Cusi, a precocious child of the ancient Inca culture, had a strange upbringing. His guardian, an old man named Chuto, was a llama herder living in the Andes mountain range near Cuzco, Peru. At the beginning of the novel Cusi has no memory of ever seeing anyone except Chuto, so when an Incan family moves into the valley below, Cusi is fascinated. He spends a lot of time watching them, wishing he had a family of his own. He has no idea who his parents were, or how he came to be living with Chuto. There are too many mysteries in Cusi's life, and he's desperately in search of answers. During the course of this unusual coming-of-age novel Cusi meets many other people and makes two trips off the mountain to visit the civilization below.
From the quality of the writing it was clear to me that the author, Ann Nolan Clark, was intimately familiar with Incan and Peruvian cultures. I did some research to see if she'd been to Peru. Sure enough, she had.
Ann Nolan Clark spent twenty-five years teaching school – most of that time at the New Mexico Tesuque school for Native American children. During her teaching career she wrote fifteen children's books that were published by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
As Longfellow wrote, “Into each life some rain must fall.”
Tragedy hit Ann Nolan Clark's life when her only child, a son, was killed during World War II. After the war the Institute for Inter-American Affairs funded this author's travels in Central and South America. For five years she journeyed through Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. Her travels inspired more novels for children, one of which was Secret of the Andes. This novel was published in 1952 and won the Newbery Medal for 1953.
For the most part, I enjoyed reading the book. There were no glaring grammatical flaws that interfered with my reading, and the words flowed well, which is the mark of an experienced writer. However there were a few passages that went into travelogue mode, and that brought me out of the novel experience long enough to be sorry the author had not edited them out. After this happened several times, I took note of this passage to share with you:
“Chuto brought the yarn he had carried down the mountain to barter. While they ate parched corn and dried meat, Chuto bargained. The other men examined the yarn, noting its quality and the evenness of its spinning. ‘The women of your village spin good yarn,’ one man told him. Chuto did not answer. He did not say there were no women in his village. He did not say that he had spun the yarn and under his patient teaching Cusi had spun some of it. Although spinning is chiefly women’s work, men and boys know how to spin. Occasionally they can be seen spinning yarn as they walk along the highland trails.” - pg. 46This is a great scene until the last two sentences when the author stepped out of the character's point of view and started explaining the culture.
In the second half of the book I noticed other things that bothered me even more. I don't want to write any spoilers, so I can't tell everything I had trouble believing. In her effort to teach about the mysterious Incan culture, the author gave the Incas the ability to know and do things in super-human, mysterious ways. These unrealistic plot twists didn't go over well with me, but even worse were the psychic powers given to Misti, Cusi's favorite llama. Misti gained the power to lead Cusi on incredible journeys. I would rather have seen Cusi figure out things on his own.
For me, the most annoying thing in the book had to do with a landslide. This landslide was totally unnecessary to the plot of the book. There I was, enjoying a pleasant evening with a children's novel when suddenly I'm informed of a landslide that takes a heart-rending toll in human life. My heart starts aching, but to my surprise, Cusi doesn't react much. I don't have too much tolerance for tragedy and trauma in children's literature so I found that totally unnecessary landslide to be superfluous to the plot of the novel, and therefore, annoying.
Ann Nolan Clark came through for her readers in the end. She complimented her lovely descriptions of Peruvian landscape with a final chapter that satisfied me 100%. By the time I got done reading, I was excited about knowing what the secret of the Andes was.
It seems that a lot of Newbery Medal winners are chosen because they illuminate various world or historic cultures. This book is an excellent introduction to Andean culture for young readers. I was surprised, however, at the frequent mention of Coca leaf use by Cusi and his guardian, Chuto. I always considered Coca leaves to be the natural form of cocaine. I did some research on this and discovered that Coca leaves are for sale on the internet, and it is not illegal for Americans to buy them. Coca leaf tea is said to energize, brighten moods, help digestion, regulate the metabolism of carbohydrates, and alleviate fatigue and altitude sickness. It is an important part of Incan culture that Ann Nolan Clark wanted people to know about.
There were other parts of the book I liked, for example, the relationship of the humans and llamas, a scary bridge scene, and Chuto's early morning greeting to the sun. I could go on telling you more, but perhaps I've said enough and you will soon read and enjoy this short novel for yourself.