I actually finished reading Waterless Mountain, by Laura Adams Armer, at the end of last year, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it, hence the delay in this review. Mountain, the 1932 Newbery Award winner, is a coming-of-age story about Younger Brother, a young Navajo (Navaho? Diné?) boy with the potential and passion for becoming a great medicine man. His path towards fulfilling his destiny is fairly straightforward. There’s no opposition from his parents or from his circumstances, so there’s not much of a plot. (I would have preferred one, nevertheless.) Mostly, Younger Brother’s story is comprised of moments and experiences: beautiful ones, dull ones, and ones that unsettle my 21st century PC sensibilities.
Waterless Mountain‘s mystical, almost religious tone seemed a bit too earnest for me, and Younger Brother’s respect for The Big Man, a white trader, bordered on hero worship. Now Armer, a photographer and painter, had lived in Hopi and Navajo territories before writing this book. She must have earned their respect, because extraordinarily, she’s the first white woman to have a sand painting made in her honor, and the first person to be given permission to photograph the paintings. I think it’s safe to assume she wanted to get the cultural aspects of Navajo life right, but I have no idea if she succeeded or not, and I wonder how Navajo people feel about this book.
Anyways, here’s what stood out to me, when I wasn’t bemoaning the lack of a plot:
- Laura Adams Armer’s autobiography would have been a compelling story
- “to walk in beauty” is very important to Younger Brother, and the impromptu songs he composes are actually quite lyrical
- the water developer was a good guy in the story, which was an unexpected twist
- Younger Brother tells stories about a woman with an unfortunate name: The Young Woman Who Tinkles. Her name refers to the deer hooves dangling from her clothes, not a weakness in her urethral sphincter muscles…
- should a bunch of jackdaws invite you to play a game called “throw up your eyes,” the wise answer is no
- apparently, Santa Claus is not so scary if you think of him as a big fat pale Yay