Showing posts with label native american. Show all posts
Showing posts with label native american. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Daughter of Winter by Pat Lowery Collins


Rating: WARTY!

This book might appeal to the intended age range, but for me it was poorly done, and makes American Indians look like antiquated idiots. That said, it was set in 1849, when everyone by today's standards seems antiquated, but the story itself simply made no sense.

Addie is twelve, and lives in Essex, Massachusetts, where shipbuilding is the line of work every boy wants to get into. Girls have no choice about their lives, and this never changes for Addie. Her father took off to join the California gold rush and almost as soon as he's gone, her mother and infant brother take sick with "the flux" and both die. This is where we join the story.

With Anna fearful of being sent into servitude, she conceals her family's death and steals a coffin for burying them, from the local undertaker. This is the first problem because this is not an insubstantial theft, and had it been investigated, which it undoubtedly would have been, it would have led directly to the girl who dragged the pine box to her home, yet she gets away with it!

Unfortunately, her continued rejection of the town's people's offers to come visit her mother eventually reveals the truth. Rather than stick around, Addie flees into the woods, looking for 'Nokummus' (the Wampanoag word for grandmother, aka Nokomes), an American Indian woman who offered to help Addie, but who singularly fails to do so.

As it turns out, Nokummus is quite literally Addie's grandmother, but we have to wade through countless tedious pages as Addie flees home in mid-winter, camps out in a lean-to near a shipyard, and all but freezes and starves despite her supposedly having experience of camping with her father. I can't help but ask, since Nokummus was known in Essex and several people knew she was Addie's grandmother, what the hell was the whole story about? Why did this woman not come and live with Addie when her father left town, so everything was okay?

Rather than help her granddaughter, this clueless, selfish, dangerous woman left Addie to her own devices until she was almost dead, then "rescued" her and took her off to a deserted island just off shore, apparently for no other reason than to have Addie find her daughter's grave. Nokummus had thirteen years to find that grave! What the hell was she doing in all that time? Sitting on her idle ass, doubtlessly.

She takes Addie in (and I mean that in every conceivable sense), and poisons her by feeding her some bark gruel so Addie vomits profusely, then hallucinates, and finally and wakes up after a two-day bender, deludedly thinking she's communed with the spirits. After this, Nokummus finally lets Addie return home, and moves in with her! The selfish bitch couldn't have done this in the first place and gone on this grave-search next summer? What a bunch of pinto dung!

Nothing is resolved. Addie never moves to the Wampanoag tribal lands to become their powwaw. Her father doesn't even return by the end of the novel so all the 'waiting, hoping. crying' for him is a complete red herring. Her best friend John proves himself as big of a jackass as the school bully who picks on Addie because she's a 'halfbreed'. Justice is never served on that dick, but John is just as bad save for being more subtle in his prejudices and dickishness, and he gets no comeuppance either so I guess that's fair. The story is a mess and not even a hot mess since it's set in winter. I think it stunk and I think it's insulting to and belittling of American Indians, and I cannot recommend it.


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Soldier, Sister Fly Home by Nancy Bo Flood


Rating: WARTY!

This book, I have to say up front, was a fail for me. Superficially it pretends to be a tribute to Lori Piestewa, who was a member of the Hopi tribe and was also, at the age of 23, the first woman in the US military to be killed in combat in the Iraq War in March 2003, but there is very little in this novel about the military.

Teshina ("Tess") isn't Hopi, she's a 14-year-old American Indian/White woman who lives on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. Her sister joins the National Guard and is subsequently called up for service in Iraq. That's pretty much the last we hear of her, and then the story is nothing more than a young girl dealing with young girl issues with a Native American twist. And a horse.

This felt like a bait-and-switch from the start, and to me it represented more of a disservice to Specialist Piestewa - who though not in a combat unit as such, distinguished herself in action, and subsequently died as a result of a head injury - than ever it was a tribute. Piestewa and the other woman of color in that action, Shoshana Johnson, got the short end of the stick as compared with the fictional farce the military made out of the other female survivor, the white Jessica Lynch.

I had to keep asking myself what this book was about because it went in so many directions that it never really arrived anywhere. Was it about native Americans in the US military? No. Was it about American Indian culture? Well, a little bit. Was it about the relationship between Tess and Gaby, her sister? Somewhat, but not so much. Tess was manic about her sister, bouncing around unrealistically between so many emotions that it was a joke. At one point she'd be angry, at another accepting, and then unaccountably angry again. I get that people do have mixed emotions, but this honestly felt poorly written and inauthentic.

Tess was left to take care of her sister's persnickety horse, and we're bitch-slapped silly with so much crap about understanding the animal that it left the bounds of the real and entered the realm of the supernatural. Yes, you can understand animals, and approach them the right way or the wrong way, and yes of course they're sensitive and have feelings, but this narrative went way overboard for no apparent reason other than that it was an American Indian story.

This same issue arose over Tess's experiences with her grandmother who was patronizingly portrayed as having almost shaman-like qualities, and Zen Buddhist composure. It felt so overdone that it was insulting, and her advice to Tess about handling inappropriate comments was hardly brilliant. The only real way to deal with bullying is to stamp it out. Ignoring it and laughing it off will not do that.

Tess's biggest issue seemed to be the fact that her parents evidently did a lousy job of raising her, so that she's stuck with this question of "who am I?" given her mixed heritage - a question they obviously had not helped her with, but here's a better question: why does it matter? Why was this story not about a young woman accepting that she is who she is and the hell with anyone who won't accept her on her own terms? This business of trying to pigeon-hole her seemed ill-advised to me, and was one in a long list of tropes and clichés, including bullying, that we had here, but with nothing new added to the mix.

The blurb on Goodreads says that "Lori Piestewa...is the first Native American woman in US history to die in combat" and I call horseshit on that one. Try Running Eagle of the Piegan Blackfeet, or Kaúxuma Núpika of the Kootenai, and there were undoubtedly many others whose names we will never know. Don't mess with American Indian women! The writer of that blurb needs an education. I know the author didn't write it, so I am not including that in my review of her novel, but that already had quite sufficient problems for me to rate it negatively. I cannot recommend this story at all.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ladybird Explorers Plus Native Americans by Fiona MacDonald


Title: Ladybird Explorers Plus Native Americans
Author: Fiona MacDonald (no website found)
Publisher: Penguin
Rating: WORTHY!

This was an amazing little book about native Americans, ideal for young children to learn something useful, and designed in such a way as to encourage kids to work for their knowledge. There are little fold-outs concealing pictures, and spin wheels, and mini-books within this book, and images on otherwise clear mylar, tauntingly concealing text underneath a picture of tipis. There's a glossary and an index, and maps and images of people, places, and things. As a kid, I would have been complete enveloped by this for an hour and then for more hours on endless other days.

The book begins with a discussion of the land and the people, because you cannot separate the two no matter how much invaders and usurpers have frequently and desperately tried to do so. It discusses the first Americans and then covers various regions such as the great plains and the Arctic, the south west and the woodlands, because each has its own story to tell.

Beyond this it goes on to talk about elders and warriors, the spirit world, and then...the settlers, the beginning of the end. Commendably, it also talks about native Americans today because although the old life ended, the people fortunately continue. I recommend this book.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Footsteps in the Sky by Greg Keyes


Title: Footsteps in the Sky
Author: Greg Keyes
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media
Rating: WARTY!


DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

Errata:
Page 99 "...affect common repairs..." should be "...effect common repairs..."
Page 187 "...these thigh's..." should be "...these thighs..."
Page 226 "...hall Tuchvala..." should be "...haul Tuchvala..."

I typically don't do covers because my blog is about writing and writers rarely have any say in what their covers look like unless they self-publish (which is why those absurdly dramatic gushing "cover reveals" are so pathetic), but I have to remark upon this one to the effect that if you think, from the cover, that the story is about a race of mice, you're completely wrong!

There was a ten-page prologue and then a five page ‘Interim’! I have no idea what that was all about. I don’t do prologues, prefaces, introductions, forewords, or even interims! If the writer doesn’t consider it of sufficient merit to be incorporated into the body of the book, then I’m really not interested in it either.

This is sci-fi set in 2442 (AD!). We meet SandGreyGirl who is, along with assorted cousins, preparing her mother’s body for burial in some sort of ceremony rooted in Native American Hopi tradition. This “Earth” is evidently one of several which Humanity has colonized before moving on to the next, yet despite this technological prowess, there is still death and so there is still superstition in the form of religion, and the Hopi have curiously not changed in several hundred years!

I found that hard to believe. Yes, you can argue that they like to hang on to their traditions, but it’s really sad to portray a people as apparently incapable of, or unwilling to change. Given that their total population has barely changed over the last half millennium, who knows - maybe anything is possible? Frankly, I don't get the point of setting a sci-fi story half a millennium or so into the future and simultaneously hobbling it with beliefs and traditions from the same distance into the past, although Star Trek makes a good living from doing exactly that, so who knows?!

So “Sand” takes her personal speeder out to her mother’s secret place to bury her ‘magic things’ and finds an ebook, evidently left by her mother for Sand to read after she died. The ebook turns out to be useless because by the time Sand reads it she already knows what it reveals, more or less. Meanwhile, out in space, Alvar Washington and some genetically engineered cyborg-style chick named Teng (modeled heavily on Molly Millions from Neuromancer, but Molly could take Teng!) are barreling in from deep space because aliens have been discovered orbiting the very planet upon which the Hopi people are now living. How the spaceships were seen from so far away is a mystery.

This story is blessedly written in third person, for which I sincerely thank the author, but even so, there was a point (page 96) where it degenerated into first person PoV as we shared the thoughts of one of the aliens. This wasn't in a separate chapter, but in-line with the third person text, same font, style, and text size, the only demarcation being a wider gap between lines. I don't know why this was done.

It felt really odd to me, springing out like that when we were already over a third of the way through the novel. It went on for about one page length and then we were back in third person. I decided to skip this and any future such instances (of which there were several). I also skipped a lot of the portions which were devoted to the psychotic high-tech leader, because they were boring. Guess what? I didn't miss a thing!

There is, seemingly, a rule required by the sci-fi genre that everyone always refers to Earth as 'Terra', and its population as 'Terrans'. Frankly I find this laughable because no one uses that term. There is no provenance for it, and no history of it except in sci-fi. How is it possible it would come into use? It's not! Yet here we find it again in this novel.

From a writing perspective, which is what my blog is all about, it bothers me because it trumpets that a given writer (of whatever sci-fi novel it is which we're reading) has given no thought to this, but has just blindly followed trope. To me, that doesn't speak strongly for the rest of the story (even though many such stories are, in the end, good). So while this doesn't kill a novel for me, it certainly doesn't endear me, either. To me, sci-fi is all about the future - about fresh, new, and original, and it saddens me to see so much of it larded with trope and cliché.

I think writers use it to make it sound cool and different (even though everyone uses it, so it isn't different at all), but I also think they use it for a practical purpose: there is no term for the people of Earth as there is for, say the people of Canada: Canadians. What are we to call ourselves? Earthans? Earthites? Earthlings?! No, Terrans sounds better than those even though, realistically, it makes no sense. It sounds far too much like terrapins or terrorists! Don't forget that the Greek word 'teras' (τέρας) means monster, too! The term 'Humans' makes far more sense, and has long been in use. It sounds perfectly fine, and I can't believe that more sci-fi writers don't simply employ that ready-made term.

As I mentioned, one of the issues that bugged me about this particular story was the paradoxical anachronisms. It was like the Hopi moved some four or five hundred years into the future, but simultaneously moved the same distance into the past. Half a millennium ago, the Hopi had certain behaviors and customs and a certain life-style. Today, those things have changed in very many ways. Given that, why would it revert, four hundred years from now, to what it was back in, say, 1515?

What bothers me is not so much that it couldn't possibly happen at all, but that we're offered no explanation for why it evidently did happen in this case, and to me this feels rather insulting towards the people - that they're somehow atavistic and incapable of progress. It's like the entire Hopi culture of the sixteenth century was transplanted to a new planet, the people choosing to live as they had a thousand years before - except, of course, for all the modern conveniences. Except of course, that those modern conveniences are confined solely to technology. The mindset hasn't changed at all. They're not allowed, for example, same-gender marriage. What?

This set-up made no sense to me. It made less sense that there would be only these two cultures - the 'techs' on the coast and the Hopi people inland, in a desert culture reminiscent of that of the sixteenth century (except for the tech) - and there's no-one else on the planet at all? And these two cultures hate and despise one another? Why? We're not given any explanation or rationale.

To be fair, at one point, Sand Girl does say that the reason the Hopi came to this planet was to recreate the life they believed they were meant to live, but this makes even less sense. The Hopi now - today in this world - aren't living the life the Hopi were 500 years ago. Neither is Sand Girl, who is flying around on mini-jet planes, or her people who are using them to spray crops, using some electronic lie-detecting device, and using modern toilets and showers!

So what criteria, exactly, are she and her people employing to define "the way we were meant to live"?! They're certainly following nothing traditional save for superstitious nonsense. It makes no more sense than the Amish communities freezing their lifestyles in the eighteenth century. On top of that I don't see how any rational thinking person would actually want to regress into a such a lifestyle if it also entailed deluding yourself into thinking there are animistic gods, and that there are evil witches abroad.

I'm not saying it's completely impossible. I mean, even today there are various individuals, some communities, and some artisans who follow anachronistic habits in their lives or at least in their art, but it isn't widespread, and it wouldn't be rational (to say nothing of being economically viable) to give over a whole planet to such a group. I mean, why do the Hopi get this rather than the Bedouin, for example? Why the Hopi rather than the Tuareg? Maybe some attempt was made in the prologue and/or interim to explain all this away, but I find it hard to believe that anything could explain a whole planet being given to such a (relatively) small group of people to the exclusion of all others!

The worst part about this is that we're told, in so many words, that even this back-to-the-land-of-our-ancestors kind of culture has its ghetto: the impoverished, the low-lifes, the criminals, and so on. I don't get that at all. For as 'hi-tech' as society in general is in this novel, these people have the bare minimum. They're living off the land, and no one of them has any more than any other, so where does the criminal element come from? What's there to steal? How is there a ghetto? None of this made any sense at all to me.

In the end, which I almost skipped, but skimmed instead, I can't bring myself to recommend this. It rather fizzles out into a largely unresolved mess, and too much of it was predictable. The aliens were unconvincing - supposedly so different from humans, but supposedly so alike. The one representative they sent seemed completely un-alien. The secret spy among the Hopi was telegraphed from way back near the start of the novel. I like my stories to make sense and this one just didn't. I cannot recommend it.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sorrow's Knot by Erin Bow






Title: Sorrow's Knot
Author: Erin Bow
Publisher: Scholastic
Rating: WORTHY!

How could anyone not want to read a novel written by someone named Bow, which has 'knot' in the title? It’s too precious - especially since this story has roots in native American culture with which the bow is also associated. Fortunately, the blurb made this sound worth reading, and even more fortunately, here is a novel written by a woman about a girl, and it isn't in first person PoV - see, YA authors? It can be done. You don’t need to be hide-bound by trope!

I'm not one of these people who worships native American culture as something magical. To me they are and were no different from any other culture: neither more nor less in tune with nature, neither more nor less "savage", noble or otherwise, than any people living in the same conditions. I don't believe they lived in harmony with nature in any way different from any other, similar culture. They would have exploited it just as much as any other culture had their numbers compelled them to. They were neither wiser, nor dumber than other cultures, and they fell pray to brutality and inter-tribal warfare, and to disease, just as other peoples did. This is not to say it wasn't evil, and a shameful tragedy, the way western Christians moved in on the land, and abused the natives chronically, but that's organized religion for you.

This is the first Bow novel I've read, and from what I read in the first 100 pages or so, I really felt that it was definitely not going to be the last. This is how to write a novel. Bow knows what to do and how to do it, and she has no qualms about getting to it. She has a previous novel titled Plain Kate which is now on my list to read and will probably be reviewed next month. That one is set in Europe.

I don’t know where Bow got her chops, and I'm about as far from an expert on native American culture as you can get, but every paragraph in this novel made me believe this was real; that this is how the people in the novel lived their lives day to day. She made me feel that this is how they thought and how they felt, but Bow doesn’t lecture or sermonize. She starts off with an almost unnoticeable prologue, but wisely, she includes it in chapter one as any decent author ought. This briefly describes the arrival of Otter into the world - not the animal, but Otter the daughter of Willow, the Binder-in-training of the tribe of Shadow people, who live in the village of Westmost, in Earthen dwellings right on the edge of the forest which harbors the shades of the not-so-benign dead.

And therein lies the story. Otter loves to hang out with Kestrel and Cricket, and girl and a boy her own age who are assigned to undertake various tasks in the village. One day, hauling up the decapitated corn stalks from the muddy ground in preparation for the next planting, the three of them encounter one of the shadows of the dead lurking in the dark in the corn roots. It enters Cricket's body and it’s only Otter's binding skills - advanced for someone her age - which draw out the shade and save Cricket's life. Her mother arrives very quickly, alerted by Kestrel's warning, and the shade is dispatched.

Cricket is very weak and is observed closely. If it was a white-hand shade, Cricket will be killed, because there is no cure for it (unless you count madness as a cure), but he's fortunate again: it wasn't. The real problem is that when the village binder dies and Willow, no longer the apprentice, takes over, Otter expects to become her apprentice in turn, but her mother rejects her own daughter. Otter has to go and live now in her own lodge, a dismal construction of wattle and earth, which has been empty for too long. As she's beginning to bemoan her unexpected and unwelcome fate, Kestrel and Cricket move in with her, and soon announce to Otter their own intention to become bound to each other, becoming Okishae, which is rare in this village of mostly women.

Their ceremony takes place after the water walkers - a tribe of mostly men - has made its annual visit to exchange children, the men giving up most of their young girls, the Shadow people giving up most of their boys in exchange. Amongst the new girls is Fawn, a binder who Willow adopts quickly as her apprentice, offering a further slap in the face to Otter.

In time Otter comes to accept Fawn, and Fawn Otter, yet even though they share some secrets, Otter still understands that she is effectively a nobody, with no skills to offer her village. That is until the night that the White Hand shows up at the village and manages to touch Willow. To protect the children sheltering in Willow's lodge - the best warded lodge in the village - Otter creates a binding on the lodge door, but she cannot undo it. Fawn attempts to do so, but she's tired after the night-long battle against the White Hand, and doesn't have the power to undo Otter's work. Despite Otter's help and warnings, the ward costs Fawn her life, and with Willow bearing the shape of a white hand over her heart and having only nine days to live, the only person in the village who can assume the task of being the Binder is Otter herself.

Sorrow's Knot is not only about a knotty problem, it’s about a world where people are tied in knots: they're bound, and constrained, and pinched, and restricted, and confined and pigeon-holed, so you may end up feeling some claustrophobia in reading this. I know I did, and that actually does contribute to the atmosphere of discomfort and unease which also pervades the novel - and not because it’s poorly written. Quite the contrary: it's beautifully written, and that's precisely why we feel uncomfortable: because the characters feel that way. Their whole life is lived in fear of the shadows which surround their village. This is why it's so ironical that these people are referred to as free women when they're anything but.

The village is called Westmost because it's the west-most village known - on the edge of the world so it seems, but the area it occupies is referred to as The Pinch - a suitably constrictive term for the life they lead. The village is encircled and circumscribed by slips and gasts and the White Hand, each form of spirit more dangerous than the last. These are malevolent shades of the dead who have not moved on, but which remain in the shadows, seeking to invade the body of anyone who is insufficiently aware and sufficiently right there. It’s funny because the shadows are constrained with colored yarn and this novel is a colorful yarn about rigid constraint.

The women are bound by tradition and are cruelly restricted in their choice of "profession"; for example it seems that Otter can only be a binder and if not that, then nothing. Kestrel can only be a ranger, never a binder. Cricket can only be a story-teller, and in the end is robbed even of that. No one can leave the village in safety because of the spirits, so they're confined to The Pinch and even there they feel unsafe at times. They're restricted to living in dark, dusty, or dank earth lodges, almost like they're living underground. The lodge can only be entered through a tunnel, curtained at either end. When Otter is rejected by her mother, she's forced to make her own home in a lodge which has been abandoned by someone else in this purportedly shrinking village. And she's one of the fortunate ones.

The only people who have any power over these haunting, tragic, creeping, heart-stopping shadows are the Binders - women of the tribe who are specially gifted and trained, and who can ward off the shadows by creating complex knots in leather cords. These knots can both repel and dispel the shadows, as well as harm the living. Even the dead are bound. A dangerous ceremony is conducted - only during the day - when a villager dies. The body is carried down the river (the spirits cannot cross running water) to the burial ground, but the body is not lowered into the earth; it is elevated into the trees, having been tightly bound hand and foot to prevent the spirit from haunting the village. But apparently this system is not working, and Otter slowly begins to realize why this is.

This is unquestionably a female-centric world, with strong women and very few males involved or even required (for the most part), but one problem I had with this was that even presented as such, there was a powerfully masculine ethos pervading the story. We're taught - for those of us who are willing to listen and learn - that women have a tendency to be better at cooperation than men typically are. That doesn’t mean, of course, that women cannot lead and that men cannot cooperate; it’s a tendency, not a law of nature! The problem then with this novel was that we saw so little of that; instead, we found that the powerful women were contentious and almost tyrannical in their behavior. A nauseating example of this is when a major character is expelled from the village, at the risk of his very life. This represents appallingly callous treatment for a compatriot - treatment that smacks more of masculine than of feminine behavior.

There are some problems with this novel. It’s never really explained how this rather Amazonian world endures. Marriage is almost non-existent. If there are so few men, how are the children born? Do a handful of village men service all the women, or when the mostly male traveler tribe comes up the river to visit once a year is there an orgy?! We don’t know. We do know there are a lot of children, but we're never advised or even offered hints as to how this circumstance came to be, and given what we are offered, how it can be said that the village is dying or shrinking!

Despite this novel being largely female-centric, there are two males who play a huge role, yet the two are essentially interchangeable, and it seems to me that the two main female characters are diminished by this, because they're so dependent upon, and moved by these men. This, for me, rather undermined the strong female presence with which we’re presented at the beginning. Having the one, I can understand, and it works well, but there comes a disturbing and thoroughly unexpected part where one character is effectively is switched out for another one who was just the same, like changing a light bulb, and I saw no sense in this. It was very effectively a betrayal of both the girls at the same time, especially since it effectively weakened the one, although the other continued strongly.

That said I liked this novel, and I consider it a worthy read.