Course, I want those books to ring true. I want the ways that the characters speak and the things they say to sound like Native people. And I don't want the Native characters to be saved by non-Native ones. And though alcoholism is one of our realities, does an alcoholic mom or dad HAVE to be part of the story?
So let's turn, now, to Liz Fichera's Hooked, published in 2013 by Harlequin Teen. Here's the synopsis from Amazon:
When Native American Fredricka 'Fred' Oday is invited to become the only girl on the school's golf team, she can't say no. This is an opportunity to shine, win a scholarship and go to university, something no one in her family has done.
But Fred's presence on the team isn't exactly welcome -- especially not to rich golden boy Ryan Berenger, whose best friend was kicked off the team to make a spot for Fred. But there's no denying that things are happening between the girl with the killer swing and the boy with the killer smile...
The synopsis refers to Fred being invited to be on the school golf team. The person who invites her is Coach Lannon. When she accepts the invitation, the text reads that the coach "practically leaped into a full-blown Grass Dance" (p. 10). Ok, I thought, the author is giving us what she thinks might be a Native perspective on the coach's enthusiasm. Do you know what a grass dance looks like? Here's footage showing men doing the grass dance at the Denver March Powwow:
I can see how a coach might have done some footwork that looks like a grass dance... BUT. There's a footnote with Fichera's "full blown Grass Dance," and here's what the footnote says (p. 10):
A Native American ceremonial dance expressing harmony with the Universe.
That footnote stopped me cold. It is most definitely NOT what a grass dance is about! Or perhaps I should say, that is not the generally accepted explanation of what that dance is about. Indian Country Today has an article about the dance. Here's what it says:
The dominant legend is that a Northern Plains boy, born handicapped yet yearning to dance, was told by his medicine man to seek inspiration in the prairie. Upon doing so, the boy had a vision of himself dancing in the style of the swaying grasses; he returned to his village, shared his vision, and eventually was given back the use of his legs through the first-ever grass dance.
A practical origin is more generally cited, however: To settle a new area, create an appropriate venue for a tribal meeting, or secure an arena for a ceremony, high grasses had to be trampled down to ensure visibility. Scouts would stomp on the grasses to flatten them, and the grass dance grew from there. Yet another strain of the dance’s genesis points toward the importance of dried grass in the warrior’s life: It could be used as tinder, or even as makeshift stockings, for warmth. The regalia honors the role of grass in the warrior’s life—and indeed, grass dance societies often grew from warrior societies. In fact, a grisly theory states that once upon a time, warriors would do victory dances with scalps attached to their garments. Dried grass came to stand in for scalps, then yarn for grass.
So, red flags started popping up right away as I started reading Hooked. Then on page 11, the coach tells her that playing golf for the team could win her a scholarship to college. She really wants to go to college, so that idea weighs heavily in her decision. The thing is, though, that was another red flag! Gila River provides scholarships for students who want to go to college. Fred worried about money for college just doesn't make sense.
A few pages later (page 16) we're at the alcohol problem. Fred's mom is an alcoholic. That isn't a red flag, necessarily, but alcoholism figures all too often in stories about us. Couldn't Fichera write a story without alcohol?
Hooked is told in alternating voice, by chapter. The first chapter was Fred; the second one is Ryan, "the boy with the killer swing." That structure has great appeal. I like it. I kept reading, but kept coming across those red flags. Only five or so Native kids at the high school? Not realistic!
I read on, anyway, because it got a starred review from Kirkus and I thought I should know the book cover-to-cover.
By the time I got near the end, I was weary.
Then I was irate (again) because Fred's dad has a heart attack, and who gives him CPR? Who saves him? Ryan. And when he is taken to the hospital and they won't operate on him, who steps in and makes the operation happen? Ryan's mom, who is a surgeon there. If it weren't for white-boy-Ryan and his white-mom-surgeon, Fred would have lost her dad, who is the center of her world.
I see why the book has gotten favorable reviews, but I disagree. Vehemently.
I read that she asked Native people she knows to read a draft. She reports that they liked it, but some people like Native mascots, too, and don't care that they aren't accurate. There is, sadly, amongst so many of us, such a great need to be recognized that some of us give a nod to whatever image we see.
It saddens and annoys me that Hooked is a nominee for YALSA's Best YA Fiction. Its nomination, and the starred and positive reviews, point to how far we have to go towards really understanding who Indigenous people are so that the books we choose to celebrate are ones worthy of that celebration.