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

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea by Rebecca K Jager

Rating: WARTY!

Subtitled "Indian Women as Cultural Intermediaries and National Symbols," this book turned out to be completely wrong for my purposes and from the little I read of it, it felt to me to be completely wrong when it came to the purpose the author evidently intended it to serve. It seemed abusive to me in a way, in ascribing two, three, or four hundred years on, motives to women whose motives were never considered important at the time, so we have no idea what moved them to do the things they did, and we most certainly no grounds to ascribe high-flying reasons for their behavior.

The book does talk about the mythology that has built-up around these woman and discusses the roots and aims of that in some detail, but that aspect of their story as viewed today seems to me to be so painfully obvious as to be a fruitless exercise in pursuing it more. People have used these women for their own ends whether those ends were supposedly noble or malign. Of that there is no doubt, but the book seems like it wants to go beyond all that to view them in hindsight as cross-cultural ambassadors and I don't agree that's what they were. They were certainly not at the time, and ascribing such a role to them in hindsight seems pointless to me. It seems like it's just as abusive to them as people were in their own lifetime by disrespecting and using them in much the same way that people have done ever since.

The simplest solution to me is that these women acted in their own best interest, and in the interest of the foreigners for whom they may have developed feelings of affection, respect, or love. It's a perfectly human motive, and it's not superhuman. Malinche, who aided Hernán Cortés during the Spanish take-over of central America in the sixteenth century had been treated shabbily by her own people and was respected by the Spanish, so it's entirely unsurprising that she had switched loyalty and wanted to help those who had treated her better than her own people had. There is no overriding nationalist motive here, anti or otherwise. These women had no great plan. They had none of the hindsight we have today, to see where this was going. They were merely doing what they saw as best in their circumstances at the time.

The same 'motive' applies to Matoaka (aka Pocahontas) and Sakakawia (aka Sacagawea). Matoaka was a child and came to the Jamestown village because it was exciting and new, and there were new playmates to interest her. She was not a princess. She did not represent her father. She had no great diplomatic aspirations. Yes, she came often with gifts of food, but there's nothing recorded to show that this was her idea as opposed, say, to her father's idea. Maybe she talked her father into it, maybe not. We don't know! Maybe she was no more than a spy for her father, infiltrating the English camp and reporting all she saw back to dad. We don't know!

The great life-saving story that John Smith belatedly related was in my opinion pure fiction, and there's an end to it. He'd used the same story before in a different context. And Disney ought to be ashamed of themselves for dishonestly portraying it as a love story, but since when have they cared about historical accuracy, or about integrity in retelling ancient fairytales?

Sakakawia started out in very much the same as Malinche, being kidnapped at a young age and sold or traded off. Her life followed a somewhat less abusive trail than did Malinche's but they were both torn from their roots and were sharp enough women to make it work for them. My own personal feeling about Sakakawia isn't that she saw herself as a great diplomat either, but that she enjoyed new adventures and may well have talked her way into being the one wife of Charbonneau who went on this excursion merely because she relaly wanted to go. She had no great ambition to be a bridge between peoples and to pretend now that she was is farcical!

So I can't take a so-called 'scholarly work' like this seriously, I really can't, and I certainly cannot commend it as a worthy read.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Sacagawea: crossing the continent with Lewis & Clark by Emma Carlson Berne

Rating: WORTHY!

I'm reviewing three different books this month about the life of "Sacagawea" who is actually more accurately referred to as "Sakakawia" - which was, it's important to remember, her Hidatsa name, not her Shoshone name. No one at the time bothered to ask her about her previous name or her life before the Hidatsa era. All we know of her earlier life came out because of fortuitous coincidence during the expedition.

William Clark spent a lot of time with Sakakawia, but he never wrote anything down of their interactions - which admittedly were limited in regard to conversation since she spoke no English and he none of Shoshone, Hidatasa, or French, all of which she had at least a smattering of. Since American Indian names tended to be quite fluid throughout life, perhaps Sakakawia didn't care that much how she was referred to or would have been concerned if two centuries on, we had a clue what it really was or what her short life had been.

This book was fine, but of the three I've read, it was the least interesting even though it wasn't the last I read. I say that because the facts are very limited in discussing her life, and the only thing a new author can add is their own spin, which may or may not count for much. So one book about her tends to be very much like another. That's why I don't intend to write yet another boring book about her life on the expedition; I have something very different in mind which to my knowledge hasn't been done before, and this is why I've been reading all of these books, and why I intend to read the Lewis and Clark diaries too. This is all for background, but my story won't be the expedition, which I feel has been done to death and beyond.

This book tells a workmanlike version of the story if given to flights of fancy at times. That said it isn't ridiculously exaggerated and it does not make up stories any more than any bother such book has done. The problem is that these books tend to ascribe things that were never there in real life. All native Americans, for example, were tough people back then, men and women alike, so personally I don't feel there was anything particularly special about Sakakawia's toughness and abilities. Any "Indian Squaw" could have done what this woman did because it's what they did day in and day out!

I do feel, and this is just a guess, that she had an interest in adventure, and so was game to go on this expedition. It could have been Charbonneau's other wife (latterly referred to as 'Otter Woman' although no one actually recorded her name at the time) who went instead, but to me it feels like Sakakawia was intent on going and did not see her post-partum status as an obstacle, whereas Charbonneau's 'Other Woman' wasn't at all interested, and perhaps this 'Older Woman' saw his prolonged absence as a chance to get away from him and find a better life for herself? The truth is that we don't know how or why the cut was made the way it was, we just know it was.

The backcover blurb for this book - which is not typically in the hands of the author admittedly - claims that without Sakakawia, "Lewis and Clark certainly could never have succeeded," but I think that's patent buffaloshit. I think they would have succeeded with or without Sakakawia, with or without "Otter Woman" and with or without Charbonneau, but that doesn't take anything away from the real and solid contributions that Sakakawia made and the fortitude and can-do qualities she exhibited. She deserved a hell of a lot better than she got, and she deserves to be remembered, honored, and commemorated. If this book helps with that, then it's a worthy read.

Sacagawea : westward with Lewis and Clark by Alana J White

Rating: WORTHY!

With any book on Sacagawea the problem is not only getting her name wrong, but also fictionalizing her life and adding fanciful and wishful things which are not in the historical record. This is nothing new. Historical revision began over a century ago when the suffragette movement in the USA was looking for a strong female figurehead and poor Sakakawea was resurrected to fit the bill. That's when the myth-making began. No one stopped to think whether she would have wanted or supported something like that.

The fundamental truth about her is that the record is light. She's barely mentioned in the diaries that the two expedition leaders kept, and when she is, the variations in spelling are numerous making it difficult to do a search to find all the references to her. She's referred to as "the Indian woman", as "Charbonneau's squaw" (various spellings), and by the name the Hidatsa kidnappers gave to her (again with variations). That's how little regard she was given at the time.

No one bothered to record her original name or her thoughts and feelings about the journey. In that, she was treated like every other member of the expedition despite being the youngest who also happened to be carrying and expertly caring for a young baby for the entire journey. In this, she was treated as an equal to the men, so in that regard she might be considered the first recorded exemplar of equal rights in North America.

The closest we can come to her Hidatsa name is Sakakawia which means Bird (sakaka) Woman (wea). No one recorded why she had this particular name or what happened to her original Shoshone name. Native American names were very fluid, changing sometimes many times between birth and death. They were more like a current status - like something in social media - than an actual name as we in the west in modern times view names, so perhaps even Sakakawia didn't care that much what her name was.

This book along with most others, refers to her as Sacagawea which is closest to the name used phonetically in more than one spelling, in the diaries. As to her Shoshone name, no one knows what it was. A popular one doing the rounds is 'Boinaiv', but that sounds far too much like Bowie Knife to be taken seriously. Besides, as far as I know, Grass Woman in Shoshone is Ambosoni, not Bonaiv!

The next thing the books tend to do is to inflate Sakakawia's importance and contributions to the expedition by claiming, for example, that it could not have succeeded without her. I don't buy that, and neither Lewis nor Clark ever made such a claim, but this takes nothing away from the important contributions she did make, which were acknowledged by the expedition leaders.

Stoicism was an important part of Indian life. These people were tough and resilient, and Sakakawia was stoic without a doubt. She never complained, even when she was sick. She accepted what life laid before her if perhaps hoping always for something better. She obviously never wanted to be kidnapped by the Hidatsa, but she made a life with them. She more than likely didn't want to be married to Charbonneau, but she made a life with him, too.

When he signed on for the expedition, in part being allowed in because he could boast two "squaws" who spoke Shoshone, it raises the question as to why she went along when she had a newborn in tow, rather than his other wife who was referred to in later mythology as midapokawia (Otter Woman), although she remained nameless during the time of the expedition and disappeared from recorded history at that time.

But she was older with no new child, so why take the younger post-partum woman? Personally my feeling is that Sakakawia actually wanted to go on the expedition and didn't see her newborn as an obstacle. I really think she wanted the adventure and a chance of seeing her own people again, whereas 'Otter Woman' (Other Woman?!) wasn't that interested and perhaps saw this as a chance to get away from Charbonneau in his absence?

There seems to be some conflation of Otter Woman with the friend of Sakakawia's who was kidnapped at the same time as she was. That girl is referred to as Leaping Fish. I have no idea what the Shoshone for that name is, but fish is Akai. She was not Otter Woman, because Leaping (or Jumping) Fish managed to escape the Hidatsa and return to her own people. Why Sakakawia didn't go with her was never recorded. Perhaps she could not escape, didn't know about Leaping Fish's escape plan, or was recaptured. Or maybe she didn't want to escape because staying with the Hidatsa was an adventure for her - a chance to see different things. Perhaps that's why she married Charbonneau too. Perhaps she didn't escape because Charbonneau offered another distraction. We simply don't know.

So those are the facts, and this book does not embellish them inordinately. It tells a wider story, too, offering insights into life back then, into the different tribes we learn of, and so on, so it fills out the story and makes for a much more rounded reading experience. But in the end, one book about 'Sacagawea' is pretty much, of necessity, like another, because the facts don't change - only the spin an author chooses to put on them. So while I think I am done reading such books after this present flurry, I can commend this one as a worthy read.

Sacagawea by Judith St George

Rating: WORTHY!

You might guess that when I start in on reading a slew of books about a certain topic, I'm thinking about writing a story, so here we go again!

This book was entertaining, but very much buying into the popular mythology of Sacagawea. Let's get her name straight first. It never was Sacagawea, and certainly not Sacajawea. Lewis and Clark recorded it as minor variations on "Sah-kah-gar we a" in their diaries, but the closest we can come today is probably Sakakawia.

The real problem though, is that this was a Hidatsa name, not her Shoshone one! She was kidnapped at the age of eleven or twelve and absorbed into a Hidatsa tribe before being given to a fur-trapper named Charbonneau, who already had a previous (and slightly older) Shoshone wife. I guess he was really into Shoshone women. The name never was her original Shoshone name, but that said, American Indian names were rather fluid and one person might go through several names during their lifetime. To them, a name was really more like Facebook status in a way! As far as I can tell, Sakakawia is closest to the name she became most commonly known by in her own time, so it's the one I'll use here. No one uses it in books and novels because people generally don't recognize that name as applying to her.

Additionally, no one knows what Sakakawia actually looked like. She's never described based on the farcical "all Indians look like" fallacy that was prevalent then and unfortunately still is among certain categories of people even now. Even as Lewis and Clark described in some detail the things they saw during their trip.

Despite ostensibly being on a journey of observation and recording, never once did either of this pair think of describing Sakakawia in any way - physically, mentally, personality-wise, clothing-wise or whatever. She was "just a squaw" to them and therefore not that important. So, while the model for the image on the US dollar coin minted in 2000 was a Shoshone woman (Randy'L He-dow Teton), even she was not Lemhi Shoshone. She was a thoroughly modern woman who graduated from University of New Mexico at the same age as Tsakakawia apparently was when she died.

Why the image from a photograph taken much closer to the time of Tsakakawia's life wasn't used instead, I have no idea, but what we must do when seeing all these modern images and thinking of her life, is to keep in mind that Sakakawia was actually much younger when she became the only woman on that expedition. She had just had a baby less than two months before the expedition began, and she was barely more than a child herself.

This begs the question, why her instead of the less-well-known 'other wife' - an older Shoshone girl given the much less exotic name of Otter Woman - which wasn't actually her name either! This suggests to me that Sakakawia actually wanted to go on this trip whereas Charbonneau's other wife probably did not, and so she left history whereas Sakakawia entered it quite forcefully

All that said, the book is entertaining, but the constant championing of this young woman becomes a bit tedious and feels a little fake. She's mentioned often in the diaries, but under variations of her name, and also as a 'squaw' (various spellings) and as 'the Indian woman'.

The telling thing about these mentions is that it is of her utility to the expedition - saving light objects that were in danger of being washed out of a flooded pirogue at one point, finding roots and herbs to feed the hungry crew at another, easing Indian tribes fears of the intentions of the travelers at another, of giving up her prized blue-bead belt in trade for an otter skin cape that was given to Thomas Jefferson and for which Sakakawia received no credit other than the brief mention in the diaries, and of her joy at meeting her brother, now a chief, whom she had not seen in a decade, when they finally arrived in Shoshone territory.

Although her value did not really give cause for much comment in the body of the diaries, in a letter written after the expedition was completed, when he was in process of what became an adoption of her children, Clark apparently had misgivings and pretty much apologized that their appreciation of her contributions had not been better represented. That says it all right there. I commend this book as a worthy read for younger children, but keep in mind that there's much more going on in her story than a short and somewhat biased book like this can convey.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Red Dove by Sonia Antaki

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Not to be confused with The Red Dove by Gerry Hillier or The Red Dove by Derek Lambert, this Red Dove (illustrated by Andrew Bosley and subtitled "Listen to the Wind") tells the story of a young Lakota Sioux girl named Red Dove, who lives on a reservation in the Dakota Territory in the early 1890s. She is a child of a white Irish father and an American Indian mother. The blurb tells us that food is scarce, yet the opening few paragraphs detail a hunting trip during which the girl and her half-brother Walks Alone are looking at a whole posse of turkeys, one of which Red Dove brings down with an arrow even though women are not supposed to hunt so we're told.

One issue I had with this book was that it is supposed to be about a strong female of the Lakota Sioux, but if felt like an ordinary story, and there were no references anywhere to any other Sioux women except for the main character's mother. There have been scores of strong American Indian women, including tribal leaders, who lived around or before the time this story takes place, yet we hear of none of them. For example, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where Custer led a bunch of the Seventh cavalry foolishly to their deaths, is mentioned in this story more than once, yet none of the female Lakota who fought in t hat battle get a mention, and there were at least three of them: Minnie Hollow Wood, Moving Robe Woman (a Hunkpapa Sioux who is credited in some accounts with dispatching Custer), or One Who Walks With the Stars (an Oglala Sioux woman). The leader known in the west as 'Crazy Horse' is mentioned, but his wife, Black Shawl, never gets a word. It's like, despite this novel being about a Sioux woman, Indian women are excluded from the story. It made no sense to me.

Note that Lakota women were not the only ones who fought in battles. There were other American Indian women of other tribes who also fought at Little Bighorn or elsewhere. These women were not shrinking violets. They were tough and self sufficient, and very strong. Names that come to mind are Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a Cheyenne woman whose rescue of her brother at the Battle of the Rosebud was instrumental in turning the tide in the Indian's favor. She also fought alongside her husband at Little Bighorn, and is credited with knocking Custer from his horse. Pretty Nose was a female Arapaho war chief who fought at Little Bighorn.

So anyway, there clearly was no scarcity of food if there are so many turkeys to be had, but these two kids are nevertheless sent off with strangers to a Catholic missionary school where they're treated brutally. Now I get that American Indians have been - and in far too many cases still are - treated appallingly, but the problem I had with this book is that it's relentless in its brutality, with no leavening whatsoever, and it's also unrealistic. It's unrealistic in that this girl was of an age which back then would have been considered 'ripe for the plucking' by the unscrupulous and brutal white men with whom she comes into contact, yet she is never once sexually assaulted or even threatened by it.

Naturally you don't want those horrific details in a middle-grade book, but to not even hint at what a precarious position a girl like her would have been in seemed inauthentic to me when other forms of violence against her were depicted without reserve. The fact is that (according to a 2010 Department of Justice study) over four out of five American Indian and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence, over half have experienced sexual violence and of those, almost all of them experienced it at the hands of a non-tribal member.

The truth is that Native Americans are more than twice as likely to experience sexual assault and rape than any other ethnic group in the United States, and this is today in our supposedly more enlightened times. To avoid this topic in a book set back when there were neither rules nor any sort of moral compass to enlighten and dissuade men from abusing American Indians is a grave failure to face the facts. It's disingenuous and the Sioux women deserve better. The author isn't native American, and while I don't consider that a disqualification by any means, I have to wonder if she perhaps she did not think this idea properly through.

The novel seemed to drag for me, made worse by the never-ending brutality, and while Red Dove is shown as escaping at one point from the Catholic school she fails to get very far before being captured. After that, she suffers the 'white savior' trope in which a white kid helps her out, so she's not really demonstrating "that her greatest power comes from within herself" as the blurb promises.

I think her agency is further diluted by the introduction of a ridiculous level of the supernatural. For me this cheapened Red Dove's story considerably, and made her look like she was mentally unstable. I think a novel without the supernatural, where the girl was shown to have delivered herself from evil as it were, but without need for spirits, and men, including her grandfather, telling her what to do, would have made for a much stronger story. The book also mentions conscription at one point in the narrative, but there was no such thing between the end of the civil war and the start of World War One in the USA to my knowledge.

This book was evidently designed as a print book with no thought given to the ebook version, so the use of drop caps, which I personally do not like, managed to screw-up the layout of the book after it went through Amazon's crappy Kindle conversion process which will mangle your book if it's anything more ambitious than plain vanilla. On more than one occasion, the drop-cap was removed from the start of the first sentence in a chapter and deposited at the start of the second line, so at one point, for example, I read, “he sun sank low behind the hills, the air carried a chill, Tand the sky shimmered from gold to pink.” Here you can see that the 'T' that should gave begun the sentence is appended instead to another word that presumably started the next line in the print version. That line, beginning with ‘Tand’ was a half line below the rest of the text as well.

Many parts of the novel seemed like they had hard 'carriage returns' built into the text, so while some screens had the text run from one side to other as is normal, other screens had the text ending mid-screen and dropping to the next line. It made for a scrappy-looking book and both author and publisher need to take responsibility for checking these things. I personally refuse to publish with Amazon, but if you're going to do that, you need to watch them like a hawk because they will ruin your book's layout if they're not watched like a hawk, as this example proved handsomely in its ugliness.

So all these things together made for a very unsatisfying read for me, and shortly after the white savior came riding to the rescue, I gave up on it. That was around eighty percent, when Red Dove began having out of the body experiences. Sorry but this as not for me and while I wish the author all the best in her career, I cannot commend this as a worthy read.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Beyond the Green by Sharlee Glenn

Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Not to be confused with Beyond the Glenn by Sharlee Green (I'm kidding!), this book was pretty darned good. It addresses a controversial issue of which the author has had some direct experience judged from her note at the end. I rarely read author's notes, and never read introductions, prefaces, prologues, and so on, but this note was interesting.

In 1978 a law was passed regarding how American Indian children in need of foster care should be treated. As usual, white folk had in the past assumed that they knew best, and simply taken Native American children into white Christian foster care giving no consideration even as to whether there were any native American relatives who could do the job, let alone others, and no consideration at all was given to Indian tradition or culture. It concerns me that this law applied only to Native Americans and gave no consideration to other cultures or even races, such as black or Asian. It seems to me that what's good for the cultural goose is also good for the ethnic gander, but that's outside the scope of this novel so I won't get into that here.

The middle-grade novel, set in 1979, evidently in some way mirrors what happened in the author's life, and is told from the perspective of a young Mormon girl, Britta Twitchell, whose family fosters a native American child from the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation in Utah for about four years. Rather than use the child's native American Ute name, they inappropriately named her Dorinda, and then shortened that to Dori. The child's actual name is the much more beautiful Chipeta. Her mother, Irene Uncarow, is an alcoholic, but she has recovered now and wants her daughter back. This causes Britta, the main character, to react very negatively, and start scheming to prevent her 'sister' from being abducted by this alien woman - at least that's the kind of viewpoint Britta has.

Her reaction is rather extreme, beginning with kidnaping Chipeta herself and running away, and later scheming to ruin Irene's sobriety so she can't reclaim her daughter. But Britta isn't dumb, she's just young and naïve, and she grows and learns lessons from her ill-conceived plans. The book isn't dumb either: it tells a real and moving story with interesting and complex characters and it does not shy away from talking about prejudice and alcoholism. There is always something happening, and it's not predictable - except in that you know that Britta's mind is very active and she will for certain cook-up another wild-ass plan before long.

The only issue I had with it was that it was a bit heavy on religion, but then this was a Mormon family. There was a minor instance of fat-shaming by Britta, but again, young kids are not known for their diplomacy. It's a different thing for a character to say something than it is for an author to say the same thing. Some people don't get that about novels! What a character says isn't necessarily what an author thinks!

For example, at one point Britta describes a loved aunt thus; "I pretty much idolized Aunt Mariah. She was pretty and spunky and smart." Normally I'd be all over something like that - placing prettiness above all else when it comes to describing women, as though that's the most important thing a woman has to offer, way before smarts, courage, integrity, independence, or whatever. I've seen far too many authors do that - including female authors, and it's shameful, but in this case it's the character, Britta, who is saying that. That's a different thing altogether, although having said that, it wouldn't have harmed this story to have had Britta rank 'spunky and smart' before 'pretty'!

But overall I really liked this story a lot. It's a great introduction for middle-grade children to the potential problems inherent in a family of one culture taking charge of a child from another. Anything that serves to open minds and enlighten children that different doesn't equate with bad or scary is to be recommended, and I recommend this as a worthy read.

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 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!

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.