Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Not Recommended: THE LEGEND OF SKYCO: SPIRIT QUEST by Jennifer Frick-Ruppert

A reader asked me about The Legend of Skyco: Spirit Quest by Jennifer Frick-Ruppert, due out on April 4 of 2017 from Amber Jack Publishing. I was able to get an ARC. Here's the synopsis:
Skyco, an Algonquin boy, is heir to the great chief Menatonon, but he has much to learn before he can take his place within the tribe. He studies with the shaman Roncommock, who teaches him how to enter the spirit world and communicate with spirits and other animals, while he also learns practical skills of hunting, fishing, and starting a fire from other men in his village. But learning to throw a spear with an atlatl and shoot arrows with a bow are just precursors to the ultimate test, the husquenaugh, when he is challenged to use his hard-earned skills to survive the harrowing life-or-death ritual.
I am sharing detailed summary/comments for chapters 1-3, followed by general comments.

Chapter One: The Raid

The main character is Skyco. He's part of a war raid and has just missed being shot by an arrow. He's pulled to the ground. At first he thinks it is the enemy, but it turns out to be Roncommock, the shaman who is accompanying him. Skyco and Roncommock are Algonquin and speak Algonquian. The enemy tribe speaks a different language. It sounds like snakes hissing, so, the Algonquins call them the rattlesnake people, the Mangoaks.

As Skyco and Roncommock run to safety, hiding behind trees, Skyco sees a snake and, frightened, leaps up high. Soon, Roncommock tells Skyco they're safe. He's shot the warrior who had been shooting at them. He teases Skyco about how high he jumped when he saw that snake, and that maybe Skyco can turn that jump into a (p. 4):
"...good move for our next dance. Do you think you could teach the others? The snake jump?"
No longer worried about the enemy, the two head on back to their village, Chowanook. Skyco hears a noise. It is a bear. It knocks Roncommock down, mauling his shoulder and thigh. Skyco has no weapon to use, so decides to roar at the bear. That roar stops the bear from attacking Roncommock.

Skyco roars again and the bear goes away. Roncommock is bleeding heavily. Skyco takes off his loincloth and wraps it around Roncommock's thigh. He keeps an eye out for moss he can use to help with the bleeding. He also finds a brown puffball, which has dust that Skyco sprinkles on the wound. As they make their way, Roncommock leans heavily on Skyco.

Fearful of being in the woods alone at night when predators might smell the bloody wound, Skyco tells Roncommock he'll run ahead to the village telling Roncommock (p. 12):
"That bear was powerful and we need the medicine man's magic to help restore your spirit while it fights that of the bear."
Skyco realizes he is naked without his loincloth, but that it will be faster to travel naked. When he gets to the village, he goes right to Chief Menatonon and tells him what happened. The Chief assigns two "braves" (p. 13) to go with Skyco. They bring Roncommock back for the medicine man, Eracano, to work on, but he's lost a lot of blood. Eracano does all he can, but (p. 18):
"it is up to Roncommock to return to us from the world of the spirits." 
The next day, Roncommock is better and tells Skyco what he learned while he was in the spirit world, fighting the bear's spirit.

He tells Skyco that the bear is the strongest of animals, but wise, too. He knows when to fight, and when not to fight. This bear is Skyco's "guardian spirit" (p. 22). The bear has been looking out for Skyco all along. Its spirit knew that someone was trying to hurt Skyco. When it saw Roncommock, it thought Roncommock was the person trying to hurt Skyco, so the spirit of the bear told the bear to attack Roncommock. Roncommock explains why the bear made that mistake. Because they were on a war raid, he hadn't been wearing his shaman clock and medicine pouch. Instead, he was wearing a bow and arrow and was wearing a warrior's loincloth.

When Skyco roared at the bear, it got the spirit bear's attention. It realized that it had told the bear to attack the wrong person. So, the bear itself went away but its spirit continued to fight with Roncommock's spirit, in the spirit world. That fight continued until (p. 22):
"the bear stripped me of my physical being and searched my spirit in the spirit world"
 and realized that Roncommock was the Skyco's protector.

Now that Roncommock knows the bear is Skyco's guardian spirit, he tells Skyco that he must begin his training in the spirit world (p. 22):
It is very unusual that the bear recognized you so early, even before your spirit quest. The spirits are ready for you now and we will oblige them by beginning with learning the way of the spirits before you learn the ways of the warrior or the hunter. You must enter upon the sacred quest as soon as the spirits decree it, even before you enter the husquenaugh. Your training will differ from that of the other boys who will undergo the next husquenaugh as you pass from childhood to adult. You have more to learn." 
Skyco returns to his mother's wigwam. His mother's brother, Chief Menatonon is there, waiting for him. He was sitting on a mat and asks Skyco to sit, too (p. 24):
As I sat down, I carefully folded my legs so that each foot was underneath a thigh and rested my hands atop my knees, palms down, adopting the position I was taught.
Menatonon tells Skyco he is proud of what he's done, and that he is proud to call him his heir. Menatonon gives Skyco a new loincloth and tells him that he knows Skyco will succeed in the husquenaugh. Skyco admires the quality of the loincloth and then realizes that Menatonon said husquenaugh. Two of Menatonon's most trusted men enter the wigwam and the four go outside, where most of the village members are gathered. Menatonon raises his hands and says (p. 25):
"You see before you my kin and recognized heir. I submit Skyco for the next husquenaugh. If he succeeds and becomes a man, he will be your next chief."  
Everyone inclines their heads in agreement. That night, Skyco thinks about the "grueling ritual" (p. 26) that will test his body and mind to see if he is strong and worthy enough to become an adult. If he fails, he cannot become an adult. "To fail is to die" (p. 26).

My comments:

(1) In her author's note, the author says that Skyco was a real person, kidnapped as a child, by Sir Ralph Lane, who led an expedition to Roanoke Island in 1585-1586.  I found references to "Skiko" in several sources. This verifies that the author based this story on the life of a real person. 

Right away, I am concerned. The author, a non-Native woman writing in the 2010s, is imagining what a Native boy of the 1580s (and his family and members of his tribal community) would do, say, and think. As far as I know, we do not have records of these Native peoples' speech or thinking. The author has nothing to go on.  There are some resources (like Lawson, who she cites in the back matter), but they're written by people who were not of that tribe. They were Europeans. They brought their non-Native lens to what they were writing. What we have, in essence, is a Native people of the 1500s, whose ways of that time were recorded by Europeans, and now, a non-Native writer of the 2010s, imagining their lives. In short, we have an outsider perspective on top of hundreds of years of time. 

(2) Several words in chapter one signal outsider voice and, by extension, a lack of understanding of words and what they convey.  

First is the use of "braves" for men. I noted it once but it occurs more than once. Dictionaries often define brave (as a noun) that is dated, and, is "an American Indian warrior." Synonyms are warrior, soldier, or fighter. My goal, in the writing I do about words used to describe Native people, is to push writers to stop using "brave" or "squaw" ("squaw" is not used in this book) because in addition to being dated, those two words (there are others, too) invoke an Indian man or woman--but with qualities that mark them as very distinct from a English man or woman, or a French man or woman. Amongst those qualities are ones that frame Native peoples as not-quite-human. More... primitive. More... barbaric. They, in short, otherize Native peoples, making them exotic and markedly different from non-Native men and women. 

I also highlighted shaman. That, too, is used by writers as if all Native peoples, everywhere, use that word. We don't. 

(3) In that passage where Roncommock tells Skyco that he can make a new dance step out of that frightened leap when he saw a snake is troubling, too. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of the significance of Native dance. Many of our dances are prayerful in nature, or, done in preparation for a gathering or event. It may be helpful for you to think of prayerful activities or moments within your own religious practice. Would something like leaping into the air be easily turned into part of what you do, in this religious activity? 

(4) When I read that detailed passage about how Skyco sat on the mat, I did it, just to see what that might look like. Sure enough, it is sitting "Indian style" without saying that. I'm glad Frick-Ruppert didn't say "Indian style" but why go into that detail? Why can't Skyco just sit down?! 

(5) Most of chapter one is about that bear, the spirit of that bear, how they determine that the bear is Skyco's "guardian spirit," and then Skyco's anxiety over the husquenaugh. I find all of that especially troubling, for the same reason I noted in (1), above. Frick-Ruppert's story is about real people and their ways of being. As I noted above, what are the sources anyone can use, to accurately depict the ways of this particular nation? In that back matter, Frick-Ruppert references "the Chowanoke Indian Nation" (p. 292) that is trying to get federal recognition. What, I wonder, would they think of what she's written?

Chapter Two: The Black Drink

Skyco and his friend, Ascopo, are talking about the husquenaugh. Ascopo's mother submitted his name, too. The two boys will go through it, together. While they're out, Roncommock approaches them and says that the bear guardian is particularly interested in Skyco, and that he is to move into Roncommock's wigwam and begin his learnings (p. 28):
The spirits have decreed that you undergo the black drink ritual as a preparation for the spirit quest.
Roncommock tells Ascopo to go, right away, to Memeo, who will do his training. Roncommock tells Skyco to take off his new loincloth because the black drink they take will get soiled during the ritual. Both drink it and almost immediately the contents of Skyco's stomach and bowels are purged. They do this a second time and then go to the river to clean up. When they get to Roncommock's wigwam, he shaves Skyco's head on one side and trims the length of it on the other side.  Then they slather bear grease, tinted red, and then rest.

Roncommock wakes Skyco. It is time to start. He is to inhale tobacco smoke that Roncommock sprinkles on a fire. If his mind is relaxed and open, the spirits will come. The spirits are powerful. They could strike a man dead, or ignore him completely. Skyco is a bit anxious but remembers the relaxation techniques his mother taught him. Soon, he feels as peaceful as a baby, and sees his mother. She touches him and points toward something out of view.

That startles him. He wakes, and Roncommock tells him that his spirit is strong, that he hasn't been taught how to call the spirits, and yet, they came to him anyway. Skyco tells Roncommock he only felt his mother, touching him as if he was a baby in her arms, and that she had pointed. This, Roncommock says, means that the spirits have recognized him. They didn't reveal his quest, yet, but his mother, pointing, means they are ready to receive and teach him.

They leave the wigwam to have the evening meal with the people of the village. Skyco notices things he didn't notice, before. Walking by his mother's wigwam he sees the paintbrush by their door. It is her spirit guide. Men have animal spirit guides, but sometimes, women receive a plant guide from the spirit world. She is the only woman in the village with a spirit guide. She can tell that he has been accepted by the spirits and brings him water with sassafras leaves. He takes some into his mouth to clean his mouth and the words he is going to say, spits it out and thanks his mother and family for all they've given him. He bows low before her, and then takes another sip of the water, spits it out, and turns to Roncommock and says he wishes to join his household.

My comments:

As with chapter one, there is a lot in chapter two that feels to me that it is created by the author. Creating the religious ceremonies of others makes me uneasy for so many reasons. It feels sacrilegious and presumptuous. This is the sort of content that New Age practitioners will use as authentic ways to get in contact with a spirit world. 

An aspect that bothers me is the gaze on the loincloth, on peoples faces, and their bodies. In chapter two, Skyco removes his loincloth so he doesn't soil it when the contents of his stomach and bowels are purged. 

Chapter Three: The Day I Became An Ant

Roncommock takes Skyco for his first lesson. They go to a field where Roncommock slowly eased himself to the ground (p. 42):
... crossed his legs, folded his feet under his thighs, and placed his hands on his knees in the appropriate position of respect.
He tells Skyco to sit, too, but yells when Skyco nearly steps on an anthill. Skyco sits. He's given some herb water to cleanse his mouth and must wipe some over his eyes, nose, and ears so they, too are purified. Then he drinks some sacred water that will help him contact the spirits. Roncommock sprinkles some powdered uppowoc over the ant mound. The ants run about, picking it up. Roncommock tells Skyco to focus on them, and to try to reach one with his mind. He does, twice, and finds himself drawn to one, which is Roncommock. He scolds Skyco for thinking of the ants as male. All the ants are female. Skyco shifts his pronouns and thinks "she" rather than "he" as they move about. An enemy ant arrives and a battle between the two ant tribes ensues.

In the clean up of the battle, Skyco learns many lessons about how the ant colony is similar to his own village structure. One of the cleaner ants approaches him and tries to identify him, based on his scent. Since he's new to the ant hill, he doesn't have a strong scent. He's afraid the cleaner ant is about to call others to come and drive him out, but realizes he can lift his abdomen and squeeze, emitting a stinky odor. The cleaner ant backs away. Eventually, Skyco and Roncommock return to their own bodies and then to the village.

My comments: 

Here we have another instance in which someone's manner of sitting is carefully described. And again, this manner of sitting conveys respect. I would love to see a source for this! 

I understand the concept of training, of learning by watching others--be they insects or animals--but going into the ants, being an ant... that reminds me more of the Animorphs series than anything else. Perhaps the stinky odor is meant to bring a bit of humor to this story but given that Frick-Ruppert is asking us to think of this as part of a spiritual quest, I find it offensive. Please note that my offense is not that someone farts. I love Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi and have gifted it to children. My offense is that the author--in this imagined sacred space of a Native people--injects this particular kind of humor. 


I finished reading the book and have many passages in chapters marked. I am commenting on the more significant ones, here.


The overarching aspect of this book is spirits, the spirit world, communicating with the spirit world, spirit quests, and having a spirit animal or a spirit guide. Indeed, we see that in the subtitle "Spirit Quest."

Throughout the book, Skyco interacts with the spirit world. For each of the interactions, he will end up with an item to wear that will remind him that these creatures are his spirit guides. In chapter two, he was with ants. He can't really have something about ants on his body, so, he'll carry a bit of the sand from an ant pile in his medicine bag. Skyco is bit by a shark. He learns that a shark is one of his guides, so he wears a necklace of shark teeth to remind him of that.

There's a part where Skyco and three other boys in training kills a deer. They eat its organs, thereby "taking on the power of the buck" (p. 215). You've seen that sort of idea, too, right? Indians eat this or that animal, gaining that animal's special qualities.

All this sure as heck dovetails with people think they know about Indians, and it dovetails with tons of stories about Indians and what Indians do, but is it accurate?! And if it is, should it be written about in a book for children--a book written by an outsider to whatever nation the book is about? (My answer: NO.)

The Legend

In one of the chapters, Skyco tells Roncommock about visions he's had. Roncommock can't interpret any of this for him until after Skyco completes the husquenaugh, but as Skyco is telling him about what he saw, Roncommock gets up, walks around, and says to himself "could he be the one?" (p. 200).

We aren't told what "the one" means, but, it sounds like the author is developing this story in a way that Skyco is going to be--as the title suggests--a legend. What Skyco saw in that part of the story is white people who will be coming to their lands. They won't understand boundaries, Roncommock tells Skyco. But, Skyco's training is important. He has spirit guides from the earth (the ant), the water (fish/shark) the sky (falcon) and land (bear).

Towards the end of the story in the husquenaugh, we learn that Skyco will be a shaman and a chief. The others exclaim over that power and standing. The book ends with Skyco emerging from the husquenaugh. There, is, however, a second book in the works.

Closing Remarks: Not recommended!

As I noted in my comments to chapter one, I am concerned with the ways that Frick-Ruppert imagines the Native people in this story. She's relying on very old sources, written by Europeans, whose interpretations of what they saw then, in the 1500s, are--in fact--white Europeans who felt superior to the Indigenous peoples of what came to be known as the United States. There were differences, yes, but notions of superiority are highly subjective. Romanticizing anyone is no good, for anyone, least of all children.

Most Native peoples do not write accounts that delve deeply into our respective spiritual or religious ceremonies. We guard all of that from people who want to appropriate it, or use it in ways that are harmful to us. Did Frick-Ruppert know that? Did her editor know?

Bottom line: I do not recommend Jennifer Frick-Ruppert's The Legend of Skyco: Spirit Quest. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Can Kiera Drake's THE CONTINENT be revised?

Editors note, 2/19/18: See my review of the revised book

Kiera Drake's The Continent was slated for release in January of 2017 from Harlequin Teen. 

Questions from readers, however, prompted Harlequin Teen to postpone it. They didn't say they were canceling it. Just postponing it, which means they are trying to... fix it. 

Can Drake revise The Continent so that it will, eventually, be released? 

My answer: no.  

I have an arc (advanced reader copy). I hope my review of that ARC is useful to the author, her editor, her publisher, and anyone else who is writing, editing, reviewing, or otherwise working with a book that depicts Native people.

Let's start with the synopsis:
"Have we really come so far, when a tour of the Continent is so desirable a thing? We've traded our swords for treaties, our daggers for promises--but our thirst for violence has never been quelled. And that's the crux of it: it can't be quelled. It's human nature." 
For her sixteenth birthday, Vaela Sun receives the most coveted gift in all the Spire--a trip to the Continent. It seems an unlikely destination for a holiday: a cold, desolate land where two "uncivilized" nations remain perpetually locked in combat. Most citizens lucky enough to tour the Continent do so to observe the spectacle and violence of war, a thing long banished in the Spire. For Vaela--a talented apprentice cartographer--the journey is a dream come true: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve upon the maps she's drawn of this vast, frozen land. 
But Vaela's dream all too quickly turns to a nightmare as the journey brings her face-to-face with the brutal reality of a war she's only read about. Observing from the safety of a heli-plane, Vaela is forever changed by the bloody battle waging far beneath her. And when a tragic accident leaves her stranded on the Continent, Vaela finds herself much closer to danger than she'd ever imagined. Starving, alone and lost in the middle of a war zone, Vaela must try to find a way home--but first, she must survive.
During the course of the story, we'll learn that the Spire is comprised of four nations: the West, the East, the South, and the North. 

Note: For each chapter below, summary is in plain text; my comments are in italics.

Chapter One

Chapter one opens with Vaela Sun's 16th birthday party in an ornate place in the Spire (a hundred million other people live there, too). Vaela has received three gifts from her parents. One is a ruby pendant on a gold chain that brings out the gold color of her hair. The second one is an elegantly framed map of the Continent that she drew based on her studies (she's a cartographer). The third gift is an official certificate of travel to the Continent. Trips to the Continent are very rare. There are only ten tours in a year, and only six guests on each tour.

My comments: Clearly, these are the most affluent people in this place called "the Spire." The name of the place embodies privilege. These two families are at the very top of that privilege.

Vaela and her parents dine with the Shaw's, who are highly placed in the Spire and used their influence to make the trip possible. At dinner, Vaela's father (Mr. Sun) and Mr. Shaw have this exchange (p. 15):
"Have you any thoughts, Mr. Shaw, about the natives on the Continent? I expect we shall see a good deal of fighting during our tour."
"I find them fascinating," says Mr. Shaw, leaning forward. I'm not as well-read on the natives as my boy Aaden here, but I think I favor the Topi. Seem a red-blooded sort--aggressive and primitive, they say."
"They are a popular favorite, to be sure," my father says. "Much more fearsome than the Aven'ei. I take no preference myself. But I admit, it will be interesting to see them at battle."
My comments: Prior to reading this book, I knew that other people who had read the ARC had identified the Topi as being representative of the Hopi Nation, and the Aven'ei as Japanese. My grandfather (now deceased) was Hopi, born and raised at one of the villages in Arizona. 

These wealthy white people, speaking of the Topi/Hopi as they do, is revolting. Native people, for these wealthy white people, are entertainment. When she wrote this book, did the author imagine that Native teens might read it? 

Vaela's mom (Mrs. Sun) was hoping they wouldn't see any bloodshed, but Aaden Shaw asks if there's any other reason to go to the Continent. Though there are spectacular landscapes, he says (p. 15),
"Let's be honest--it's not the scenery that has every citizen in the Spire clamoring to see the Continent. It's the war."
Mrs. Sun says she's not interested in seeing "natives slaughter one another" and Aaden presses her, asking her if she is prepared for it, because that is exactly what they will see. Mrs. Shaw says (p. 15):
"They've been railing at each other for centuries. I've never understood the fascination with it, myself. I'm right there with you, Mrs. Sun."
My comments: Did you take that idea--that these two peoples on the Continent have been at constant, bloody, war with each other for centuries--as fact? If so, I think it reflects the degree to which you've been taught to think about those who are labeled as primitive, less-than-human other.

Mr. Sun and Mr. Shaw talk about how, from the safety of the heli-plane, they can observe war. Mr. Shaw says (p. 16):
"We take for granted that the Spire is a place without such primitive hostilities--that we have transcended the ways of war in favor of peace and negotiation. To see the Topi and the Aven'ei in conflict is to look into our past--and to appreciate how far we have come."
Aaden wishes he could be on the ground and see the fighting up close, but Mr. Shaw prefers a safe distance from arrows and hatchets. Mrs. Sun thinks it is a "dreadful shame" they've not been able to sort out their differences, and Mrs. Shaw rolls her eyes (p. 16):
"I say let them kill each other. One day they'll figure out that war suits no one, or else they'll drive themselves to extinction. Either way, it makes no difference to me."
Mrs. Sun reminds them that they are people, but Mrs. Shaw says they're people without good sense to know there are civilized ways to solve disagreements. Mr. Shaw relies:
"Before the Four Nations united to become the Spire, the people of our own lands were just as brutal, ever locked in some conflict or another. And see how far we have come? There may be hope yet for the Topi and the Aven'ei." 
Later, Vaela's mother asks her if she'll be all right with the violence she'll see. Vaela replies (p. 17):
It's what they do Mother. You oughtn't be so concerned. I know what to expect--we've all read the histories. The natives fight, and fight, and fight some more. Over land or territory or whatever it is--I've never quite understood--the war goes on and on. It never changes."
My comments: This idea--of using people--to measure ones own progress towards "civilization" is more than just a story. At the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, exhibits featured living Native peoples. The goal was to show fair-goers different evolutionary stages that placed Native peoples at the savage end of the exhibit, and white people at the other. Another example of using Native people as an exhibit was Ishi.    

Chapter Two

The Shaws and the Suns board the plane. Mrs. Shaw is surprised with the small windows. Aaden tells her (p. 25):
"Don't worry, they're big enough. I expect you won't have any trouble watching the Topi chop the Aven'ei to pieces."
Mrs. Shaw looks at Mr. Shaw. She says Aaden's vulgarity is his fault, for giving him "all those books about the Continent."

The plane takes off. Later, looking out a window, Aaden sees four natives. Mrs. Shaw is thrilled and asks if they're Aven'ei or Topi (p. 31):
"They're Aven'ei," Aaden says. "The Topi don't live this far south or east. In any case, you can tell from their clothing--see how everything is sort of mute and fitted? The Topi are more ostentatious--they wear brighter colors, fringed sleeves, bone helmets--that sort of thing."
Mrs. Shaw thinks he's kidding about the helmets, but he says (p. 32):
"What better way to antagonize the Aven'ei than by flaunting the bones of their fallen comrades?" 
Mrs. Shaw goes on, saying that the Topi are vulgar and warmongering. She heard from a Mrs. Galfeather, that (p. 32-33):
"...there's nothing to the Topi but bloodlust. That's precisely the word she used: bloodlust. She says we know nothing else about them because there's naught else to know, and that they've bullied the Aven'ei for eons."
Aaden responds that they're not bullies but is interrupted by Mr. Shaw, who has noticed what he thinks are flags hanging from a bridge. They peer down and realize they're not flags, but bodies. Vaela watches...  (p. 33):
One of the strips swivels on its cable, and as it turns, I see the rotted face of a Topi warrior, his bone helmet shattered on one side, his arms bound tightly at the wrists."
My comments: Bloodlust. An echo of "blood thirsty" Indians. 

Chapter Three

Everyone is unsettled by what they saw. Vaela tells her dad she's fine. She thinks (p. 34):

The war between the natives is the stuff of legend--isn't it only natural to be curious about the morbid truth of things? Perhaps Aaden was right when he said that everyone has some interest in the conflict between the Topi and the Aven'ei--though my mother seems to be a rare exception to this rule.
I think the lot of us were simply unprepared to see anything macabre at that moment; we were so distracted and enthralled by our first view of the landscape, marveling at the unexpected appearance of the Aven'ei, and then... the bodies. Decayed and frightening and real. Unexpected. 
They all sit quietly, pretending not to be bothered. Vaela thinks it is easier to pretend a disinterest, rather than to admit how disturbing it was to see those bodies. Later, Aaden and Vaela talk about their safety at the Spire being a luxury they've earned after many centuries during which the Four Nations were at war. Aaden says (p. 36):
But have we really come so far, when a tour of the Continent is a desirable thing? We've traded our swords for treaties, our daggers for promises--but our thirst for violence has never been quelled. And that's the crux of it: it can't be quelled. 
Vaela's dad disagrees, saying that human nature compels them to seek peace, as they did in the Spire. The desire to see the natives at war on the Continent, he says, is just curiosity. Eventually they get to Ivanel, an island, which is their destination. Like their home at the Spire, the rooms at Ivanel are opulent. Everyone settles in for the night.

My comments: Aaden's remarks about war and violence as part of the human condition... what to make of that? 

Chapter Four

The plan is an airplane tour of the Continent. The steward of Ivanel is their tour guide, pointing out geography, where the fights are taking place, and that of the land masses of their planet, the Continent is the least populated. Its population is in decline due to warfare. They fly over an Aven'ei town, and then (p. 47):
Before long, the plane is headed north, and we fly over an expansive network of Topi villages. The architecture is different from that of the Aven'ei: cruder harsher, yet terribly formidible, even in the frozen, icy territory the Topi call home. The little towns, too, are much closer together than Aven'ei villages; I am reminded of an ant colony, with many chambers all connected together, working to support a single purpose. 
My comments: The description of the Topi villages confirms that they're based on the Hopi people. The Hopis in Arizona and the Pueblos in New Mexico are related. We're descendants of what is commonly called "cliff dwellers." Here's an aerial photo that sounds precisely like what Vaela is describing:

Pueblo Bonito is in Chaco Canyon. It is one of many sites like that, in the Southwest. For a long time, the National Park Service called them homes of the Anasazi--who had disappeared--but today, that error is gone. These are all now regarded as homes of Ancestral Puebloans. Vaela, and perhaps Kiera Drake, look upon them and thinks of ants. Insects. Need I say how offensive that is? 

The plane gets low enough for Vaela to see the villagers, who are "singularly dark of hair, with beautiful bronzed skin" (p. 47).

My comments: That's one of the (many) passages that needed some work. The Topi village is in the icy, frozen north. How, I wonder, can she see the skin color? Later we're going to read about their clothing for this climate. 

Aaden is drawn to the buildings, exclaiming (p. 47):
"Look at the paint! It must be sleet and ice nearly all year round, yet the buildings are blood red, sunshine yellow--incredible!"
The tour continues. They come upon a clearing where a battle is happening. Vaela looks out the window and is taken by the blood, everywhere, on the stark white of the land. Topi men decapitate an Aven'ei man, and then hurl the severed head up towards the plane. 

My comments: Though the amount of space Drake gives to the scene is just over a page in length, her description makes it loom large. It feels gratuitous, too. Intended, I think, for us to remember how brutal war is--but especially how brutal the Topi are. 

Chapter Five

Back at Ivanel, Vaela grasps the violence in a way she had not, before. She understands the difference between spectacle and death. Rather than go up in the plane again, Vaela and Aaden will go on a walking tour, led by the steward. His name is Mr. Cloud. He is a Westerner and has "beautiful dark skin" and "blue eyes so pale they are nearly white" (p. 55). Aaden and Vaela talk about the battle. Recalling history she says (p. 59):
The whole thing was dreadful. And to think, all those years ago, each was offered a place as a nation of the Spire if only their quarrels could be set aside. But they chose dissension. They chose death and blood and perpetual hostility. Why?
Aaden tells her that the Aven'ei wanted to unite with the Spire but the Topi did not (p. 59):
"It was the Topi who refused--they wanted nothing to do with our people from the very first; we were never able to establish even the simplest trade with them." He scuffs his foot along the side of the rock and shakes his head. "It was different with the Aven'ei. They traded peacefully for decades with the East and the West--right up until the Spire was formed."
Vaela wonders what the Aven'ei could possibly have, that the people of the Spire would want. Aaden chides her but she goes on, saying they are such a primitive culture. Aaden tells her that all things aren't measured in gold, that it was Aven'ei art and culture that Spire people desired. He reminds her of all the things in the Spire that are clearly influenced by Aven'ei aesthetic. Vaela wonders what the Aven'ei might have received in trade with the Spire. Weapons, she wonders, that might help them fight? Aaden tells her that the Aven'ei adopted the language of the Spire. 

He also tells her that when the Continent was discovered 270 years ago, the Four Nations made a treaty amongst themselves that prohibited them from giving weapons to anyone on the Continent. There was trade, however, for a while. The East got lumber from the Aven'ei, and gave the Aven'ei agricultural wealth (crops and cattle). Vaela wonders why the Aven'ei didn't join the Four Nations. Aaden tells her that part of the treaty said that, in order to join, they would have to stop being a warring country. If they did that, the Topi would massacre them. 

My comment: In each passage about the Topi and the Aven'ei, we see more and more that of the two, it is the Topi who are most primitive. 

Chapter Six

The next day, the group gets on the plane again for another tour. Something goes wrong. Vaela's dad puts her in a safety pod. The plane crashes.

Chapter Seven

The pod lands in snow. After the third day, Vaela sets off, hoping to get to Avanel. At the end of the chapter, she's exhausted. Sitting against a tree, she hears what she thinks is the rescue plane. 

Chapter Eight

Vaela gets up and runs towards the sound, then to a field. At the far end, she sees "a Topi warrior" bent over in the snow, a hatchet and dead squirrels beside him. He doesn't see her, so she decides to run into the field and wave at the plane. She does, but another Topi does see her. He's got red and yellow paint on his face and a quiver of arrows on his back. "The warrior's expression" is one of curiosity, not fierce. He calls to the other one. She runs, an arrow whizzes past her. She falls. He catches her, ties her hands together, rolls her over onto her back and looks into her face. His breath reeks of fish and decay as he speaks to her. The other warrior joins them. One jabs an arrow into her thigh. He hits her and she passes out. 

My comments: Drake's use of "warrior" when she could have said "man" adds to the overall depiction of the Topi as warlike. That first guy? He was hunting. We don't know about the second one. But having his breath smell of decay... Drake is slowly but surely making the Topi out to be less than human. 

Chapter Nine

Vaela comes to. She's on the ground on her back. The first Topi warrior she saw is with her. He grins at her; she notes his teeth, "blackened by whatever root he is chewing" (p. 88). He gives her some meat and berries. The other one returns later. Using a knife he draws a map in the dirt. She shows him where the Spire is. 

Evening comes and the two men drink, "becoming increasingly boisterous" (p. 91). The first one finally passes out. The second one, however, yanks her to her feet and pulls her to him. There's a sticky white substance at the corners of his mouth. He buries his face in her hair and then starts kissing her her face and neck. She knows his intentions are "lustful." Suddenly, he falls away, a knife embedded in his neck. Another man, clad head to toe, in black. In the firelight she sees his "high cheekbones, dark almond-shaped eyes that slope gently upward at the corners, full lips" (p. 94).  He speaks to her, in English.

My comments: Ah... the Drunken Indian stereotype. This drunk Topi, however, goes further. He's going to rape this blond haired white woman. This is SUCH A TROPE. Some stores have rows of romance novels with a white woman on the cover, in the arms of an Indian man. She might be struggling; she might not be. He is usually depicted as handsome.

Drake's menacing Native man is more like what we see in children's books. Like... this page in The Matchlock Gun: 

Or in this scene from the television production of Little House on the Prairie (the part where they approach Ma is at the 1:45 mark, and again, at the 2:30 mark):

Here's a screen cap from the 2:10 mark:

Chapter Ten

Hearing English spoken to her is a healing ointment on her heart. He asks where she is from. She tells him she's from the Spire (p. 96):
His mouth opens slightly and his dark brows rise up an inch or so. "You come from the Nations Beyond the Sea." It is not so much a question as a realization.
Their conversation continues. She tells him she was on a tour in the heli-plane. He wonders what that is, she tells him, and he tells her they call them anzibatu, or, skyships. He asks her why she was on a tour, saying "you come to watch us [...] like animals in a menagerie?" He wonders why they don't interfere in their fighting. She tells him their fighting is a curiosity, regrets saying it, and tries to explain that it is complicated. He ends the conversation telling her they'll leave in the morning. She asks where he intends to take her. He responds that she isn't a prisoner and can go with him if she wants to, or, stay where they are. Vaela asks him what is name is; he tells her he is called Noro. She thanks him for saving her life. 

My comments: Another trope! In children's books about European arrival on what came to be known as the American continent, Native people are shown as being in awe of Europeans. 

A small point, but annoying nonetheless: As Aaden noted in chapter five, the Aven'ei adopted English. I suppose Drake wrote that into the story so that Vaela and Noro could easily communicate, but some of the logic of words/concepts he knows (and doesn't know) feels inconsistent to me. He doesn't know the word heli-plane but does know menagerie (and later, "propriety" but doesn't know "technology").

Last point: Damsel's in distress, saved by a man, are annoying. Also annoying are female characters who run, trip, and are caught by bad guys. That happened in chapter five when Vaela was running away from the Topi man.   

The next day, Noro thinks he should tend to Vaela's wounded thigh, but she's uneasy with having him touch her or see her bare leg. She relents, he cleans and bandages the wound, and she tells him this is the second time he's saved her. They set off. 

That evening, Noro asks if other people in the Spire look like Vaela, with her "golden hair" and "eyes like the leaves of an evergreen" (p. 105). She tells him that the people in the West are dark-skinned with pale blue eyes, those in the North have pale skin and white hair, those in the South are olive-skinned with dark hair, and those in the East (where she is from) are often pale, with blue or green eyes. 

My comments: Another trope! Time and again in children's books, writers depict Native people as in awe of blonde--or sometimes red--hair. 

Chapter Eleven

Vaela is getting sick. Towards the end of the chapter, Noro has to carry her for awhile. He wants to take her to a healer when they get to his village but she's afraid of what that healer will do (leeches are one possibility). She insists that Noro take her to the village leaders first. He agrees. They arrive at the village.

Chapter Twelve

As they walk through the village, Vaela is surprised and impressed at their rich culture. She meets Noro's ten-year-old brother, Keiji. In Noro's cottage, she notices a tapestry on the wall, and a carved bookcase full of books. She learns that Noro is one of the few assassins they have. They "eliminate Topi leaders." Without the assassins, "the Topi would have wiped us from the Continent long ago" (p. 125).  

My comments: Earlier, I noted that the author (Kiera Drake) was, as the story unfolded, drawing a distinction between the Topi and the Aven'ei. The description of the tapestry and books add a lot. They are definitely not "uncivilized." 

Vaela and Noro go to the meeting with the village leaders. They deny her request to be taken back to Ivanel because it is dangerous to try to be on the sea during this part of the year, and, because they're at war. Noro takes Vaela to Eno's (the healer) cottage.

Chapter Thirteen

Vaela spends several weeks under the care of Eno. Keiji visits but Noro does not.

Chapter Fourteen

When she's well, Keiji takes her to her own cottage. It is furnished much like Keiji and Noro's. Sofa, bookshelf, books. She looks around the main room, the kitchen, her bedroom, and a room with a bash basin and a chamber pot. Later she goes to visit Noro, who tells her the leaders want to see her again, to assign her a job. She tells Noro about "the Lonely Islands" (p. 148) of the Spire. Citizens who don't want to work are "invited" to relocate to that place. Some choose to go, others are sent.  

Chapter Fifteen

Vaela begins work as a field hand, scooping and hauling cow manure. Noro gave her some money to use until she gets paid. She goes to the market, where an old woman remarks on her gold hair, with its "strings of sunshine." The woman offers Vaela three, then four, then five oka (coins) for it but Vaela says no. Vaela meets a young woman, Yuki Sanzo (they're going to become good friends). 

My comments: the fascination/value again of blonde hair...  

Yuki tells her the war is because of a debt, and that now, the Topi (p. 159):
"understand the riches of the south. The fertility of our soil, the safety of our shoes. The agriculture we have cultivated. They love the north, but desire what the north cannot deliver. And so they seek to take it from us, here in the south and east."
Vaela tells Yuki that on the Spire, they found a way to share resources and that perhaps, someday, the Topi and Aven'ei will do that, too. 

My comments: This depiction of the Topi as hunter/gatherers who don't know how to farm is common, in fiction, nonfiction, and textbooks, too. It is an error, especially given that the Topi are based on the Hopi, who for thousands of years, cultivated corn in the southwest. Doing that required sophisticated irrigation systems. This is well-described in Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz's book (An Indigenous Peoples History of the U.S.)  This widespread misrepresentation lays the groundwork for justifying occupation and colonization of Native lands. 

Chapter Sixteen

Vaela does her work, and thinks about how she could make a map that the Aven'ei could use in their war against the Topi. 

Chapter Seventeen

On a visit, Yuki realizes that Vaela doesn't know how to take care of herself or cook, either. She teaches her. Noro visits; Vaela tells him she wants to visit the council about improvements in the village. Specifically, she tells him about toilets and how they work. He's disgusted with the idea of having a privy inside the house. 

Chapter Eighteen

Vaela tells Yuki the villagers give her odd looks. Yuki tells her they're just wary of her. Yuki tells her she needs to have a knife with her at all times because the Continent is not the Spire. Vaela thinks the Topi wouldn't come to the village. Yuki isn't sure of anything. 

Chapter Nineteen

Keiji starts teaching Vaela how to fight; Noro calls Vaela "miyake" which means "my love."

Chapter Twenty

Noro reports that there are Topi nearby and asks Vaela to draw a map of where they are; they take the map to the leaders. Noro gives Vaela a set of throwing knives. 

Chapter Twenty-One

When Noro is teaching Vaela how to use a knife to kill someone, quickly, and quietly. Vaela asks if that is the technique that Noro used on the Topi who found her after the crash. He nods; she says that the Topi was kind to her, that he gave her food. Noro gets angry that she grieves for the Topi, and tells her she cannot look upon them as men. They are the enemy. She tells him the Topi are people, too. Yuki is angry at her, too, telling her that the Topi might put her head on a pike. Vaela counters that the Aven'ei are brutal, too, and recounts the bodies they saw from the plane. Another person who is with them, Takashi, says that Vaela makes a valid point. Yuki and Takashi start arguing. Vaela tries to get them to stop, and Yuki tells her that she is, and will always be, an outsider. 

My comments: in that passage and before, Vaela seems to be wanting to help. That, however, is another problem with how she is developed. She's a white character, entering a place of Native and People of Color, attempting to improve their lives--according to her standards. This a white savior. 

Chapter Twenty-Two

The Topi come into the village. Noro goes out to fight, telling Vaela to stay in the bedroom with her knives. But later, she starts thinking she can at least kill one Topi (p. 216):
If I were to try and fight, I would almost surely die. But I might kill one. One Topi whose thirst for blood cannot be quenched except in death.
She goes outside. As she walks she hears rhythmic pounding. She remembers Yuki talking about the drums of war. She sees a Topi and maps out a route to position herself. She notices he's got his eyes fixed on someone that she recognizes to be Keiji. He's struck in the neck. She rushes to him. Noro and another assassin get there, too. Noro goes looking for the Topi who shot Keiji. Vaela thinks the Topi archer "does not have long to live."

My comments: When I started this chapter-by-chapter read, I noted that a Native reader--and especially one who is Hopi--would have a different experience than, perhaps, most others who read these passages about killing. To make them as brutal as possible, this Topi is firing at a child (remember, Keiji is only ten years old).

Chapter Twenty-Three

They take Keiji to a healer. Noro arrives shortly. Vaela asks if he killed the Topi archer and replies "good" when he says he did. Noro tells her she would not have killed a Topi. Instead, she would have been killed, and if not that, she'd have been "captured, raped and beaten--kept to be used by any savage who wanted you" (p. 225). 

My comments: On the heels of the Topi warrior who shot a child, Drake puts forth a scenario where a "savage" rapes, beats, and uses the blonde as he wishes. 

Vaela tells Noro she wants to return to the Spire to get help. Noro tells her they already know what is happening, that they've known for over 200 years and not intervened. Vaela is sure she can persuade them. She promises she'll return (p. 229):
I give you my word I will return. And when I do, I will bring peace to the Continent. One way or another, I will ring peace.

My comments: Again, Drake depicts her main character as a white savior.

Chapter Twenty-Four

The village leaders approve of Vaela's plan to return to the Spire. Noro will take her to Ivanel. 

Chapter Twenty-Five

Vaela and Noro arrive on Ivanel. He's impressed with the building and the glass windows. She tells him it has other things, too, like an indoor swimming pool, racquet courts, cedar saunas, and toilets. Soon after that, they say their good-byes. Noro leaves Ivanel.

My comments: that scene strikes me as tone deaf and heartless. Didn't they just spend hours with Keiji, worried for his life? I guess out-of-sight, out-of-mind... 

Chapter Twenty-Six

Valea plans for her return to the Spire where she will try to persuade the Heads of State to intervene.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Vaela arrives at her home at the Spire.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Vaela goes to the Chancellery for her meeting with the sweet-faced Mr. Lowe of the West who has dark skin and pale eyes, Mr. Wey of the East who is a scholarly man in spectacles, Mr. Chamberlain of the South, who is sickly looking, has a slender mustache, and watery eyes, and Mrs. Pendergrast of the North who looks like she spent her life sucking on sour candy. Vaela notices that Mr. Lowe and Mrs. Pendergrast avoid each other. 

Mr. Lowe thinks the Aven'ei could be relocated to the Spire. Mrs. Pendergrast thinks they're uncivilized and should not be brought there. Vaela tells them the Aven'ei are not uncivilized, but that they wouldn't leave their homes. Mr. Lowe asks her what she wants, then, if not to help them relocate. 

Vaela says she wants the Spire to build a wall between the Aven'ei and the Topi. Mr. Lowe thinks it a good idea but Mrs. Pendergrast wonders who will pay for it, and that they don't have sufficient resources to "erect walls for a bunch of savages" (p. 263). The chancellor takes a vote. The only one who votes yes is Mr. Lowe. The four argue with Mr. Lowe about peace and the value of their own lives over those of the Aven'ei. Vaela leaves, angry. 

My comments: A wall? I don't know how long trump (lower case t for his name is not a typo) has been talking about a wall. I don't know when Drake came up with this part of her novel. Timing is unfortunate, but the idea... THE IDEA of a wall... introduced to young readers as a solution, delivered by the wealthy--in this case, Vaela Sun of the East Nation of the Spire--to the "uncivilized" peoples of the Continent... it reeks, Ms. Drake! Nobody in the novel says "that's messed up." This idea, of this wall, is put forth, uncritically. 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Vaela waits for the Chancellor to make arrangements for her to return to the Continent.

Chapter Thirty

Vaela reunites with Noro and tells him the Spire is not coming to help. 

Chapter Thirty-One

Vaela settles back into her cottage and working on the farm but gets into an argument with Shoshi (he owns the farm and is one of the village leaders). He calls her a "takaharu" and tells her to leave and never return. 

Vaela tells Yuki what happened and what he called her. The word "takaharu" means someone who is promiscuous, wanton, and revels in the sexual company of the enemy. Yuki thinks Vaela should tell Noro of this slander of her honor, but Vaela dismisses that idea, saying "Oh, honestly, you Aven'ei! My honor is intact."  

Chapter Thirty-Two

Noro tells Vaela that it was the Aven'ei that started this war with the Topi, when the Aven'ei thought it would be an easy thing to take land from the Topi. He says they didn't anticipate "what they would become."

My comments: What were they before? Peaceful? Why did the Aven'ei think they could easily take the land? Did they view the Topi as child-like? Primitive? 

Chapter Thirty-Three

The Aven'ei have gathered and are making ready for war. One evening, Yuki sings a song about a battle at Sana-Zo. The group talks about their final stand happening at the Southern Vale where they've gathered. After the battle, she says, only the Topi will be left to sing about the battle (p. 289):
"They don't sing," Noro says. "They howl." 
They all laugh.

My comments: Native people depicted as animal-like... If you're a regular reader of AICL, you know that happens a lot. If you have a copy of Little House on the Prairie, pull it out and read it. See how many ways Wilder depicts Native people as animal-like. Of course, that depiction is unacceptable.

On the third day at Southern Vale, the Topi "swarm" and "look like ants" as they fill the Vale. There are eight thousand of them, and only four thousand of the Aven'ei. Vaela hears drums again, along with "the clamoring insect noise of the Topi" (p. 293). The battles begin. Vaela and Noro are separated. 

My comments: Here, Drake returns to an earlier characterization of the Topi as being ants. This time, though, she adds that they swarm and make insect noises. Need I say why this is offensive? 

Chapter Thirty-Four

Gory fighting begins. Vaela kills a Topi man. She's repulsed by it but wants to do it again. She comes across a Topi whose intestines are spread across his belly. She kills him out of mercy. She looks up and sees another, a few feet away. He has yellow face paint and is grinning at her. She throws two knives at him, turns, and runs. He chases her, grabs her hair, throws her down. He snarls at her and chokes her. Her hands drop to her side, she finds another knife and starts stabbing him. He throws her down and just as he is about to strike her with his axe, Shoshi arrives and kills him. She turns, kills another Topi. Vaela and Shoshi stand together, looking across the field. Most Aven'ei are dead. There are still many Topi. She hears a buzz, looks up, and sees twelve heli-planes. The Spire has come, after all.

My comments: I'm at the end of my patience with this chapter-by-chapter read. What comes to mind each time I read that is the helicopter scene from Apocalypse Now, where they American forces blast Ride of the Valkyries. 

Chapter Thirty-Five

The heli-planes hover low, over the field of battle. From one, an amplified voice booms, telling them to cease fighting, to cease the war, to stop, or they will be killed. The fighting doesn't stop, so, the men in the heli-planes start shooting. Topi men fall, "by the hundreds" (p. 305). The fighting stops. Some Topi howl at the heli-planes. The voice booms again, telling them to return to their own territories and not to pass onto the other's realm again. The Topi move westward; the Aven'ei move to the east. 

The voice, Vaela realizes, is Mr. Lowe. It booms again, asking her to come to the heli-plane. Once there, she says she doesn't know what to say. He tells her she said all that needed saying, back at the Chancellory. The West chose to act alone, which led to a dissolution of the Spire. Mr. Lowe tells Vaela they (the West) will build the wall that she suggested. The war is over. He (Mr. West) will see to it. 

Vaela reunites with Noro. He says it is time to bury the dead and help the wounded. She tells him they can live a life now, without war. He says "we shall see" and she replies (p. 312):
It is done now," I say, gesturing up at the heli-planes. "The West has come to ensure peace. You need never wear the shadow of the itzatsune again."
They kiss. She thinks that she knows peace, once again, for now, and that sometimes, now is enough.

The story ends. 

My comments: White saviors abound! In booming voices they tell those two warring peoples to.... go to their rooms. And, of course, they do as they're told! And just to make sure they don't get into any more fights, those white saviors are going to erect a wall to keep them apart. Those booming White voices will make sure peace reigns. 


Moving out of italics, now, for some background information and closing thoughts on Kiera Drake's The Continent.  As noted at the start of this page, the release for the book was postponed so the author could revisit it and make revisions. Prior to that announcement, there had been a lot of incisive discussion of the book on Twitter. 

Drake responded to it on November 5, 2016. Here's the first paragraph of her response:
I am saddened by the recent controversy on Twitter pertaining to THE CONTINENT. I abhor racism, sexism, gender-ism, or discrimination in any form, and am outspoken against it, so it was with great surprise and distress that I saw the comments being made about the book. I want everyone to know that I am listening, I am learning, and I am trying to address concerns about the novel as thoughtfully and responsibly as possible.
On November 7, 2016, author Zoraida Córdova wrote An Open Letter on Fantasy World Building and Keira Drake's Apology.

That same day, Halequin Teen posted this notice at their Tumblr page:

The assumption is that the book can be revised.  

Is that possible? What would Drake change? In her response on November 5, she wrote:
THE CONTINENT was written with a single theme in mind: the fact that privilege allows people to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. It is not about a white savior, or one race vs. another, or any one group of people being superior to any other. Every nation, and every character in the book is flawed.
Almost three months ago, Drake felt that Vaela is not a white savior. Has she changed her mind? Does my close read help her see that it is, indeed, a white savior story? Ironically, (to quote her words), she seems to be blind to the suffering of others. She seems to think that every nation and every character in her book is flawed. I wouldn't argue with that statement. It is the degree to which they're flawed, and the ability of readers to SEE them as flawed that is the problem. She herself doesn't seem to be able to see the white savior! It is right there on the last pages!

Elsewhere on her site, there's a description of the book:
Keira Drake‘s young adult fantasy, THE CONTINENT, is part action adventure, part allegory, and part against-the-odds survival story. Engaging with questions of social responsibility, the nature of peace and violence, and the value (and danger) of nationalism, Drake’s debut is as thought-provoking as it is fast-paced and surprising, a heart-pounding and heartbreaking story of strength and survival.
Her story rests completely upon the idea that one of these peoples--the Topi (the Native people)--are utterly barbaric. They're animal like. They're insect like. None of that is effectively challenged by anyone in the story or by the author, either, in how any of the characters think. There is that one scene when Noro and Yuki are angry at her for trying to tell them the Topi aren't the only ones who are brutal, but overwhelmingly, Drake's characters think of them as less-than. 

She could rewrite parts of the story so that someone says WTF are you doing thinking of these people as insects right away when Vaela first thinks of the Topi as ants, but who would do that? And what would it do to the rest of the story? It seems to me it would need a massive rewrite. 

Drake may have set out to write a book about social responsibility, the nature of peace and violence, the value and danger of nationalism, but again, who is the audience? As I said above, I seriously doubt that she ever thought of a Native reader. If we add Native readers to the audience, what do they have to endure so that all the other readers discern Drake's themes? Yes, they could set the book down. They don't have to read it. Or... do they? What if it is assigned in school? Given the state of the world, teachers might think it the perfect novel to discuss what is happening in so many places. 

I might be back with more thoughts, later. I'll certainly be back to fix typos and formatting errors I've missed, or clarify thoughts that--on a second or third read--need work. I may be back to write about the Discussion Questions that are at the end of the book. They were not in my ARC, but colleagues who have an ARC with the questions sent them to me.


Justina Ireland's The Continent, Carve the Mark, and the Dark Skinned Aggressor


Update on Feb 1, 2016, at 8:45 AM:
I've learned that there was more discussion of the book on January 23rd. It prompted Drake to respond. Here's part of what she said:
While I cannot control what others may say, I can communicate to you here in very clear terms that I value criticism, have listened to all feedback concerning the book, and am working to address those concerns. I remain tremendously appreciative to those in the writing community who offered constructive insight, guidance, and feedback in regard to THE CONTINENT. I feel very blessed to have such an incredible network of friends, critics, readers, and industry professionals at my side, and am so grateful to Harlequin TEEN for allowing me the opportunity to revise before publication. I see with clarity that the comparisons drawn between the fictitious peoples of the book and those of existing cultures are valid and important, and, once again, wish to communicate how sorry I am that the original version of the book reflected these and other harmful representations.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Debbie--have you seen Ruby Slipperjack's THE RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL DIARY OF VIOLET PESHEENS?

A reader wrote to ask if I've seen Ruby Slipperjack's The Residential School Diary of Violet Pesheens. Published by Scholastic in its Dear Canada series, this one is set in Northern Ontario, Canada, 1966.

Here's the synopsis from the Scholastic website:
Violet Pesheens is struggling to adjust to her new life at Residential School. She misses her Grandma; she has run-ins with Cree girls; at her “white” school, everyone just stares; and everything she brought has been taken from her, including her name—she is now just a number. But worst of all, she has a fear. A fear of forgetting the things she treasures most: her Anishnabe language; the names of those she knew before; and her traditional customs. A fear of forgetting who she was.
Her notebook is the one place she can record all of her worries, and heartbreaks, and memories. And maybe, just maybe there will be hope at the end of the tunnel.
Drawing from her own experiences at Residential School, Ruby Slipperjack creates a brave, yet heartbreaking heroine in Violet, and lets young readers glimpse into an all-too important chapter in our nation’s history.

I hope I am able to get a copy! Because this is an #OwnVoices book, I look forward to it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Lydia Sharp's Whenever I'm With You was published on January 3, 2017 by Scholastic. Here's the synopsis for Whenever I'm With You:

After Gabi's parents' divorce, she moves from California to Alaska with her dad. At first, it feels like banishment--until she meets Kai. He welcomes her into his life, sharing his family, his friends, and his warmth. But as winter approaches, Kai pulls away for seemingly no reason at all. He's quiet, withdrawn. Then one day, he disappears.
Kai's twin brother, Hunter, believes Kai is retracing their missing father's steps in the wilderness north of Anchorage. There's a blizzard on the way, and Kai is alone out there. Gabi's frustration over his emotional distance quickly turns to serious concern. This is the boy who saved her from the dark. She can't lose him to it.
So Gabi and Hunter agree to head out together on a wild journey north--a trip that will challenge them physically and emotionally, as they try to convince the boy they love to return home.

An Alaska Native reader who is Tlingit wrote to me to share concerns with the book. As regular readers of AICL may recall, I get email from people who prefer not to be identified. Some worry about backlash on them or their children. I respect their requests and am grateful for their careful readings of children's and young adult books.

The Tlingit reader's concerns are as follows:

Ambiguity of Native Characters

The two brothers in Whenever I'm With You are identified as having a Tlingit father and a Canadian mother, but no further information is provided. Are they enrolled? What part of Alaska is their father from? Were the two brothers raised outside their Tlingit community, and therefore, don't know enough about it to say more than they do? The idea of them being Tlingit is so lacking in detail to support it, that they could be Haida or a different Alaska Native tribe.

Because there is so little there, they could even be white and it would make no difference in the story. An example of them sounding white is in the way they speak about hunting. It doesn't sound the way Native Alaskans talk about hunting.

Degrading and Exotic Attitude towards Native Culture

The main character in the story is Latina. She's wealthy. Throughout, she is snobby and says negative and degrading things. One example is the passage about akutaq. Gabi and Hunter are at a restaurant. He digs in to his "dish of chunky fluff" (p. 80-81):
"What is that?" I ask.
He swallows. "Something you should try."
It must be made of dog lips or something. "Don't avoid the question."  
"All right, I'll tell you what this is, but only after you take a bite. Are you willing to trust me that it won't kill you? That you might even like it?"
"What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right?" At least, that's what Kelly Clarkson says. And if Hunter can eat it without gagging, it can't be that bad. I scoop out a spoonful and force it into my mouth. It's sweet. The chunky part is definitely some kind of berry. And the rest of it has a consistency similar to... "Mousse? I mean the dessert kind."
Headshake. "It's called akutaq. Do you like it?"
"I wouldn't say like. But I wouldn't say hate, either." I take one more bite and push the rest of it away. That's more than enough sugar for me. "Okay, I tried it. Now, what's in it?"
"Whipped fat and berries."
He can't be serious. "Like, animal fat?"
"Yeah. And berries."
"But it's fat."
"And berries," he repeats, smiling, clearly enjoying my display of culture shock.
"The berries are only there to make it taste good. Because it's fat." How is this a real thing people pay to eat? How does he not understand this is gross? "It's flavored. Fat."
"And it's good." He scrapes the last of his out of the dish. "Even you said it wasn't bad."
"That's not the point!"
Hunter's laugh comes out in spurts, like he's trying to hold it in and concentrate on more important bodily functions, like chewing and swallowing and not spewing his akutaq all over the table. Although it probably wouldn't look much different in vomit form.
The Tlingit reader who wrote to me is offended by the comparison of akutaq to vomit and imagines other Alaska Native readers would be offended by it, too. The reader wonders if--by way of passages like that--readers are supposed to dislike Gabi and her negative impressions of Alaska Native land, people, and culture. The reader further says that these passages mark the book as one NOT meant for Alaska Native readers. Another example of the author not considering an Alaska Native reader is where Alaskan lands are described as a giant expanse of nothing.

While, in some places, Gabi seems to like some aspects of Alaska Native culture, it comes off in a fetishizing way, like when Gabi wonders if a bear is her "spirit animal" (p. 161):
Maybe it's my imagination, but I think the bear is looking right at me. Right into me. My heart thumps hard in my chest, my head, my ears, my throat; I feel it everywhere. But this thing I'm feeling isn't "scared." I don't know what it is. Exposed, maybe. Vulnerable. Or... trust? I'm putting my absolute trust in this creature not to charge and attack me. That has to be it--trust in its purest form--and the realization calms me. Tension falls away like I'm shedding a heavy coat. For the first time ever I let go of my control of a situation without feeling out of control.
Total serenity. From a bear.
It lazily turns its head back to the river, and soon we're riding off, every second giving us more and more distance from a possible threat. The moment is gone, but the impact of it stays with me all the way to Jack Randy's house.
Even if I had been paying attention to how we got here instead of contemplating whether the brown bear is my spirit animal, I couldn't find this place again if I had to.

Debbie's response

I'll order the book, but I can say right now that my notes and analysis will likely look exactly like what you've read, above. (Note: the quotes above are from what I saw in the book using Amazon's "look inside" and the preview in Google Books.)

Spirit animal?!

Who, I wonder, was the editor at Scholastic?! There are times when I think Scholastic is just a bit ahead of the field in terms of offering readers books with better representations of Native peoples, and then, they publish books like this one.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Not Recommended: I AM SACAGAWEA by Grace Norwich

A reader wrote to ask if I've seen I Am Sacagawea by Grace Norwich. It was published in 2012 by Scholastic in its "I Am" biography series. Here's the synopsis:
I am only sixteen years old as I trek across the country with my infant son strapped to my back. I have a river, two lakes, and four mountain peaks named after me. I am featured on the U.S golden dollar. I am Sacagawea.
Initially, this post was going to be in AICL's "Debbie--have you seen" series. I decided to get and read it right away. I do not recommend I Am Sacagawea for several reasons. 

First, it is written in first person. 

The author has to imagine a lot about a person who lived in a different time. Writing in first person means the author is speaking as that person. Without a body of writing from that person, I think it is highly problematic to speak in that person's voice. Especially when that person is someone who is not of ones own people or nation.

I don't think Grace Norwich is Native. Author identity isn't a hard and fast rule for me. She could write a book about Native people that might be terrific, and I'd recommend it, but I prefer to recommend books by Native people who are writing from their own nations experience and history. 

Second, it reads like an outsider wrote it. 

In the introduction, we read:
Pioneers faces harsh weather, lack of food, and wild animals. But life was especially hard for me. Born an Indian girl, I didn't have many rights or much freedom.
She goes on to talk about the work she has to do:
No one imagined that I was destined for more than cooking, cleaning, gathering food, raising children, and obeying my husband.
What Norwich gives readers with those passages is a stereotype. Europeans wrote about the "squaw" who was a drudge, laboring in the fields, no power. Lucky for Sacagawea, Norwich wants us to learn, it is the Lewis and Clark expedition that will raise her up and out of that life.  That is definitely a sure sign of an outsider's voice, misrepresenting Native life, history, culture, and nationhood. Norwich leads readers to think that Sacagawea's nation and Native people overall, are a bad thing, while white men, in particular, of the U.S., are a good thing. 

Third, it is a classic white savior story.

Not only do Lewis and Clark rescue her from that wretched life, one of them--Clark--saves her life. 

In Norwich's timeline, the entry for June 1805 is this (Kindle Location 67):
Sacagawea nearly dies of a fever, but Clark nurses her back to health.
In chapter five, "Danger Ahead" (Kindle Location 275-277), we read:
Sacagawea was likely suffering from an infection as her fever rose higher and higher. Clark, who saw how much she was suffering, took care of her. He sat with Sacagawea through the night, applying bark poultices (soft materials applied to the body to relieve soreness or inflammation).
Did Clark sit with her like that, as the accompanying illustration shows?

Let's look at the journals from the expedition. Note: I'm cutting/pasting from the online journals. Their formatting came along with the cut/paste. For ease of reading, I changed the font and size. 

June 10, 1805 
Clark wrote:
Sah cah gah, we â our Indian woman verry Sick    I blead her, we deturmined to assend the South fork, and one of us, Capt. Lewis or My self to go by land as far as the Snow mountains S. 20° W. and examine the river
Ordway says the same thing:
Sah cah gah our Indian woman verry Sick & was bled.

June 11, 1805
Clark wrote
the evening fair and fine wind from the N. W.    after night it became cold & the wind blew hard, the Indian woman verry Sick, I blead her which appeared to be of great Service to her 

June 12, 1805
Clark wrote
the Interpreters woman verry Sick worse than She has been. I give her medison  
In their respective entries, Ordway and Whitehouse both wrote:
 our Intrepters wife verry Sick. 

June 13, 1805
Clark wrote
the Indian woman Verry sick    I gave her a doste of Salts.
the Indian woman verry Sick. 

June 14, 1805
Clark wrote:
the Indian woman complaining all night & excessively bad this morning—    her case is Somewhat dangerous
Ordway and Whitehouse write in their entries that the Intrepters wife verry Sick. 

June 15, 1805
Clark wrote:
our Indian woman Sick & low Spirited    I gave her the bark & apply it exteranaly to her region which revived her much. 
the Indian woman much wors this evening, She will not take any medicine, her husband petetions to return 

June 16, 1805
Lewis wrote
about 2 P. M. I reached the camp    found the Indian woman extreemly ill and much reduced by her indisposition.   this gave me some concern as well for the poor object herself, then with a young child in her arms, as from the consideration of her being our only dependence for a friendly negociation with the Snake Indians on whom we depend for horses to assist us in our portage from the Missouri to the columbia River
Lewis also writes that they're near a "Sulpher spring, the virtues of which I now resolved to try on the Indian woman." And,
I found that two dozes of barks and opium which I had given her since my arrival had produced an alteration in her pulse for the better; they were now much fuller and more regular. I caused her to drink the mineral water altogether.    wen I first came down I found that her pulse were scarcely perceptible, very quick frequently irregular and attended with strong nervous symptoms, that of the twitching of the fingers and leaders of the arm; now the pulse had become regular much fuller and a gentle perspiration had taken place; the nervous symptoms have also in a great measure abated, and she feels herself much freeer from pain.    she complains principally of the lower region of the abdomen, I therefore continued the cataplasms of barks and laudnumn [5] which had been previously used by my friend Capt Clark. I beleive her disorder originated principally from an obstruction of the mensis in consequence of taking could.
Clark wrote:
the Indian woman verry bad, & will take no medisin what ever, untill her husband finding her out of her Senses, easyly provailed on her to take medison, if She dies it will be the fault of her husband as I am now convinced

June 17, 1805
Lewis wrote:
The Indian woman much better today, I have still continued the same course of medecine; she is free from pain clear of fever, her pulse regular, and eats as heartily as I am willing to permit her of broiled buffaloe well seasoned with pepper and salt and rich soope of the same meat; I think therefore that there is every rational hope of her recovery.
June 18, 1805
Lewis wrote
The Indian woman is recovering fast    she set up the greater part of the day and walked out for the fist time since she arrived here; she eats hartily and is free from fever or pain. I continue same course of medecine and regimen except that I added one doze of 15 drops of the oil of vitriol today about noon.
Ordway wrote:
 our Intrepters wife Some what better than She has been for Some time past. 

June 19, 1805
Lewis wrote
the Indian woman was much better this morning    she walked out and gathered a considerable quantity of the white apples of which she eat so heartily in their raw state, together with a considerable quantity of dryed fish without my knowledge that she complained very much and her fever again returned. I rebuked Sharbono severely for suffering her to indulge herself with such food he being privy to it and having been previously told what she must only eat. I now gave her broken dozes of diluted nitre  untill it produced perspiration and at 10 P. M. 30 drops of laudnum which gave her a tolerable nights rest. 
Whitehouse wrote:
our Intrepters wife Some better.   
 our Interpreters Wife and the others that was sick recover'd fast

June 20, 1805
Lewis wrote:
The Indian woman is qute free from pain and fever this morning and appears to be in a fair way for recovery, she has been walking about and fishing.

Do the dated entries above and my cut/paste of relevant content seem burdensome? My point in reading through all those entries and pasting relevant content here is to be thorough. Having read all that material, I don't think we can say that Clark had any feelings of warmth towards her... the kinds of warmth that "nursed" invoke. I don't see evidence that he sat with her through a night, either. Nonetheless, Norwich's presentation of that illness guides readers to think of Clark as a kind person who saved her life. That is the classic "white savior" that we see all too often in children's and young adult books.

Among the last few words in I Am Sacagawea is a phrase that is also indicative of an outsider's writing. I'll put the phrase in bold (Kindle Locations 434-435):
Though no one can really be sure about Sacagawea’s death, everyone can agree that she was a true American hero because she pushed herself beyond the definition others gave her.
I see a lot of writers claim or describe Native people as "American" or First Americans. It'd be great if we could ask Sacagawea, directly, how she would describe herself. I know that a lot of Native women, today, identify first as citizens of our own tribal nation, and, citizens of the US, second. 


Teachers... if you have this book in your classroom, perhaps you can use it as a tool to teach critical literacy. Because the Lewis and Clark journals are online, you have easy access to them. Maybe you can take the book apart and give each child or pair of children a page from it and ask them to do some analysis, comparing what they read in the book to what is in the journals.

There's a lot more I could write about, within the pages of Norwich's I Am Sacagawea. I won't though. What I provide, coupled with this image from the book, are sufficient to tag I Am Sacagawea as not recommended. 

Published in 2012 by Scholastic, Grace Norwich's I Am Sacagawea is not recommended.