Skeleton Man – Joseph Bruchac

Skeleton Man CoverSeries: Skeleton Man, #1
First Published: 1st August, 2001
Genre: Middle Grade Horror / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

When Molly’s parents disappear, she’s sent to live with an uncle she’s never seen before. He reminds her of the story of the Skeleton Man, but will anyone believe her?

The story starts after Molly’s parents have vanished, but it flashes back to previous events such as her parents not coming home and meeting her uncle. Her uncle reminds her of the old Mohawk story of the Skeleton Man. This is about a man who likes the taste of human flesh, so eats all of his own until he’s only a skeleton. Then he starts eating his family. Her uncle is pale, thin, and she’s never seen him eat. But more importantly, she’s sure he doesn’t have good intentions towards her, whatever those might be.

I liked the theme of using stories to understand the world. Thinking about the Skeleton Man gives Molly a framework for dealing with what’s happening around her. The stories in her dreams help her decide what she’s going to do. This is also reinforced with modern stories, as Molly feels comforted by the songs from musicals sung by her teacher, Ms. Shabbas.

Though what’s happening at her uncle’s house is creepy, there’s also horror in what happens outside. Molly has her concerns dismissed by the adults who should be protecting her. Her only ally is her teacher. Ms. Shabbas believes something is wrong, without expecting Molly to be use exactly the right words. It’s clear Molly is frightened and that’s enough. But the people with the real power to act are reluctant to listen. This will be relatable for many children, who’ve tried to go to adults only to have their concerns brushed aside.

Ms. Shabbas has her own obstacles when it comes to being heard. Her concerns about Molly are not taken particularly seriously, even though she’d know the children in her class and would be in the good position to realise something isn’t right. No one outright says she’s being too imaginative, as happens to Molly, but there is that polite attempt to not listen to what she’s saying if at all possible. This is subtle, as the only indicator given is that Ms. Shabbas has an afro, but I certainly took that as being a black woman making it harder to be heard.

Race and culture is touched on in other ways. One reason Molly is sure she won’t be believed is the Skeleton Man isn’t a shared story with the adults she’s approaching. Molly takes her own dreams very seriously, but is aware that talking about them won’t go down well. She’s also very critical of her own appearance, such as finding her dark hair ugly and wanting to dye it blonde. It reminded me of wanting to straighten my hair when I was a child, because I’d already picked up on my hair not being deemed acceptable. Children shouldn’t face these pressures telling them non-white features are ugly, but they do, so Molly’s criticism of herself was unfortunately very plausible.

There is a reference to the idea of being crazy as a potential cause of the uncle’s behaviour. The adults involved make a specific link between people who are non-neurotypical and survivors of trauma as being likely to act this way. Molly pushes this aside as unlikely. But the link is still being made between evil acts and craziness, in a way that some readers will take away as being the probable cause.

Outside of my concerns on the evil and crazy link, I enjoyed the story. It creates that unsettling feel right from the start. As well as the potential supernatural angles, it also touches on some rather more everyday (if not any less horrifying) issues.

The reading difficulty of the book is aimed at lower middle grade. It’s a very short novel with relatively easy words. The edition I read had pictures by Sally Wern Comport to break up the text. Note that it does have horror themes and cannibalism references.

When We Were Alone – David A. Robertson (author), Julie Flett (illustrator)

When We Were Alone CoverFirst Published: 1st March, 2017
Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A young girl helps her kókom (grandmother) in the garden. She asks her kókom questions, and the answers go back to the time when her kókom was sent away to school.

This book deals with the history of residential schools for Native American children. The focus is on the attempts to stop the children from practising their culture. They weren’t allowed to have long hair or speak Cree at the school. Everything they were not allowed to do was to make them like everyone else (in other words, like white people), but the children fought back in small ways by doing the forbidden things when they were alone.

The story of the school is told through the young girl asking questions, such as asking why her kókom has long hair, and being told about the school cutting the children’s hair. This makes it a generally positive book, as her kókom survived and is able to live as she wants. However, there are also hints that it’s not all in the past. The girl doesn’t face being taken away from her family and community, but she lives in a world where most people in the media will be white, and someone like her kókom is seen as different. There’s that unspoken implication to the questions of the pressure still being there, because those questions wouldn’t be raised if the girl’s family was considered to be like everybody else.

The pictures look like collages, with additional painting and drawing for detail and texture. It creates a bold and colourful feel, which works well with the theme of the girl’s kókom dressing brightly and not being afraid to show her culture. My favourite page is the flying bird with the Cree text around it (the words repeated from the main story), as it feels like a celebration. Despite all of the attempts, the girl and her kókom are free to speak as they want to speak.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quiet and subtle handling of the topic. The art and story are a good match. It is perhaps a little too subtle for readers who don’t already know the history of the residential schools. For example, the text doesn’t make it clear who made the children go to the school. This could be something to discuss with readers after finishing the book.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time – Hope Nicholson (editor)

Anthology CoverFirst Published: 24th August, 2016
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Anthology
Authors: Grace L. Dillon; Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair; Richard Van Camp; Cherie Dimaline; David A. Robertson; Daniel Heath Justice; Darcie Little Badger; Gwen Benaway; Mari Kurisato; Nathan Adler; Cleo Keahna
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This anthology focuses on Native American two-spirit and QUILTBAG stories. All authors are Native, but not all of them are QUILTBAG. It opens with an introduction from the editor, followed by two pieces that introduce the theme and a little bit about the history of two-spirit people. There are eight stories and one poem, so it’s a relatively short anthology.

There are a number of reoccurring themes. Nations sending out colonists into space is one, and is handled differently in each story that raises it. Another is what makes someone a member of a tribe. “Valediction at the Star View Motel ” (Nathan Adler) has a white girl who was adopted as a child, and “Imposter Syndrome” (Mari Kurisato) is about a non-human trying to get on a colony ship. Both stories share a similar theme, of the tribe viewing a person as a member for being part of the community, and the outside not wanting to acknowledge that. I also liked that “Imposter Syndrome” has an asexual aromantic character. It’s clear this is not because she’s non-human, as another non-human wants a relationship.

A number of the stories are romances. “Né łe!” (Darcie Little Badger) was my favourite of these, as it was about slowly getting to know someone, rather than love at first sight. The concept of transporting pet dogs for wealthy colonists was also fun. A more serious note to the story is about sovereignty, and the contrast between tribes when it comes to being able to maintain it. The Navajo Nation has its own space colony. Whereas the protagonist is Lipan Apache, and her family is forced to leave their farm, with no new home in the stars.

I liked the focus on a parent and child relationship in “Legends Are Made, Not Born” (Cherie Dimaline). Auntie Dave is raising the protagonist, which includes training in two-spirit community responsibilities. It shows ties between two-spirit people outside of sexual relationships, which really shouldn’t be as rare as it is in stories.

Though there are a lot of positive things, I didn’t like “Aliens” (Richard Van Camp). Unfortunately, this was the first story, so wasn’t a good start to the anthology for me. I did like how it was told as people verbally tell stories, but I had some concerns when it was suggested that Jimmy being a gentle person who wasn’t having relationships would mean his life was forgettable. As though it’s not a proper life without sexual relationships. And then once he does have a relationship, the shift is to making fun of his genitals. It’s implied he’s intersex, though even if that wasn’t the specific identity intended, he’s still going to be in one of the groups that frequently gets reduced to being a set of genitals. Those jokes do not feel like jokes to the person constantly on the receiving end of them. Had the story been told from Jimmy’s perspective, and not treated like it was funny, I might have reacted differently. But it was from the perspective of the people doing the laughing. It was presented as a warm and positive thing. Fortunately, it’s the only story in the anthology that isn’t from the perspective of a two-spirit person.

There is some representation across the QUILTBAG, though it’s stronger on LGT than the rest. Lesbians are particularly well represented. Others are less so. I do wish the one possible intersex character had not been handled that way. The binary-gendered language of some of the stories also stood out. This is talking about both genders, rather than all genders. It’s having male roles and female roles, but no room for other roles. Which is an odd choice when the focus is on two-spirit people.

Note that some stories contain descriptions of rape and assault (particularly “Imposter Syndrome”). The term halfbreed is used in a few stories. It’s in a reclaiming context, rather than being used as an insult, but still something mixed race people might want to know is coming in advance.

It’s generally a strong anthology, with a range of approaches to speculative fiction. There are stories where the speculative elements are very light, space adventures, and fantasy. It has cultural representations that do not fall into stereotypes and othering. The QUILTBAG content was mostly good, but there were areas where it was spotty.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Missing – Melanie Florence

The Missing CoverFirst Published: 12th February, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Mystery / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon Canada | Lorimer

Girls are going missing at Feather’s school, but the police aren’t taking it seriously because they’re Aboriginal. Feather has to deal with the aftermath of the disappearances, as well as try to figure out who might be taking them.

There are a lot of serious subjects tackled in the book, such as the disappearance of Native girls being ignored by the police, anti-gay sentiments, child abuse, and victim blaming. It ties into many real cases where such disappearances are ignored or mishandled. Though it has some mystery aspects, investigating the disappearances is not the primary focus. It centres much more on how Feather and her friends cope with what’s going on.

I liked the interaction between the characters as they come to terms with what’s happened. Everyone reacts differently. Sometimes in ways that show they’re not such nice people after all. Feather has to work out her feelings about this, as well as understanding that her friends come from very different family environments. Not everyone has their family’s support.

The killer’s perspective was also interesting. He uses a lot of exotifying terms, like describing the girls he watches in comparison with food. It’s pretty creepy to be constantly compared to food products, whilst never getting to be a person, and these sections highlight that perfectly. The girls aren’t people to him. They’re sugar-sweet playthings. It’d be nice if this was required reading for authors who think it’s a compliment to liken non-white people to chocolate.

I did wonder at one point why Feather didn’t take a weapon with her. She seems to have thought everything else though, except for that. I was also hoping for a bit more mystery solving towards the end.

Despite being good at handling some issues, it did fall down somewhat when it comes to mental health. The killer is described as crazy and insane. It’d be nice to find a story where the killer isn’t depicted as a crazy person, especially when it’s in this sort of context. Using privilege as a weapon against marginalised people isn’t a sign of insanity. A non-neurotypical person is much more likely to be the victim in this scenario.

The book is written for reluctant readers, and achieves the aim of mature subjects written in easier language. It has short chapters and clear writing. Some of the dialogue is a little stilted. However, a reader who is absorbed in the story is likely to overlook this.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Julie of the Wolves – Jean Craighead George

Julie of the Wolves Cover: a yupik girl in a fur-lined coat and a wolf

Series: Julie of the Wolves, #1
First Published: 1st January, 1972
Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble

Miyax, a Yupik girl, runs away from home after being attacked. She has to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, using the skills her father has taught her and with assistance from a wolf pack.

I did enjoy some of the aspects of the story. The feel of the landscape and how the animals interacted was there, which is something I look for in survival stories. I liked the change between the names Julie and Miyax in the narration depending on her current situation. Some of the thoughts on animal behaviour were dated, but I’d hope no one would use this as a natural history guide anyway.

However, the descriptions of Miyax/Julie’s culture and herself were often exoticised or laced with unfortunate implications. An example was the description of Miyax’s looks. It’s said she’s an “Eskimo beauty”, which comes with the implication of “pretty for an Eskimo”. Not properly pretty, like a Northern European. Add in her thinking she looked more beautiful when she was starving, because her face was thin like a European. Even when she changes her attitudes towards Europeans, she doesn’t start to think of herself as beautiful.

When Miyax decides to embrace Yupik traditions, she does so in a very black-and-white way. The real world isn’t as simplistic as traditional is good and modern is bad. Someone can hunt in traditional ways and enjoy chocolate cake. They can travel on foot and carry a phone. I wasn’t comfortable with the vibe that the only way to connect with her culture was to exist in the past, as it ignores the modern reality of Yupik people.

There’s also the issue that Miyax’s husband from an arranged marriage is non-neurotypical and ends up trying to rape her (the attack that leads her to run away). Non-neurotypical people are often portrayed as violent in books, but are more likely to be the victims of violence for real. It’s not a good trope to be reinforcing.

I couldn’t get away from how much like an outsider’s view the story read. With the added helping of the attempted rape scene, I didn’t enjoy it very much.