Friday, April 10, 2020

Highly Recommended: The Forever Sky by Thomas Peacock

The Forever Sky
Written by Thomas Peacock
Illustrated by Annette S. Lee
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
Published in 2019
Reviewer: Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Highly Recommended

My husband Durango is an artist and writer, and I value his reactions to the children's books Debbie and I study. He isn't always drawn to what's in my Books to Review pile. But when The Forever Sky was delivered during our first day of "shelter in place", I invited him to look it over.  When he finished, he asked, "What age is this for?" I said, "I think it could be for older kids, but they're saying ages 3-7." "How about 74?" he asked. (He's 74).

That sounds right to me. The central idea of The Forever Sky has emotional impact across generations, though the vocabulary and plot are not complex. The book touches on familial love, loss and healing, imagination, and how humans tell stories that make sense of the world, all in the context of Indigenous (Ojibwe) knowledge and perspective.

The text by Thomas Peacock (Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Anishinaabe Ojibwe) would stand on its own, but the paintings by Annette S. Lee (Lakota-Sioux) add considerable depth and nuance. Example: The end papers (front and back) consist of a two-page spread showing two small, shadowy figures seated on a blue-gray rectangle at bottom, slightly off-center. They are surrounded by swirls of deep night-time blues and greens that are freckled with white dots that might be stars or fireflies, or some of each. The same painting is the basis for the title page, and it appears again at the end of the book, as background for the brief glossary.

Two figures wearing shorts and tee shirts appear on the pages of dedications and publishing information. The first page of the story shows the same figures lying on a blanket, pointing at the sky. They are young Ojibwe brothers, Niigaanii and Bineshiinh. They miss Nooko, their grandmother, who died recently. Throughout the book, the boys return to the meadow to watch the ever-changing night sky. Niigaanii, the older boy, tells his little brother Ojibwe stories their uncle has shared with him about the sky and the stars. Their uncle has said that Nooko's spirit is in the stars. So are all those who have passed on. In the northern lights, they are dancing together. Finally, one night, something happens that helps ease some of the boys' grief. This is a story of serious matters, yet it conveys hope and healing.

Not many artists are astrophysicists in the rest of their lives. What Annette Lee knows about the sky is evident in The Forever Sky, as well as in her web gallery. She also collaborated on some tribally-specific resources including the Ojibwe Sky Star Map - Constellation Guide (2014) and D(L)akota Sky Star Map - Constellation Guide (2014)Some of those constellations appear in The Forever Sky. Clearly, "Western" science is only one lens on what's overhead.

"The sky is so big it goes on forever," Niigaanii says. "That is why we call it Gaagige Giizhig, the Forever Sky."

I'd love to share this book with kids, and hear their ideas about what's going on in each of the pictures. Are the brothers present in every illustration? Do any of the constellations show up more than once? What does the artist do to depict Niigaanii, Bineshiinh, and their parents and uncle, at the end of the story?  Every page holds mystery, like the night sky, in keeping with the gravity of Peacock's subject matter.

Especially important, I think, is how the author anchors the boys' experience in the cycles that are part of Ojibwe life. Niigaanii tells Bineshiinh that they need to know the stories their uncle tells, "So when we are uncles we can teach our nieces and nephews." "So they will teach their nieces and nephews," his brother adds. And so "the stories will go on forever," Niigaani says.

Readers may notice that some illustrations depict the boys in shorts and tee shirts, but in others they seem to be dressed as if for a ceremony. Perhaps this shows that time is passing -- not just astronomical time but the calendar of an Ojibwe community's traditional events. Or perhaps some of those figures are not the boys and their uncle at all, but past and future relatives, telling and hearing the stories across generations.

The night sky has always given humanity a focus for its most challenging questions. The Forever Sky foregrounds some of those, from an Ojibwe perspective. What is the meaning of all that darkness, those many lights that brighten it? What happens when a person dies? Given that individual life on earth is finite, what role does a person, a child for example, have in the continuity of their community's ideas about the world? Peacock has addressed Ojibwe attitudes about disabilities in at least two of his other books, and he presents another facet of those in The Forever Sky.

As I wrapped up this review, I started reading the Ojibwe Sky Star Map Constellation Guide, mentioned earlier, which Annette S. Lee was involved with as first author (image below right).

This passage from its first page echoed what she and Thomas Peacock have created in The Forever Sky:
....Native star knowledge is disappearing as elders pass. One Ojibwe elder spoke of his vision of "the star medicine returning through the native youth." He specifically called them "star readers."
It struck me that Niigaanii and the uncle are some of those "star readers." Though I was already appreciative of what Peacock and Lee have done, my understanding of it has been deepened by the star map/constellation guide.

If you're among the many who can't leave home now because of COVID-19, this may be a good time to get more familiar with the night sky, and to do so with the children in your life, if you can.  Reading The Forever Sky together may be a way to start. And a book like the Ojibwe Sky Star Map Constellation Guide can add even greater depth to your night-sky experience.

Hear an archived interview with Thomas Peacock on Native America Calling. It's really good. Kirkus gave The Forever Sky a starred review, and Debbie and I include it on AICL's Best Books of 2019. Thomas Peacock also wrote The Dancer, which is also on our Best Books of 2019 list, and which Debbie mentions in her post about social distance powwow books.

Edited on 4/11 to add: On Monday, April 20, 3:00 pm, the Minnesota Historical Society Press will post a video of Thomas Peacock reading The Forever Sky aloud here. And see MHSP's The Forever Sky web page to link to coloring pages based on Annette Lee's illustrations.