In UnStrung (published in 2012), most of the action takes place on an unnamed "Hi Rez" reservation. "ChanceFolk" live there. They are rich, as opposed to "Low Rez" tribes that didn't spend/invest their money well. We learn that Indigenous peoples are called ChanceFolk instead of Indians and that some people call them SlotMongers (yes, that is seen as a slur).
The civil war was fought over abortion. The outcome was that abortion was replaced by "unwinding" -- a process by which parents can, at age 13, send their unwanted kids away to be unwound. That means that 99.44 percent of their body parts will be used as transplants. They will, of course, cease to exist, but somehow, they are said to be alive in a "divided state" due to that transplanting of their body parts. In addition to unwanted 13-year-olds being unwound, some couples choose to conceive and birth a child that is a tithe. At age 13, they, too, will sent to be unwound, but everyone see their lives and unwinding as a blessing and sacrifice for their specific religious group. This unwinding takes place at Harvest Camps (pretty disgusting premise, eh?).
In addition to this government sanctioned unwinding, there are "parts pirates" who sell body parts on a black market.
Below is my brief synopsis of UnWind, key points in UnStrung, and a more detailed review of UnWholly and UnSouled. The fourth book, UnDivided, is not part of this blog post.
Unwind (Book 1, published in 2007)
We're introduced to Lev in UnWind, the first book of this series. He was conceived by his parents on purpose as a tithe who will be unwound when he is 13. On the way to the harvest camp, he is kidnapped by an older kid named Connor who is determined to un-do all this unwinding stuff, but things don't go as planned and Lev ends up becoming a clapper. Clappers are kids whose blood is infused with chemicals so that loud clapping will cause them to explode. As UnWind draws to a close, Lev is supposed to clap, thereby detonating himself at a harvest camp, but he chooses not to do that. Instead, he pulls people to safety and will, later, need to have his blood cleansed.
UnStrung (a short story published in 2012 that fills in gaps between UnWind and UnWholly)
When UnStrung opens, we find Lev at a reservation. He sought refuge at this reservation because he'd heard that ChanceFolk didn't sign the Unwind Accord. Rather than use human body parts, their scientists have perfected a way to use animal parts instead, but the parts have to be from their particular spirit animal. They find out their spirit animal on a vision quest. At this unamed rez, Lev is nursed back to health by a Native doctor. She and her lawyer-husband have a son named Wil (he's older than Lev) who has a special musical gift. They call Lev "Mahpee" which means "sky faller" and is the name they use for people who climb the rez wall and drop down, into the reservation.
When Lev is feeling better, he and Wil are out with a group of kids on a vision quests to learn what their spirit animals are. But, they are attacked by some parts pirates, who want Native people because their parts are much desired. Wil sacrifices himself for the group. The story ends with his family and the tribe making Lev leave (Wil's family had tried to get sanctuary for Lev, but the tribal council said no to their request), and, they don't know what has happened to Wil. They know he was taken by parts pirates, but they don't know if he was unwound.
There's lot of stereotyping of Native peoples in UnStrung. Read my review for details on that, and see what Shusterman said in response.
UnWholly (Book 2)
That face is a nightmare.The doctor who is helping Cam learn who he is, is a woman named Roberta. She's got a faint British accent. Cam is her creation. She found specific people to unwind and use to create him. His body is made of the best runner, swimmer, etc. that could be found. The left frontal lobe of his brain is from seven kids who were geniuses in math and science; the right frontal lobe is from almost a dozen poets, artists, musicians. His language center is a hub of nine languages. Studying the scars on his face, Cam realizes that (p. 61):
Strips of flesh, all different shades, like a living quilt stretched across the bone, muscle and cartilage beneath. Even his head--clean-shaven when he awoke, but no filling in with peach-fuzz hair--has different colors and textures sprouting like uneven fields of clashing crops.
They are not as random as he had thought. They are symmetrical, the different skin tones forming a pattern. A design.Roberta says (p. 61-62):
"It was a choice we made to give you a piece of every ethnicity. From the palest sienna-Caucasian, to the darkest umber tones of unspoiled Africa, and everything in between. Hispanic, Asian, Islander, Native, Australoid, Indian, Semitic--a glorious mosaic of humanity! You are everyman, Cam, and the truth of it is evident in your face."Roberta goes on about how the scars will heal and he'll be "the new definition of handsome" and "a shining beacon" that will be "the greatest hope for the human race."
Frankly, I find this very unsettling. It means, of course, that faces were cut up to make his. And goodness! The stereotyping in it: "unspoiled Africa"?! As opposed to what? Spoiled Africa? Spoiled, how?!
Cam is unsettled by it all, too. At an event designed to show him off to VIPs, he malfunctions, calling out "I am more than the parts I'm made of!" (p. 144) He tries, unsuccessfully, to call that line out again and again but the words don't come. The big moment is ruined and Roberta whisks him off stage.
Lev, meanwhile, is serving as a counselor at a harvest camp after he's had the chemicals that made him into a clapper cleansed from his body. Those chemicals have damaged his body. He'll forever have the body of 13-year-old, and the only thing that will grow is his hair. He's staying with his adult brother, Marcus, but a clapper finds them and explodes herself. Marcus is badly hurt. Lev goes to the hospital with him and hopes his parents will see him (they kind of disowned him when he didn't go through with being tithed in the first book). They don't want anything to do with him. He's hurt by their rejection and goes back to his own hospital room (he was injured, too, in the blast). He curls up in bed, thinking back on his life (p. 191):
He thinks back to the days after he left CyFi, and before he arrived at the Graveyard. Dark days, to be sure, but punctuated by a bit of light when he found himself on a reservation, taken in by People of Chance. The Chance folk had taught him that when you have nothing to lose, there's no such thing as a bad roll of the dice."I rolled my eyes as I read that! Come on, Shusterman (and your editors)! Didn't those Chance folk teachings throw up any red flags?! You create a tribe of Native people in the future whose teachings are related to their identity as casino Indians, as though casinos are a part of their value system?! (Shaking my head.) Since Lev can't stay with his brother anymore, he accepts an offer to go to the Cavanaugh mansion in Detroit which turns out to be a refuge for tithes. When he gets there, Mr. Cavanaugh greets him and tells him about the place. A woman calls out (p. 195):
"Mr. Cavenaugh, the natives are getting restless. Can I let them in?"Now see... I bet most people (like Shusterman and his editor) didn't give that phrase a thought! But if you're reading (as I am) through the lens of people who are dehumanized by white writers, well, FACEPALM.
Lev stays at that mansion for awhile but by the end of the book, he's reunited with Connor.
Roberta--who created Cam--looks for and finds a companion for Cam (p. 290):
...the young man with multiple skin tones that are exotic yet pleasing to the eye.Exotic and pleasing to... whose eye? This is the white fascination with 'other' taken to an extreme. I don't like it. As readers, I think Shusterman doesn't want us to like it either, but I'm not sure it works. Is there enough in the narrative that tells the reader that this gaze is problematic? If you see this taken up in a review, please let me know in the comments.
The companion that Cam ends up with is Risa. She's been a major character ever since Book 1. She was/is in love with Connor (also from Book 1) and doesn't like being manipulated into being Cam's companion for a public relations tour. Previously, she was in a wheelchair but Roberta gets her a new spine so she can walk. Then, there's a creepy thing that happens, and it appears later, too: the part of Cam that knows algebra is from a kid who had a crush on Risa. Cam has that memory--of the kid having a crush on her. When he tells her, she is horrified. Eventually the two slip into a friendly relationship and Roberta is thrilled with their interviews. But! At the end of the book at the last interview, Risa says its all been a farce. She takes off; Lev and Connor are headed east to Akron, on Route 66, to find a woman named Sonia.
UnSouled (Book 3, published in 2014)
Picking right up, Lev and Connor are on the highway headed to Akron. They have an accident, get split up, captured, and then reunited when Connor (who has escaped in a sheriff's car) runs into Lev, who has leapt in front of the car. Of course, Connor recognizes him, and puts him in the car. He's bleeding internally and tells Connor and Grace, who is tagging along with Connor, to (p. 72):
"Get me to the Arapache Rez. West of Pueblo, Colorado."Ok--so now that unnamed tribe from UnStrung has a name! For those who don't know, there is no "Arapache" tribe. My guess? Shusterman made it up by combining Arapahoe and Apache. Connor does as Lev asks. They get to the Arapache rez, which is gated and has a sentry (p. 73):
Connor knows Lev must be delirious. "A ChanceFolk reservation? Why would ChanceFolk have anything to do with us?"
"Sanctuary," Lev hisses. "ChanceFolk never signed the Unwind Accord. The Arapache don't have an extradition treaty. They give asylum to AWOL Unwinds. Sometimes."
"Asylum is right!" says Grace. "No way I'm going to a Slot-Monger rez!"
In spite of all the literature and spin put forth by the Tribal Council, there is nothing noble about being a sentry at an Arapache Reservation gate. Once upon a time, when the United States was just a band of misfit colonies, and long before there were fences and walls marking off Arapache land, things were different. Back then, to be a perimeter scout was to be a warrior. Now all it means is standing in a booth in a blue uniform, checking passports and papers and saying hiisi' honobe, which roughly translates to "Have a beautiful day," proving that the Arapache are not immune to the banality of modern society.Ah, shucks. This poor sentry. He isn't liking his job. He's rather be a noble warrior, scouting the perimeter of their land (Stereotype! Noble stereotype!). And here we go with some more made up language! I saw that in the short story, too. And remember that Mel Gibson did it, too, for Apocalypto? Here's more from the rez gate (p. 73).
At thirty-eight, the rez sentry is the oldest of the three on duty today at the east gate, and so, by his seniority, he's the only one allowed to carry a weapon. However, his pistol is nowhere near as elegant and meaningful as the weapons of old, in those times when they were called Indians rather than ChanceFolk... or "Slot Mongers," that hideous slur put upon them by the very people who made casino gaming the only way tribes could earn back their self-reliance, self-respect, and the fortunes leeched from them over the centuries. Although the casinos are long gone, the names remain. "ChanceFolk" is their badge of honor. "SlotMongers" is their scar.I get that Shusterman is trying to tell readers that colonization was a bad thing for Native peoples, but that message goes hand in hand with stereotyping... That poor sentry, wistful for being able to carry a "weapon of old" ---what might that be?! A bow and arrow? Or... a spear?! Those weapons of old have more "meaning." But why?! What gives a weapon meaning? I don't get it.
Well. When Connor and Lev and Grace get to the gate, there are lots of carloads of parents who want to take photos and buy ChanceFolk crafts. Crafts! Because that's what Indians do. Indians! Crafts! In the American imagination, they go together. Anyway, the tribe is very careful about who gets in (p. 73-74):
Not every tribe has taken such an isolationist approach, of course, but then, not many tribes have been as successful as the Arapache when it came to creating a thriving, self-sustaining, and admittedly affluent community. Theirs is a "Hi-Rez," both admired and resented by certain "Low-Rez" tribes who squandered those casino earnings rather than investing in their own future.Interesting that Shusterman is creating this binary, of Hi/Low rez tribes. Why? Will it matter later? And... about those reservation gates (p. 74):
As for the gates, they didn't go up until after the Unwind Accord. Like other tribes, the Arapache refused to accept the legality of unwinding--just as they had refused to be a part of the Heartland War. "Swiss Cheese Natives," detractors of the time had called them, for the ChanceFolk lands were holes of neutrality in the midst of a battling nation.Yes! You read that right. "Swiss Cheese Natives." I'm trying to recall swiss cheese being used to represent pockets of resistance in other books. Doesn't it strike you as, well, silly? There's more info about that (p. 74):
So the rest of the country, and much of the world, took to recycling the kids it didn't want or need, and the Arapache Nation, along with all the rest of the American Tribal Congress, proclaimed, if not their independence, then their recalcitrance. They would not follow the law of the land as it stood, and if pressed, the entire Tribal Congress would secede from the union, truly making Swiss cheese of the United States. With one costly civil war just ending, Washington was wise to just let it be.Shusterman's "American Tribal Congress" must be his reworking of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). It is a membership organization, not a union of sorts that would "secede from the union" if it wanted to do so. I wonder what Shusterman knows about NCAI? And he used "swiss cheese" again! But there's more (p. 74):
Of course, court battles have been raging for years as to whether or not the Arapache Nation has the right to demand passports to enter their territory, but the tribe as become very adept at doing the legal dance. The sentry doubts the issue will ever be resolved. At least not in his lifetime.This passport stuff is, for some current tribal nations, real. The Onondaga Nation issues passports. Prior to 9/11, they were accepted at international borders, but heightened security put a stop to that, preventing the Iroquois national lacrosse team from an international competition. I guess Shusterman read up on that, a bit.
Back to the story. The sentry suggests that Connor take Lev to a hospital in Canon City because it is closer than "the reservation's medical lodge." He doesn't want to let them in, but then he hears Lev say "Friend of Elina Tashi'ne," which surprises him (p. 75-76):
"The medicine woman?" There are many thousands on the rez, but there are those whose reputation is well known. The Tashi'ne family is very highly regarded--and everyone knows about the terrible tragedy they endured.The tragedy is what happened to them in UnStrung (when Wil sacrificed himself to parts pirates; some blame Lev for what happened). Lev asks the sentry to call Elina. She wants a name, and when Connor tells him Lev's name, the sentry recognizes both Connor and Lev:
As for Lev, he was infamous on the rez before he became "the clapper who wouldn't clap." You can't speak the name of poor Wil Tashi'ne without also thinking of Lev Calder and his involvement in that tragedy. And his friends here probably don't even know.The sentry is right. Connor doesn't know. Skipping ahead, Lev recalls being at the Arapache reservation the first time, watching kids climb up and down rope ladders, worried that they'd fall. Wil told him (p. 150):
"We built America's great bridges and skyscrapers," Wil had told him proudly. "For us, balance is a matter of pride."With that, Shusterman is referencing a fact, but giving that identity to his made-up tribe. Shusterman's tribe is in Colorado. The real ironworkers? Mohawks. As I said in my review of UnStrung, I think Shusterman had Pueblo Indians in his head as he created this tribe. Pueblo peoples used ladders at Mesa Verde and similar places, but in the modern day, we didn't do the ironwork that Mohawk's did. This cut/paste of identity is what makes the fictitious tribe move Shusterman did problematic.
Recall from UnStrung, the ChanceFolk have spirit animals that they use for their replacement body parts when they need parts? Well... guess what? Lev is able to get a spirit animal, too. On page 158, he figures out that his spirit animal is a kinajou. They live in the tropical rain forests of Southern Mexico and Brazil. The "spirit animal" stuff... that's not real either. It is another thing that outsiders to Native tribes use all the time.
Connor, Lev, and Grace have been on the reservation at this point for two weeks. Connor is tired of being there, and notes contradictions in Arapache lifestyle, austere but pointedly opulent. He thinks (p. 187):
With one hand they rebuke creature comforts, but with the other they embrace it--as if they are in a never-ending battle between spiritualism and materialism. It must have been going on so long, they seem blind to their own ambivalence, as if it's just become a part of their culture.I want to think through this for awhile, but for now, I'll say this: this kind of judgement of Native nations that have casinos is common. A good bit of it is from people who think that Native peoples are "better" than other human beings and disappointed with casinos and what tribes do/do not do with profits from those casinos. It is the "noble savage" who is akin to the "model minority"--- but who disappoints the gaze because... we're human!
There's some strategizing happening, over Connor and Lev and what they'll do next. They want to leave but they'll need to throw the media off their tracks in some way. The plan? Bring in another tribe. But this time, it is a real one: the Hopi. Elina's husband, Chal, is a lawyer and he'll put the word out that he's going to represent the Hopi in a land dispute case, and that in return, they will give Connor and Lev asylum.
Up to this point in the book, I've read (re-read, actually)--but not commented on--the chapters told from Cam's point of view because they've not been specific to Native aspects of who he is, or about the Chance Folk either, but that returns on page 214. Cam signs his name on a document Roberta gives him. But then she asks him to flip the paper over, look at her, and sign his name again as he looks at her. He does, and when he looks back at the paper, he sees Wil Tashi'ne's name rather than Camus Comprix. Why?
Because, Roberta tells him, he has Wil's hands (p. 214):
"It's his neural connections and muscle memory that allow you to play guitar and accomplish a whole host of fine-motor skills."As you might suspect, Cam is taken aback by this development, making him wonder who he is. This muscular memory is going to appear later, again.
At this point, Cam is definitely in love with Risa, misses her, wants to find her, and thinks he can impress her by bringing down Roberta and her company. She was/is in love with Connor, and of course, Cam is jealous but thinks that Connor is dead. He's feeling conflicted over a lot of things (like being treated as property) and starts wandering around alone. Roberta doesn't like him doing that.
After one outing, Cam goes to his room and starts playing the guitar. Remember--it is Wil's hands and muscle memory that drives his playing. Earlier, he'd learned that Connor wasn't, in fact, dead. As he plays the guitar, fragments of memory come together and he recognizes Lev, via Wil's memories, as someone who he (Wil) had healed with his music. He plays more and pulls together a much more complete memory of Lev. He figures he's got to get to the When he'd been out earlier that evening and saw that Connor was in the news, he also saw the photo of Lev, and as he plays the guitar, he digs till he finds a memory of Wil playing for Lev on the Arapache reservation. He figures that's where Risa is and takes off to find her.
On page 252, he's found her, on the reservation. He's gotten past the gates, Wil's memories guide him to Una's house. We met Una in UnStrung. She was Wil's girlfriend. Cam finds that his hands know just where she keeps a key, hidden, and uses it to go in her house. He finds one of Wil's guitars and starts playing it.
Of course, Una hears the music, goes to investigate and sees Cam. She listens to him play for awhile, and then knocks him out with a guitar, ties him up, and carries him to an old sweat lodge where youth went to do a vision quest when they were of age. A vision quest. Safe to say all of this is another face palm. Both are common in books outsiders write about Native peoples. Both, a sweat lodge and a vision quest, are specific to certain tribes--not all of them--but they get put forth as one of those "Indian" things that has to be in ANY book ANYONE writes about Native people.
In that lodge, she ties him up between two poles that are six feet apart. The description of its size makes me wonder what Shusterman is talking about. I don't think a sweat lodge is big like this one, and they aren't made of stone. I'm thinking Shusterman is thinking about a kiva. Remember--the "Arapache" village is Puebloan in style. We use kivas, and some are made of stone. And they're big. Anyway! Moving on.
Cam stays unconscious as she ties him up between those two poles. He slumps, and looks like "a supplicant Y" (p. 256). Una leaves for the night, and returns the next morning..... with..... a chain saw.
Noting the seams/scars where his various parts have been assembled. She says (p. 258):
"Up and down and around--those lines go everywhere, don't they? Like an old shaman's sand drawings."As with the sweat lodge/vision quest, the "sand drawings" stopped me. Here, Shusterman is dipping into sand painting (not 'drawing') most commonly done by Navajos in ceremony and today, in art. With this, we have an "Arapache" tribe whose homes are Puebloan in style, whose people scale heights like Mohawks, who use what is generally a Lakota sweat lodge, and whose medicine includes methods done by Navajos. I know that Shusterman is creating fiction, but Native and non-Native people have been, for years and years, saying "do not do mash ups of tribes" because that contributes to misunderstandings of who Native people are. Una continues (p. 258):
"The shaman's lines are meant to trace life and creation--is that what your lines are for too? Are you a creation? Are you alive?"and
"Are you that man-made man I've heard tell of? What is it they call you? "Sham Complete'?"Una does not like Cam. So what does this rez girl plan to do? She knows he has Wil's hands, so, she's going to cut them off with that chain saw! At the last minute, she cuts his jacket (that's what she used to tie one of his arms with) and hurls the chain saw across the room ('room' doesn't work if this is really a sweat lodge). With that free arm, he reaches up and unties the ribbon in her hair. She backs away, freaked out by that because that was something that Wil used to do. He tells her about memories he has via Wil's parts, now his. Then she cuts his other arm free and asks him to show her (with his hands) what Wil's hands would do to her. He touches her neck, her lips, her cheek, wrist... and then, she knocks him out again. And ties him back up.
Pretty intense scene, isn't it? And creepy. Very creepy and unsettling, too. It is violent, and it is a violation. It is perverse.
On page 270, Connor (he, Lev, and Grace are staying with Una) becomes suspicious of why/where she goes each day with a guitar and rifle. He decides to follow her to a structure he says is shaped like an igloo. Connor climbs on top of it, peering down as Una repeatedly asks Cam what her name is. He can't remember. They've been having this 'what's my name' conversation for a few days already. Connor can see that Cam has been urinating in his pants. He smells horrible. Her interrogation of him over, she unties him and at gunpoint, makes him play the guitar.
That, and the previous scene, are ones of torture. Una is torturing Cam. It is sadistic. While there have been sadistic acts throughout Shusterman's series, especially with regard to the creation of Cam, Shusterman has never been this graphic. I wonder if he sees that he saved up the most grotesque behaviors for the Native character? Does he see that he's created the savage Indian?
From his perch atop the lodge, Connor knocks some stones loose. Una sees him, aims her rifle at him, he falls down, she runs out with her rifle, points it at him... and then Cam bolts. She runs after him, dropping her rifle to tackle him, and Connor picks it up. Now he's in charge. He tells Cam that Risa is not there. Una wants to tie him up again but Connor insists on taking him back to her apartment. With the rifle, he's got control of the situation. Back at Una's, they see a press conference at which a spokesman for the Hopi tribe will neither confirm or deny a rumor that Connor and Lev are on their reservation. This creates the distraction that Lev and Connor need to take off. Elina arranges a car.
But, we learn that Lev doesn't want to go with Connor because he thinks he can "make a difference" (p. 317) because "they need to start listening to outside voices" (p. 318) and he can be that voice. The tribe has provided them with IDs. Both are now Arapache. Lev's name is Mahpee Kinkajou, and Connor's is Bees-Neb Hebiite Elina says Connor's name means stolen shark (he has a shark tattoo on the arm that used to belong to someone else). Connor and Grace leave, taking Cam with them.
Recall that in UnStrung, Lev's outsider status meant more to Wil's grandfather than Wil's perspective did? This is another slice of that, and it bothers me. Shusterman is making sure we all know that Lev is a white savior. He knows best.
Life for Lev, on the Arapache Rez, is peaceful and calm, but he feels compelled to do something about what is going on outside. He talks with Elina, but he finds that she has a "passive, fatalistic view of the world" that "too many people on the rez share" (p. 347).
I find that "fatalistic view" to be much like the stereotype of primitive Indians with no agency, just living life. No worries, no cares, like children.
On page 348, Lev is thinking:
There's an expression among ChanceFolk. "As go the Arapache, so go the nations." As the most financially successful, and arguably the most politically important ChanceFolk tribe, policy that's put in place here often spreads to other tribes. While the Arapache are still the most isolationist, instituting borders that require passports, many other tribes--particularly the ones that don't rely on tourism--have made their territory harder to access as well, taking their lead from the Arapache.He thinks that, if he can convince the Arapache to do something, the other tribes will follow. But, a lot of the Arapache don't like him, so he needs a pretty good plan. A few days later, he goes into town to a concert. He gets onstage and tells people the names of the parts pirates who took Wil away, and that he's going to track them down and bring them back to face justice. Then, "in perfect Arapache," he calls out (p. 350):
"Who will help me?"His question is greeted by silence. He repeats it, and then hears a response, also in Arapache. It is Una saying she will help him. Slowly the crowd starts to clap for Lev and his plan, and that's the end of the Native parts of UnSouled.
Shusterman's fourth book, UnDivided, will have its own blog post. Thus far, I've found the series unsettling. I know--that's what a dystopia is supposed to do--but the use of stereotypes and the mishmash of elements of various tribes--mean the book doesn't work for me as a Native reader. There's too much wrong. In his comment to my review of UnStrung, Shusterman said he worked hard not to stereotype, but that he didn't want to be "politically correct" either, because that is as bad as stereotyping. What, I wonder, would this series have looked like if he'd been "politically correct" in his treatment of Native culture and characters?