Elatsoe (2020), by Darcie Little Badger

Misinterpreting a comment in her introduction, I at first thought that Elatsoe (eh-lat-so-ay) was Darcie Little Badger’s first book, but it turns out that she is quite prolific. More books to add to my “want to read” pile, I guess.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it.

Elatsoe is full of magic realism that blends seamlessly with the imagination of youth and the stories of the Lipan Apache Nation. This seamlessness was actually a problem for me, as I am almost totally unversed in the Apache culture. At one point, Ellie tells her father, “Dad. We’re Apache. Wendigo is a monster for the northerners” (chapter 7). You can hear the eye-roll. Wendigo, however, is a creature I recognize; “northerners” includes Canadian Indigenous cultures… So while it was a learning experience, but my lack of knowledge rendered me unable to tell where magic realism and imagination bordered on—or overlapped—Indigenous story.

That aside, the combination was, well—magical. We have zombies and vampires and spiritualists and wizards all practicing under the auspices and control of governmental agencies. Ellie herself is intending to go into training as a paranormal investigator: “Her second goal was paleontologist, since she could always double-check her reconstructions with careful use of ghost dinosaurs” (chapter 4). Which brings us to what makes Ellie such an interesting protagonist.

So. Backing up to the opening pages of the book, then. I admit to being a bit flummoxed, but both the initial intrigue and its resolution spurred my interest and anticipation in reading on.

Ellie bought the life-sized plastic skull at a garage sale (the goth neighbors were moving to Salem, and they could not fit an entire Halloween warehouse into their black van). After bringing the purchase home, she dug through her box of craft supplies and glued a pair of googly eyes in its shallow sockets. [So far, so normal…]

“I got you a new friend, Kirby!” Ellie said. “Here, boy! C’mon” Kirby already fetched tennis balls and puppy toys. Sure, anything looked astonishing when it zipped across the room in the mouth of an invisible dog, but a floating googly skull would be extra special. [At this point I thought: “Imaginary friend? How old is our protagonist?”]

Unfortunately, the skull terrified Kirby. He wouldn’t get near it, much less touch it. Maybe it was possessed by a demonic vacuum cleaner. More likely, the skull just smelled weird. …

“Look, a treat!” Ellie put a cheese cube in the skull’s mouth. Although ghosts didn’t eat, Kirby enjoyed sniffing his old favorites: chicken kibble, peanut butter, and cheddar. …

The world Ellie lives in only gets better. Ellie has inherited the natural abilities of “Six-Great,” her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, also Elatsoe, a legendary and “formidable warrior” who had learned how to raise the dead. The dead can also come to Ellie in her dreams, and when her cousin Trevor visits her one night to tell her his death was not accidental, asking her to discover the truth, her father believes her: “We will honor your cousin’s last wishes, ” he said. “Together. As a family.”

Here, Elatsoe veers off the path of expectation. Tradition—in late twentieth-century Western children’s literature at least—is for the parents to be either absent or problematic for the youthful protagonist developing a sense of self. I admit that this has changed in the last couple of decades, but it still seems true that Western youth approach adulthood through a sense of separation; in Elatsoe, maturity is acknowledged as an acceptance of and engagement in the power of family and community. I am sure that children’s literature critics have addressed the coming-of-age trope in Indigenous versus Western cultures; if not, here is fodder.

The investigations of Ellie and her friend Jay—himself part fairy—lead them to crash a charity ball held by a prominent doctor in a nearby community. Not only Ellie and Jay, but Ellie’s mother and aunt, and Jay’s sister, her basketball friends, and her vampire fiancé (and of course Ellie’s grandmother’s ghost mammoth—but you’ll have to read the book) all join in to prevent a paranormal catastrophe. They work together. And succeed. As a family.

Eco Warrior (2015), by Philip Roy

24 October 2015

Roy - EcoWay to drop us right into it, Mr. Roy.

Philip Roy’s Eco Warrior grips the reader from the beginning and holds us throughout. It is the seventh of his Submarine Outlaw series, but that doesn’t stop us from engaging completely with it as a distinct story. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know how I feel about series that just go on and on, without any obvious overarching narrative. While the Submarine Outlaw series is episodic, Roy is not demanding that we read the next book in order either to understand the message or (worse) to reach a dénouement. Eco Warrior drops us right into the action without dropping us in media res into Alfred’s story.

“A hundred years ago,” Alfred tells us, “I would be on my way to World War I. I’d have to lie about my age and say I was eighteen as a of of boys did … Now I’m on my way to a different kind of war … I’m not sure what the weapons are, or who my allies are, or even how to fight. I only know that I can learn. This is the war of my time, the war to save the planet” (1-2). After this short ideological introduction, we plunge right into the story. Alfred is travelling across the Indian ocean, but we do not immediately know (unless we have read the other books) that he is in fact travelling alone in a small, self-constructed submarine, with only his dog, Hollie, and a seagull, Seaweed, as crew. We learn this slowly, in the midst of a crisis as he is tossed overboard by a swell while trying to fix his rudder. In the matter of a few pages, we have already grown to like him—his intelligence, his curiosity, his attitudes—enough to be fully invested. Here’s the part about dropping us right in… The terror of being a lone sailor on a submarine, and falling off, hit home strongly. What saves Alfred is a firm understanding of nautical physics—knowledge that the author is obviously well versed in himself. Alfred’s success in extricating himself from this traumatic situation establishes a firm connection with the reader; we are ready to believe in Alfred’s ability to travel as he does, despite his age. This belief is enhanced by Alfred’s somewhat tentative thought processes: he understands how his age impacts many of the decisions he has to make, and works within the real constraints a seventeen-year-old boy might experience.

This social realism is one of the powers of the narrative, showing readers that they can contribute to the environmental cause despite not being radical activists themselves (although Alfred is well on his way to becoming one). In his travels to find the Sea Shepherd Society, Alfred meets a number of individuals who share a concern over the state of the oceans, and he is bombarded with a range of beliefs, from Margaret’s belief that “You can’t save the oceans now. It’s too late. Nobody can” (30), to the more destructive activities of Jewels “Brass-knuckles” Bennett, to Merwin’s analogy of ants at work: “each ant carries a tiny piece of earth,” but together they create an enormous anthill (130). Alfred does encounter the Sea Shepherd Society in their attempts to prevent oil tankers from fueling illegal whalers south of the 60th parallel. Despite his desire to help actively, Alfred knows that his tiny crew, in a tiny sub, can do little to fight against the huge tanker. Nonetheless, they assist the more able Sea Shepherd Society, as well as saving a whale calf whose mother had been slaughtered. This, Alfred knows, is meaningful and for the moment must be enough. The metaphor for the young adult reader is obvious and effective.

Alfred is a fighter, a strong individual who does not let his age get in the way of learning how he can contribute. This is a message that young readers today really need to hear. If the young do not stand up and fight for our world, our resources will continue to be depleted, our environment destroyed. Eco Warrior shows readers that every individual person’s choices can contribute positively to the battle against environmental destruction. “Are you alive?” Jewels asks Alfred (62). “Yes.” “Then it’s not too late.”

Ethan (2013), by P. T. Michelle

18 March 2014

Michelle-EthanA prequel to Brightest Kind of Darkness, Ethan gives us some of the back-story of how Ethan begins to form his connection to Nara. While the text itself gives only a short moment in Ethan’s life—from his arrival at Blue Ridge school until he meets Nara after the bomb threat—it contains glimmers of moments that help construct his self-knowledge much later in the series. P. T. Michelle obviously had the overarching narrative of her intricately constructed series well developed at this point. It was in rereading the series that I began to notice the subtle foreshadowing that Ethan contains, and saw that the more savvy of readers might not be as surprised as I was by the inklings of knowledge that Ethan and Nara use to build their understanding of the situation and their relationship.

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm (1994), by Nancy Farmer

People in the children’s literature world have long raved about Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, so I finally got a copy to read. I think I understand what the excitement was about, but as with the movie The Titanic, the hype caused me to hope for more than it was reasonable to expect a story to provide. The tale is original and engaging, moreso for being set in the future in Zimbabwe, incorporating Zimbabwean traditions and history as the normative culture, with other cultures—African, European, and American—as foreign, even exotic.

The story centres on the three coddled Matsika children, who escape on an adventure so the eldest—Tendai—can earn a Scout badge. This melding of recognizable contemporary cultural artefacts into Zimbabwean life 200 years in the future provides a welcome connection between the reader and the characters, as does the young children’s desire to try their fledgling wings and explore the world outside their overly guarded, high-tech compound home. Adventure is certainly what they get, when they are kidnapped to be sold to the last surviving guerrilla group; all others had been eradicated by their father, the great General Matsika. The kidnappers take a while to learn the true identity of the children, snatched at random, during which time the Matsikas engage the assistance of the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, detectives endowed with special powers from being born too close to a nuclear power plant meltdown. This elaborate set-up is supported by a carefully choreographed series of disconnects that move the children from one form of trouble to another, their path, the detectives’, and the guerrillas’ slowly spinning towards each other in a decaying orbit, culminating in a final scene of chaos and destruction… This might sound seriously excessive, but Farmer’s tale sways between excitement and reflection, movement and stasis, so artfully that the reader is never bored, never overwhelmed. The balance is superb.

The ride is wild, and often we are uncertain that all will end well, but Farmer delivers her multitude of characters safely where they all belong—good or bad. In the end, we return almost to status quo—as most good children’s novels should—with the Tendai having learned much about himself, as well as his family and his world.