Wednesday, April 15, 2015

BLUE BIRDS by Caroline Starr Rose

In Caroline Rose Starr's Blue Birds, the two main characters are Alis, an English girl, and Kimi, a Roanoke girl. Set in July 1587, Blue Birds is a Lost Colony story.

Alis and her family come ashore at Roanoke. Among them is Governor White and his daughter. She is pregnant with Virginia (Virginia Dare is widely recognized as the first English person born in what came to be known as the United States).They are in the fourth English group that Kimi's people interact with. Before them, we read, there were three other groups. The first one took two Native men back to England: Mateo (a Croatoan) and Wanchese (a Roanoke).

With Alis's group is Manteo. Having spent the last few months living in London, he dresses like English people but still has long hair. Alis thinks of him as "that savage."

Kimi watches Alis's group. She thinks of them as "strange ones." Some of her people think they are "spirits back from the dead" and others say that they have "invisible weapons that strike with sickness after they've gone." Kimi's father told her they were "people like us, only with different ways." But, her father is dead.

Dead? Yes. Soon, we learn that Kimi's father, Wingina, was beheaded by the second group of colonists, and that Wanchese (he's her uncle) killed the people in the third group.

Did you catch that? The English beheaded her father. Yet, she's going to befriend Alis.

Possible? Yes. Plausible? I don't think so.

Why does she do this? Because she's lonely.

See, her sister died of disease brought by those English.

Did you catch that?! Her sister's death is due to the English. But... she's going to befriend this English girl?

Possible? Yes. Plausible? I don't think so!

And... Alis. When they land, she finds the bones of a man. She worries they may be the bones of her uncle, Samuel. Soon after that, one of the Englishmen (Mr. Howe) is killed, adding to her fear of the Roanoke people. She imagines them, waiting. Watching. Yet, she, too, is lonely enough to move past her fears. Is that possible? Yes. It is plausible? I don't think so!

Human emotions aside, let's look at the some of the ways the Roanoke people think and live.

It is a challenge to imagine how the people of a culture not your own, of a time not your own would think of you. In this case, we have a not-Native writer imagining how Native people think about English people. A good many non-Native writers lapse into a space where we (Native people) are shown as primitive and in awe of Europeans who came to Native lands. We see this in Kimi (Kindle Locations 367-370):
The English have great power,
mightier than we have seen
in the agile deer,
the arrows of our enemies,
the angry hurricane.
Able to blot out the sun.
There's other things that bother me about Blue Birds. One of the stereotypical ways of depicting Native people is how quietly they move, not making a sound. Kimi does that. Another stereotype is the way that Kimi thinks of Alis's wooden bird. Kimi thinks it is Alis's power:
I imagine her cowering in her village
without her power.
I want to see
her weakness.
She comes from brutal people,
yet is as loving
with her mother as we are.
Can both things we true?
That passage in Blue Birds gets at the heart of what I think Caroline Rose Starr is trying to do. Have two girls come to see past differences in who each one and her people are, to the humanity in both. She's not the first to do this. Children's literature has a lot of historical fiction like this... Sign of the Beaver is one; so is Helen Frost's Salt. 

When the two girls come face to face, Kimi thinks of her dad and sister's death. In her language, she tells Alis "You have brought us sorrow." Kimi sees that Alis is frightened by her words and thinks that balance has been restored.

The balance has been restored?! I think that's too tidy.

There are other things that don't sit well with me... the parts of the story where Kimi has a ceremony, marking her passage from child to woman is one. The parts where the Roanoke's are dancing around the fire at night, preparing for attack? That just reminds me of Little House on the Prairie! Indeed, Alis's mom reminds me of Ma!

As the friendship between the two girls continues, they worry for each other's safety. Kimi gives Alis her montoac (power, pearls given to her in that womanhood ceremony). In the end, Alis goes Native. That is, she chooses to live with Kimi. And when the English return, she looks upon them, crouching behind some reeds as she watches them.

That ending--with Alis living with Indians--parallels a theory about what happened to that Lost Colony. In the author's note, Starr tells readers about the Lost Colony. I'm glad to see that note but the story she told? Overall, for me it does not work, and it makes me wonder about the motivation to create friendship stories like this? They seem so more idealized than anything that might really happen between children of peoples at war. And, given that these stories are told--not by Native people--seems telling, too. Borne, perhaps, of guilt? Or what? I don't know, really.

Starr's Blue Bird, published in 2015 by G. P. Putnam's Sons (an imprint of Penguin Group) is not recommended.

Sunday, April 12, 2015


A reader of AICL has written to tell me she's reading Cynthia Hand's The Last Time We Say Goodbye. 

In particular, the reader pointed me to the part of the book where a character named Seth is telling Sadie and Lex (the protagonist) a ghost story about when he saw a shadow on a wall, and that when he turned around to see who was making the shadow, he saw (p. 133):
" Indian. He was wearing the buckskins and moccasins and the feather in his hair and the whole Native American ensemble, which was weird enough, but what was weirder was that I could sort of see through him, to that sign on the wall that counted how many days since the last accident."
Seth stepped away, and says that the Indian
"...nodded, all solemn, and then he lifted his hand up like this." Seth raises his palm. "And then he said, "How.'"
"'How'?" I repeat. "'How' what?"
"Like, 'How, white man. I come in peace.' And after that we were totally friends, me and Tonto, and every night after work we'd knock back a beer." 
Obviously, we're supposed to think that is amusing, but I don't think it is funny. Sadie starts to pummel him and then (p. 134):
"But seriously, though," he says, "That Circuit City was built on an old Indian burial ground. Look it up on the internet if you don't believe me. And sometimes, for real, we'd hear footsteps or things would be moved in different places when we left the room. Seriously."
My turn to utter that word: Seriously?! Pulling out the stereotypical Indian burial ground trope?! So... what IS this story about? Here's the synopsis:
From New York Times bestselling author Cynthia Hand comes a gorgeous and heart-wrenching story of love, loss, and letting go.
Since her brother, Tyler, committed suicide, Lex has been trying to keep her grief locked away, and to forget about what happened that night. But as she starts putting her life, her family, and her friendships back together, Lex is haunted by a secret she hasn't told anyone—a text Tyler sent, that could have changed everything.
In the tradition of Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why, Gayle Forman's If I Stay, and Lauren Oliver's Before I FallThe Last Time We Say Goodbye is a thoughtful and deeply affecting novel that will change the way you look at life and death.

It may be a deeply affecting story about life and death but it is deeply troubling to see this stereotypical burial ground in it. I know--people will defend it because suicide is something so many people deal with, and this book will help them deal with it...

The Last Time We Say Goodbye, however, joins a very long list of books that help one population at the expense of Native people. I have not read this book but my guess is that Hand could cut these parts completely and the book would be fine.

Published by HarperTeen in February 2015, it will be on my year-end Not Recommended list.