Monday, June 09, 2014

Beverly Slapin reviews Joseph Bruchac's KILLER OF ENEMIES

Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children, submitted this review essay of Joseph Bruchac's Killer of Enemies. It may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved.

Bruchac, Joseph, Killer of Enemies. Tu Books/ Lee & Low, 2013; grades 5-up
First, a pre-review story….

Years ago, Joe Bruchac was giving an evening reading at a local East Bay indie bookstore. Readers of his short stories and poetry, young and not so young, filled the room. For lack of available seats, a few friends and I stood in the back. Joe, holding his hand drum and one of his books, walked to the podium, looked around, and, as was his wont, greeted the audience in Abenaki. I waved to him from the back, and he acknowledged me this way:

“And kwai-kwai to my friend, Beverly Slapin, who actually likes…(two-second pause here)…some of my books.” Remember that, Joe?

Now, the review….

I just love Joe’s latest young adult thriller, Killer of Enemies!

If there’s one thing known for sure, it’s that Lozen, the famed and much-honored Chiricahua woman warrior, was no wimp. She rode in battle with Geronimo and with her brother Victorio, and their enemies—Mexican and American—knew and feared her. It’s been said that, from time to time, the spirits visited Lozen, that she could find water in the desert, and that she could locate enemies and read their thoughts. It’s been said that she led a large group of fearful women and babies, riding their panicky horses, across the surging Rio Grande—and then returned to battle the American forces.

Like her namesake, 17-year-old Lozen is a warrior and a hero. In this post-apocalyptic thriller, a mysterious force named Cloud, arrived from beyond Jupiter, has destroyed much of humanity and rendered useless all advanced technology. Lozen’s family, with many others, is held under marshal law in a walled fortress called Haven, ruled by four deranged and despotic semi-human overlords (the “Ones”) with bio-enhancements that no longer work. Holding her family hostage—and on the whims of any of them—they send her out to battle genetically modified monsters (“gemods”), such as giant birds of prey, a beyond huge anaconda, and many more. Drawing strength from her wits, her prayers, her supernatural powers inherited from her namesake, her family’s and tribe’s histories, her tracking and fighting skills, and the allies she encounters—natural and supernatural—Lozen is determined and unafraid. 

Since this is not the first apocalypse her family’s survived, Lozen has inherited, as she would say, mucho generational experience:

It was lucky for me in particular that my youthful skills included such…anachronistically useless pursuits as hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, tracking, and wilderness survival at a time when the wilderness itself was barely surviving. Those esoteric and…outdated interests can be blamed on or credited to my family, especially my uncle and my dad—stubborn descendants of a nation that had been targeted for destruction in more than one century yet still survived.

Aside: Whenever I receive one of Joe’s young adult novels, I open to a random page to see how he’s chosen to grab video-game-obsessed pre-teens. Here’s a sample:

One nice thing from being entombed when you are not yet a corpse is that it gives you plenty of time for thinking. That is also one of the worst things about being in a situation like this. It seems as if no matter what you think about, it all comes down to: Crap, I’m trapped.

Joe embeds Lozen’s story in a cultural framework that makes sense to his readers, Native and non-Native alike. Picking up an eagle feather was and is a big deal, for instance, and Lozen does not feel the need to step out of the narrative to give the reader an ethnographic exposition. When she has time, she says a complete prayer; when she’s on the run, she simply says, “thank you.”

Unlike many young adult novels about Indian people—and in particular, Tanya Landman’s sloppily researched and abysmally written Apache Girl Warrior—the Lozen in Killer of Enemies is a confident, pragmatic, fearless young woman who understands the power of dreams—and who knows who she is, what she comes from, and what she has been given to do.

Young readers might recognize the similarities between post-apocalyptic and pre-apocalyptic life, such as the guarded compound of Haven and the 19th century prisons called reservations and Indian residential schools. They also might recognize the similarities between the deranged post-apocalyptic Ones and contemporary one-percenters, who enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us. As well, older readers might recognize some of Lozen’s quips as taken directly from an Alfred Hitchcock thriller containing a nightmarish shower scene, a campy Broadway musical not involving birds, a TV series about a patriarch’s superior knowledge, the title of a Ray Bradbury novel (itself based on a Shakespeare play), a Kevin Costner movie, a snipe at the language-challenged Tonto, a line from a poem by Robert Frost, and many more. There’s also a host of puns and other word plays and a helpful Bigfoot with laugh-out-loud Jewish cultural markers (“So sue me”). All of this is a treasure trove for talented classroom teachers and school librarians.

For those readers who are unduly thrilled by videogame-inspired carnage, there is this from Lozen:

When Child of Water and Killer of Enemies finished destroying nearly all—but not all—of the monsters that threatened human life in that long ago time, they did not feel the thrill of victory. What they felt was sickness. Taking lives is a precarious job, one that can end up polluting your spirit and burning your heart. When you touch the enemy in battle, it unbalances you. The Hero Twins would have died if it had not been for the healing ceremonies that were used to restore their balance, to cool their interior, to soothe their spirits, to clean the dust of death from their vision.

And finally, I thank Joe for incorporating a Muslim love interest for Lozen—Hussein, the gentle gardener and musician, who survives torture by the Ones—and who joins Lozen’s family on the run. Just as Indians in general and Apaches in particular are all-too-often treated as savages in children’s and young adult books, Islamophobia is rampant as well.

Brisk pace and nonstop action—an adrenaline rush with large helpings of gore, drama and hilarious wordplay—move Lozen’s narrative in a page-turner that left me hungering for a sequel that I’m pretty sure is on the horizon. Killer of Enemies is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Seems neat. I'm probably going to give it a look. I've already read 'Hidden Roots', and quite enjoyed it.
I really like the parallelism between the post-apocalyptic context and the past, and also something against Islamophobia, which is a hot issue here in Italy, too.