Thursday, September 01, 2016

Re-reading (and again, not recommending) Nancy Bo Flood's SOLDIER SISTER, FLY HOME

Back in January of 2016, I read the ARC of Nancy Bo Flood's Soldier Sister, Fly Home. I did not recommend it. I'm back today, with a review of the electronic copy of the book.

In the prologue, we learn that the protagonist, Teshina, is a 13-year-old "half Navajo" and that she looks White. Her sister, Gaby, who is six years older than she is, looks "like a woman warrior with gorgeous long hair." That information foreshadows a recurring theme in Flood's book, which is indicated by the first part of the book's description:
Thirteen-year-old Tess is having a hard enough time understanding what it means to be part white and part Navajo... 
Later in the story, we learn that Tess's dad is White, a Vietnam vet, and welcome at ceremonies. Flood is White. To tell this story, the publisher's website says that she "draws thoughtfully on her experience living for fifteen years in the Navajo Nation."

As I read and compare the ARC I had in January with the electronic copy I have now, I see that Flood made some changes, maybe some that are based on my review in January. I noted, for example, her use of the word "ceremony" several times to describe the memorial Teshina (Tess) was going to attend for Lori Piestewa. A "ceremony" and a "memorial" are really different, so I'm glad Flood made those changes in the story.

As the story opens, we learn that Tess is upset that her older sister, Gaby, enlisted in the army. Gaby had a future. She wanted to go to med school. Because she was a track star, she was planning on athletic scholarships to cover costs to go to college. But--she got thrown off her horse and broke her ankle. No more running, no more athletic scholarship, no college. She decides to enlist in the army.

The thing is... in real life? Navajo Nation has scholarship monies. She could have applied for them. In the story, though, we're told that she didn't learn to read until junior high school, so maybe her grades aren't very good enough to apply for, say, the Chief Manuelito scholarship. But we also know that she wants to go to med school, which suggests she's doing well in the sciences. A small point, perhaps, to someone who doesn't know about scholarship monies that tribes have set up, but they're important.

In chapter four, Gaby is back home for a visit. When she comes into the house (Tess lives in a modern home; next to it is her grandparents hogan, where they live), Tess notices that she no longer has her gorgeous long black hair. Tess wants to hug her but waits as Gaby greets their grandparents, and then when Gaby hugs their mom, Tess sees her crying (Kindle location 258-259):
It scared me. Mom never cried like that. Tears at Lori’s memorial, but not many. Mom was always so Navajo about not showing much emotion.
A moving scene? Maybe, but I read that bit about Navajo people not showing emotion as the stereotypical stoic Indian. It might sound good to readers who aren't Native, or aren't Navajo, but I ran that line by Navajo friends... Suffice it to say that they had pointed and amused responses to it.

Later, in her room, she waits for Gaby to come upstairs. She remembers times when she'd comb Gaby's hair, that Gaby had said she'd never cut it, and how different it is from her own "boring brown" hair. Gaby tells Tess that she's being deployed to Iraq. Tess is upset and they argue, with Tess asking Gaby if she wants to be a war hero, dead or alive. Gaby shakes her head, saying she doesn't want that, but that (Kindle location 385-386):
“I’m trying to figure it out, Tess, how to be me. Navajo? White? What’s me?"
Because Gaby is being deployed to Iraq, her family decides to have a ceremony for her before she leaves, in two days. In chapter six, the two girls argue again. Tess says (Kindle Locations 553-554):
"Why did you sign up in the first place? Trying to be a war hero? Trying to be Navajo?"
I am Navajo, Tess. Same as you!"
"Wrong! We're mixed bloods, half-breeds. Misfits. Kids at school remind me every day."
I've told you, Tess--ignore them. They'll stop."
"It doesn't work that way for me. You're the gorgeous Navajo princess. I'm the kid who looks like a mixed-up mutt."
The chapter ends with the fight over and Tess promising she'll take care of Gaby's horse. In return, Gaby promises to come home from Iraq, safe.

The title for chapter seven is "protection ceremony" (lower case is the style used throughout the book). Tess's dad is outside chopping and stacking wood in exactly the way the medicine man told him to do it. She remembers other ceremonies, when people would sit cross legged with their backs against the walls of the hogan, facing the medicine man who sat in the center, "the place of honor." Tess tells us a few details of the ceremonies she's been to. I don't recount such things in my reviews because tribal nations generally protect those ceremonies from outsiders. I respect their decisions to keep such things private.

Tess is in the kitchen for awhile but then goes outside with her grandpa who recounts how he felt the night before his brother left for war. He didn't go to his brother's ceremony. He tells her that he was scared, and then says (Kindle Location 626-627):
"I even thought that maybe I wasn't a real Indian. Maybe not a real brother." 
There again, we have an identity question. In this case, it is a Navajo man thinking that his being scared might mean he couldn't be Indian. I guess he thinks he's supposed to be fearless. But that--like the Navajo mom who doesn't show emotion--is another stereotypical depiction.

Tess helps him butcher a lamb for the stews they'll serve at the ceremony but then she does what her grandfather did: she doesn't go to her sister's ceremony. Instead she watches from a high place near the hogan, falls asleep, wakes at dawn, and waits outside the hogan for Gaby to come out. They visit a bit more before Gaby has to leave for Phoenix. The two girls text each other. Tess sends Gaby a poem:
Ten little Indian
grew up.
One became a doctor,
two work in Phoenix,
three went to college,
two got married,
one was a
And the last
little Indian,
a soldier-girl Indian,
ran, ran, ran, all the way,
all the way
Obviously with that poem, Flood has the 13 year old character riffing off of the racist rhyme, Ten Little Indians, but why? Is it an attempt, by Flood, to recast that horrid rhyme? Is it necessary to do that? Is it necessary, for this story?

The school year ends, and Tess is home from her boarding school in Flagstaff. She didn't like being there, where the White students taunted her, calling her names like "Pokeyhontas." She goes into town with Shima (her grandmother), where a little white girl named Rebecca yells out "Look, a real Indian!" and points at Tess's grandmother, who answers Rebecca's question and agrees to have her photo taken. Rebecca is with Megan, one of the girls in Tess's school. After their brief conversation, Tess's grandmother shakes hands with Rebecca and tells her (Kindle Location 868):

“Now we both walk in beauty, in harmony.”

As Tess and her grandmother go inside the trading post, Tess looks at her grandmother and thinks that she is as real as Indians can be, but wonders about herself. The two are there to sell a rug. Her grandmother is well known for her rugs. Does that, Tess wonders, maker her a real Indian?

As her grandmother and Mr. Snow, the owner of the trading post barter, in Navajo, Tess continues to wonder about what makes someone "a real Indian." She didn't go to her sister's ceremony, and she doesn't weave rugs or speak much Navajo. Mr. Snow speaks Navajo, but he's clearly not Navajo. She thinks about her grandfather who was a Code Talker, but he didn't go to his brother's ceremony and that made him wonder about his Native identity, too. Tess watches her grandma and Mr. Snow shake hands (Kindle Location 896):
Mr. Snow extended his hand. They had agreed on a price. Grandma shook it once, gently, the Navajo way, like a real Indian.
There may be protocols for the way that a Navajo woman would shake hands with a White man--or any man--but the use of "real Indian" here is jarring. It suggests there is a way that all Indians shake hands.

Tess and her grandmother leave the trading post. Outside, they talk about the interaction with Rebecca. Her grandma reminds her that pointing is rude "especially if you are a real Indian: and then tells her that (Kindle Location 905):
"When someone looks down on you, listen and learn. Walk with them.”
Though her grandmother is laughing about the encounter, she's also sounding (to me) like the wise old Indian giving advice. Tess is surprised, when next they go to a coffee shop and her grandma orders a latte and then walks to a computer in the coffee shop (Kindle Locations 917-920):
I couldn’t believe what she did next. Sitting in front of the computer, wearing her velvet skirt, satin blouse, turquoise jewelry, and green sneakers, my real Indian shimá sání logged onto the internet as if she’d been doing it all her life. “Got mail,” she announced. If I had been holding a cup of coffee, I’d have dropped it.
I get what Flood is trying to do, but this is kind of awkward. I think she means to make the point that Native people use the Internet. That scene might work if it was Rebecca (the white girl) making that observation, but it doesn't seem right, for Tess. I can imagine a Native kid being surprised at their grandma's technology skills... which makes the scene plausible, but here, it isn't working, for me, and it may be because it is a White writer doing this scene.

Grandma checks her email and has one, from Gaby. It opens with this:
Yá’át’ééh, Greetings, Hello Shimá Sání.
That, too, strikes me as awkward. Native kids who speak their language and send email to their grandparents aren't likely to use a greeting in their own language, followed by, in this case, the word "Greetings" and "Hello." I might use a Tewa greeting followed by its translation in English, if I was talking to a White person, but to another Tewa speaker... that would be silly.

Later in the story, Tess goes with her grandmother to sheep camp. There, on a shelf, is a book of poems by Emily Dickenson. Tess pulls it off the shelf and sees that one page has been marked. Her grandmother asks her to read it aloud. Before she gets to the end, her grandmother joins her and they recite the last stanza together. She tells Tess it is a good poem and that (Kindle Location 1354-1357):
When I was in school, I thought, I am Navajo, I should not read that poem. It was written by a white woman. She could speak of death. We do not. But I read and reread that poem.” Shimá reached for the book. “Do you sometimes feel like that?” 
“Like what?”
“The Navajo and white fight inside you?”
Tess tells her about being called an apple "red on the outside, white in the middle" by the kids on the "Rez" (Flood uses a capital letter for R in rez) and "Indian princess, heap-big squaw" in school. She doesn't feel like she fits in with either group and asks her grandmother if it was like that when she went to school. Her grandmother tells her she was in boarding school. She tells Tess what it was like, and that she left without her diploma. When she got home, her parents saw how angry she was and arranged a Blessingway ceremony for her. The medicine man greeted her in English, which made her angry all over again. The medicine man told her that her Navajo and English fight, but that the ceremony will bring them together, and that both will be able to walk in her, with beauty.

Then, Tessa's grandma talks about Becca, the little girl, and what Becca saw (Kindle Location 1387-1389):
“She did not see me, Tess. She saw a real Indian grandma with real Indian jewelry. She did not see this woman who loves her sheep, her stubborn goats, and a strong hot latte, who reads Emily Dickinson and sends letters to Iraq on the internet. Becca’s eyes did not see these things.”
That passage gives me pause, because in a way, it feels to me like Flood herself is Becca. Becca is the white gaze. She is so interested in real Indians. Flood--through her character--is so invested in figuring out what a real Indian is. I'll be thinking about how this passage offers some parallel to what Flood is trying to do with her writing of Navajo stories.

A few days later, Tess's grandma gives her some moccasins for an upcoming ceremony. The description feels off to me ("white doeskin with suede bottoms"). Several times, Tess dreams about Yé’ii, and as noted earlier, several times she talks about ceremony.

All of this makes me uneasy, as does the many times when Tess, her sister, or her grandmother talk about how it isn't very Navajo to talk about death--and then do it anyway. It seems to me that in this story about a young girl wrestling with her half Navajo/half White identity, Flood is giving the world characters who flaunt Navajo teachings.

The last line in the story is "All has become beauty again." For Tess, I suppose that is so, but using that 'beauty' reference to Navajo teachings bothers me. Those five words capture so much of what I find wrong with the book. Laden with ceremony and stereotypes.... it doesn't work, for me.

In the Acknowledgements, Flood writes that Navajo elders and educators have reviewed the manuscript to ensure that her portrayals of culture and language are authentic, accurate, and sensitive. She goes on to say "Any inaccuracies are my own." I don't know what to make of that. If those elders found it to be authentic, accurate, and sensitive, why does she need the "any inaccuracies are my own" at all? She goes on to say that she lived and taught on the Navajo Nation for 15 years and that the story was inspired by her incredible Navajo students. She talks about all the things she did for them. I think she tells us all this so that we think she is a good person, helping Navajo youth. She doesn't have to do that. I believe we can all assume that she means well. Putting all that, and her desire to honor Lori Piestewa in the Acknowledgements isn't necessary.

Today (September 1, 2016) I learned that Flood received a $2,000 award from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) for this book. That is disappointing. In the Acknowledgements, she writes that the award is the Work-in-Progress multicultural one, which makes me all the more disappointed.

I think of all the Native writers who SCBWI ought to be helping and wish one of them had been the recipient of this award. Writing about identity is hard. I don't think Flood pulled it off. I'd much prefer to read something by a Navajo writer, wouldn't you?

To sum up: I do not recommend Nancy Bo Flood's Soldier Sister, Fly Home, published by Charlesbridge in 2016.


Kirby Larson said...

I haven't read Nancy Bo Flood's book yet so I can't speak to the points you brought up about the story, Debbie. But as a writer of historical fiction and one who relies on the help of others to get information about other places and times, I have absolutely done exactly what Nancy did in her afterword. Though I try my utmost to be accurate, I can never be one hundred percent certain that I've gotten what others have told me right. So, while I always mention by name and thank those who have helped me (because I am so grateful for their assistance), I also use that caveat, "All inaccuracies are my own," because I would never want a reader to think any mistake in the text might be a reflection on the information provided me by others. I think it's a courtesy, more than anything else.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

"I get what Flood is trying to do, but this is kind of awkward. I think she means to make the point that Native people use the Internet. That scene might work if it was Rebecca (the white girl) making that observation, but it doesn't seem right, for Tess. I can imagine a Native kid being surprised at their grandma's technology skills... which makes the scene plausible, but here, it isn't working, for me, and it may be because it is a White writer doing this scene."

Even if a native writer wrote this scene word-for-word it wouldn't have felt authentic. It's clear that she's surprised that her grandma can use technology because she's native, which doesn't make sense if she grew up with a Navajo mother and extended family. If my abuela showed technology skills I wouldn't be surprised because she's from the third world, but because she refuses to get wifi in her house.

The rest of the pull quotes also point to this problem of authenticity. Even as a non-native, the character doesn't feel believable in her reactions or how she talks so bluntly about her identity issues. It's troubling people are taking it as face value and as their gateway into Navajo culture.

I admit, after reading your review of the ARC I was wondering if the book was really that bad, hoping there was at least some good commentary on being biracial. Seeing the pull quotes here though it's so obvious how it misses the mark, even without your commentary.