Dawn Land

Dawn Land“When the Owner-Creator made the world, he made the mountains, the trees, and the animal people. Something was missing. The Earth was not complete. He decided it was time to make the human beings. He looked around for something to shape them with. There were the stones. He piled stones large and high, and breathing life into them, he stirred the spirits of the stones to wake. The stones rose, and began to move. They were large and string, and walked the Earth with terrible power. But they were hard and unfeeling. They did not care where they stepped. The Owner-Creator was not pleased. He shook the Earth until the Stone People were destroyed.

The Owner-Creator decided to try again. This time he chose to shape the people from the ash tree. These people of ash were growing and green, in harmony with their mother, the Earth. Their skins were soft, and breathed in all of life. They shared their breath with all living things. Their limbs were supple and strong, and they danced like leaves in the wind.”

Will Davis’ adaptation of Joseph Bruchac’s novel Dawn Land is a stark retelling, illustrated in black and grey ink drawings with little dialog. Set during a New England winter long ago, it is the story of Young Hunter’s quest to save his cousin Weasel Tail from possession and his people from the threat of the giant, man-eating Stone People.

Accompanied only by his four dogs, Young Warrior tracks his quarry across the land. Along the way, he must prove his worthiness to carry the Long Thrower (the only bow and arrow in their world) by hunting a deer barehanded, rescue a woman of the Long Lodge People, and evade a prehistoric panther.

I liked the small details of the culture that are there but mostly not explained. For example, the character first introduced as Weasel Tail later is known as Holds The Stone. The book doesn’t really explain why the name changes (a common tradition among many Native American tribes), it just does.

While the lyrical drawings complement the emptiness of the landscape, the paneling is not very dynamic; with each panel almost the same size as every other. It but serves well enough to tell the story but the artist could have gone farther. I do wish the book ended in a different place, but I freely admit that I like my endings all nicely tied up with a bow (“…and they all lived happily ever after.” ). It is not a bad ending, just not to my taste.

I recommend this for teens, not because of the images of the giants eating people, but because it is a subtle and nuanced book that is best appreciated by letting yourself sink into the pre-European conquest world of New England where the gods still close enough to speak to a young warrior and a bow and arrow is the most dangerous weapon imaginable.

Dawn Land
by Joseph Bruchac and Will Davis
Art by Will Davis
ISBN: 1596431431
First Second, 2010
Publisher Age Rating: (12 and up)

Trickster: Native American Tales, a graphic collection

In his editor’s notes for Trickster, Matt Dembicki expresses his desire to present authentic Native American folk tales. It was important to him to find Native American authors, give them a forum in which to share their stories, and then stay out of their way. It speaks well of Dembicki’s dedication to this ideal that his name doesn’t appear on the cover or title page of Trickster. He lets the authors and the stories speak for themselves and only puts his name after his brief notes at the end of the volume.

The 21 stories collected here are all Native American folktales centered on a trickster, an archetypal character with power and cunning but not an over-abundance of scruples. Several stories feature coyotes or rabbits in the trickster role, but we also see ravens, beavers, tiny people, and weird old men. These stories come from distinct cultures and are united not by a shared mythology but by the common theme of a clever rogue trying to use his brains to get ahead.

Sometimes the trickster succeeds and sometimes he fails miserably. Sometimes he’s a hero and sometimes he’s a villain. Interestingly, the trickster is often neither and instead inhabits a moral gray area. In one story, a raccoon plays dead on the riverbank until several tasty crayfish come to gloat over his body. When they start to dance around him, he leaps up and eats as many of them as he can grab. It’s not exactly heroic, but raccoons have to eat and those crayfish kind of had it coming.

Any fan of folktales will feel right at home with the sort of dream logic where a dog can cast a spell and do a little dance or a story comes to an abrupt end because a coyote gets fed up and turns everyone else to stone. These stories aren’t compelling because they’re meticulously crafted slices of verisimilitude, but because they’re goofy and wry and because it’s always fun to watch the clever get one over on the strong (or, for that matter, to see the not-quite-as-clever-as-they-thought-they-were get their comeuppance).

The art is hard to critique because it’s so varied. There are 21 different artists and each brings a distinct style. The first story is done in moody, shadow-drenched watercolors and the last story is garishly cartoony with bright pink trees and an electric blue coyote. But as much as the art varies it always feels appropriate to the story it’s helping to tell. The moody art of the first story evokes the sadness of the coyote’s howl after a backfired scheme makes him a social outcast. The cartoony art of the last story captures the slapstick humor of Coyote’s repeated attempts to fly despite the other animals’ derision and his obvious lack of ability.

My only serious complaint about Trickster is that I would have liked more cultural context for each story. A short bio for each author is given at the end of the book, identifying which tribe they’re from, but it’s needlessly difficult to flip around between pages matching story to author to tribe. I finished most stories wanting to know more about the people who produced them (a reaction I suspect the editor and authors were aiming for), and a few brief annotations either in the table of contents or at the start of each story would have made that impulse easier to follow.

Trickster : Native American Tales, a graphic collection
Edited by Matt Dembicki
Stories and Art by Various Creators
ISBN: 978155591724
Fulcrum Publishing, 2010