This is a poignant story revolving around two friends—Phoebe Winterbottom and Salamanca Tree Hiddle—whose mothers have disappeared, and the journey Salamanca makes with her grandparents to find her mother. The protagonists, Sal and Phoebe, are well developed as very bright 13-year-olds with overactive imaginations. Sal’s goofy grandparents, too, are well drawn, as are some of the minor characters—such as Mrs. Cadaver, whom Sal and Phoebe suspect is an axe murderer; and Mr. Birkway, the hyperactively joyful English teacher with no sense of privacy.
This beautifully written and compelling story is deeply flawed by the “Indian” material that is thrown together with no cultural or historical context and really has nothing to do with anything actually Native. Neither does
When Sal and her grandma discuss whether to use the term “Native American” or “Indian,” she recalls her mother saying that “Indian sounds much more brave and elegant” and that the “Indian-ness” in their background made them “appreciate the gifts of nature” and makes them “closer to the earth.” Does the author really think that there is some kind of a genetic Indian-earth-nature connection?
There are episodes involving cross-cultural “legends,” casual smoking and sharing of “peace pipes,” someone referring to himself as an “American Indian person” (as compared to an American Indian chair?), and a dance described this way:
The Indians had formed two circles, one inside the other, and were hopping up and down. The men danced in the outer circle and wore feather headdresses and short leather aprons. On their feet were moccasins, and I thought again about Phoebe’s message: Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins. Inside the circle of men, the women in long dresses and ropes of beads had joined arms and were dancing around one older woman who was wearing a regular cotton dress. On her head was an enormous headdress, which had slipped down over her forehead. I looked closer. The woman in the center was hopping up and down. On her feet were flat, white shoes. In the space between drum beats, I heard her say, “Huzza, huzza.”