Cusi lives high in the Peruvian mountains with Chuto, the Old One. They are llama shepherds, tending to a herd of hundreds, all of them the noblest animals with the best wool. One in particular belongs to Cusi—the black-coated llama Misti. Other than occasional visitors like a sweet-singing minstrel, Chuto, Misti and Suncca the dog are Cusi's only friends, and his only family.
But far below their mountain meadow, Cusi sees a family arrive in the valley, and a deep desire is kindled in his heart. More than anything, Cusi wants a family for his own, a family to which he can belong. Chuto sees the boy and knows what he wants, and soon a series of events are spinning out that promise to reveal to Cusi everything he wants and needs to know about himself.
Secret of the Andes is partly a coming-of-age novel, and partly an historical fantasy of sorts. Through a series of journeys into the valleys below the mountains and to the city of Cuzco, Cusi grapples with his desire to be part of a family, as well as to know about his own origins. He's lived with Chuto as long as he can remember, but he knows nothing of how he came to be with the old man.
The historical fantasy element ties directly into Cusi's quest for his own identity. Throughout the novel, author Ann Nolan Clark points toward the Inca heritage of the Peruvian Indians, from the titles given to people, places and things, to the way Chuto prays to and worships the sun at its rising every morning.
It turns out that Cusi is part of the ancient Inca people, and that Chuto has been selected to care for and guard the two great treasures of the Inca: their llamas and their gold. As Chuto's ward and apprentice, Cusi is in line to inherit these duties from the old man, but he knows nothing of this for the majority of the book, and must make up his own mind to accept it when he finds out.
Clark is a good writer, and there's a strong element of adventure, but the best part of the book are the descriptions of everyday Indian life in the Andes mountains, and of the work of llama herding. One of the high points in the story comes when Cusi does his first bartering in the market of Cuzco, mainly for the insight it gives us into Indian culture and attitudes.
Yet there's another thread through the story that's more problematic. Clark spent some time among South American peoples, but not really enough to understand them beyond a mostly superficial level. The picture we get of the Indians, then, is one that seems authentic in terms of surface details, but seems overwrought and lacking in nuance in terms of worldview.
Basically, Chuto and the other "pure-blood" Indians are portrayed as noble savages of a sort, worshipping their false gods and the sun in a kind of wise naivete. Poetry is scattered throughout the narrative that is clearly the invention of a Westerner trying to portray a foreign religious context in terms of her own mores.
Along the same lines, the words she puts in her characters's mouths is patently absurd at times. When the Amauta comes to train Cusi in Inca lore, for instance, Chuto remarks to the boy, "Your acts obey only the voice of your own heart's whisper." Aside from sounding like a poor imitation of Yoda, these words betray the basic message of the book—follow your heart.
While this might work in Disney movies, following your heart in the real world is a fundamentally dangerous activity. According to the Christian Bible, the heart is desperately wicked, trapped in rebellion against God. Following it, then, will only lead one into more and more rebellion, which can only result in God's wrath.
This isn't a worthless book, but it isn't the best children's novel ever to win the Newbery. That's especially true when you know that E. B. White's masterpiece, Charlotte's Web, lost the Newbery to Secret of the Andes. Apart from that crime, and the underlying worldview problems, this is an interesting little book about a way of life now all but gone.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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