Friday, May 12, 2023


I begin with a sample of the book covers for Duncan's Stranger With My Face, overlaid with the red X that I use to signal that a book is not recommended. There are several different covers, which means the book sold well enough to get reissued with a new cover.

In her article for the May/June 2023 issue of Horn Book Magazine, Angeline Boulley talks about Lois Duncan's Stranger With My Face. She wrote:
The first time I read a story that featured a Native American protagonist, I was a high school senior. It was a significant experience for me. As an Ojibwe teen, I hadn't realized my absence in books until that moment. In Stranger with My Face by Lois Duncan, teen Laurie learns she was adopted as a baby and that she is Native American. I was excited and intrigued to dive into the mystery-thriller in which Laurie's twin sister, Lia, reconnects with her via astral projection. 

My excitement quickly subsided, to be replaced by something unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I didn't have the words at the time to convey exactly why I felt so disappointed and, even, embarrassed. Now--as an adult with a twenty-year career striving to improve public education for and about Native Americans--I understand that the story lacked authentic representation and perpetuated stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. 
Boulley's article pushed me to take a look at Stranger with My Face. Previously, I've read Season of the Two Heart (published in 1964). Both are deeply problematic. As an adult, Angeline Boulley is able to describe an emotion she had experienced as a Native teen. That emotion? Embarrassment. What do non-Native teens feel today, when they read the book? What do non-Native readers feel? What do non-Native readers take away from the book?

Today, I listened to a podcast about the book (recorded 4 years ago) by two adults who discuss books they read as teens. They are clearly enthralled by the book and have no idea the Native content is problematic. 

Here's the book description:
Laurie Stratton finally has everything a sixteen-year-old could ever want. But just as her perfect summer comes to a close, things start to unravel when her boyfriend insists he saw her out with another guy-when Laurie was really home sick! More mysterious sightings convince Laurie someone very real is out there, watching her. . . .

The truth reveals a long-lost sister who has spent the years growing bitter and dangerous. She has learned how to haunt Laurie, but the visits soon become perilous. She wants something from Laurie-her life!
Stranger with My Face was first published by Little Brown in 1981. It was named an ALA Best Books for Young Adults and as the covers above show, it did very well. It was republished in 2011, with some edits to the content and an interview with Duncan, done by young adult author Jenny Han. 

Han asks Duncan about the Native content (p. 291):
Jenny: The glimpse into Navajo culture is fascinating, and in the end, it's what saves Laurie. Do you have any ties to Navajo or Native American culture?

Lois: I spent most of my adult life in New Mexico, surrounded by Navajo culture. 
That's it: Lois lived in New Mexico, "surrounded" by Navajo culture. In several places, I read that she lived in Albuquerque starting in the early 1960s. The Navajo Nation is not in Albuquerque. There were, and are, Navajo people in Albuquerque, but Duncan said "Navajo culture." As I sit here, my thoughts on "Navajo culture" are of Navajo art forms like sandpaintings and woven rugs. What does she mean? 

Let's take a look at the Navajo content in her book. I lay it out by page number with content or description of content on that page, followed by my comments in italics. The story is set on the east coast, mostly on an island. The protagonist is a seventeen-year-old teen named Laurie. Her boyfriend is Gordon. 

p. 23

I didn't have the sort of looks you found just everywhere. Gordon kidded sometimes that I could be part Indian with my dark coloring, high cheekbones and almond eyes. "Bedroom eyes," he called them, meaning they were sexy. My father referred to them as "alien" because they were the same shape as the eyes he gave to the maidens from other worlds in his novels. When I looked at my parents--both of them so fair--and at Neal and Meg with their light blue eyes and freckled noses, I wondered sometimes how I had managed to be born into such a family.

Deb's Comments
Dark coloring and high cheekbones? Those are stereotypical markers. And, those "bedroom eyes" bother me. The phrase sexualizes a teen girl. The book was first written in 1981 and revised in 2011. I suppose some women would be ok with that term in 1981 but in 2011? Surely not! When the 2011 edition was done, that passage could have been edited out, but apparently neither Duncan or her editor thought it was a problem. It is, however, a significant problem. Native women experience violence from non-Native men at alarming rates. 

Laurie's dad calls her eyes "alien." He's a sci-fi writer and uses that word to describe "maidens from other worlds." He means other planets, but reading those words hits me in a different way. As we come to find out, Laurie's birth mother was Navajo. The adoption part of the story took place in Gallup, New Mexico--which borders the Navajo Nation's reservation. Laurie is definitely not from "another world" but the white family that adopted her? We could say they are from another world. But really, her dad's use of the word is awkward and ought to be have taken out of the revised edition.

p. 52

Before we get to page 52, Laurie's friends, Laurie's family, and Laurie start to sense and see someone/something that looks like Laurie. 

Meanwhile, a new family has moved to the island. It includes a girl named Helen. They've moved from Tuba City, Arizona, where Helen's parents taught at an Indian boarding school. Laurie starts to become friends with Helen. Here's their conversation on page 52:
Helen told me about a boy named Luis Nez.
That was the name he used at school," she said. "I wasn't allowed to know his Indian name. The Navajos are a private people. Luis was my boyfriend, but there was so much that he couldn't share with me." She paused, and then raised her hand to touch the tiny turquoise carving at her throat. "When I left, he gave me this." 
"What is it?" I asked, hoisting myself up on one elbow so as to see better.
"A fetish," Helen said. "It's an eagle, predator of the air. When Luis learned we were coming east by plane, he carved it for me. Turquoise is the Navajo good-luck stone. A turquoise eagle protects the wearer against evil spirits from the skies."
Deb's Comments 

Duncan tells us that Helen's family has moved from Tuba City, Arizona which is within the borders of the Navajo Nation. It is likely that the boarding school her parents taught at is Tuba City Boarding School. That's fine, but what about the passage about his Indian name? All we really get from that is that Navajos are kind of mysterious. 

Remember that Duncan told Han that she was surrounded by Navajo culture? Duncan was a white woman (she died in 2016). When Duncan died, people offered tributes to her body of writing, especially for the crime, gothic, supernatural, and horror stories she wrote for teen readers. She told Jenny Han in the interview that she experienced astral projection herself (more on that later) several years after the book came out when her daughter was murdered.  

Duncan didn't have to depict Laurie as being Native. Laurie could have been white. Why did Duncan depict her as Navajo (actually, Laurie's birth mother was Navajo and her birth father was white)? To some readers it might seem cool, or as Han said "fascinating" but if the reader is Native or Navajo in particular, it is not cool. 

When Laurie first saw Lia (her twin), Lia is a scary, ghost-like image. On page 65, Laurie learns that she was adopted. Laurie's parents had gone to New Mexico to adopt a baby. They saw twin babies. Her mother held and liked Laurie, but not Lia. When she held Lia, she felt that the baby was strange and that she would not be able to love her so they did not adopt Lia. Her placements in foster homes never worked out. Much later in the story we learn that Lia has malevolent motives, driven by jealousy and she uses astral projection to harm others. 

The passage on page 52 has things in it that Duncan depicts as cultural: a name and how it is/is not used, and a stone and its significance within a culture. Living in Albuquerque, Duncan would probably know about stores where Native art is sold. Carved stone figures (fetishes) were, and are, quite popular items. She may have asked a shop keeper about the significance of turquoise (the stone) and eagles (the fetish Helen has been given). In this book, that fetish is a key plot device. Duncan needed an item that would fit with the astral projection plot. In the interview with Han, Duncan likens the fetish to rosary beads or bread and wine in Communion. 

I wish that Duncan had depicted Laurie and Lia as white characters and used rosary beads instead of making them Navajo. In choosing to use Navajo culture, she casts Navajo people as mysterious and, well, evil. Angeline Boulley felt embarrassed and I bet Navajo readers feel that, too. 

p. 53

When Laurie tells Helen that people see her in places she wasn't actually at, Helen asks her if she was using astral projection:
"Using what?" I said in bewilderment.
"You know--sending your mind out from your body? Luis's father used to be able to do it." She paused. "If you had, you'd have known it. It's something you have to work at."
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said. What did Luis's father do?"
"I'm not sure exactly," Helen said. "Luis didn't talk much about it. He seemed to take it for granted. The medicine men could do it whenever they wanted, I think, and some of the others too. The way Luis described it, the person has to will himself out of his body. It takes tremendous concentration."
Debbie's Comments:

Above (through Helen), Duncan is introducing readers to astral projection as something that a Navajo medicine man does. Laurie's bewilderment and responses further Duncan's depiction of Navajo's as mysterious. 

As the story continues, Helen and Laurie talk about astral projection, and Laurie tries to find out more information about her twin. Helen and Laurie grow closer, as friends. But then something happens to Helen. She falls, hits her head, and ends up in the hospital. It becomes clear that Lia is responsible for Helen's fall. That makes Helen the most recent person who Lia hurt out of jealousy. The turquoise eagle necklace plays a prominent role towards the end of the story. Megan (Laurie's little sister) throws it at Lia who has occupied Laurie's body. On contact, Lia is driven from Laurie's body and Laurie retakes control of her body. 

p. 97

Lia lived with their mother for a short time before she died. Laurie remembers asking Lia (who was visiting Laurie via astral projection) to tell her about their mother. Lia tells her that their mother never smiled because the world had been cruel to her. In her telling, Laurie says Lia creates "some sort of fairy tale from another place and time." Laurie can't recall Lia's precise words but remembers it this way:
There was once a young Navajo girl, Lia said, so lovely that all the men in her village wanted to wed her, and she was married at the age of thirteen to the son of the Chief. So, without having known girlhood, she settled down to being a wife. Then one day when she was seventeen, the same age we are now, a trader came through the village in a pickup truck buying turquoise and silver jewelry. He was handsome and fair-complexioned with hair the color of sunshine, and the girl took one look at him and fell violently in love. He asked her to come away with him. She told him that was impossible. But suddenly, when she realized that he was really leaving, she climbed into the cab beside him and rode away with him, leaving everything she owned behind in her husband's hogan. 
"I belong to you now," she told the trader. "I will love you and stay beside you until the day I die."
But the trader was a casual man who was used to willing girls and good times, and after several months with his Indian maiden he grew tired of her. 
"Go back to your people," he said. "That's where you belong."
"I can't," the girl told him. "My husband would never take me back. Besides, I am going to bear your child."
"That's your problem, not mine," said the trader.
She thought he was joking. But that night he did not come home to her. She sat for three days in their apartment, waiting, until finally she had to realize that he had left her. In the top drawer of his bureau she found an envelope with money in it and a note that told her to put the baby up for adoption. Enclosed was the address of the Hastings Agency.
The "baby" turned out to be twin girls with the trader's fine feathers. They had lighter skin than their mother's, but had inherited her hair and eyes. Obeying the instructions in the note, the young mother took them to the agency, but because they were of mixed blood they were classified as "hard to place." 
"Won't your family help you raise them?" the director, Mrs. Hastings, asked. "The Navajo people always take care of their own."
The girl explained that she could not return to the reservation with half-breed children.
"The people would drive me out," she said. "I am married to the son of the Chief."
Laurie's telling of the conversation with Lia continues, with Lia describing their mother's attempts to raise her alone. They lived in one low-cost apartment after another, and that their mother supported them by cleaning houses. Sometimes she'd take Lia to them. They were beautiful. At the end of the day, Lia and their mother would go back to their apartment, eat, and go to bed. She was miserable. She'd imagine the ocean, that their mother had seen when she went searching for the trader. Laurie asks when she had time to do that, and Lia told her that their mother would just lie still on the bed and "go." Laurie realizes that their mother also had the power to do astral projection. One place she looked for the trader was in California because Indian jewelry was in demand there. 

Debbie's Comments

In Lia's story to Laurie, we see outsider writing. Duncan has a Navajo character--Lia--speaking about their origin but she sounds like a white girl telling a European fairy tale. "There was once" as the opener kicks it off. It continues with notions of beauty making a Navajo person much-desired by others. And what the heck... Lia uses "Indian maiden"? That grates! And, being married at thirteen? Jean Craighead George did that, too, in Julie of the Wolves. 

White traders did go through Native communities, buying items they would later sell and it is reasonable to think that Lia and Laurie's mother fell in love with one but I don't know about her calling her own children "half breed" and I don't know if "the people" would reject her. Calling them "the people" also grates. She's talking about her own community. Again--this is supposed to be a Native voice, but it sure doesn't sound like one to me. I also wonder about "the Chief." The Diné (Navajo) people use "chairman" to refer to their leader. The word "chief" was used to refer to Manuelito but that was in the 1800s. Duncan's "chief" sounds more like the romanticized kind of thing that outsiders come up with. 


Summing up: I read the whole book more than once to do this write up and analysis of significant passages in the Stranger With My Face. I think I've done all I need to. I wish Duncan had not depicted Laurie and Lia as Navajo. It wasn't necessary for a horror story about twins and astral projection. In fact, when a film version of it was made in 2009, Laurie and her sister are not Navajo. Have you seen the film? Was there a necklace in it that saves Laurie in the end? Objects do have significance, within any peoples' spirituality or its religious ways of being, but in this book, something that *might* be significant to Navajo people sounds more like holy water to me. In so many ways, this book fails. It is fiction, and people will defend it being on shelves because of that. I hope my "not recommended" label encourages some librarians to reconsider it.