The main character is a boy named Falling Rock. Because there are tipis in the illustrations, I think the author and illustrator (Joyce Robertson, the author's mother) would like us to think the story is about Plains Indians. The boy loves his horse, Runs Like Thunder. But one day, the horse is stolen by men from another tribe. The boy, distraught, is told by his grandmother that his ancestors will give him a sign when it is time for him to go find his horse.
He has a dream about a coyote and takes that as the sign to go off in search of his horse. His grandma gives him a feather before he goes, that will "help guide you." So off he goes in search of his horse. As Heller's story continues, there's an eagle, and a canoe and a turtle--all of which come to mind when a lot of people think about Native people.
As he travels, more and more people hear about his search and want to help him. Here's what they do:
They wanted to help Falling Rock know where he had already looked, so they placed large yellow signs with his name in big black letters at the bends in the roads, high in the mountains, and down in the valleys--anywhere that the boy searched for his horse.The art for that page is this (it is also the cover of the book):
Yes--that's a road sign. You've seen it before. I've seen it before. This story was in trouble before I got to that page.
As the boy continues his search he comes across a group of people (unstated, but they are Native people) traveling. Falling Rock asks them why they're sad. One of the men says:
"We are being taken to a reservation."Suffice it to say that I'd been growing more and more frustrated with this story, and on reading "being taken to a reservation" -- well, I was appalled.
In the end, the boy finds his horse. Here's what the author says at the very end of her story:
There are many written and oral versions of the story of Falling Rock, which are often told when a sign is passed on a long and windy mountain road. This tale is told with respect and honor to all of them.In interviews, Heller says that she heard this story as a child, at camp, and that it stayed with her:
It was first told to me as a camper by a camp counselor. I was probably around eight years old, and can vividly remember hiking through the woods in Northern California while my counselor unfolded the tale. He told me that whenever you see a road sign that reads "Falling Rock" it is because a Native American named Falling Rock was spotted in that place.I want to be kind to Ms. Heller, but again, I'm appalled. That she turned a camp story into this story, and that she's contacting Native people, asking us to read her story leaves me staring at my screen, fingers hovering over my keyboard, wondering what to say!
For now I'll say this: camp stories are often campy. And they're often stereotypical with regards to Native peoples. This one about "Falling Rock" is not campy. It is a mockery of names, and with the "taken to a reservation" page, Heller weaves horrific history into this mockery. (I found one similar to it here at a scout page, with a character named Falling Rock in a story called "The Story of Running Deer.")
How did she not know this would be problematic?
My thought? Her story, well-meaning and well-intentioned, shows just how ignorant the American public can be about Native peoples. The one good thing? She couldn't get it published. I'd like to say that editors were turning it down because they saw its many flaws, but similarly bad things have been published--and have done very well, too.
Need I say: Rebecca Heller's Falling Rock is not recommended.