I wanted to quit reading early on, but I've seen a couple of references to the book as a contender for the Newbery Medal, so I forced myself to read the entire book. It is about two Blackfeet children in 1915. They've run away from their boarding school in the winter. Unlike the "Frozen Man" who Crowley introduces at the beginning of the story, the children survive the Montana winters. Thinking about that, I'm reminded of the Kiowa children in Oklahoma who ran away from their boarding school in 1891and froze to death. N. Scott Momaday has a play about them. It is in Three Plays.
Chiori Santiago and Judith Lowry's picture book, Home to Medicine Mountain recounts the story of Lowry's father and uncle. They ran away and got home safely.
Starfish isn't deserving of the Newbery medal (or any medal at all). It isn't plausible, and it is downright awful in many places. From the posture of the frozen body at the start of the book to the alcohol the kids drink near the end, I found myself wondering why it got published. What does it seek to add to anyone's "knowledge" of American Indians?
Doing some research on Crowley (the author), I see he makes films.
The book is published by
My analysis is in a chapter-by-chapter format. I invite you to read what I've managed to write.
James Crowley's Starfish, published by
Setting: the "Chalk Bluff Indian reservation" in Montana.
As far as I know, there isn't a reservation named that. In my research I found a place called the "Chalk Bluff Indian Trail" in Kentucky, and, another site called the "Chalk Bluff Indian Massacre" in Texas where twenty Indian men attacked and killed two Indian hunters. There was also a Civil War battle at a place called Chalk Bluff.
It is winter and snowing heavily. An old man walks through the snow alongside the "government barracks and outbuildings of the Chalk Bluff Indian reservation."
That doesn't quite make sense. A reservation is a big place. Today, the Blackfeet Reservation is over a million acres in size. Maybe I'm reading the sentence wrong. To me it seems like Crowley is telling us that the reservation is a single building and that it has barracks and outbuildings near it.
The old man carries a bottle of "corn liquor" in one hand. He drinks from it and:
He remembered the days before there were buildings like this, or of any kind, on the land--the days when he had been known as a great warrior, a great hunter. But that was a long time ago. Now he was known as a drunk.Woah. The book is being marketed as for children in fourth through eighth grade. I wonder if, by that age, a typical nine-year-old has the drunken-Indian stereotype as part of his "knowledge" of American Indians? While alcoholism is something we contend with in American Indian communities, it is a part of all-of-America. Will a teacher who uses this book point that out?
The old man gets to a corral and falls down to his knees in the snow. He mumbles a song that seems to call a "shadowy presence" from the darkness. The old man drops the blanket from his shoulders, takes a string of bear claws from his neck and holds it out to the presence. Then, he collapses.
Lionel is in the "Chalk Bluff boarding school."
Lionel's older sister is also there. Her name is Beatrice. She's 12 and he's nine. Their mother died of tuberculosis in 1903.
Beatrice says their mother died long before 1903. She says her mother died "the day they started calling our land this-here reservation." Lionel and Beatrice were sent to the boarding school shortly after she died and have been there now for six years.
The school the children are at is "run by the Brothers from the church, but overseen by the government men, soldiers who were charged with maintaining the peace and some semblance of order."
"Brothers" tells me Chalk Bluff is
Beatrice speaks to Lionel in their language. Lionel tells her she'll get whipped if they hear her doing that. She is rebellious, not wearing the clothes they want her to wear. And, she's got long hair. She had been sick when "the new regulations came from the East." The regulations dictate how girls' hair would be cut.
Lionel sits up. Brother Finn has shoved his bed and is shouting in Latin, "Up. Up. Today is your day to serve your Lord our Savior!"
Lionel and Beatrice go outside. He thinks about their grandfather, who lives a day's ride from the school. Beatrice makes an offering using tobacco. He taught Beatrice to do that when she was nine years old. She's been doing it now for three years "despite the Brothers' and soldiers' rules." Lionel hopes that nobody sees her.
Crowley doesn't say she tries to do it secretly, just that she does it. That surprises me.
Lionel sees a man kneeling in the snow at the far end of the corral. He goes to the man, says hello, and asks the man if he's all right. Lionel realizes that
The kneeling man was frozen. Frozen solid. His exposed skin was the facing gray color of the morning, and a silver layer of frost covered him from head to toe. In one hand, almost as though he were handing it to Lionel, was a string of bear claws; in the other hand was a green glass bottle.Lionel takes the bear claw necklace and puts it in his pocket just as Sargeant Haskell Jenkins walks up.
I find it hard to believe that a person could freeze in that position...
Jenkins' face has a scar on it. He tells ladies he got it from "fierce savages" in "the defense of this Great Nation" but Lionel knows it came from a "drunken debacle" with a log-cutting machine at the Wyoming State Fair. Lionel starts thinking of the man as "the Frozen Man." Jenkins kicks the body and then takes money from the man's pocket and the man's hunting knife. Jenkins' friend (also a soldier), Lumpkin, appears and takes the bottle. He looks up and sees Beatrice sitting on the corral fence watching him. Lionel is sure that she will stay there to make sure the men do nothing else to the corpse.
Lumpkin reaches out and grabs Beatrice's jacket and the horse,
From inside the chapel, Lionel watches Jenkins and Lumpkin. First they drank the rest of the liquor, and then tried to lift the body. But the kneeling position with arm outstretched made it difficult. Instead of praying, Beatrice starts singing a song. Lionel joins her. They sing louder and won't stop when the priest tells them to stop. He grabs both children. The priest tells her the song is gibberish, and Beatrice counters by calling the Latin prayers gibberish. The priest says
I will not have you disrespecting the Lord with some half-cocked pagan philosophies in His house---or anywhere else, for that matter.The priest and Beatrice continue to trade words. The priest throws her out the church door and calls to the soldiers to come get her and cut her hair. They keep Lionel in the church.
Still inside the chapel, Lionel sees the soldiers grab Beatrice and use her head to break the ice in the trough. Her ear is bleeding and he sees the blood on the white snow. One of them has sheep shears they plan to use to cut her hair. They force her head under the water twice. Lionel runs from the chapel to her, with Brother Thomas behind him. The horse,
That's a really intense scene. Intense and violent.
Lionel and Beatrice spend a night outside and the next day they arrive at the "two hundred forty acre plot of Big Bull Boss Ribs."
Big Bull Boss Ribs is Blackfeet. As Lionel and Beatrice ride up, a boy named Corn Poe (the son of Big Bull Boss Ribs) tells them that his pa is not fond of trespassers. Corn Poe is the ninth of thirteen children. He was born prematurely, is small, has poor lungs, and is considered a runt. Big Bull considers his premature birth a bad sign.
Big Bull Boss Ribs, wearing a bowler derby with "a cluster of goose feathers trailing off the back brim" is "gnawing" on an old ham bone. He throws it aside to some dogs and asks about
Big Bull tells Lionel and Beatrice they may be hung for stealing the horse because the soldiers are trying to break the Blackfeet from stealing horses. Corn Poe says "They'll hang ya, alright" and Big Bull says to him "Who asked you anything?" He throws a second ham hock at Corn Poe and hits him in the head. Corn Poe "eagerly picked it up and began to gnaw at it much like his father." Big Bull then calls his son a "little half-breeded sonuvabitch." Big Bull laughs and laughs at Beatrice and Lionel as they ride away.
Beatrice figures out someone is following them. It turns out to be Corn Poe. Beatrice knocks him down in the snow. He tries to fight back but she's got the best of him. She asks why he is following them, and he says "Get offa me you chicken-livered jack---" She pushes his face into the snow and he calls out "You're gonna freeze my eyeballs right out of my head, you idjit!" She lets him up. He is crying and takes a small knife from his pocket and tells her "I'll teach you to mess with Corn Poe Boss Ribs" and tries to jab her with the knife. She easily knocks it from his hand. He cries and tells her that she's lucky he's all wet or she'd be dead.
Next he pulls out half of a ham hock. Lionel thinks he's going to try to kill Beatrice with the ham hock. Corn Poe says he was only trying to help them by giving them food and asks why they shoved him in the snow. Lionel says "Hell, you was trying to kill us."
Beatrice offers Corn Poe a hand up. They apologize, and he gives Lionel the ham. He eats some, she eats some, and Corn Poe eats some of it, too. As Corn Poe finishes (again gnawing) the ham hock he tells them that his father would skin him alive if he found out that a girl had beat him, and that he'd given them the ham hock. Corn Poe says "He hates Injuns, despitin' the fact that he is one." The three get on
The three children continue on their way to find Lionel and Beatrice's grandfather. At one point, Lionel and Beatrice (but not Corn Poe) see what seems to be "a deer with very large antlers looking at them, almost spying on them." It comes closer to them. Beatrice sets out to investigate, telling Lionel and Corn Poe to wait there. The two boys wait... "As it got closer, it began to look more and more like the body of a man with a deer's head." Corn Poe thinks its an apparition. It calls out to them in a language they don't understand. Corn Poe runs, telling Lionel it is going to kill them.
Then the creature spoke again, this time in English. As it came closer Lionel could see that it was "definitely some sort of man." It moves easily on the deep snow that the children have been floundering through, which seems to confirm Corn Poe's assertion that it is a ghost. As Lionel waits, it comes closer and he sees it is wearing snowshoes, and that's why it was able to move so quickly over the snow.
At ten paces away, it asks "What in the hell are you children doing way out here in weather like this, anyhow?" Lionel sees that the deer head was actually a hood---a hood worn by an old man. The cowl covered the sides of his face and was fashioned from hide and antlers to mimic a deer's head. Beneath the hood, his face was dark with deep creases around his eyes and mouth. Two thick braids with feathers woven into them fell onto his broad shoulders.He continues to question Lionel (Corn Poe has run off):
"Well, what's it going to be? You gonna run off like your friend over there and hide in a hole like a rabbit, or are you gonna stand up and tell me what the hell you're doing out here? Out here on my land?"At that point, Beatrice comes up behind the man, riding a mule. He spins around, pulling a pistol from his coat. Lionel lunges at the man, but he keeps Lionel at bay as he points the pistol at Beatrice. He tells her to get off his mule, but she rides closer to them. The man recognizes her:
"Beatrice?" the man stuttered in disbelief, then spun to face Lionel. "So... you're Lionel. I should have seen it in your eyes. I'm slippin' in my old age, I tell ya."The man is their grandfather. He tells Lionel that last time he saw Lionel, he was two feet tall.
There's a lot going on there, in chapter eight! This man sounds (in speech and disposition) just like Big Bull Boss Ribs! And then he recognizes Beatrice. Recall that in an earlier chapter, Crowley says that the grandfather saw Beatrice when she was nine years old, and spent enough time with her then to teach her some Blackfeet ways. I'm guessing he would also have seen Lionel at that same time. Lionel would have been six years old.... But, the grandfather says, last time he saw Lionel he was two feet tall. That sounds to me like a toddler... (barely). Maybe this past meeting will be fleshed out later in the novel.
I can't move to the next chapter without commenting on that hood! What was Crowley looking at when he developed that item? Looking around my sources, I see some Blackfeet headdresses with buffalo horns, but none with deer antlers. I suppose it is possible, but, why is this grandfather wearing it? He's hunting, so maybe he's trying to be in camouflage? And the feathers "woven" into the braids? Not sure about that either. Maybe "woven" was just a poor word choice.
The grandfather (now called "Grandpa") takes the children to his cabin where they eat. Beatrice tells Grandpa what happened, starting with the Frozen Man. He tells Beatrice that the government "can't be too happy" that the kids ran off, and that he's sure the soldiers will come looking for the kids. Beatrice says she's never going back. Lionel, thinking about the bear claws in his pocket, asks Grandpa where the Frozen Man went to when he died. Lionel starts to say what they were told at school, but Grandpa cuts him off. He then tells the children the Blackfeet creation story about Napi, the Old Man. Lionel falls asleep.
Lionel wakes and sees that Grandpa has woven red and blue flannel strips into Beatrice's braids. She also has one of Grandpa's hunting knives, hung from a beaded belt, around her waist. Grandpa then lends Beatrice a red-tailed hawk feather, tying it onto her braid. Lionel goes outside to the outhouse, thinking about the creation story he heard at school compared to the one Grandpa told him. When he gets back inside, he sees bundles of provisions (including a rifle) that he and Beatrice will need for their travels. Grandpa will take Corn Poe back to his family and, hopefully, draw the soldiers after them, thereby giving the children some more time to get away. He tells the children that once he leaves Corn Poe, he'll try to find them.
Grandpa notes that a snow storm is coming. Before sending them off, he tells them to pay attention to what's around them:
That school and them government men tried to kill that in ya. You've got to find and listen to it. Listen to the animals, the wind, the mountains. We may not speak the same language no more, but they're talkin' to ya. It's up to you if you choose to listen."Grandpa then:
took a long braid of twisted sweet grass from his jacket and lit the end. He raised it high above his head and began to sing.
As they ride
What war was that? Grandpa must be between 50 and 80 years old. It is 1915, so, it had to be a war fought somewhere between 1850 and 1900. Could it be the Spanish-American War? Or the Philippine-American War?
Beatrice also tells Lionel more about Napi. Late that day they reach a barbed wire fence that Beatrice thinks is the boundary of the reservation. Neither one had ever crossed that boundary before. Beatrice asks Lionel if he is ready to do it, because they might never be allowed to come back to the reservation. Lionel says "I guess" and they crossed through "a gaping hole in the fence, leaving the reservation and all that they had ever known." That night, wrapped in a buffalo robe, they "slept off the reservation for the first time in their lives."
According to the Blackfeet Nation timeline, a fence was built around their entire reservation in 1903. It was removed in 1909. Recall Starfish is set in 1915. I wonder if "off the reservation" was a phrase the children would have used at that time?
The children ride on...
The children find a cabin in a snow-covered meadow that provides shelter from the storm. They start a fire.
A man with a "slight Caribbean accent" looks down into the meadow. He cups his hands, makes the sound of a barred owl. A small boy replies and then appears. He's on horseback, leading two other horses laden with "loads wrapped in heavy waxed canvas." The man says they best not stop at the cabin because someone is there. The boy doesn't speak. He nods. The man smiles and they move on. The man's name is Avery John Hawkins.
A wolverine is in the cabin with the children. The chapter is about how they get it out. At the close of the chapter, Lionel says he's going to do as Grandpa told them, and think about that wolverine, that he's going to keep his eyes open and listen.
The children explore the cabin and find an old trunk and a phonograph and hard wax cylinders. They figure out how to work it. They put on clothes they found in the trunk (a silk gown and a coat with long tails and a top hat) and dance to the music. Three weeks pass. Their provisions run low and Beatrice decides they should hunt for food. Beatrice fired the rifle twice but missed the animals she'd been aiming at. Suddenly she froze and tells Lionel there's someone else in the woods. He listens, doesn't hear anything, and then heard or felt someone behind him. He turns around, and two paces away is their grandfather.
So, he snuck up on them? They had a rifle. Wasn't he worried they'd shoot at him? Seems to me he'd call out to them, glad to see them. Instead, he does what Indians in westerns do.... silently sneaks up...
Grandpa kills a deer using a bow and arrow that he had made "based on what Napi the Old Man had taught the Blackfeet a long time ago." He tells the children killing the deer with the bow and arrow instead of a rifle is more honorable, that it shows a mutual respect for the deer because its more difficult to use. It gives the deer "a fighting chance."
As they eat, Grandpa tells them about being at Boss Ribs' place. Corn Poe got a beating from his father. Then he went to the outpost to get news about the school and the children and
He learns that several parties went in search of the children but turned back due to bad weather. They plan to go search again in the spring. Grandpa seems happier now than before. And, he's wearing a second hawk's feather in his hair.
A second feather? Earlier he has feathers woven into both braids. What's with the second feather? And specifying that its a hawk feather?
Beatrice and Grandpa go outside to unload supplies. Inside the cabin, Lionel picks up Grandpa's bow and arrow, fixes an arrow to the bow. Just then, Grandpa and Beatrice enter the cabin. Lionel is startled and lets the arrow fly. Grandpa leaps aside and then laughs, telling him he could get hurt messing with something he knows nothing about. He says that he'll show Lionel how to make his own bow and teach him how to shoot it.
The day starts with Grandpa how to smoke the deer meat (to preserve it). He tells them they'll use the bones to make tools "for ya" and the hide to make a shirt and maybe leggings. Lionel is anxious to get started on the arrows, but Grandpa says that has to wait because they need to reinforce the roof of the cabin. They go into the woods where Grandpa selects two trees. He "thanked the pines for their service" and cut them down. They tie the trees to Grandpa's mule and drag them to the cabin and hoist them upright. They spend the next few days working on a new outhouse and repairing other outbuildings near the cabin.
Crowley is attempting, here and elsewhere, to convey a Blackfeet reverence and worldview for life in the trees and animals. In some instances he's trying to do this in a matter of fact way, which is good, but again, I wonder what his source for this material is?
Grandpa tells Lionel that Napi told the "first people, the ones with the stone knives, to use this to make their arrows."
Napi told the people to go to the Great Plains and hunt buffalo. They did, but, the buffalo killed and ate the people. When Old Man found the dead hunting party, he felt bad, and decided that buffalo should not eat men. Instead, men should kill and eat buffalo.
Napi finds some of his people---ones who were still alive---and tells them he doesn't understand why they let the buffalo kill and eat them. He says that he had created the buffalo to be food for the people. One of the men says that they don't have weapons, and the buffalo does (his horns). So, Napi made a bow, and an arrow (using feathers from birds to help the arrow fly straight) and sent the people to hunt the buffalo.
Most of this Napi material is from George Bird Grinnell. Stories he recorded are linked to from the Blackfeet Nation website. The bow and arrow making, however, seems compressed. The sticks used to make the arrows have to be dried out over time before they're used for arrows.
Grandpa shows the children how to prepare the ground for planting. As the children work, Grandpa is weaving grass, leaves, and tree branches together. The children wonder what he's making. When he's finished, its a straw man (scarecrow). One night, Grandpa tells the children that the soldiers never made them leave, that he's pretty sure they're the only tribe whose reservation is on their own hunting grounds rather than where the government told them to go. He says "We stayed where we were, and although our land is a bit smaller, we're still here."
Grandpa may not know it, but they aren't the only tribe who was moved. Crowley knows it (I hope), but he chooses to have Grandpa not know.
The next morning, when its still dark, Grandpa wakes up covered in sweat. He's been having a dream, Grandpa tells him. The two go outside, leaving Beatrice sleeping inside. Lionel thinks about his dream. In it, he's alone (no Grandpa, Beatrice, or Corn Poe). The Frozen Man, however, is in the dream, walking toward Lionel. Lionel is afraid, wondering about the bear claw necklace, that perhaps the man is angry at him. But, the man holds out his arm towards Lionel, and in his hand is the bear claw necklace. Suddenly Jenkins approaches on his horse. Lionel steps in front of the Froze Man to protect him. That's when he woke up from the dream.
Grandpa tells him dreams are powerful, and that he should pay attention to them, just the same as he does to the trees, mountains, and animals. They sit down. Lionel starts crying, and decides to tell Grandpa about the bear claws. He hands them to Grandpa who studies the beading and the leather. He tells Lionel its better than Lionel have it (rather than the government men).
Lionel asks again about where the Frozen Man went, and Grandpa says nobody really knows for sure. He tells Lionel he's sorry that Lionel has had to see "this side of our people" (the old man as a drunk?) and the governments side, too. That he is confused and that they should sit and think about it for awhile.
They sit for awhile, and then Grandpa says in a low whisper "do you smell that?" It turns out to be a grizzly bear, two hundred paces away, in the river, fishing. The bear looks at the two and walks away with a fish in its mouth. Grandpa tells Lionel "I think we can take that to mean that you have their blessings." He then ties the necklace around Lionel's neck and they go back to the cabin.
They figure out where the bear's den is, and Grandpa is sure the bear won't hurt them. As they walk back to the meadow, Grandpa tells them another Blackfeet story.
When the children wake up, grandfather has new clothes for them, made from deerskin. Lionel has buckskin lettings, and Beatrice has a new shirt. Lionel thinks
with her long braids and hawk feathers, Beatrice looked like a page from the painted picture book of savages that the Brothers had showed Lionel once in the library at the boarding school.Unlike the savage in the book who scowls, Beatrice grins. Grandpa then loads his mule and says he best get back to his cabin. He's been counting the days, and figures the soldiers are due to stop by "day after next". They do this regularly, about every ten days. Grandpa says he'll be back as soon as he can.
Spring turns to summer. The children thrive. Their hair grows longer. They work the garden, hunt, and fish. They tan more hides and make more clothes. Still, Beatrice is worried that they don't have enough food and that they should go deeper into the woods to hunt and to see if there's any signs of the government from the school. They prepare food for their journey. Beatrice weaves feathers into
clucking and pawing at the dirt like an overstuffed prairie chicken. The boy had feathers in his hair, and he began to squawk and occasionally jumped sideways, striking Beatrice with the end of a short stick as he did.I think Crowley is trying to portray the boy's idea of a chicken dance and counting coup. Or is it Crowley's idea?! There is a Prairie Chicken dance, but it is not one in which the dancer acts like a chicken, clucking or squawking. Later in the book, Lionel thinks that the kids from Heart Butte are making things up.
Giving that thought to Lionel lets Crowley off the hook. It is possible that the children at an early boarding school did not know their dances and ceremonies and would have tried to recreate them in some way, but the way Crowley does it here is troubling for two reasons. First, he makes what they do sound ludicrous, which, in my view, mocks what was happening to (in this case) the Blackfeet people. Second, by placing these ideas in the heads of the children, it lets Crowley off the hook when the things the children do are, in fact, incorrect. He didn't have to do the research to get it right.
Do we have a writer who wants to create a story about a Blackfeet child, but, since he can't really get the insider-info he needs, he has his characters "playing Indian" in the way that white children would ignorantly play Indian? Do we have, in the end, "the white man's Indian" Berkhoffer writes about in his book?
There are ten more children, Lionel's age and older than Beatrice. Among them is Corn Poe. They were wearing a combination of clothes Lionel recognizes as the uniform the children at Heart Butte boarding school wear. Note: in chapter three, Lionel recounts when Chalk Bluff and Heart Butte played against each other in a football game.
Corn Poe tells Lionel and Beatrice that he got tired of his father's beatings. He stole a horse and ran away. The horse died, and Corn Poe ate some of it and wandered around for three days when he came upon the group of children from Heart Butte. They had run away from school because they weren't given permission to go to fourth of July horse races and a pow wow.
That may be the Arlee Pow Wow, which has been going on for 112 years.
The Heart Butte children take Lionel and Beatrice to their camp, where they've made what they call a sweat lodge. Corn Poe says he had a vision the night before, and that they haven't eaten in two days, or had much water either, because it "helps you get your vision." They plan to do a sweat and then dance. The Heart Butte children say a few words in Blackfeet.
They go into the sweat lodge at sunset. Inside, Corn Poe lights sweet grass, which they pass around, inhaling the smoke. They pass around a small wooden bowl holding a paste of black ashes. They smear the paste on their faces. Lionel watches and
wasn't sure what they were trying to do, and this was the first time that it occurred to him that neither Barney nor Corn Poe did, either. It seemed like they were making this up as they went along.
Corn Poe says its time to dance. They leave the sweat lodge. It is dark night now. They go to the river, jump in, and then go back to the fire by the lodge, and begin to "shuffle around the fire to the drum, stopping occasionally to let out a yell of one sort or another." Lionel joins them and they dance, but Lionel isn't sure how long. He notices Corn Poe leave the circle and return with a bottle of corn alcohol. He takes a drink of it and lets out a yelp. He hands it to the next boy and the next, and they take turns drinking until the bottle is empty. They continue to dance, now drunk, nearly falling into the fire. Lionel and Beatrice do not drink. After a while, the kids all collapse, sleeping.
Oh! I didn't mention the STARFISH, for which the book is named. It appears in chapter 27. It is, in fact, a starfish that Avery John Hawkins has in his bag. It was given to him by his mother. It came from the island where she was born. Hawkins tells Lionel it was a fish in the ocean one time, but now it is dead because "Sometimes when you take something out of where or how it's supposed to be, it'll just... well... it just dies." Lionel asks "everything?" and Hawkins says "Naw, not everything, some things change, they adapt." I guess Lionel's people and way of life is like the starfish... Not dead, but adapting.