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justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2013-04-15 05:24 pm

Newbery Medal: Waterless Mountain (Laura Adams Armer)

Oh, good grief. Another story about Southwestern Native Americans by a white person? I'm so tired of this Random Indigenous Peoples trend.



* At least Laura Adams Armer apparently spent time studying among the Navajo and photographing their daily life. (Some of her photographs are included in the book; there's one as the frontispiece.) Maybe we'll get a polite and well-considered treatment of Navajo life and customs.... :S

* The foreword is by... I can't even tell. The signature is illegible, and I can't tell if the writer is speaking of "the Indians" as people he is not or as people he is. It seems to flip-flop. He assures us that Ms Armer understands "the Indians" remarkably well for a white person; he also tells us how she was so "charming and sympathetic" that she "persuaded a Navaho [sic] medicine man to make a sacred sand-painting for her and, contrary to the ceremonial laws, leave it undestroyed for people to look at." Because that's NOT PROBLEMATIC AT ALL! Informing white people about your sacred secrets is always more important than following your own traditions. :P (This same attitude would be why I've pretty much stopped reading National Geographic anymore - it's still alive and well in the modern world. "I got the first shot of this! Never mind that the person who showed me the Secret Thing regretted it afterwards and asked me not to publish." o_O)

* After a brief introductory quotation about the Waterless Mountain - with no springs on any of its slopes - and about the six directions (north, south, east, west, above, below), we start the book proper.

* First sentence: "In the month of Short Corn, when drooping clouds floated white against the blue, and fringed dust rose from the washes, Younger Brother tended the sheep." Younger Brother will be our central character.

* We hear brief descriptions of Younger Brother's family and world, neatly tied into the process of his bringing the sheep home and eating supper. His father is a silversmith and cattleman, Elder Brother is a grown man and rides a pony, Uncle is a "medicine man", Mother is the family cook who also spins and weaves, and Baby Sister is swaddled in her cradleboard.

* At night, he dreams about the first time he saw a "Yay" (Yei) or holy being. This was at his initiation (into what, it doesn't say, but I gather it's a sort of coming-of-age rite). He remembers how strange and ecstatic he felt; then he dreams he goes up to the sky and plays with the Star Children. He dreams about one of them shooting an arrow that is a shooting star, and as he wakes up he hears "the sound that star-dust makes when it falls to earth".

* After that night Younger Brother begins to feel a greater kinship with everything in nature - the stars, the little whirlwinds, the clouds and rainbows.

* One day, Mother takes Younger Brother to the trading post for the first time. He's very excited, a little bit scared, but consoles himself that Mother clearly knows what to do.

* I'm rolling my eyes rather at the descriptions of the trading post, as Younger Brother promptly decides any place with so much awesome stuff in it must be a "magic house" and that the trading-post keeper (who we're told has the kindest face Younger Brother has ever seen, THANK YOU AUTHOR), "must be a medicine man". He wishes he could stay with the trader, and hopes Mother will bring him to the trading post often. Because white people are so awesome. :P

* These chapters are hard to summarize - quiet, lyrical, and they go very quickly. This one tells about Younger Brother's next day after they have gone to the trading post. We learn that people who make Younger Brother's acquaintance always give him something: the man from the trading post put a jar of strawberry jam in among Mother's purchases as a gift which Younger Brother is certain was specially for him (though he makes no fuss about the whole family eating it with breakfast), and near the end of the chapter Younger Brother sees the eagle Yellow Beak, who drops a tail feather for him. Younger Brother saves the tail feather and decides he won't tell even Mother or Uncle about it just yet; it will be a secret between him and Yellow Beak.

* Chapter 3 is called "Spring Pollen". It starts with Elder Brother teaching Younger Brother how to make a stubborn burro move by spitting the juice of chewed juniper leaves in its face - juniper being "strong magic for motion". Then, after all the chores are done, Younger Brother runs to the little cave where he keeps his special treasures. He wraps the eagle feather carefully in his red hair-bandana and adds it ceremoniously to the pile - which includes sparkly mica from the Star Children, four colors of petrified wood the Wind uncovered for him (he keeps them at the proper corners of the cave: white for east, blue for south, yellow for west, black for north), a garnet from the Red Ants which he got while saving a lamb from them, and a pottery bowl with clouds painted on it which the Rain Clouds uncovered for him. He also adds the label from the strawberry jam to the pile.

* Father is making a silver bracelet for Younger Brother, which will have a turquoise set in the middle, and that will be Younger Brother's present both from Father and from the blue sky - because "the turquoise belonged to the sky". Younger Brother goes home in the evening to see if it's done, and that is the end of this day.

* I really can't summarize all this. It's just... as far as I can tell (being myself a pasty white person Googling things), a lovely, sweet, reasonably accurate portrayal of a Navajo child's view of the world. We see how his family lives in peace with all creatures, including the bumblebees and mountain lions - while also eating mutton, which is not portrayed as contradictory to their beliefs. :-) I like this, the way humans are included as part of the cycle of life rather than seen as intrusive and damaging.

* ...even though Younger Brother keeps having to herd the sheep farther and farther away because they're eating all the grass. Bad example. ^_^

* Younger Brother rides out with Uncle on the round-up; they're trailing Younger Brother's pet yearling calf. They find it by a spring, very high up in the mountains, and while Uncle ropes it, Younger Brother rides around the end of the cliff, feeling that he would like to make a new song -- and sees seven deer dance in front of them and then run through some shrubbery into a cave full of old Anasazi houses! So he makes and sings a little song, and then he goes and tells Uncle what he has seen. Uncle says that because Younger Brother has had this vision of the deer, he must have a new name, "Little Singer", and in four days Uncle will start teaching him the songs of the Deer People. It will take him till he is a grown man to learn them all.

* The white man at the trading post knows that Younger Brother didn't have a vision, but saw a real cave with abandoned houses where the deer live. The trader has a photograph of the cave, but doesn't tell anyone about it so as not to have the deer hunted or chased away. "So he and Younger Brother kept the secret together."

* I like the book as long as it's talking about Younger Brother and his family. When the trading-post man comes into it, as he does in chapter 5 "A Friend in Need", suddenly the POV switches to "haha primitive brown people", and it's uncomfortable. :P

* ...on the other hand, the trader's car wouldn't start and Younger Brother just started it by spitting juniper juice at the radiator. And there's no "scientific" explanation given for that, just -- it's magic. :-)

* Ah, here we are. I knew there was something wrong with the Spider Woman being a wicked witch in Runaway Papoose, but I hadn't read any traditional Navajo tales for so long I forgot all about how she's friendly to the Navajo and teaches them things. We hear a story about how Spider Woman taught the Navajo to spin and weave.

* Mother is weaving, Elder Brother is making moccasins, the cat is sleeping on top of the hogan (mud-covered log house, where the family lives), and Baby Sister is poking random animals with a fork. Because toddler, that's why. :D Younger Brother comes home and mentions that he saw a rattlesnake, and he and Elder Brother have a brief conversation about why they don't kill snakes. End chapter.

* In the next chapter, there is a party; a neighbor's daughter is having a ceremonial corn-cake baked for her, which is apparently the signal that she is ready to get married, and she shares her piece of the cake with Elder Brother by way of indicating that she's interested in him. It's quickly arranged that Elder Brother and the girl shall get married.

* While the wedding preparations are going on, Younger Brother feels lonely and wishes he had someone like Elder Brother's future wife, with whom to share his secret treasure cave and the various friends (human and otherwise) he's made. In his collection of treasures he puts a button that fell off the girl's moccasin at the ceremony.

* Okay, we hear more about Younger Brother's new name, "Little Singer": this will be his name when he is grown up and a "medicine man", but right now only his mentor, Uncle, can call him that. It's a sacred name. But ever since it was given him, he's been noticing more and more that everything in the world sings or dances.

* Ooh, Coyote tales! :D If the information in this book is accurate - and as far as I can tell, it is - this is a really interesting book.

* Now the wedding day comes. Everyone washes with yucca root (which lathers like soap) and dresses in the fine new clothes Mother has made them for the wedding, and Father herds the ten ponies for the bride's dowry while the rest of the family rides in the wagon to the neighbor's house.

* ...apparently traditional Navajo custom does not permit a mother-in-law ever to meet her son-in-law, not even to attend the wedding. So the bride's mother, who has arranged everything about the party before the groom's family arrives, is hiding behind the hogan where she can't be seen. After the wedding she'll only get to see her daughter when Elder Brother is away.

* The father of the bride performs the traditional wedding ceremony, described and explained in detail, and then Younger Brother gives his new sister(-in-law) a present: a deer hoof he found on Waterless Mountain, which he tells her is a present from Coyote's wife, a young woman who wore deer hooves as bells on the fringe of her clothes. (We heard the story of Coyote and his wife earlier in the chapter.)

* Once the frost comes and the snakes are hibernating, it is safe to tell the sacred stories, so Uncle teaches Younger Brother many stories and songs. We hear about a pack rat who helped a young man escape from his enemies.

* One day after Younger Brother hears the pack-rat story, he sees a pack rat who has stolen the black piece of petrified wood from the north side of his treasure cave. He tells Uncle about this, and then on the morrow, that the pack rat has brought a white pebble in place of the black wood. Uncle is very impressed by the pack rat's understanding of Navajo ceremony; sometimes it is proper to move the white stone in a sacred circle to the north and the black stone to the east. Uncle is also very impressed by how all the signs tell him Younger Brother is indeed a chosen "medicine man".

* Soon afterwards, Younger Brother catches a raving fever. He raves about many things, but most often he cries out for the white man from the trading post. Uncle sends Father to fetch the trader; the trader is very busy, and the author notes that "there should be nurses to take care of these things" because someone or other in the area is ALWAYS sick -- but eventually the trader agrees to come. He brings oranges and castor oil, and gives both to Younger Brother. Younger Brother begins to get better; Uncle explains to the trader about the Pack Rat and the treasure cave, and they go together to see it. The trader puts a turquoise bead in the pile of treasures with the rest.

* Now it's late fall, when "summer stands back to back with winter"; Younger Brother quickly gets well, in time to help gather piƱon nuts with Elder Brother and his wife. The year goes on. The chapter is called "Christmas at the Trading Post", so the fall should pass swiftly.

* But first we hear the story about the Turquoise Woman of the west and the White Shell Woman of the east, who are sisters. The sisters originally lived alone on a mountain top, but they were lonely; the shell woman married the waterfall and bore the Child of the Water, and the turquoise woman married the Sun and bore "a young god of light". Both these... demigods? Mythological boys, anyway, are friendly to the Navajo.

* Now a hard freeze comes, and the white trader's sister (who lives at the trading post with him) sends word that there will be a Christmas tree and gifts at the trading post in seven days. So on Christmas Day, all the local Navajo come to the trading post. The rest of the chapter is... as usual, a bit uncomfortable, with the culture clash and everything, but also kind of sweet.

* Sudden time-jump: Younger Brother, who was eight years old in the first chapters, is now twelve. He has his own pony; he is practicing the sacred songs he's learning, while he tends the sheep. Once again it's summer.

* Younger Brother follows a trickle of water one day, up the cliff faces and back to a deep hidden pool where no cattle graze. Only the birds can come there. He dozes off near the pool, after asking the birds to teach him to fly.

* And, what do you know, the white trader lands an airplane on the top of the mesa near the pool. He and another man are climbing down to look for the pool; they find Younger Brother nearby, and discuss what a good supply of water the pool is and how it could water a thousand sheep if only it can be piped to the lowlands. Because of course this is helpful. *wry face* We were just talking about what a lovely inaccessible pool it was....

* Anyway, Younger Brother gets to fly over the summits of the clouds in the airplane, and he sings a song to those who dwell in the clouds. He also sprinkles an offering of pollen to them, in Navajo custom. End chapter.

* The parts where the white trader interacts with Navajo adults are especially awkward, though; he takes Younger Brother home and explains about flying with him in the airplane, and Father says quite matter-of-factly that this proves "white men are mightier than Navajos" because the white men can fly. :P

* Everybody is perfectly fine with how the white trader's friend, a "water developer", pipes the water from the hidden pool down to a cement reservoir in order to water the sheep. When the reservoir is finished, they all plan a party and a "sing", or traditional ceremony over which the "medicine man" presides. We hear the story behind the particular ceremony that will be performed, and Uncle lets Younger Brother help in the preparations.

* The next chapter is all about the ceremony and how the family gathers afterward, how they have changed in the last four years, and how everything is going. Younger Brother's parents are rather worried that Younger Brother will turn out to be one of the Holy People who leave the earth to travel among the rainbows and stars.

* And sure enough, next chapter, after having dreams that call him, Younger Brother finally tells Mother one day that she needs to herd the sheep, as he is leaving them to ride west. But as he travels west, a sandstorm strikes, and he has to wait with his saddle-blanket over his head; finally a white boy comes stumbling through the sandstorm and collapses at his feet. Younger Brother helps the blond white boy - gives him water, shelters him with the blanket, and once the storm is over, takes the boy with him on his pony westward, toward the western mountain (not Waterless Mountain near Younger Brother's home).

* Eventually they reach a spring, where the white boy's roadster has run out of gas. They put up the white boy's tent and cook dinner, and in the morning (though the white boy knows only one word of Navajo, "toh" for water), they manage to communicate enough to go to the trading post for gasoline for the roadster. The trader interprets for them; the white boy buys hay for Younger Brother's pony, as well as a can of gasoline, and once the car is gotten to the trading post and all fueled up, the white boy and Younger Brother set out for the Grand Canyon together - the white boy in the car, Younger Brother on his pony.

* A thunderstorm comes up and the white boy's car gets stuck in the mud at the edge of a river. Two Navajo horsemen, unpleasant-looking fellows (yadda yadda SAME OLD SAME OLD - "little mean eyes", "cruel mouth"), cross the river and with their horses help haul the car out of the mud, for a payment of a dollar each.

* The next morning, Younger Brother finds that the two bad men have stolen his red pinto pony. He follows the pony's tracks. While he's trying to whistle it back to him, he knocks a yucca plant out of the ground, and the two men run away yelling about ghosts; Younger Brother doesn't immediately realize that he's accidentally uncovered an ancient burial site complete with skeleton, where the yucca plant was dislodged. But when he goes down to fetch his pony, he sees it. He leaves it alone because Uncle has told him not to disturb the ancient people's burial sites.

* The two boys stop the next night at another trading post, where the trader interprets Younger Brother's story - Younger Brother was unable to explain to the white boy directly where he had been, due to the language barrier - and both the trader and the white boy ask where the burial site was, but he will not tell. But the white boy determines to stay behind and find it, because his father is an archaeologist; so the next day, Younger Brother travels on without him.

* The next chapter is all about how the Turquoise Woman, of whom we heard before, traveled west to the house that the Sun built for her, and how Younger Brother feels he is following her trail.

* Younger Brother stays some time with a distant relative of his mother's, a widow who marries her dead husband's brother. (We hear how the woman owns her own flock of sheep, and how she is the one who proposes to the man by leaving a basket of cornbread outside his door.) After the wedding comes an eclipse, and then a huge multi-day storm. The cornfields are washed away; the sheep are lost; the hogan is threatened and the whole household wrestles the furnishings to higher ground. By the time the storm is over, the widow's new husband has caught pneumonia, and he dies two days later.

* Younger Brother does what he can to help the widow and her two daughters, but eventually he must leave and travel on westward. Just as he gets ready to leave, the same white boy he saved earlier drives up in his roadster! The white boy also gives some help, and buys a woven rug from the widow; while helping him pack it into his roadster, Younger Brother notices the big pot that was in the grave with the skeleton. After the white boy leaves, Younger Brother worries greatly about how the disturbance of the grave must have led to the eclipse and the big storm.

* But once he realizes he has forgotten to sing in his heart during the storm, he is happier, and stops worrying. He travels westward toward the ocean, singing again. That night he reaches the western mountain, where he plans to place a carved "prayer stick" on the summit.

* In the morning he rides up the mountain. It is such a beautiful place that again he is lonely and wishes for someone to share it with, as he did at Elder Brother's wedding. He prays at the summit of the mountain that the Sun will help him travel to the western ocean, then rides down again.

* The morning after that, he sees his first highway with cars whizzing back and forth on it. He's puzzled. He rests by a juniper tree, and a white tourist woman stops and takes his picture, then tries to ask him to sell her his pony's blanket. He does not understand, until the white trader who is his friend happens to stop nearby and interprets for him.

* It turns out that the trader is taking the rest of the family to the big city so they can teach the white people how to weave Navajo-style. He offers to take Younger Brother too. They will send the pinto pony back home for Uncle to care for.

* They ride on the train all the way to the coast, and stay at the home of a friend the white trader has who lives near the beach. Younger Brother goes down to the beach with a water-jar the trader has given him, and makes an offering to the Turquoise Woman who lives in the western sea, then fills the water jar to take the seawater back to Uncle for his ceremonies. They watch the sun set, then go back to the house.

* The trader's friend is a museum curator who studies the Santa Barbara natives. Younger Brother tells, and the trader translates, a story about the Turquoise Woman and her western house; it seems he is describing a certain little-known cave in the Channel Islands quite exactly, and the curator is startled. Younger Brother, excited at having finished his journey, then has a vision in the fire - of Turquoise Woman dancing at the four mountains around her house. Eventually they all go to bed, end chapter.

* While Mother demonstrates weaving the next day at the museum and Father looks over the artifacts, Younger Brother tells the curator and the trader some more stories. The demonstration - Mother's weaving, Father's silver-work - goes on for four days.

* On the last day, the trader takes the family to see a movie filmed in their own area. They are somewhat nervous about the whole "moving pictures in the dark" thing, but Younger Brother isn't seriously bothered till he sees the handsome young man whom the widow married and who died of pneumonia, appearing in the film; he runs out of the theatre sobbing about ghosts. Once he understands about movie cameras, he comes up with his own theory about why the young man died (because perfect beauty that lasts forever, as a film recording does, is dangerous).

* The family travels back home. Now it is early autumn. Younger Brother has got over his fright, and everyone is happy. Elder Brother has built a new house; the house blessing, of course, involves a party and a "sing". :D That takes up a whole chapter.

* Then Uncle and Younger Brother plan to ride and climb all the way up Waterless Mountain, as neither of them has ever been to its top. They talk about many things on the way up. It takes more than one day; on the first night, a mountain lion prowls near the camp, but Uncle frightens it away with a firebrand; he also gives it a blessing, "Walk away in peace, walk on the trail of beauty." They reach the top of the mountain and climb down again the next day, then reach home after dark.

* Late in the year, after the frost, they tell more stories. Uncle tells of an exile, the "Long Walk", when Kit Carson sent the Navajo to Fort Sumner (not to be confused with Fort Sumter of Civil War fame). His own uncle was a medicine man who owned a set of sacred masks, and hid them in four big clay jars somewhere in the cliffs. They were lost when that uncle died without passing on his secret, and no one has yet found them again. Younger Brother wishes he can find the masks.

* The masks are hidden somewhere near the water pool that Younger Brother climbed up to, years ago, and near the new cement reservoir. Younger Brother thinks hard about that whole area, which he knows well, and deduces that the jars must be hidden in the home of the Pack Rat who stole his black petrified wood long ago. He investigates the home, finds a piece of black reed which is used in the "Night Chant" (the ceremony for which the sacred masks were used), and then tells Uncle where the masks must be. Uncle agrees that they should ask the white trader to help, because this whole book is on one level the story of Ms Armer's friendship with the Navajo and how she learned so many things about them and was trusted by them.

* At the trading post, while they wait for the trader to finish his business, Younger Brother helps the Navajo policeman figure out where to look for the horse thieves he scared away - who have also been raiding around making other trouble - then they ask the trader to have the water developer help them clear out Pack Rat's home, but very carefully and respectfully. The trader does so.

* The water developer figures out that the Pack Rat's cave was mostly covered by a landslide, and that they should be able to uncover it without disturbing the rat. They do this; the two white men poke around in the cave enough to make sure with their flashlights that the jars are there, then they leave so that Uncle and Younger Brother can uncover the masks respectfully in secret. I approve. :D

* Pack Rat leads them to the jars; they bring the masks home and prepare for the ceremony, at which (among other things) Younger Brother is to be "initiated" for the second time in his life.

* In the meantime, the Navajo policeman has found the horse thief Cut Finger, and has retrieved many pieces of silver-work which Cut Finger stole from a trading post he burned. The silver was pawned, so the trader who is Younger Brother's friend buys it back, thus helping both the other trader (who now has moneys, having lost everything in the trading post fire) and the Native people who pawned it (since they have their silver back, and can wear it to the "sing").

* We hear all about the ceremony celebrating the return of the sacred masks; this is so big and important it takes THREE chapters. We hear about the blessing of the masks, and about the sand paintings, and about the Dance of the Yeis on the ninth night of the festival. Then, because Younger Brother is so impressed by the dances of blessing for growing things, he asks the white trader for various kinds of seeds, and he plans to plant a garden when the right time of year comes.

* Younger Brother plants his garden and tells the white trader the stories about why he does what he does. When the melons are ripe, he says, he will give some to the trader to pay for the seeds. The white trader says all the Navajo should do similarly and then no one would grow hungry; Younger Brother says they used to, before Kit Carson came and drove them into exile. *pointed look*

* Then while the garden is growing, one day he has a long talk with Elder Brother's wife about the songs that all things sing. It's a lovely conversation, but I can't summarize it. And he talks with his mother about where her knowledge comes from....

* Much later, in the harvest season, the brothers go hunting; then the family talks again, about many things, and Younger Brother reiterates his conviction that the water in the reservoir comes originally from the heart of Waterless Mountain, since that is the only nearby place higher than the hidden pool, from which water could flow down to the pool.

* The sheep are shorn. The corn is ripe. Some of the melons are ready. And there is a dance - not a ceremonial dance, a boys-and-girls dance. Younger Brother dances for the first time with a girl, and feels that he has truly become a man and belongs to his people; I can't summarize the last few paragraphs, but they're lovely and poetic and full of meaning, a fitting end for this very poetical book. :-)



Well! I liked that a lot better than I expected. :D I still have some reservations about it, but overall it was a very pretty, readable, lovely book. And apparently (more) accurate about contemporary Navajo culture, too!