Sunday, March 03, 2019

Willa of the Wood

Willa of the Wood by Robert Beatty. Disney-Hyperion, 2018

Willa of the Wood is described as a middle-grade adventure. It's also a "series starter" -- other titles are in the works. It features some characters who are identified as Cherokee, which is why AICL is taking a look at it.

Spoilers ahead, probably.

Robert Beatty writes the extremely popular Serafina series. He has lots of fans. Evidently many of them are on a "team" that reviews free advance copies of his books on Goodreads, Amazon, etc. Willa of the Wood has received hundreds of favorable reviews, many of them over-the-top with enthusiasm for the plot, the main character, the fantasy world, etc. Quite a few of the reviewers acknowledge being part of the review team. Not saying that's wrong. But the boost is impressive, and I'd love to see Native writers get that sort of advance attention! More about the reviews in a moment.

Willa is a fairy-story of sorts, set in the very early 1900s in the mountains of what is currently called Tennessee. I was reminded (not always happily) of Ferngully, Avatar, and My Side of the Mountain. And even of Anthem. Why does anything in this fairy story sound like Ayn Rand? More on that shortly.

One of the themes here is assimilation vs cultural survival -- not of human societies but of a fantasy society the author calls the Faeran. They look kind of similar to humans, but have quills on their necks and sharp teeth. They have long kept their existence separate from humans, though the Cherokee supposedly know about them and tell stories of them "around their campfires at night." The Faeran have magical connections to nature. Or at least, they used to. Few of them still do when the story begins.

The Faeran are governed by an autocrat who says they must use the "Eng-lish" language,  for their own survival. (But if the Faeran must also hide their existence from humans, why would speaking English-only be an advantage?) This supposedly god-like charismatic leader is fascinated by humans' technology. He sends squads of teen and pre-teen Faeran to take things from the humans at night. He deals with dissent as power-hungry fearful dictators do. His mantra is "There is no I, only we." (That's what made me think of Anthem, Ayn Rand's teen-friendly allegory on the evils of cooperative societies in general.) To the Faeran, that means everyone must do what the leader wants. Willa soon runs afoul of him and finds herself homeless and on the run.

Willa's grandmother ("Mamaw"), her last living relative, is murdered as the plot heats up. She has taught Willa her "wood witch" knowledge of magic, herb-lore, etc., setting the child apart from other Faeran as well as from the humans. She has also taught Willa the old language, in secret. It's part of their bond, so I wondered why Willa doesn't call her grandmother by a Faeran name instead of one that's used by real-life English-speaking humans.

Some of the human characters in Willa are white-skinned invaders -- homesteaders and greedy, forest-killing loggers. The most sympathetic white character ("the man Nathaniel") becomes Willa's friend. The other whites are destroyers of the beloved trees. We eventually learn that Nathaniel was married to a Cherokee woman who has been killed. He believes their three children were also killed, but as Willa discovers, they were kidnapped by the Faeran.

In some ways (which might or might not be intentional on Beatty's part), Faeran existence parallels the experience of those Cherokee who managed to remain on their ancestral homelands when the rest of their people were forced westward during Removal. Their land and places that were home are damaged by greedy, murderous invaders. They're under intense pressure to change in order to survive. But the book isn't about Cherokee life in the early 1900s.

Not that Cherokees are erased in Willa. The word "Cherokee" appears more than 30 times. But the Cherokee Nation itself isn't mentioned -- not its existence or its history, including Removal (which in real life enabled people like Nathaniel and the tree-killers to do their things in the mountains). The Cherokee homelands are merely the setting for Faeran vs human and Faeran vs Faeran conflict.

Some mentions of "Cherokee": Willa recalls that Mamaw told her of a "lake that the Cherokee called Atagahi". The Faeren are eager to have "Cherokee arrowheads" as tips for their spears. Willa visualizes "Cherokee farmers" and has seen them walking on the road and "trading peacefully with homesteaders." She sees a dozen "Cherokee families" fleeing some disaster, including one boy who "definitely wasn't from the same clan" as the others and who, the author hints, may not be a typical human (Willa thinks his scent is that of a mountain lion). She has overheard Cherokees and homesteaders telling stories of a black panther. She recognizes that the names on 4 grave markers are probably "Cherokee names," and she recalls that "most of the Cherokee" lived on the other side of a mountain that is important to the Faeran. The "Cherokee called it Kuwa'hi" and settlers called it Clingman's Dome.

In his author's note, Beatty thanks three Eastern Band Cherokee people by name. All three are involved in preservation/renewal of the Cherokee language, and one is described as a storyteller. Beatty doesn't make clear how their "guidance and assistance" was useful in writing Willa. I think readers would benefit from knowing that.

The Cherokee children speak English in conversation, even with each other.  And though Cherokee names, storytelling, and geography figure in the book, the Cherokee characters themselves don't mention such things. In ways that aren't explained, Willa recognizes some people on sight as Cherokee. Other than that, it's as if they're Cherokee in name only.

Speaking of names, searching on the names of the 3 children (Iska, Inali, and Hialeah) and their mother, Ahyoka, didn't turn up an authoritative source to confirm whether those would be Cherokee names. At least three of them might be, but my search didn't confirm or refute authenticity. If you're familiar with the Cherokee language or history, maybe you'll know.  I also found suggestions that a hidden lake called Atagahi is actually part of Cherokee oral traditions, but again the sources may not be trustworthy (see list of questions below). Maybe the names and stories are what Beatty asked the three Eastern Band sources about.

How might Cherokee kids feel about the way Cherokees are represented in Willa of the Wood? Is it a mirror that reflects their lives or identities in some way?

As a non-Cherokee, I saw overall positive images of Cherokee people but didn't come away with a greater understanding about Cherokee life, history, or language. If anything, I have Questions. Such as:
  • Does Beatty use the concept of "clan" correctly re: Cherokee society? Maybe not, if I'm understanding info about clans on the Cherokee Nation website. 
  • There's a troubling passage where Nathaniel tells Willa that his wife "was a respected member of the Paint clan, the great-great-granddaughter of a famous chief.” While it's probably fine for a white man to know his Cherokee wife's clan, why is it necessary to have her descended from "a famous chief"? Echoes of "My great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess".... 
  • Is there an unimpeachable source for the story of Atagahi? What I found online is all questionable, including a book written by Shirley G. Webb who, according to the back matter on the book, is "of Cherokee heritage." But at least one of her stories has a character named Nokomis, which I'm pretty sure is an Ojibwe name, so that put the authenticity in doubt.
  • And I wonder if the Cherokee boy with the mountain lion scent will show up later in the series as a shape-shifter of some kind. Shape-shifting Indigenous people seem to be really popular in fiction/fantasy by non-Native writers.
I checked to see what all those Goodreads/Amazon reviewers made of the Cherokee "presence" in the story. But surprisingly few reviewers even used the word Cherokee. One mentioned liking to hearing the names they knew, like Cherokee and Clingman's Dome. Another said that Willa is supposed to be a Cherokee night spirit. And another commented that they aren't sure if Beatty's references to Cherokees are respectful or accurate, though part of the story was based on Cherokee stories. Evidently, the Cherokee content didn't make a big impression on most of the book's early fans.

So overall, the Cherokee presence in Willa seems too generalized to provide a clear window into Cherokee lives of that time period. In fact, it barely makes an impression on a fair number of early reviewers. So, why are they there?

I'm not sure.

What might a fantasy story like Willa of the Wood gain from having Cherokee characters? Maybe a touch of historical authenticity; Cherokee people were certainly present in that part of the continent during the early 1900s. Maybe some help with the magical world-building and set-ups for future plots: Atagahi seems likely to play a role in what happens later in the series, as do the three children and that Cherokee boy who might be a something else. The Cherokee content feels like a device, or set of devices, rather than an occasion for truly representing Native people. That may become clearer with later books in the series.

I don't recommend Willa of the Wood -- because of its puzzling references to Cherokee people and its lack of transparency regarding some of the names and stories attributed to the Cherokee. If you're Cherokee citizen and have read this book, we'd like to hear your thoughts on its Cherokee content. Please comment!

--Jean Mendoza


Sam Jonson said...

Speaking of Ayn Rand...don't forget the racist things she said about Amerindians: she said they were "savages" who had no right to their land. I'm surprised you didn't mention that, given that far too many people know more about her libertarian politics than her racist views.

Jean Mendoza said...

Sam, you're right of course, about Rand's racism. At this point I couldn't say whether Beatty's writing actually reflects an AynRandian perspective or if he simply distilled a typical dictator's outlook on the virtue of subjects doing what Dear Leaders wish for them to do. Later books in the series may reveal a pattern.