justice_turtle: Image of the TARDIS in a field on a sunny day (what is this - Tolkien?)
justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2013-06-17 01:49 am

Review: Waterless Mountain (Laura Adams Armer)

Summary: A young Navajo1 boy grows up in the contemporary Southwest.

1: Please note: There is an ongoing controversy over whether the proper term is "Navajo Nation" or "Diné Nation". ("Tribe" is deprecated.) The current official name is "Navajo Nation"; in 1994, the Navajo National Council voted not to change it to "Diné Nation". I have chosen to use the current official name, "Navajo", here. I apologize for any offense given.

Reaction: The author was apparently one of the first white people to study Navajo customs and beliefs in depth, and the book's tone reflects that. In two different ways about which I feel conflicted -- first, the protagonist's worldview is drawn in remarkable and beautiful detail, with no narratorial condescension about his belief in magic or spirits, which I found very refreshing; second, the protagonist's local Navajo group is shown to be on very, very good terms with the white man who runs the local trading post, and this white man is deeply involved with some of the protagonist's practices and secrets, in a way that made me... a little uncomfortable, because it sometimes felt intrusive / not always quite respectful.

And I really, really, really had to wonder - the whole Navajo village is always portrayed as being fine with the stuff the white trader does, because they know he's a friend and helper and Genuinely Interested etc etc, and I just really had to wonder how much of that portrayal the Native people Mrs Armer interviewed would've agreed with. Were they all really fine with her knowing and writing about their customs and beliefs in such detail? Or did some, even most, consider her a nosy white woman and wish she'd go away? How much of her portrayal of the beloved white trader here is accurate, and how much is her trying to feel better about all the prying she does in the way of research?

I had a hard time deciding on a star rating for this book, because the parts where the white trader doesn't appear seem very respectful and just interested in letting readers know that this group of people the author genuinely loves are awesome people and here's what they are like and see they're totally sympathetic people and not savages or stupid; but then the white trader shows up and the whole tone shifts, and there's an awkward sort of "this guy is being portrayed as awesome and sympathetic and Totally Not Doing Anything At All Wrong, but he says things like 'these Indians will always...' and does things like throw an awkward Christmas party for the Native kids at the trading post?" feeling.

Conclusion: Three stars, I think.