Sunday, July 13, 2008

40. Waterless Mountain

by Laura Adams Armer

This 1932 Newbery winner is set in Navajo country in northern Arizona in the late 1920s or 1930-31. The main character is referred to as Younger Brother (his unused Navajo name means “Dawn Boy”, but his family often calls him Little Singer). At the beginning of the book, he is eight, and he is at least 12 by the end. The Waterless Mountain of the title may be the Kaibab Limestone formation north of the Grand Canyon, which was porous and had few sources of water.

As described in the New York Times shortly after the book’s publication (“Book Notes," 9/2/31, page 17), “the narrative deals with the experiences of a Navajo boy who is learning the lore of the medicine man. Various Navajo ceremonies, chants and beliefs are worked into the background of the account of Younger Brother as he develops from boyhood to youth. These tribal customs and legends are all authentic, according to the author,...,who lived long among the Indians...[Armer] went to Arizona to devote herself to an artistic and literary career. She painted pictures and acquired a wide knowledge of the Navajo chants and legends.”

In contrast to Shen of the Sea, the Navajo stories told in Waterless Mountain do appear to be authentic. I was unable to find any evidence contradicting information in this book, and lots of references on the web to yays (gods), chindi (ghosts), Spider Woman, Turquoise (aka Changing) Woman (or Estsanatlehi), and Whirling Logs sand paintings.

Contemporaneous reviews generally praise the book, but note some weaknesses. Anne T. Eaton, in the October 18, 1931 New York Times (“New Children’s Books, page 70), wrote, “Nothing in the book is finer than the author’s presentation of the poet of a primitive people and his response to the beauty and mystery with which he feels himself surrounded. The beauty and mysticism may appeal primarily to adults, but there is sufficient incident and action to hold the attention of younger readers, and they, too, will feel the book’s atmosphere.” “In Brief Review,” The English Journal (published by the National Council of Teachers of English, Vol. 20, No. 9, Nov. 1931, page 785), stated, “Good authorities pronounce it authentic Navajo, but the charm of the primitive is marred by the author’s unsuccessful attempt to write in the mental language of the unschooled boy.”

By the time of the book’s reissue in 1993, opinions varied. The Horn Book Guide (Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1993) rated it “marginal, seriously flawed, but with some redeeming quality,” explaining: “In these days of multicultural awareness, this novel, with its mysticism and its painfully condescending treatment of the DinĂ© [Navajo], should have been allowed to fade into obscurity; reissuing it only calls attention to its flaws.” A Critical Bibliography on North American Indians, for K-12 (compiled by the Smithsonian Institute’s Anthropology Research Office somewhere around September 1996 and last updated 8/30/01) rated it acceptable (not exceptional nor questionable), saying, “There is a somewhat patronizing attitude of the 'do-gooder' non-Indians in the story. The author attempts to put us in the mind of the youth to understand his reactions to the world.”

But Mary Lystad wrote in Twentieth-Century Children's Literature (4th edition, 1995) that Armer was praised for her "authentic and humanistic portrayal of Navajo life, within its own context and within a larger American context," concluding: "Armer's books are beautifully and sensitively written. They are not easy reading [but children] should be encouraged to read them. For Armer's meticulous studies of Indian personality and culture are important for an understanding of the human spirit."

I think, for the time it was written, that this book is a better example of one about another culture than most. Although the author is not Native American, she spent many years observing them and grew to be accepted by them. It is appropriate for older children, ages 9 and up. It rates anywhere from grades 5 to 9 on various readability scales, so it may be difficult for some children, particularly since it is episodic rather than plot-driven. There would be numerous ways to tie the book in with a study of Navajo culture, legends, ceremonies, and arts (Younger Brother’s mother weaves and his father makes silver and turquoise jewelry, while sand painting and pottery are also discussed).

There is a fascinating biography of Laura Adams Armer, author/photographer/artist, with further links at the Women Artists of the American West Women in Photography Archive. I didn’t realize that Armer’s The Forest Pool was named a Caldecott Honor book in 1939. The book is out of print and unfortunately my library does not have it; but you can see illustrations from the book at the Humboldt Arts Council website. The Forest Pool followed Armer's visit to Mexico. The color tempera paintings reflect the influence of painter Diego Rivera.

In the case of Waterless Mountain, there are four illustrations by Armer, eleven by her husband Sidney, and one by them both (the plate opposite page 26 in my 1936 edition, similar to that pictured below right), of which Armer wrote: "The deer are mine and the background is Sidney's." The dust jacket (pictured at the top of this post) and the frontispiece are the same, a painting by Armer, based on a composite of two of her photographs. Her other works are (in my 1936 edition): the plates opposite pages 20 (of the Bumble Bee), 128 (“The Sun Bearer and the Turquoise Woman,” my favorite), and 174 (of the Pack Rat) all signed by her and more similar in style to those in “The Forest Pool,” although all are in black and white. The endpapers of my 1936 edition have a Whirling Logs design similar to this.

[This review also appears on The Newbery Project.]

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