In the not too distant past, it was common for white writers to depict Native Americans as backward, prescientific people with no real connection to present realities. Over this was spread a maudlin blanket of romanticism which purported to make the Indians more noble, but which in fact made them out to be as cheap as the beads traders pawned on them.
Laura Adams Armer's Waterless Mountain is a dramatic exception. Armer loved the Navajo people, and spent a lot of time getting to know them and trying to understand their culture. As an artist, she was particularly drawn to their religious sand paintings, which a medicine man broke taboos to show her.
This novel is the story of Younger Brother/Little Singer, a young Navajo (or Navaho, as Armer writes it) boy who wants to be a medicine man just like his Uncle. Armer balances realism and mysticism throughout, often interrupting the main narrative in order to tell a myth from the Navajo repertoire. But just as often, she presents detailed but succinct glimpses into the life of early 20th century Native Americans in the Southwest.
Younger Brother sees the world through the eyes of one unexposed to modern technologies and still in love with the natural world, which he looks upon as his friend and mystic guide. As he gets older and experiences more, this view gradually changes—it doesn't disappear, it simply adjusts and adapts to the new world coming to be around him.
As much the story of the end of a way of life as it is a tale about growing up and awakening to the world, Waterless Mountain is full of contradiction and strange juxtapositions. Younger Brother flies in a plane, but not knowing what it is he calls it a giant dragon fly; he sees a former acquaintance, now dead, in a moving picture and thinks he's seen a ghost; he ends up demonstrating traditional Navajo weaving with his family as part of a museum exhibit for tourists.
Some readers may be a bit turned off by the constant mysticism, the magic realism that blends Navajo folklore with the everyday lives of the characters who grind corn, celebrate weddings, and herd sheep and horses. However, much of the novel's impact would be lost without this element, as it shows us how Younger Brother and his family think about things and view the world.
This is a genuine gem among Newbery Medal winners. There are many good books on the list, some stinkers, but not many that are genuinely great:Waterless Mountain is one of the latter. Armer writes sparingly with a primitive poetry that draws us into a land we'll never know, peopled by a people we'll never meet but who we can observe and learn to love in these pages.
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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