Joseph Bruchac's Wabi
[Note: This review used with permission of its author, Beverly Slapin, and may not be published elsewhere without Slapin's written permission. Wabi is available from Oyate. ]
Bruchac, Joseph (Abenaki), Wabi. Dial, 2006. 198 pages, grades 5-up.
If you’ve been raised as an owl (even if you find out later that you’re also a human), there’s one thing you need to know: “If you don’t hop off the branch, you’ll never catch anything.” That’s what Wabi finds out from the wisdom of his great-grandmother, who is also a shape-changer. And hop off the branch Wabi does, into the adventure of his life.
As Wabi watches and listens to the people in the village below, he learns what it is to be human. But in his quest to find out who he is and where he belongs, his way of seeing the world remains delightfully ornithno-centric: “If you can hear the deliciously terrified heartbeat of a mouse hiding in the grass far below your treetop perch, it is not at all difficult to make out a human conversation within a nearby wigwam.”
Wabi is at first perplexed by the humans: their physical makeup, with fingers instead of talons and legs that bend forward instead of backward; their homes, built like upside-down nests; their eating habits that eschew “delicious-looking chipmunks” and “yummy and crunchy” baby crows; and their etiquette, which precludes the presenting of one’s beloved with a live rodent.
With Abenaki words sprinkled throughout the narrative and elements from traditional Abenaki tales—and the great Tao interpreter Chuang Tsu—seamlessly woven into the story, Wabi rescues a wolf cub who becomes his devoted companion, falls in love with a human girl, and engages in mortal combat with monsters intent on destroying their world. The sometimes gruesome encounters will resonate with middle readers, as will Wabi’s wry observations (“It is very easy to locate a large, bloodthirsty creature when it attempts to tear out your throat”).
Bruchac’s considerable talents shine through Wabi’s story; There’s not a single wasted scene in this expertly crafted thriller.—Beverly Slapin