Thursday, March 10, 2011

Waterless Mountain

I finally decided to read Waterless Mountain, by Laura Adams Armer, on a cold March morning. Somehow reading this timeless, rather mystical coming-of-age story about young boy in the desert Southwest - with bumblebees collecting pollen and eagles soaring and the sky like a giant turquoise bowl - seemed rather appealing when it was drizzling on piles of dirty snow outside, with that pathetic grey late-winter Michigan light coming in my window. 

There are some quite beautiful descriptions of the natural environment of northern Arizona in Waterless Mountain, and of the traditional Navajo way of life, complete with lambs, weaving, corn, pinon nuts, pack rats, snug hogans, ancient skeletons buried with pottery eroding out of the ground, and sacred tobacco. There's also quite a bit of the poetry of Navajo ceremonies and their unique cultural perspective.

Songs like the following are scattered throughout Younger Brother's story:
From the house made of dawn,
On the trail of the dawn,
He is coming to us;
     He is coming.

Now the Bearer of the Day,
     Sends a beam from the blue.
It is shining on us,
     It is shining.

To the house made of night,
     On a trail made of night,
He is going from us,
     He is going.

Now the Bearer of the Day
     Sends the stars to the sky.
They are watching above,
     They are watching (p. 84).

"House made of dawn" is such a beautiful phrase. Native American author N. Scott Momaday used it for the title of his 1969 Pulitzer prize-winning book, and it is part of a traditional Navajo ceremony that has been widely reproduced because of the beauty of the its language. I think Laura Adams Armer did a pretty good job of portraying a Navajo boy in the 1920's or 30's (for an outsider, anyway), and the details of Navajo life and culture seem authentic, but it would be interesting to see what Navajo people today think about Waterless Mountain. Armer also mentions some important Navajo history, like the genocidal Long Walk, and the destruction of the Navajo peach orchards in Canyon de Chelly (p. 195-6, popularly blamed on Kit Carson).

Unfortunately, Younger Brother's narrative isn't exactly action-packed. It's mostly reflective, with calm acceptance of a few exciting events, drowsy moments thinking about legends, and then there's feelings of quiet happiness and content, followed by some zen-like attention to the moment. I found it refreshing, and liked reading about people whose religious philosophy includes the directive to "live in beauty", but I know that my son (who likes fiction like James Patterson's Maximum Ride series, for instance), would agree with the Amazon reader who said that it was "the most boring book I have ever read."

A few parts were awkward, if not "painfully condescending", as Amanda quoted in her post (from a 1993 Horn Book review), like when the Big Man (a white neighbor whom Wendy accurately sums up as the "all-knowing, kind, wise, Great White Trader" in her review) took Younger Brother up in an airplane, and when Younger Brother's family went to a movie during their trip to California. Interestingly, the "water-developer" is seen as another positive character, responsible for bringing more water to the family's livestock, and not someone stealing a precious resource for far-away golf courses or cities, as many communities in the Southwest would perceive him today.

A couple of random notes: Navaho is the old-fashioned spelling for this Native nation. Navajo is usually used today, and the people call themselves the Diné (or the Dineh).

This was one of my favorite sentences in the book, which I couldn't help reading aloud to my kids. Think no more about it, my children!
He knew that Mother was always right about everything so thought no more about it (p. 42).
I was truly surprised by how much I enjoyed Waterless Mountain, since I expected to plod through another "a boy's life in another traditional culture" story like Dobry or ...And Now Miguel. Instead, Armer's book left me longing to return to the Four Corners (ne Arizona, nw New Mexico, sw Colorado and se Utah), where I'd like to eat some fry bread, smell the sagebrush after a summer rain, and listen to the silent songs that Younger Brother describes. As the Big Man notes on page 137, "It's great stuff, this tying up fiction with facts."