noted these two lines from School Library Journal's review:
However, the appropriation of an Inuit cultural practice, inuksuk, as a symbol for the two white teens' relationship is a poor choice. VERDICT Cultural appropriation mars an otherwise promising debut that's recommended for libraries with a high demand for romance.
Both Kirkus and SLJ note that the book is set in Minnesota. Inuksuk in Minnesota? Are there inuksuk there? And if so, why? From what I am able to glean online, tourists started making them...  

I'll look for a copy and be back with a review.

Kara Stewart's Letter to Agents and Editors

Over the weekend, Kara Stewart posted her Dear Agents and Editors letter. It consists of a series of questions that agents and editors can use to evaluate American Indian content. Kara was amongst those interviewed for the Educators Roundtable at We Need Diverse Books (I just realized there's no date stamp on that post. I believe it went up in mid-December of 2016).

A couple of weeks ago, she wrote to me about an idea she had about creating a guide for agents and editors in kidlit... a guide that can help them--and the authors they work with--recognize problems with the ways in which writers claim native ancestry, and/or create content about Native people or characters or places. I think it is a great idea! Kara's idea evolved into a document that is now up at her site.

Kara created it with two writers in mind. Each part has a list of questions an agent or editor can pose. For each question, there is a "cheat sheet" of how a writer might respond, and how the agent or editor can interpret that response and, perhaps, push further.

First is the writer who tells their agent and editor that they are Native. Across the US and Canada, there are many people who believe they have Native ancestry. This is put forth as "I'm part Native American" when they participate in discussions about issues specific to Native people. Some writers use that phrase, too, when submitting a manuscript to their agent or editor. It is a fraught claim. Many people think it is racist to ask someone to say more about that, but, that concern points to the depth of ignorance about who Native peoples are. The first part of Kara's guide is designed to help people understand that we're nations of people, and to help them understand how to ask writers about their clams to Native identity.

Second is the writer who has Native content in their manuscript. That part of the guide is designed to help agents and editors push the writer to think more deeply about why they're including Native content.

It concludes with a list of resources. Take time to read Kara's post! Send it to writers, agents, and editors! She's titled it Questions Agents and Editors Can Use to Evaluate American Indian Content.  If you have questions or comments about it, you can post them at her site. I see this as a document that can--and will evolve--with your input.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Notes on STONE MIRRORS: THE SCULPTURE AND SILENCE OF EDMONIA LEWIS

Some time back, a reader wrote to ask if I'd seen Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis by Jeannine Atkins. Published this year (2017) by Atheneum/Simon and Schuster, I see that it got starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist.

Here's the description:

From critically acclaimed author Jeannine Atkins comes a gorgeous, haunting biographical novel in verse about a half Native American, half African American sculptor working in the years following the Civil War.
A sculptor of historical figures starts with givens but creates her own vision. Edmonia Lewis was just such a sculptor, but she never spoke or wrote much about her past, and the stories that have come down through time are often vague or contradictory. Some facts are known: Edmonia was the daughter of an Ojibwe woman and an African-Haitian man. She had the rare opportunity to study art at Oberlin, one of the first schools to admit women and people of color, but lost her place after being accused of poisoning and theft, despite being acquitted of both. She moved to Boston and eventually Italy, where she became a successful sculptor.
But the historical record is very thin. The open questions about Edmonia’s life seem ideally suited to verse, a form that is comfortable with mysteries. Inspired by both the facts and the gaps in history, author Jeannine Atkins imagines her way into a vision of what might have been.


And for now, here's my notes. I'll be back with a review of Stone Mirrors. It will have some thoughts and analysis, based on research I'll be doing. When I'm done, I'll come back here and insert a link to that review.

Oberlin, Ohio
1862-1863

Page 3
Edmonia Lewis is 16 and a student at Oberlin College. She's in the woods, thinking:
When she was given a chance to go
to boarding school, her aunts' farewell was final.
People who move into houses
with hard walls don't return to homes
that can be rolled and carried on backs.
As she's in the woods, she reads tracks in the snow. Some are bird or animal tracks, but some are boot prints.

Page 4
Edmonia looks at a deer; the deer looks back. Its gaze "binds them, turns into trust."

Page 5
A boy--Seth--is in the woods, too. Neither of them are supposed to be in the woods. It is against rules. He speaks to Edmonia:
They say you make your own rules.
Edmonia thinks that he's breaking rules, too. She thinks about rules.
She was raised to respect fire, fast water, and heights.
Page 6
Seth tells Edmonia that he read Hiawatha; asks Edmonia if her life was like that and if it is true that she lived outside. She thinks
Most strangers want only a slip of a story,
like those the aunts who raised her gave tourists
to go with the deerskin moccasins
and sweetgrass baskets they bought

Page 7
Edmonia tells Seth that
In winter, we stretched strips of bark
over trees young enough to bend, and slept
with our feet toward the fire in the middle.

Page 10
Here, there's info about her parents. First, her father:
Edmonia can keep secrets. She doesn't speak
of her father, who, not long before her mother died,
left Edmonia with brown skin, round eyes, a wide mouth,
and not one memory. Still, his name is part of hers.
Then, her mother:
She won't speak of manitous, good spirits
who may stay within stone, but might warn
with a cracking branch. Her aunts taught her much
that they warned could be ruined by revelation.

The page also introduces us to Longfellow's influence on her, as she thinks about forbidden romances:
...Romeo and Juliet
defying their families, Hiawatha and Minnehaha
marrying despite fighting between Ojibwe and Sioux.
Page 11
Edmonia is in the art room thinking about work with clay, how working with clay is an art that:
...takes up space
like the deerskin her aunts sculpted into shoes,
the baskets they wove from broken willow branches.

Page 15
Edmonia is with her roommate, Ruth, who is African American. Edmonia tells Ruth she's going upstairs to help Helen (who is White) select clothes for a sleigh ride. Ruth reminds her that she's supposed to be studying, that she's not Helen's servant, and that
We vowed when we came here to be of a character
that no one can criticize. And don't tell me
you're an exception. No matter how many stories
you tell about your past life in the forest,
they don't see halves.
You and I are the same in their eyes.
Edmonia replies:
I'm not like you.
and
My mother was Indian. And my father a freedman.

Page 21
Christine and Helen (the two white girls going on the sleigh ride) are talking. Christine tells Helen
... you can recite all your daffodils and nightingales and shores
of Gitche Gumee, while Seth minds the horses. 
Page 23
It is a Sunday. On Sunday's, students sew blue shirts for soldiers and they write letters home.
Edmonia's aunts roll up their homes each season
and follow signs from rivers and stars.
Edmonia writes, then burns her letters.
Smoke is as useful as stamps she can't afford.
Page 28
In Helen's room, Edmonia:
... looks through a book of poems, stopping
on the page where Hiawatha mourns Minnehaha.
Edmonia hadn't paid enough attention
to this particular poem, or the ends
of Juliet's and Cleopatra's stories:
the betrayals, lost words, poison.
Page 30
Mr. Ennes, Christine's father, says to Father Keep (a school admin)
... our Christine claims that colored girl
who calls herself an Injun poisoned her.
Page 32
In her room,
The bureau Edmonia shares with Ruth is bare on top.
The only charms she has are hidden, a pair
of small moccasins her mother stitched before she died.

Page 36
A boy calls out
Watch out for the wild Indian.
Don't take a drink from her.
And
You gave them an Indian potion. Murderer!

Page 44-45 
Under suspicion of poisoning Helen and Christine, Edmonia is confined to her room. Everyone is at chapel:
Her throat feels as if it were gnawed by
dangerous spirits who tear skin and flesh,
who took her mother, even most of her memory.
There's no end to their greed.
She wonders if she should run away.
She lies down and dreams of her aunts, who praised
her older brother for seeking a new life out west.
They told her no one can go back.
Once traders brought in beads,
women stopped decorating moccasins with quills,
making pictures of turtles, loons, otters,
and starflowers they'd seen in dreams.
After women could buy cloth, thread, and needles,
they rarely sewed deerskin. Steel needles are sharper than bone.
Even as she grew up, the past was breaking.
Her aunts sold its pieces spread on blankets,
turning what was scavenged into mementos and toys.
They sewed pin cushions and small pillows,
stitched English words they couldn't read:
Niagara Falls and Remember Me. 
Edmonia takes out the moccasins her mother made
when she was a baby. The beaded blue flowers
and fish-shaped leaves are beautiful, but there's a hole
by the heel. Ojibwe mothers left an imperfection
to trick spirits into thinking an infant was unloved,
not worth snatching for the long journey to the other side.
She thinks of foods she used to eat and kneels to pray but rather than the words of the people who
 ...built ceilings
between themselves and sky,
laid floors to block the lands, voice,
an old Ojibwe plea runs like a pulse through her.
Page 47
Edmonia is running away but it caught by several men who grab her.
No! she cries, then Naw! Booni'!
She is beaten and raped.

Page 53
Back in her room later, Edmonia says to Ruth
Give me my moccasins.
Edmonia holds them to her face and breathes in their deerskin scent. Then, she says to Ruth:
Burn them.
Aren't they all you have from your mother?
She thinks:
Holes or missing stitches didn't help.
and again, Edmonia asks Ruth to burn them.

Page 58
Edmonia is on her way to a second day of court where she is accused of trying to poison Helen and Christine.
Edmonia wishes she were in the woods
or at least back where she handed sightseers
birchbark tipis and canoes small enough to sail on a palm.
Buyers, turning their backs to the waterfall's beauty
and danger, seemed to crave a glimpse
of her brown hand as much as a toy,
small enough to pocket and forget.
Cross-legged on a woven blanket, she took coins,
traced the embossed reliefs of a bird, star,
wreath, goddess. 
From that time with her aunts, selling items to tourists, she learned how to read their eyes and body language. She uses that skill now, in court.
Her face stays as still as her aunts kept theirs
when strangers picked up beaded belts or willow baskets,
then put them back down.
Stillness was a skill as much as the crafts.
Page 67
The court goes on. Another season sets in.
During the time of Leaves Turning...
Page 74
The court determines she is not guilty of trying to poison Helen and Christine, but plans are made for Edmonia to leave the school. Father Keep tells her of people in Boston, specifically, a person named Mrs. Child, who
...has written much about the evils of slavery and wrongs done to Indians. 

Page 76
As Edmonia packs to leave, she
...opens a drawer and grabs her pencils like a fistful of arrows.

Page 80
Edmonia is on a train for Boston:
Silently, she chants, Faster, fasterwanting to move more swiftly than memory
or manitous who won't stay under branches, stones,
or skin, but shift shape or disappear like shadows.
She has only the future now, a place her aunts
knew was necessary but dangerous,
as they stitched a way forward with thin thread,
making blankets and baskets too small to be used.
And
Will she ever again see her aunts hunching over baskets?
Reeds bend when they're damp, so her aunts lifted them
to their mouths, breathing in life. They held birchbark
over flames, just close enough for it to soften, then curved
it into small canoes they spread on blankets.
Tourists offered a few coins for swift
journeys to places where they'd never live.

Boston, Massachusetts
1863-1865

Page 85
Edmonia is with Mrs. Childs in Boston and as she makes a pie crust,
...wonders if Mrs. Child scrubs the sink and sweeps floors
the way her aunts burned cedar branches
to keep their home safe.

Page 88
Edmonia tells Mrs. Childs that maybe she can be a painter like Mrs. Bannister's husband:
Back when I wove mats and beaded belts,my aunts said I had clever hands and eyes.

Page 91
Mrs. Child's tells Edmonia that she wrote a book about
...a romance between
a white woman and a Pequot Indian. I was charmed by
Mr. Longfellow's poem about Hiawatha.
Then she says
I heard your mother comes from
people I've long admired. Can you tell me
about her and how you grew up?
Page 93
Still in Boston with Mrs. Child's, Edmonia thinks of her life before she was at Oberlin:
Everything she left, the wisps of smoke curling
from the stove, stinging her eyes, the stench of ashes,
is beautiful. She couldn't see that the day
she asked Ruth to burn her old moccasins.
Could she disappear, like those deerskin shoes
or the canoes and bark houses her aunts shaped into toys
to barter to children who wanted a past
fit for children's eyes?
Page 107
Edmonia has begun sculpting. She tells Mrs Child's
I've begun work on a bust of Mr. Longfellow.
Not only a gentleman, but he bought freedom
for some slaves with income from his poems.
Page 111
In Boston Common for a parade celebrating the victory in Gettysburg, Edmonia follows Robert Gould Shaw's eyes as he raises them skyward:
Angels or manitous,
clear as water or wind, beat their wings.
Briefly they touch almost every other soldier.
One grazes the colonel's shoulder,
then a man who looks like Thomas.
She hears the feathery thud of wings
under the beat and breath of drums, fifes, and horns.
Are the spirit choosing who will soon cross with them?
(Note: Thomas is Ruth's beau, back at Oberlin.)

Page 120
Edmonia is in line to visit the works of a Miss Hosmer at a gallery in Boston. She overhears one lady say:
Miss Hosmer grew up near Boston
though now she makes her home in Rome. Her father
did his best after her mother passed over,
but the girl rode horses, paddled in the river,
was raised like a wild Indian.

Page 124
Edmonia is getting ready to leave for Italy.
Mrs. Child gives her a knitted pair of slippers.
Did I tell you how much sickness can be avoidedby putting on slippers every morning?Edmonia folds them so they fit in her hands
like the small sculptures of deerskin
her mother made when she was a baby,
smooth as a swan's wings collapsing back
into her own feathered body.

Rome, Italy
1865-1875

Page 131
In Rome, Edmonia learns she'll be sculpting in a courtyard located in a neighborhood that is convenient for tourists to stop in to watch her sculpt.
People watch you sculpt? Edmonia remembers
her aunts weaving sweetgrass while strangers stared.
Page 143
Edmonia is in Italy:
Months have different names, but through the times
of Snow Crust, Broken Snowshoes, then Maple-Sugar-Making,
Edmonia hunches over her work the way her aunts had
over baskets woven of rumor, nostalgia, and some truth.
One afternoon, a wealthy widow with two homes
to decorate orders a marble statue of Minnehaha
bidding her father good-bye.

Edmonia starts to work on the statue of Minnehaha bidding her father good-bye:
Slowly she sees a Sioux man carving arrowheads
just before his daughter leaves everything
she knows to live among the Ojibwe. 
Page 150
Edmonia has a dream in which Ruth hands her a pair of soft, small moccasins. When she wakes, she wonders:
Did Ruth keep the small moccasins,
burn something else, then put them
in the carpetbag Edmonia left behind?
She can almost smell the worn deerskin.
She knows the texture of each perfectly placed bead,
the deliberately ragged edge. Her mother
must have always wanted her to find beauty
in both careful stitches and unraveling borders.
---End of Notes---

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Not Recommended: THE LEGEND OF SKYCO: SPIRIT QUEST by Jennifer Frick-Ruppert

A reader asked me about The Legend of Skyco: Spirit Quest by Jennifer Frick-Ruppert, due out on April 4 of 2017 from Amber Jack Publishing. I was able to get an ARC. Here's the synopsis:
Skyco, an Algonquin boy, is heir to the great chief Menatonon, but he has much to learn before he can take his place within the tribe. He studies with the shaman Roncommock, who teaches him how to enter the spirit world and communicate with spirits and other animals, while he also learns practical skills of hunting, fishing, and starting a fire from other men in his village. But learning to throw a spear with an atlatl and shoot arrows with a bow are just precursors to the ultimate test, the husquenaugh, when he is challenged to use his hard-earned skills to survive the harrowing life-or-death ritual.
I am sharing detailed summary/comments for chapters 1-3, followed by general comments.

Chapter One: The Raid

The main character is Skyco. He's part of a war raid and has just missed being shot by an arrow. He's pulled to the ground. At first he thinks it is the enemy, but it turns out to be Roncommock, the shaman who is accompanying him. Skyco and Roncommock are Algonquin and speak Algonquian. The enemy tribe speaks a different language. It sounds like snakes hissing, so, the Algonquins call them the rattlesnake people, the Mangoaks.

As Skyco and Roncommock run to safety, hiding behind trees, Skyco sees a snake and, frightened, leaps up high. Soon, Roncommock tells Skyco they're safe. He's shot the warrior who had been shooting at them. He teases Skyco about how high he jumped when he saw that snake, and that maybe Skyco can turn that jump into a (p. 4):
"...good move for our next dance. Do you think you could teach the others? The snake jump?"
No longer worried about the enemy, the two head on back to their village, Chowanook. Skyco hears a noise. It is a bear. It knocks Roncommock down, mauling his shoulder and thigh. Skyco has no weapon to use, so decides to roar at the bear. That roar stops the bear from attacking Roncommock.

Skyco roars again and the bear goes away. Roncommock is bleeding heavily. Skyco takes off his loincloth and wraps it around Roncommock's thigh. He keeps an eye out for moss he can use to help with the bleeding. He also finds a brown puffball, which has dust that Skyco sprinkles on the wound. As they make their way, Roncommock leans heavily on Skyco.

Fearful of being in the woods alone at night when predators might smell the bloody wound, Skyco tells Roncommock he'll run ahead to the village telling Roncommock (p. 12):
"That bear was powerful and we need the medicine man's magic to help restore your spirit while it fights that of the bear."
Skyco realizes he is naked without his loincloth, but that it will be faster to travel naked. When he gets to the village, he goes right to Chief Menatonon and tells him what happened. The Chief assigns two "braves" (p. 13) to go with Skyco. They bring Roncommock back for the medicine man, Eracano, to work on, but he's lost a lot of blood. Eracano does all he can, but (p. 18):
"it is up to Roncommock to return to us from the world of the spirits." 
The next day, Roncommock is better and tells Skyco what he learned while he was in the spirit world, fighting the bear's spirit.

He tells Skyco that the bear is the strongest of animals, but wise, too. He knows when to fight, and when not to fight. This bear is Skyco's "guardian spirit" (p. 22). The bear has been looking out for Skyco all along. Its spirit knew that someone was trying to hurt Skyco. When it saw Roncommock, it thought Roncommock was the person trying to hurt Skyco, so the spirit of the bear told the bear to attack Roncommock. Roncommock explains why the bear made that mistake. Because they were on a war raid, he hadn't been wearing his shaman clock and medicine pouch. Instead, he was wearing a bow and arrow and was wearing a warrior's loincloth.

When Skyco roared at the bear, it got the spirit bear's attention. It realized that it had told the bear to attack the wrong person. So, the bear itself went away but its spirit continued to fight with Roncommock's spirit, in the spirit world. That fight continued until (p. 22):
"the bear stripped me of my physical being and searched my spirit in the spirit world"
 and realized that Roncommock was the Skyco's protector.

Now that Roncommock knows the bear is Skyco's guardian spirit, he tells Skyco that he must begin his training in the spirit world (p. 22):
It is very unusual that the bear recognized you so early, even before your spirit quest. The spirits are ready for you now and we will oblige them by beginning with learning the way of the spirits before you learn the ways of the warrior or the hunter. You must enter upon the sacred quest as soon as the spirits decree it, even before you enter the husquenaugh. Your training will differ from that of the other boys who will undergo the next husquenaugh as you pass from childhood to adult. You have more to learn." 
Skyco returns to his mother's wigwam. His mother's brother, Chief Menatonon is there, waiting for him. He was sitting on a mat and asks Skyco to sit, too (p. 24):
As I sat down, I carefully folded my legs so that each foot was underneath a thigh and rested my hands atop my knees, palms down, adopting the position I was taught.
Menatonon tells Skyco he is proud of what he's done, and that he is proud to call him his heir. Menatonon gives Skyco a new loincloth and tells him that he knows Skyco will succeed in the husquenaugh. Skyco admires the quality of the loincloth and then realizes that Menatonon said husquenaugh. Two of Menatonon's most trusted men enter the wigwam and the four go outside, where most of the village members are gathered. Menatonon raises his hands and says (p. 25):
"You see before you my kin and recognized heir. I submit Skyco for the next husquenaugh. If he succeeds and becomes a man, he will be your next chief."  
Everyone inclines their heads in agreement. That night, Skyco thinks about the "grueling ritual" (p. 26) that will test his body and mind to see if he is strong and worthy enough to become an adult. If he fails, he cannot become an adult. "To fail is to die" (p. 26).

My comments:

(1) In her author's note, the author says that Skyco was a real person, kidnapped as a child, by Sir Ralph Lane, who led an expedition to Roanoke Island in 1585-1586.  I found references to "Skiko" in several sources. This verifies that the author based this story on the life of a real person. 

Right away, I am concerned. The author, a non-Native woman writing in the 2010s, is imagining what a Native boy of the 1580s (and his family and members of his tribal community) would do, say, and think. As far as I know, we do not have records of these Native peoples' speech or thinking. The author has nothing to go on.  There are some resources (like Lawson, who she cites in the back matter), but they're written by people who were not of that tribe. They were Europeans. They brought their non-Native lens to what they were writing. What we have, in essence, is a Native people of the 1500s, whose ways of that time were recorded by Europeans, and now, a non-Native writer of the 2010s, imagining their lives. In short, we have an outsider perspective on top of hundreds of years of time. 

(2) Several words in chapter one signal outsider voice and, by extension, a lack of understanding of words and what they convey.  

First is the use of "braves" for men. I noted it once but it occurs more than once. Dictionaries often define brave (as a noun) that is dated, and, is "an American Indian warrior." Synonyms are warrior, soldier, or fighter. My goal, in the writing I do about words used to describe Native people, is to push writers to stop using "brave" or "squaw" ("squaw" is not used in this book) because in addition to being dated, those two words (there are others, too) invoke an Indian man or woman--but with qualities that mark them as very distinct from a English man or woman, or a French man or woman. Amongst those qualities are ones that frame Native peoples as not-quite-human. More... primitive. More... barbaric. They, in short, otherize Native peoples, making them exotic and markedly different from non-Native men and women. 

I also highlighted shaman. That, too, is used by writers as if all Native peoples, everywhere, use that word. We don't. 

(3) In that passage where Roncommock tells Skyco that he can make a new dance step out of that frightened leap when he saw a snake is troubling, too. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of the significance of Native dance. Many of our dances are prayerful in nature, or, done in preparation for a gathering or event. It may be helpful for you to think of prayerful activities or moments within your own religious practice. Would something like leaping into the air be easily turned into part of what you do, in this religious activity? 

(4) When I read that detailed passage about how Skyco sat on the mat, I did it, just to see what that might look like. Sure enough, it is sitting "Indian style" without saying that. I'm glad Frick-Ruppert didn't say "Indian style" but why go into that detail? Why can't Skyco just sit down?! 

(5) Most of chapter one is about that bear, the spirit of that bear, how they determine that the bear is Skyco's "guardian spirit," and then Skyco's anxiety over the husquenaugh. I find all of that especially troubling, for the same reason I noted in (1), above. Frick-Ruppert's story is about real people and their ways of being. As I noted above, what are the sources anyone can use, to accurately depict the ways of this particular nation? In that back matter, Frick-Ruppert references "the Chowanoke Indian Nation" (p. 292) that is trying to get federal recognition. What, I wonder, would they think of what she's written?

Chapter Two: The Black Drink

Skyco and his friend, Ascopo, are talking about the husquenaugh. Ascopo's mother submitted his name, too. The two boys will go through it, together. While they're out, Roncommock approaches them and says that the bear guardian is particularly interested in Skyco, and that he is to move into Roncommock's wigwam and begin his learnings (p. 28):
The spirits have decreed that you undergo the black drink ritual as a preparation for the spirit quest.
Roncommock tells Ascopo to go, right away, to Memeo, who will do his training. Roncommock tells Skyco to take off his new loincloth because the black drink they take will get soiled during the ritual. Both drink it and almost immediately the contents of Skyco's stomach and bowels are purged. They do this a second time and then go to the river to clean up. When they get to Roncommock's wigwam, he shaves Skyco's head on one side and trims the length of it on the other side.  Then they slather bear grease, tinted red, and then rest.

Roncommock wakes Skyco. It is time to start. He is to inhale tobacco smoke that Roncommock sprinkles on a fire. If his mind is relaxed and open, the spirits will come. The spirits are powerful. They could strike a man dead, or ignore him completely. Skyco is a bit anxious but remembers the relaxation techniques his mother taught him. Soon, he feels as peaceful as a baby, and sees his mother. She touches him and points toward something out of view.

That startles him. He wakes, and Roncommock tells him that his spirit is strong, that he hasn't been taught how to call the spirits, and yet, they came to him anyway. Skyco tells Roncommock he only felt his mother, touching him as if he was a baby in her arms, and that she had pointed. This, Roncommock says, means that the spirits have recognized him. They didn't reveal his quest, yet, but his mother, pointing, means they are ready to receive and teach him.

They leave the wigwam to have the evening meal with the people of the village. Skyco notices things he didn't notice, before. Walking by his mother's wigwam he sees the paintbrush by their door. It is her spirit guide. Men have animal spirit guides, but sometimes, women receive a plant guide from the spirit world. She is the only woman in the village with a spirit guide. She can tell that he has been accepted by the spirits and brings him water with sassafras leaves. He takes some into his mouth to clean his mouth and the words he is going to say, spits it out and thanks his mother and family for all they've given him. He bows low before her, and then takes another sip of the water, spits it out, and turns to Roncommock and says he wishes to join his household.

My comments:

As with chapter one, there is a lot in chapter two that feels to me that it is created by the author. Creating the religious ceremonies of others makes me uneasy for so many reasons. It feels sacrilegious and presumptuous. This is the sort of content that New Age practitioners will use as authentic ways to get in contact with a spirit world. 

An aspect that bothers me is the gaze on the loincloth, on peoples faces, and their bodies. In chapter two, Skyco removes his loincloth so he doesn't soil it when the contents of his stomach and bowels are purged. 

Chapter Three: The Day I Became An Ant

Roncommock takes Skyco for his first lesson. They go to a field where Roncommock slowly eased himself to the ground (p. 42):
... crossed his legs, folded his feet under his thighs, and placed his hands on his knees in the appropriate position of respect.
He tells Skyco to sit, too, but yells when Skyco nearly steps on an anthill. Skyco sits. He's given some herb water to cleanse his mouth and must wipe some over his eyes, nose, and ears so they, too are purified. Then he drinks some sacred water that will help him contact the spirits. Roncommock sprinkles some powdered uppowoc over the ant mound. The ants run about, picking it up. Roncommock tells Skyco to focus on them, and to try to reach one with his mind. He does, twice, and finds himself drawn to one, which is Roncommock. He scolds Skyco for thinking of the ants as male. All the ants are female. Skyco shifts his pronouns and thinks "she" rather than "he" as they move about. An enemy ant arrives and a battle between the two ant tribes ensues.

In the clean up of the battle, Skyco learns many lessons about how the ant colony is similar to his own village structure. One of the cleaner ants approaches him and tries to identify him, based on his scent. Since he's new to the ant hill, he doesn't have a strong scent. He's afraid the cleaner ant is about to call others to come and drive him out, but realizes he can lift his abdomen and squeeze, emitting a stinky odor. The cleaner ant backs away. Eventually, Skyco and Roncommock return to their own bodies and then to the village.

My comments: 

Here we have another instance in which someone's manner of sitting is carefully described. And again, this manner of sitting conveys respect. I would love to see a source for this! 

I understand the concept of training, of learning by watching others--be they insects or animals--but going into the ants, being an ant... that reminds me more of the Animorphs series than anything else. Perhaps the stinky odor is meant to bring a bit of humor to this story but given that Frick-Ruppert is asking us to think of this as part of a spiritual quest, I find it offensive. Please note that my offense is not that someone farts. I love Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi and have gifted it to children. My offense is that the author--in this imagined sacred space of a Native people--injects this particular kind of humor. 

_________

I finished reading the book and have many passages in chapters marked. I am commenting on the more significant ones, here.

Spirits


The overarching aspect of this book is spirits, the spirit world, communicating with the spirit world, spirit quests, and having a spirit animal or a spirit guide. Indeed, we see that in the subtitle "Spirit Quest."

Throughout the book, Skyco interacts with the spirit world. For each of the interactions, he will end up with an item to wear that will remind him that these creatures are his spirit guides. In chapter two, he was with ants. He can't really have something about ants on his body, so, he'll carry a bit of the sand from an ant pile in his medicine bag. Skyco is bit by a shark. He learns that a shark is one of his guides, so he wears a necklace of shark teeth to remind him of that.

There's a part where Skyco and three other boys in training kills a deer. They eat its organs, thereby "taking on the power of the buck" (p. 215). You've seen that sort of idea, too, right? Indians eat this or that animal, gaining that animal's special qualities.

All this sure as heck dovetails with people think they know about Indians, and it dovetails with tons of stories about Indians and what Indians do, but is it accurate?! And if it is, should it be written about in a book for children--a book written by an outsider to whatever nation the book is about? (My answer: NO.)


The Legend


In one of the chapters, Skyco tells Roncommock about visions he's had. Roncommock can't interpret any of this for him until after Skyco completes the husquenaugh, but as Skyco is telling him about what he saw, Roncommock gets up, walks around, and says to himself "could he be the one?" (p. 200).

We aren't told what "the one" means, but, it sounds like the author is developing this story in a way that Skyco is going to be--as the title suggests--a legend. What Skyco saw in that part of the story is white people who will be coming to their lands. They won't understand boundaries, Roncommock tells Skyco. But, Skyco's training is important. He has spirit guides from the earth (the ant), the water (fish/shark) the sky (falcon) and land (bear).

Towards the end of the story in the husquenaugh, we learn that Skyco will be a shaman and a chief. The others exclaim over that power and standing. The book ends with Skyco emerging from the husquenaugh. There, is, however, a second book in the works.

Closing Remarks: Not recommended!


As I noted in my comments to chapter one, I am concerned with the ways that Frick-Ruppert imagines the Native people in this story. She's relying on very old sources, written by Europeans, whose interpretations of what they saw then, in the 1500s, are--in fact--white Europeans who felt superior to the Indigenous peoples of what came to be known as the United States. There were differences, yes, but notions of superiority are highly subjective. Romanticizing anyone is no good, for anyone, least of all children.

Most Native peoples do not write accounts that delve deeply into our respective spiritual or religious ceremonies. We guard all of that from people who want to appropriate it, or use it in ways that are harmful to us. Did Frick-Ruppert know that? Did her editor know?

Bottom line: I do not recommend Jennifer Frick-Ruppert's The Legend of Skyco: Spirit Quest.