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.

Sammy and the Headless Horseman (2016), by Rona Arato

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.2.

Sammy and the Headless Horseman (2016)

arato-headless-horseman“Jinkies, it’s Cousin Wilber!” or rather, “Oy vey, it’s Mr. Katzenblum!” Sammy and the Headless Horseman is a fun version of the standard Scooby Doo-like plot, wherein a disgruntled relative re-enacts the legend of the Headless Horseman in order to frighten the owners of a family inn into selling. Set in a Jewish immigrant community in the Catskill Mountains, the novel is more complex than the children’s cartoon, in that it touches on how prejudice exists on a number of levels: racial, cultural, financial. The strength of the story lies in the author’s exploration of the Jewish culture, which is presented in a way that non-Jewish readers can fully engage with.

Sammy, a first-generation Polish Jewish immigrant, accompanies his Aunt Pearl and annoying cousin Joshua, and his cousin Leah (who plays little role in the novel) for their summer vacation at the Pine Grove Hotel. Aunt Pearl and Joshua condescendingly treat Sammy as little more than a servant; in fact, Aunt Pearl functionally offers Sammy as free labour at the inn. While his relatives have a “large, airy room” (10), Sammy is left to bunk with Adam, a summer employee. Sammy is actually pleased with this arrangement, as it permits him to mostly avoid Joshua, and to conspire with Adam and Shayna, daughter of the inn owners, in their “ghost hunting” (17).

A sense of the supernatural is established by Mrs. Leibman, inn-keeper, who believes her grandmother is haunting her. Her grandmother, Mrs. Leibman tells the children, always liked her brother best, and her ghost wants him to have the hotel. When things break and lights go out, Mrs. Leibman’s superstitions seem supported. Combined with the mysterious Headless Horseman’s harassment of The Hermit, a reclusive ex-slave who suffers discrimination at the hands of the less-educated of the community, the “hauntings” provide ample scope for a ghost-hunting adventure.

For the younger readers, the simple plot will still entertain, and the end may be satisfying: Sammy’s father comes and stands up for him against Aunt Pearl; the Headless Horseman is unmasked; and the Hermit returns to his reclusive existence. For those who have read more broadly, the plot will seem derivative and the end far too predictable.

Death Drop (2016), by Melanie Jackson

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.2.

Death Drop (2016)

jackson-dropThe Orca Currents series, high-interest books with a simpler reading level aimed at teens, address issues as diverse as geo-caching (Kristin Butcher’s Caching In), archeological mysteries at the Royal Tyrrell Museum (John Wilson’s Bones), and normal teenage antics gone wrong (for example, Deb Loughead’s Caught in the Act). Sometimes, though, we get a seemingly simple mystery, such as Melanie Jackson’s Death Drop. Protagonist Zeke’s legitimate concern about being late to practice, and thus losing a scholarship, is set against his worry about a little girl lost at Playland and his desire to unravel what turns out to be an increasingly interesting mystery. The newest ride at the fair—Death Drop—is based on the myth of Persephone’s time in Hades—including “a famous painting of Persephone, on loan from England” (3). Zeke’s classmate Dieter, the “class bookworm” (7), who is writing a report on the financial situation at the ride, has read classical mythology, and is familiar with the pre-Raphaelite painters, fills Zeke in on the juicier details of the myth and the intrigue surrounding the ride. Readers are thus shown a teen world in which learning plays a positive role in the success of the characters.

Approached by a little blonde girl as he queues for Death Drop, Zeke is stereotypically loath to help her: “I was a boy. Kids with problems needed a nice lady. A middle-aged, motherly type” (4). His attitude softens as she points to his LA Angels t-shirt: “Angels help people.” Faced with the uninterested, disengaged staff at the ride, Zeke takes on the task of finding her aunt and in the process discovers the illegal activities that lie beneath the fun of the fair.

A lost girl, a death-defying thrill ride, financial fraud involving a stolen painting, international intrigue: all bound together in a plot that works. Death Drop does not have Zeke and Dieter learning deep life lessons so much as employing their inherent compassion and generosity to counter the ill effects of adult greed. A short novel, certainly, but containing a fast-paced story centered on protagonists whose integrity and intelligence is essential in a satisfying narrative resolution.

Aesop’s Secret (2012), by Claudia White

18 February 2017

white-aesopI’ve just finished Claudia White’s Aesop’s Secret (well, obviously, because here I am reviewing it). They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case I think maybe you can. Larissa Kulik’s drawing of Melissa, one of the two protagonists, is alluring, whimsical yet uncanny, and thus very fitting with the content of the book.

I have to admit it took me a little while to get into the story; the language is not as light and flowing as other books I have read recently. But then it began: I sunk deeper and deeper into the story, completely uncertain where White was taking us. The more I read, the more I honestly didn’t know, couldn’t tell, where we were headed… which of course drew me deeper still.

The concept in Aesop’s Secret is refreshingly original. A race of Others living among us (okay, not so original yet), called Athenites, used to live in harmony with humans but were forced by history to conceal their abilities. This name is purportedly based on the Greek goddess Athena’s ability to transform into other animals. Now, if you think about Ovid’s Metamorphosis (the title is a bit of a give-away), it is not only Athena, amongst the gods, who has this ability. But I’ll give White that one; after all, Athena’s mother Metis was known—more than other mythological characters—as a shape-shifter. Melissa and Felix Hutton’s mother is about to publish a treatise revealing that Athenites are real, not mythological. She seems exactly the right anthropologist to do so, as the Huttons themselves are Athenites. But someone doesn’t want that research published.

Athenites’ abilities manifest as they mature; shape-shifting is genetic and connected in some way to their hemoglobin. This sets up nicely for a plot involving biological manipulation for at least one character’s nefarious purposes. I really don’t want to say more than that; you’ll have to read the book. The originality lies largely in the parts I am not telling you: sorry. While there is some catering to the narrative expectations of child readers—I can tell you that it all works out in the end—there were quite a few “oh—didn’t see that coming” moments to keep readers on their toes.

Aesop’s Secret is the first of a trilogy, all of which are written, published, and available now to be read: the second book is Key to Kashdune (2014) followed by Servalius Window (2015), itself a novel in three parts. White avoids the “well, I might as well write another volume” problems that so much series fiction has these days. At the end of the novel, you can see how the story can go on, but you are still left satisfied. The best place to be: you can read on, but you don’t have to in order to find closure.

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