Friday, May 20, 2016

The Runaway Papoose

The Runaway Papoose by Grace Moon is another book you will have to track down; I suggest starting at your local library.

The Blurb

1929 Newbery Honor Recipient  
Nah-Tee, a young Pueblo Indian girl, is separated from her parents when enemies raid their camp. She meets a shepherd boy named Moyo, who agrees to help her find her family.

My Review
The Runaway Papoose by Grace Moon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'll admit, after reading the portrayal of Native Americans in other early Newbery books, I was nervous when I started this 1929 Newbery Honor Book. This book surprised me - the story is far from perfect and, while it is exploitative (the Moons cashed in on native cultures, not just with this book but with other works as well), it's not condescending toward native cultures. Rather, the book attempts to humanize Native Americans; it doesn't contribute to the savage image promoted by early politicians.

We even get a glimpse of how destructive America has been for the tribes, the threat of white people stealing native kids and forcing them into white schools is constantly lurking about the edges of the story - an issue that's left unresolved at the end of the book and which remains an issue still unresolved in the real world today.

As a kid, when I first looked at this book, I expected an entirely different story about a kid who keeps messing up. The title is misleading - yes, this book is about a little girl who runs away from her family, not out of spite but for protection when her family is attacked. The bulk of the story is about the girl trying to return to her family. That first impression wasn't helped by the name of the main character, Nah-tee, which I thought was a play off the word 'naughty.' Nati is actually a name common to Navajo literature; Moon just used a phonetic spelling.

Nah-tee wound up contrary to what her name first implied to me. She's a little girl that anyone could love and I like that Moon did that with the character, not making her a savage or foreign alien but just a little girl, like millions of other little girls around the world (all of Moon's child-characters are likable and very human).

What Moon doesn't do well is her actual writing. She relies on strange sentence structures to create a sense of foreign language. Example: "A little she was frightened." No one thinks like that in their head, not even a little girl. This technique doesn't work and I think it helps to create a sense of distance with the characters - readers watch from a'far rather than being inside a character's head. I would have preferred to see Moon work in the actual Dine language, with a pronunciation guide/dictionary as an appendix.

Grace Moon (and her husband) did spend enough time in the desert to paint some beautiful descriptions of the southwest. I wish she'd also taken time to describe Southwestern tribes. Moon uses the terms Navajo and Puebloan as if they are interchangeable - they are not. The best-known Puebloan societies are the Taos, Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi; the Navajo/Dine are close neighbors. Moon never makes this distinction.

I have cousins among the Navajo but am not actively involved with the tribe; even as a young kid (I first encountered this book around the age of 7), I knew enough about the southwestern tribes to spot that mistake. It makes me wonder, how much of the culture did Moon manipulate to suit her purposes?

And, as a kid, I expected to see the Navajo/Dine's matrilineal system, with descriptions of the clans. The matrilineal system isn't even implied, which disappointed me during both readings of this book. I spent a lot of time as a child imagining what equal gender rights among the tribes prior to the European invasion would would have been like and, if there are any Navajo kids out there looking for something to do and reading this review, I still want to read that story... if only someone would write it.

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