Monday, February 01, 2021

Not Recommended: THE BRAVE by James Bird

The Brave
Written by James Bird
Published by Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan)
Publication Year: 2020
Reviewed by Debbie Reese
Review Status: Not Recommended

A reader wrote to ask if we have read or reviewed The Brave by James Bird. I was aware of the book but had not yet ordered or reviewed it. The reader's question prompted me to see how it was being received. I see it has some starred reviews from major children's literature journals. But I also saw that Ojibwe scholar David Treuer gave it a scathing review in The New York Times. It was similarly criticized in the review at The Circle: Native American News and Arts located in Minneapolis. 

Editor's Note, Feb 17, 2021
Please see additional reviews by Ojibwe women:

I was able to get an e-copy a couple of days ago. First, here's the book description:
Perfect for fans of Rain Reign, this middle-grade novel The Brave is about a boy with an OCD issue and his move to a reservation to live with his biological mother.

Collin can't help himself—he has a unique condition that finds him counting every letter spoken to him. It's a quirk that makes him a prime target for bullies, and a continual frustration to the adults around him, including his father. 

When Collin asked to leave yet another school, his dad decides to send him to live in Minnesota with the mother he's never met. She is Ojibwe, and lives on a reservation. Collin arrives in Duluth with his loyal dog, Seven, and quickly finds his mom and his new home to be warm, welcoming, and accepting of his condition. 

Collin’s quirk is matched by that of his neighbor, Orenda, a girl who lives mostly in her treehouse and believes she is turning into a butterfly. With Orenda’s help, Collin works hard to overcome his challenges. His real test comes when he must step up for his new friend and trust his new family.

In what follows, I share summary in regular font, and I'm using italics for my comments and analysis. 

The book cover shows the title in capital letters. The author's name is also in capital letters but instead of an s, there is a numeral 5: JAME5 BIRD. On the title page, numerals replace letters in the title: TH3 BRAV5. The description refers to "an OCD issue" where Collin counts every letter in every word spoken to him before he replies to the person who spoke to him. 

Debbie's comments: I assume the use of numerals (instead of alphabet letters) on the cover and title page are meant to cue readers to the main character's "issue". Though the description of the book says it is OCD, nowhere in the book do I see "OCD." I see only repeated references to Collin's "issue." How it plays out is this: If I said "Hello, Collin, how are you?" he would say "Twenty. I'm fine." That manner of speaking occurs throughout most of the book. When he gets to Minnesota, it isn't an issue for Native people in his family or in the home of the Native family next door. 

Right before chapter one begins, the word BRAVE appears and is defined as you'd see it in a dictionary. 
a. (noun) a Native American warrior
b. (adjective) ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage
Debbie's comments: When I saw that, I wondered if the author (through his character) meant to return to that definition in the story, telling readers the definition is problematic. I wondered if he might use the story to tell readers what they'll find if they look in most dictionaries. When I look at a few of them online, I see that definition ("a Native American warrior") but I also see a note that the noun is outdated, old-fashioned, or offensive. In my experience, white writers use "brave" instead of man or boy. I've never heard any Native person call a Native man or boy a "brave." In interviews, I read that Bird's mother is Ojibwe. I figured then, he might take up that definition in the book, pushing back on it but that didn't happen. Instead, by the end of the book, he has overcome that "issue." In the second from final chapter, the title is "I AM THE BRAVE." In the last chapter, Collin writes directly to the reader and signs his letter with "Collin, THE BRAVE." 

I didn't know it when I started reading the book, but as I reflect on it, the uncritical depiction of that definition told me that there would be problems with the Native content in the book. 

The story opens with 13-year old Collin and his father in the school principal's office. Collin has had another run-in where he's blamed for a fight. Yet again, he is being told he has to change schools. This time, his father tells him he'll be going to live with his mother on a reservation in Minnesota. 

Collin has never met or heard from his mother. He doesn't even know her name. His father has told him very little about her. When he was six, his father told him that he has his mothers high cheekbones and "almond shaped eyes." (Collin has his father's pale skin.) A few years later when he is drunk (his father drinks heavily), he tells Collin a bit more. They had met her at a rock concert when she was 25. She was very pretty and very funny. She ended up pregnant but was from "the other side of the tracks" and so marriage wasn't an option. His wealthy parents, however, agreed to raise the baby boy, to carry on the family name. But the speech issue was more than they could manage, and when Collin was six, they sent him back to be with his father.  

Collin and his dog, Seven, fly to Duluth. He wonders what his mother will be like. He doesn't think she'll be like the Indians in westerns who jump out of bushes in warpaint and feathers, wielding a tomahawk, but he thinks Native Americans are tuned in to nature, and that an animal might have spoken to his mother and told her that he would be too much trouble to raise, with that speech issue, and maybe that's why she's not part of his life. He wishes he knew more about his "half people." 

At the airport he's waiting for someone to pick him up, and suddenly, standing in front of him is "the most beautiful woman I have ever seen." Her skin "is like what a fire would look like if it were perfectly still. It's the color of darkened flames, brown, orange, and red mixed together to make one color: fire-skin." She's got long black hair and cheekbones that look as if they were chiseled by an artist. And she has beautiful eyes. He realizes he doesn't even know her name, and doesn't know what to say. She says to him that he will enjoy her family because "we only speak when we have something to say." 

The author seems to be trying to push back on some stereotypes, but others are depicted as if they are facts. Cheekbones, in tune with nature, and speaking very little... those are stereotypes, too. That line where he says "half people" feels odd but is plausible that a 13 year old who had no prior interactions with his Ojibwe family would think that way. 

I've read and reviewed hundreds of books. I've seen many instances of an author describing how a Native character looks. It is usually awkward. I see that in this book, too. "Fire skin" is a new term to me, but it is as awkward as others I've seen. 

Collin's life up to now makes it an unusual book to review. I'm trying to read it from Collin's space of not knowing much about Ojibwe people, because I know that it is not a unique situation. Many Native kids grow up away from their Native family and community, for a wide range of reasons. When they try to connect with that family and community, it can be difficult. I'd like to find books where a Native child who has that experience can feel seen by an author/book. If you know of one, let me know in the comments! Generally, in real life, Native people welcome individuals like Collin by inviting them to their homes, introducing them to other tribal members, helping them learn and understand aspects of their history, culture, spirituality, etc.      

Collin's mother reaches out to touch his face and he pulls back. He's never had that sort of physical affection from his dad. Then he wonders if she knows he meant no harm. And, he wonders if the gesture is "a Native American thing" he doesn't know about and he hopes he hasn't insulted her. They go to the parking lot and he knows it is stereotypical to want them to be heading to a horse rather than a car. They stop in front of a truck. She asks him if he was expecting a horse. He wonders if she can read his mind. She opens the tailgate and Seven hops up. Collin asks if he can ride with Seven. She says ok. 

Debbie's comments: With Collin's worry about having insulted his mother by pulling back when she reaches out to touch his face, it seems the author is trying to convey Collin's lack of knowledge of Ojibwe ways. Remember, Collin has had no contact with his Native family until this moment. I understand the author trying to convey Collin's ignorance of Ojibwe culture, but it feels awkward. In U.S. society (well, truly, around the world), there's so much misinformation about Native people that I think this strategy would have been more successful if the author had used an existing stereotype to convey Collin's lack of knowledge.  

Time-wise, the story takes place sometime after 2016. The year isn't specified anywhere, but later in the story, the neighbor (more on her later) asks Collin to read Adriana Mather's young adult novel, How To Hang A Witch. I looked it up. It came out in 2016. Mather, by the way, is married to the author. When one author's character refers to another author's book, the writing community has mixed reactions, depending on the author's and the books. I try to document when a writer has their characters loving a book like Little House on the Prairie or Gone With the Wind. I wish that didn't happen. Little House is anti-Indigenous and Gone With the Wind is anti-Black. I have not read Mather's book, but I gather it is about belonging/rejection, which is what Collin is experiencing. I like it when a Native author refers to another Native author's book. That's a way that a Native author can shine a light on other Native authors. Mather is not Native. In a video about her book, she says she is a descendent of Cotton Mather. 

They drive for a couple of hours and then turn off just after a sign to the Fond du Lac Reservation and then another that says "HOME OF THE OJIBWE." Collin wonders if any of those letters are silent. He also does a mental screen cap of the sign so he can count its letters and use the right number when someone speaks the word Ojibwe to him. His mother opens the sliding window of the cab and shouts to him "We're Ojibwe." He again thinks she can read his mind, and thinks it is magic. 

"I'm Ojibwe." he thinks. But he also thinks he knows nothing about the Ojibwe people. He read in school that Native Americans were fearless warriors who fought many battles with the US government and he saw Westerns of super-wise wrinkled up old Native men who give white men messages just when they need to hear them. And, he remembers that some are shown as violent savages. He also thinks his mom would be an instant star if Hollywood saw her. 

After another hour they pull up (it is now dark) to a house. An older woman opens the door and turns on the porch light. The woman is his mom's mother (Collin's grandmother). There's some humorous banter among the three. When his grandmother reaches out to touch his face, he lets her do it, again wondering if it is an Ojibwe thing. He and Seven go inside, he is shown his bedroom, and before he goes in, he asks his mother what her name is. She tells him it is Cecilia but that he should call her Mama. He falls asleep. 

Debbie's comments: If I went to Albuquerque to pick up a kid (my own or anyones), I wouldn't let that child ride in the bed of my truck. It isn't safe, and it is against the law. If we were on the reservation going to get wood and driving on small dirt roads to get that wood, then yes, people could ride in the truck bed. Beyond safety and law, it is cold in October especially when the sun goes down.  I wonder what an Ojibwe mother from Fond du Lac would do when picking up a child in Duluth? That aspect of the book is possible but it doesn't seem plausible. 

Some of my criticism might seem nit-picky to readers. Some of what I point to is the sort of thing that Toni Morrison talked about. In her experience, editors in major houses did not attend to the writing of authors of color with the same care they took with white writers. I don't recall if Morrison talked about why that is the case. It may be that an editor feels they don't have the expertise to edit a Native writer, so, they just let things slide. That's not ok!  If they don't have that knowledge, they should hire editors who can do that for them. (I'm not looking to be hired for that, by the way.) 

The next morning, his mother tells him about his brother, Ajidamoo, who died, fighting "for this country." She keeps his ashes in an urn on a shelf. She gives Collin a necklace made of bone, leather, and turquoise that used to belong to Aji (short for Ajidamoo, which means squirrel). He was named Ajidamoo because as a boy he was always climbing trees. Collin asks how, when Aji was a baby, his mother would know he would do that. "Mothers just know" she says. Outside when Collin sees a squirrel he imagines it is Aji. He grabs onto the fence and looks into the back yard of the house next door. The fence breaks, he falls and as he walks back to his house he's hit in the head with a baseball. He looks up and sees the girl next door in her treehouse. Looking at her, he thinks that her skin is "a different shade of flame" than his mother's, and it is like it was dipped in gold before it was set ablaze. Back inside he finds photographs on the wall of Aji, in his mother's bedroom. In one he's wearing "a colorful costume" which Collins assumes is "traditional Ojibwe attire." 

Debbie's Comments: I'm noting Aji and the squirrel because there's more on them later in the book, and there's a lot more coming, about the girl. The sentence about the photo of Aji in his traditional clothing is kind of clunky. In the first half, the author uses "costume" which is plausible, given Collin's life so far, but the second half of the sentence doesn't follow that ignorance. He apparently knows how to describe it, so why is the word "costume" in there at all? That's what I mean about editing from an editor who is paying attention. But it may also be an editor who trusts what a Native writer is doing. 

Collin's mother drives him to school. She's a math teacher. On the way, he learns the girl's name is Orenda. Collin has a rough morning and leaves school two hours early, and hangs around waiting for the bus. When he gets dropped off, he sees his grandmother walking towards him. Rather than go home they go on what she calls an adventure. She teaches him to see things from many perspectives. When they walk home, she goes in the front door and tells him to go around to the back sliding glass door. When he gets to it, it is locked and he realizes she's locked him out again (she did this the day before, too). He thinks it must be a test of some kind and he's confused about the broken fence. The night before when he looked at it, it was fixed but now, it is broken again. He decides to go through the fence, out their gate and back to his house where he thinks the front door will be unlocked. But he sees that the grass in their yard has gone from dead to lush, overnight. As he walks through the grass he notices peaches scattered everywhere, and butterflies on the peaches. He thinks it is too cold for peaches and butterflies. But, there they are, fluttering about everywhere. That gate is locked, too, so he calls out Orenda's name, hoping she can help him get out. 

Debbie's comments: If I can, I may look up the word Orenda. It is the title of a book by Joseph Boyden. Some people really liked that book but some of the Native people whose nation is in it, did not like it at all. 

From the treehouse, Orenda tosses down a rope. Collin climbs up and sees it is a bedroom, decorated with paintings of butterflies and butterfly figurines. Orenda is there, painting. She has a line of red paint on her face, going from under her right eye to her right ear. He asks if it is war paint. She asks if the two of them are at war; he says no; she replies that she's just a messy painter. He also sees a wheelchair in the corner and asks her about it. (Later he learns that she has ALS.) He expresses sympathy when she tells him she needs it for the rest of her life, but she says not to feel sorry, because she's just changing, that this is part of her metamorphosis. She offers to train him to fight his letter counting issue. He is doubtful and she says "You don't think we can defeat it?" She says that she can, that "all we need to do is to teach you how to be brave as a brave." When her dad calls her in to dinner, she lowers her wheelchair and herself down the rope. Collin is there alone, wondering why she likes butterflies and why she "can't walk like a normal person." 

Debbie's comments: This reference to war paint is another example of Collin's ignorance. I appreciate the author's efforts to show Collin's ignorance but as before, it is kind of awkward. 

Orenda telling him that she can help him defeat the OCD issue by teaching him to be "brave as a brave" is a touch back to the definition of the word (brave) at the beginning of the book. 

The ways that the OCD, and Orenda's ALS are treated in the story are unsettling. The use of "normal" means that we are supposed to see both characters as abnormal. 

Back at school the next day, Collin is taunted again by students. He takes off early again but rather than wait around for the bus he starts walking and is surprised his grandmother is there, waiting for him. They do another walk and when they get home, she tells him to go around back again. She winks, telling him it is her way to help him hang out with Orenda. He goes to her yard and to the treehouse. She invites him to help her feed her family, which means cutting peaches in half and tossing them out the window. Collin knows he'll be in trouble for taking off from school. When he goes back to his house his mom asks him to build a fire. He gets firewood he saw in the garage and gets it going. Then he thinks about how this is the first time he's made a fire, and he feels "very Native American about this whole thing" because he's done it on an Ojibwe reservation for his "fire-skinned mother." He wonders if he'll get so good at it that people will refer to him as FireStarter or Boy Who Makes Fire. When his mom sits beside him, he mimics all her gestures (pulling her hair back, putting her hands together over her heart, closing her eyes).  He asks her if this is "something our people do." 

Debbie's comments: I really wish that an editor had flagged these learning/wondering how to be Indian sections for the author so he could take them out. There's too many of them! 

Collin's mom tells him that the fire will tell him what his options are, for having taken off from school. She tells fire to tell him he can be grounded the white way or the Ojibwe way, and that the white way teaches nothing. In the Ojibwe way, she tells fire to tell Collin, they build a fire and sit with it, reflecting on their actions as the "flames are given birth, live their life, serve their purpose, then slowly die." They think about why they did what they did and what they can do differently, the next time. When the flames die, "we are only then no longer punished." He chooses the Ojibwe way. She leaves and as he looks at the fire, he thinks he should have used fewer logs.

Debbie's comments: Is this a common Ojibwe thing? I don't know but whether it is or not, I imagine kids across the US that are into scouting or Native people using that method. Reflection rather than being grounded in your room is definitely a better option, but as done here it feels kind of Indian wisdom-y. And I suppose we're supposed to think that "should have used fewer logs" is clever, but I find it dismissive of care being extended to him. 

Collin makes it through his third day of school ok. When he gets home, his own backyard has changed from dead grass to being green and full of life. He heads through the fence to hang out with Orenda, stepping through "the minefield of peaches." Inside the tree house, Orenda has him listen to a recording. In it, a young man speaks to Orenda, telling her a story about a baby boy being swept away from his tribe, in a flood. The people looked for him but figured he must have died. But, a wolf mother had found him and the wolves decide she should determine what to do with him. She says she'll raise him. Others laugh at her, saying he'll be too slow, or too weak. That's all Collin hears of the story. Orenda says he can listen to more of it later, when he is "ready" for it. 

She says it is time for her to teach him to be strong and fast, in the same way she taught Aji. Collin is surprised. he didn't know they had known each other. They head to Collin's house, and once inside, he watches as Orenda pauses and speaks to Aji's urn. He thinks she must be speaking Ojibwe. She turns to him and says that Aji supports her decision to train him. She goes into the garage where the punching bag is (his mother had shown him Aji's things before this). She tells him to punch the bag for three minutes straight. It is hard to keep going, but he does. After, he replies to one of Orenda's comments, without counting the letters in her words.  He didn't notice that happened, but she points it out to him. After two more 3-minute rounds, she gives him a book. It is the young adult novel (How to Hang a Witch, written by the author's wife) I noted earlier in this post. She tells Collin it is one of Aji's favorite books and that it is his voice telling the wolf story in the recording he listened to earlier. She leaves and he's tired but he is also excited to read the book. He thinks "if I don't give up, I'll soon be a brave. And braves fight. I'll be able to defeat my counting condition."

There again is the reference to being a brave. 

Another day at school, Collin leaves early and goes to Orenda's treehouse. She lets him listen to more of the wolf story. They plan to head back to the garage to do more training, but when Collin asks to meet her mother, Orenda says "Let's go see my mama." In a golf cart that is in Orenda's garage, they drive along the shoulder of the highway and turn at an exit marked ANISHINAABE and drive out of the forest to a green clearing on a bluff. In the center of all this green is a garden of flowers and a small river running through it. She tells Collin her family is coming to meet him. They are butterflies that fly to them from the garden. He asks if this is real; she says yes. One lands on her fingertip and then flutters to him. He recognizes it as the same one that had been at his window in California the night before we caught that plane to Duluth. Collin and Orenda kiss and then head back home. He stays up late to finish How To Hang a Witch. 

Collin is back in school. After math class he dashes to the bathroom to pee. While at the urinal, boys who have been taunting him come in. He tries to ignore them. They start laughing and he realizes why. One of them is peeing on him. He's angry but remembers that throwing a punch will get him in trouble again so he chooses to ignore what happened. He washes his hands, leaves the bathroom and gets on the bus to go home. Walking up to his house he sees Orenda's dad, Foxy, sitting cross-legged in the center of his yard, staring up at the sun, eyes closed. The urine on his jeans is now frozen. Inside, he hand washes his jeans and goes to Orenda's tree house. They hang out, argue, she cries, and goes inside her house. Collin goes home. 

Debbie's comments: That pee scene. I don't know what to make of it. I guess it is the ultimate assault, depicted here to see if Collin can control his reactions, but it is gratuitous, grotesque, and not necessary. 

The next day is a Saturday. Collin's mom is happy because her boyfriend is being deployed after a year and will be home, soon. Collin goes to visit Orenda, who is on her way to "get her wings." She asks Collin to feed her family. He climbs into the treehouse, eats two peaches, slices the rest of them, and tosses them out the window. He lies on her bed and finds that she's left the audio recording for him to listen to. When it is over he is crying. He feels that Aji knew about Collin's struggles to fit in, to feel cared for.  He sees a photo album on her shelf and looks through it, at photos of her and Aji, and in a prom photo, Aji with a guy. Collin wonders who that is and if Aji and Orenda were in love with each other. Back in his house, his mother won't answer his questions about Orenda and Aji. He goes into the garage and punches the bag, for hours. 

I think that a week or a few days more than a week have passed since Collin flew to Duluth. A lot has happened in that week. That is plausible. What is unbelievable, though, is that he can punch that bag for hours, having only done a couple of days of 3 sets of 3-minute rounds. I suppose I could look up boxing training to see how it progresses. 

Orenda is gone overnight. Collin spends 3 hours the next day punching the bag, he runs two miles, and then he reads the sequel to How to Hang a Witch. On Sunday, mid-day, his mom comes into his room and tells him to get up because they're going to meet his ancestors. She's wearing a red flowing dress with black birds on it. They leave the reservation, go through a forest, deep into darkness and then they pull off the road to a hidden dirt lot. He sees a campfire, several cars, some horses. Before getting out of the truck, his mom pulls what looks like a thin piece of charcoal out of a case, rubs her fingertip on it, and then presses her finger on his forehead, creating a line from his forehead and down below his cheekbones. He tells her he feels like he is going into battle. She says he's been in a battle all his life, and that this will help him win. He feels a presence in the truck and asks what it is. She says "That's our blood waking up." They walk to the fire where people are dancing and singing. They look like giant birds, feathers bouncing as they dance. He sees Orenda in her wheelchair, her eyes fixed on the "fire-dancers."

From the start I've felt uncomfortable with the talk of battle and winning the battle. Though he doesn't call this substance war paint, it has that meaning, underneath the other words being spoken. I know that Native peoples gather in ways that might be similar to what the author is describing, and I know that some prefer that these gatherings be kept private. I don't know where this falls on the continuum of public or private sharing of Native ways of being. 

Of all the people there, Collin has the lightest skin. Someone calls out "Who invited the white boy?" Three boys approach him. He thinks he's about to get beat up but one of the boys looks closely at his face and says "Wait... You knew Aji?" Collin starts to tell him who he is, and another person approaches and tells them Collin is Aji's brother. Collin recognizes that person as the one from the prom photo. The three boys are apologetic. Orenda comes over and Collin decides to ask her if she and Aji were in love. She says no, he was like her big brother and that Aji was gay. 

I have not been keeping note of chapters. At this point, we're at chapter 23, titled "Spirit Questing." 

Collin's mom takes him to a teepee. He's never seen one in real life. She leads him in. It is pitch black until a torch is lit and carried to the center of the teepee. An old man sits cross legged. Collin sits, too, and his mom leaves. He asks the old man what he should do. The man claps his hands together, once, and four people enter. They're wearing long robes, each one is a different color (red, black, yellow, green). With tongs, each one is carrying a stone that is the same color as their robe. The stones are placed in the fire, where they sizzle and send clouds of smoke into the teepee. Collin imagines this is what a sauna feels like. The four leave, it gets hotter. The man tells Collin that there is a battle within him. Collin starts to sweat. The man tells him to become the heat and to close his eyes, and look deeper inward. He does and sees himself, then joins with that self and hears a whimper. It is a large angry wolf, growling and drooling. In its fur, numbers and letters shimmer. A hind leg is tied with a thick rope. He realizes he has a knife in his hand. He wonders if the wolf is the battle in him. As the wolf approaches him he wonders if he should run or fight. He lifts the knife but the wolf jumps up, knocks Collin down and bites him, tearing his flesh, breaking his bones. He screams and then, opens his eyes and is back in the teepee. He asks the old man what that was all about, and the old man says "You failed" and point to the teepee flap. He says he tried to face his fear by trying to kill the wolf. The old man says "Courage takes many forms. Now go." Collin leaves. His grandmother is waiting and says "next time" and tells him it is a "spirit test" or a "spirit quest" and that "the test is a quest."

As they drive home, Collin's mother tells him he didn't run and that he should learn from his failures. He thinks that she's giving him some "deep wisdom" and that while he's used to losing fights, he's never "fought an imaginary wolf before in some spirit test-quest battle that all took place inside my head while my body was cooking in a teepee." He thinks he's not a brave yet, but is getting close to something big. He asks where Orenda is, and his mom said she had a test, too, and that Foxy (her dad) took her home to celebrate. Collin is excited, thinking she is cured and that they'll be able to run, dance. 

Debbie's comments: that scene in the teepee raises many questions. The characters are calling it a test, a spirit test, and a spirit quest. Do the Fond du Lac Ojibwe's do this? If they do, do they share it publicly as the author has done in this book? In a Facebook discussion of the book, the author said his family is enrolled with the Grand Portage Band. I wonder if the Fond du Lac folks are ok with someone from a different band including this "test" in his book. It is of significant concern to me (I'm not Ojibwe). Historically, white people misrepresented, misunderstood, and mischaracterized our ceremonial ways, and that caused a lot of harm to tribal peoples as outside entities sought to destroy ceremonial spaces, items used in ceremony, and tried to stop Native worship, altogether. Not surprisingly, other outside entities sought to replicate what they read in books, creating or contributing to New Ageism. 

In the final paragraphs in chapter 23, Collin asks his mom why her relationship with his dad didn't work out. She tells him that when they met, she was in a dark place. Aji's father had been killed in a car accident, that she fell into a depression, and that she and Aji had to move in with her mother on the reservation. A friend took her to a concert, where she met his father and then, she became pregnant. Though it would be tough to raise another child, she was ready to do it. But, his father's parents said they'd give Collin the life that she couldn't. She wanted him to have all the opportunities she never had, so she agreed. 

Debbie's comments: It doesn't say, but I guess the friend flew her from Duluth to California for that concert (or maybe Collin's dad had flown from California to Minnesota--but that seems unlikely). We also don't know how long Collin's parents were together before she got pregnant. If I recall correctly, his father's parents didn't want a baby whose mother was from "the wrong side of the tracks." But then, the baby turned out to be a boy, so they changed their mind. Where was Collin's mom during the pregnancy? Back in Minnesota? Was she then flown to California for Collin's birth? To me, this feels like a big hole in the story that an editor could have helped with. 

The subject itself, giving up a child, is emotionally painful. As I read the book, it has felt like Collin's mother had a very supportive community and positive, caring relationships with her mother and others. But, was that warmth not there when she was younger? What are the opportunities she wanted to have that she felt she couldn't give to Collin? That is the reason she decided to leave him with his father in California. If you've read the book, I'd like to know your thoughts on that. 

Right before chapter twenty-five starts, Collin is on his way into the house and sees Foxy washing white paint off his body. He thinks about his grandmother's teachings about seeing things from a different perspective and imagines how she'd explain what Foxy is doing. He then thinks that he's starting to see things differently, that the books he's reading and Orenda's training are helping his Native American side to wake up. Chapter twenty-five starts with Collin in the house telling his grandmother he's going to visit Orenda.  She tells him that his mother went to pick up her boyfriend, and then she says "pupa" and he wonders why. When he gets to the tree house, he sees it has been painted white and kids are coming down a newly installed ramp, carrying paintings that had been on the walls. Collin is confused about the ramp. He thought she had passed her test and would be better now. Inside, her bed is now a canopy bed draped in white. She tells him that is in stage three of her transformation and her treehouse is now a cocoon. 

In chapter 26, Collin goes home after spending time with Orenda. He walks in and sees "a tall, dark, and handsome black man" who is fit (bulging muscles) with his mom. He is her boyfriend, Ronnie. He gives Collin a silver chained necklace with two dog tags on it: his own and one that has Aji's name on it. He tells Collin that he won't try to replace his father, but that he wants Collin to think of him as his father, too.  

From Ronnie, Collin learns that Orenda has ALS and that her mother had it, too. He tells Collin that the chances of two people in one family getting it are one in a billion. A week passes with Collin not seeing Orenda. She and Foxy are in Canada at a hospital. When they get back, Collin visits her in the tree house. She is much weaker and has episodes of extreme pain as if an invisible man is stabbing her. Foxy moves her from the treehouse to her bedroom in the house. 

Debbie's comments: having a character who is Black is a plus. The physical description is a bit of a cliche (tall, dark, and handsome) but again--this is a 13 year old boy's point of view. As I write that, I imagine some of you thinking I'm being generous with the author, and that there were other ways he could have done some of this that would work better. 

In a dream, Collin dreams he is a wolf. A squirrel as big as he is approaches him. It is Aji, who tells Collin that they have to save Orenda from the invisible man, who has taken her. They go to a cabin where they find her tied to a bed. Collin can see the invisible man's sword. He is stabbed and Aji attacks him. As Aji fights him, he becomes more visible. He looks like a conquistador. He kills Aji; Collin attacks, beheading him. He watches the head roll away. Orenda is no longer on the bed; she is now hovering over him, as a butterfly. She kisses him; he wakes from the dream. 

Collin thinks about the dream, realizes he's slept all day, and rushes to Orenda's house. Lot of people are there, including the "old Native American man who gave me the test in the teepee. Yeah, the test I failed." He's pacing like a wild tiger, chanting words Collin things are Ojibwe. He beats a small drum. Collin sits with Orenda. He asks the people there why nobody came to get him. The old man says he had to finish his dream. He asks what is going on and suddenly nobody is there except he and Orenda. Orenda closes her eyes, and as she tells Collin she loves him, butterfly wings spread out on her back, she lifts from the bed, tells Collin he knows where to find her, and then, she flies out the open window. 

Collin wakes in his bedroom and realizes that he had not been in Orenda's room. That was also part of his dream. His mom tells him he has to go see Orenda right away. He rushes over and it is like it was in his dream. The old Native American man is there with his drum. Collin says aloud that he just dreamt all this and the old man says that they know he did, and that truth comes to them in dreams. Orenda dies, and the old man stops drumming and tells Collin to come see him again. Collin goes home.

Debbie's comments: I wish Collin's mother had told him the name of the "old Native American man" when Collin first went into that teepee. It is jarring to me to read "old Native American man" over and over. 

The next day when Collin wakes, he asks his mom to take him to the place where he thinks Orenda will be. The chapter title is "Memengwa." His mom seems to know where to go. It is that green clearing where he went with Orenda in the golf cart. When they get there, he goes to the edge of the bluff and shouts Orenda's name. He thinks that if he let himself fall forward over the edge of the bluff, he would not have to cry over her again, but, he thinks he is not weak anymore. Orenda had taught him how to be brave. He shouts her name again and then there's a shift in the air and butterflies rise from the flower garden and flutter to him. Then, Orenda flies to him. Her dad, Foxy, is there, too. He tells Collin the name of the place they're at is Memengwa. He's got a bag of peaches with him. He tells Collin he's going to meet his family. As Collin leaves with his mom and Ronnie he turns and sees two butterflies land on Foxy's outstretched arms. He drops to his knees and howls to the sky. Collin thinks he would make a great wolf. 

Debbie's comments: In reviews on Goodreads I see people calling the dreams, the transformation, the butterflies... all of this, to them, is magical realism. I do not use the word "magic" or variants of it to refer to what may be spiritual or culturally based content of a specific tribal nation (in this case, Ojibwe). It may help to think of a specific religion, like Catholicism. Is the word "magic" used to describe things that happen within its teachings? Do miracles get cast as magical happenings? I think the answer is no. People generally respect Catholics and Catholicism. I know--there's exceptions--but I hope my example helps you understand why I think it is important not to use words like "magic" for any peoples' religious ways. 

Back at home again, Collin is looking for his grandmother. His mom tells him she went home. Collin is confused because he thought their house was hers, too. His mom tells Collin "My mother died many years ago." Collin is even more confused but then realizes that he believes Orenda changed into a butterfly, and there's no reason not to think his grandmother was a spirit the whole time he's been living there. His mom reminds him that he's got to do his test that night. 

This time, there's not a fire with dancers or anyone else. Collin goes into the teepee. The same thing happens again. Collin sees the wolf and the knife in his hand. The wolf growls and steps to him and realizes he's not afraid of the wolf. He's afraid of the numbers that shimmer in its fur. He remembers his dream, where he was the wolf. He shouts "I am the wolf" suddenly, the fear is gone. He steps to the wolf, says to himself "As brave as a brave" and then cuts the rope from its hind leg. The wolf runs off into the forest, free, and Collin thinks he, too, is free.

He feels like he's floating in space and then feels a sharp slap on his face. He opens his eyes. The old Native American man is standing over him. Collin asks if he had slapped him. The man says yes, and to stop thinking of him as an old Native American man. His name, he says, is Henry. The two leave the teepee and Henry tells Collins mom and Ronnie "He passed." A brief conversation takes place and Collin realizes he's not counting letters. He can't wait to talk to people. 

Debbie's comments: I am unsettled by this "test," passing/failing it, and Collin having won the battle and now, is no longer having the counting issue. 

In the final chapter Collin finds a letter from Orenda. She tells him that she has made her transformation and that he's made his from dork to brave. She wants him to keep reading and to talk. She says he has realized he still counts but that he does not need to blurt out the number unless he wants to do so. In the last pages, Collin writes a letter to the reader (he did this in chapter three, too). It says that he was gonna write a book and tell the world about Orenda. He wants people to know that magic exists in everyone. He ends the letter, signing off as "Collin, (THE BRAVE)." 

Debbie's comments: As I noted at the very top of this close read of The Brave, I felt the uncritical use of "brave" was a problem. Rather than push back on the idea that a Native person with courage is "a brave," the author has affirmed the problematic use of the word. 


As I read the book a second time to do this analysis, I saw that the book was being discussed (primarily by Ojibwe women) on Facebook. Someone tagged Ojibwe writer and scholar, David Treuer, and he participated in the discussion, briefly. I shared some of my concerns because mine align with Treuer's. As noted above, his review appeared in the New York Times. 

There is a Native newspaper in Minneapolis, called "The Circle: Native American News and Arts." I read that review, too. It is titled "The Brave" is compelling, but could do without the stereotypes.  Because Bird's book got a couple of starred reviews from mainstream review journals (most reviewers and staff at the journals are white) and is on a couple of "Best Of 2020 book lists, I think people agree that it is compelling, but they did not see the stereotypes the Circle's reviewer, David Treuer, and I, saw. 

And I was astonished to see that on his social media accounts, James Bird (the author) is sharing a collage that consists of a screen capture of The Circle's masthead, the first four words of the review title ("The Brave is compelling), a photo of the book, and a photo of himself. That is a misrepresentation of the review. 

Conversations are on-going. There will be a Zoom book club gathering to discuss the book. I asked if I could join. The answer was yes. James Bird asked if he could join, too. He too received a yes. 

There's a lot more research/analysis that can and should be done, particularly on depictions of Collin's counting issue (though "OCD" is not mentioned in the book, that is how the author describes it elsewhere) and ALS. I am more aware than I was, prior to 2020, that some of what I write in my reviews is anti-Black, or ableist. I'm reading, studying, thinking, and working hard to be more aware. Please do not hesitate to tell me when you see it! 

As is clear, I do not recommend James Bird's middle grade novel, The Brave, and I hope that my analysis is helpful to anyone who is trying to understand what I see when I do my work. If there is confusing summary/analysis above, let me know and I'll revise. Clarity is so important.