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Waterless Mountain: 09/18/13
Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer won the 1931 Newbery Award for its depiction of life on the Navajo (written Navaho in the book) reservation. The introduction says the author made a name for herself for being one of the first Caucasians to successfully live among the Navajo.
Despite the enthusiastic introduction, it took me a while to get into the story of Younger Brother. It starts as the boy decides to begin his training to be a Singer (haatali). Although later on Armer demonstrates her knowledge of Diné bizaad, these early chapters rely almost exclusively on translation. While "Younger Brother" is a completely normal affectation within the family structure, it sounds odd in English — especially capitalized as a proper noun.
Later on, as Younger Brother grows and explores beyond the family hogan and land, he earns a nickname and his warrior name. Along with that, he also meets people from outside Dinétah and to emphasize the cultural shock of hearing a language other than his own, Armer tosses in more Navajo vocabulary.
Just as Mandarin transliteration has changed since its been taken over by native speakers, so has Diné bizaad (which only recently has become a written language). There are still differences between Arizona and New Mexico dialects, but not as extreme as the differences between 1930s transcription and the modern day written language. Just as Beijing was once Peking, belagaana (white / non-Navajo) is rendered here as "pelicano."
Even with these oddities in the language, Younger Brother's story transcends normal expectation for a coming of age story about a young Native American boy. Instead of it being a typical spirit quest that highlights the cliché of the noble savage, it's an honest to goodness story of a young man trying to put all the pieces of his life into a coherent internal narrative. He does complete his haatali training; He also falls in love with airplanes. Those two things bring him to the conclusion that he must head west to Turquoise Woman's island (see my review of The Gathering for more on her).
Now this quest I expected to end at the western sacred mountain (near Flagstaff). But it doesn't. Instead the quest takes on a similar direction as Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel (review coming) — thus bringing Younger Brother an the rest of his family out of the comfort of the Waterless Mountain area to Santa Barbara.
That unexpected trip both floored me and delighted me. Although my initial drive to learn more about the Diné began near Flagstaff, it was at U.C. Santa Barbara that I had the first opportunity to do so.