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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Native American Coming-of-Age Story Just Okay

(Image from Amazon)
Montana, 1909 - Intent on civilizing Native Americans, the U.S. government is rounding them up, corralling them onto reservations, and cleansing them of their "savage" ways. For young Lionel and Beatrice, Blackfoot orphans who lost their mother to tuberculosis during the brutal winter of 1903, this means enrollment at the Chalk Bluff boarding school. Although Lionel would rather live with what's left of his family, he's not unhappy with the situation. Beatrice, on the other hand, craves the old ways. She defies the Brothers who run the school by speaking her native tongue, refusing to let them cut her thick black braids, and honoring the Creator in the ancient manner. Lionel can't understand why she insists on making trouble not only with the priests at the school but with the soldiers at the Army outpost next door.

On the day Lionel finds a dead man kneeling in the snow, Beatrice turns on two of the soldiers with a vengeance that surprises them all. Stealing the Army's prized stallion, she and Lionel flee into the wilderness. Beatrice thinks she remembers how to get to their grandfather's home, but the way is long and the weather uncooperative. With soldiers hot on their trail, the children try to move quickly, keeping themselves and the big horse safe from harm. Fighting hunger, the frigid winter, wild animals, illness, and the not always honorable intentions of other wanderers, the children's journey is fraught with danger. And adventure. And great revelation for Lionel, who finally begins to see why Beatrice fights so strongly to defend the culture the government's determined to destroy.

Starfish, a debut novel by writer/filmmaker James Crowley, examines two very different characters coming of age in a time when everything around them is changing. As the old ways converge with the new, Lionel and Beatrice must choose which to embrace. The farther their journey takes them, the more they learn - about themselves, each other, and what it means to be a Native American in the white man's world. While I didn't absolutely adore this book, I did find it to be an exciting adventure piloted by two engaging characters. It's not entirely believable and I have no doubt that some people (see Debbie Reese's very thorough review of Starfish here) will have problems with Crowley's portrayal of American Indians, but I thought it was okay. Not unputtownable, not riveting, not jaw-dropping, just okay.
(Readalikes: Apparently, I haven't read too many books about Native Americans. Any suggestions here?)
Grade: C
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild, but frequent invectives
To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Starfish from the generous folks at Disney/Hyperion. Thank you!


  1. You must read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie - must. It's great.

  2. I would love to read more books about Native people. I've read 'The Painted Drum' and 'The Golden Spruce'. My son and daughter-in-law live on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands).
    I love your blog because you tell us what the rating is, which I appreciate since I don't like reading books with a lot of foul language. Thanks.

  3. Sounds like good book

    Merry Christmas and Happy holidays to you!


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