Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Crowley, James. Starfish. Disney/Hyperion, 2010. 310 pages including references and glossary. ISBN 13: 978-142312588-4. This book is for grades 5 and up, or ages 10 and up, depending on reading level.

I have lost the current narrative of Native Americans. Frankly, I am not even sure if the politically correct term is Native American, Indian, or something else. I lost my connection to the narrative 10 or 15 years ago, when I first visited Foxwoods casino. Tragically, from that point onward, I have only heard about Native Americans in 2 contexts: casinos and alcoholism. We have wronged Native Americans so profoundly throughout our shared history that they are reduced to incorporating our capitalism into their lifestyles to survive. It can be argued that alcoholism did not exist before colonialism; we passed on the worst of ourselves to our captives while taking the best of what they had. Any reason to celebrate the rich traditions and rituals of Native Americans is welcome, so in that vein, Starfish by James Crowley is a good novel to introduce young readers to a valuable and vanishing piece of history. It is a rather slow tale as adventure tales go, and it feels a little contrived, but it still opens our cruel past enough to allow visitors a glimpse of early 20th Century colonialism at work.

Orphans Beatrice and Lionel, 12 and 9 respectively, live at the Chalk Bluff boarding school on the Blackfeet reservation. Although Lionel is reasonably cooperative with the Christian brothers and the soldiers who reside and teach there, Beatrice clings stubbornly to her Indian ways, keeping her hair long, singing Indian songs, and performing small rituals that her grandfather taught her, like casting tobacco to the wind and praying: “She turned west, holding the tobacco as an offering, then south . . . Lionel could see Beatrice’s lips move as she sang a song quietly to herself. He felt a slight breeze from the north as if somebody or something were actually listening” (16). When soldiers Jenkins and Lumpkin threaten Beatrice after she and Lionel find a frozen Indian in the snow and the soldiers defile him, she and Lionel run away, frantically searching for their grandfather’s residence in the Montana hills. Along the way, the children meet a colorful cast of characters like Corn Poe Boss Ribs, the generally unwanted and obnoxious but charming son of Big Bull Boss Ribs; and Avery John Hawkins and his son Junebug, who may hold some secrets about the army, the mountains, and their grandfather. The winter is harsh and traveling is difficult, but Spring and Summer finally arrive. Beatrice and Lionel may feel safe for a short time, but they have stolen an army horse, they are fugitives because Beatrice attacked Sergeant Jenkins before running away, and Beatrice has spent the entire time attempting to recover from Tuberculosis. Without even knowing what freedom will feel like, Beatrice and Lionel still struggle to discover, maintain, and embrace their identities as Blackfeet.

Starfish by James Crowley is a capable first novel, but it does nothing new with its genre. Although I was pleased to read a book about the Native American plight, and it appears that Mr. Crowley did his homework concerning the setting of this work, I was not surprised to read that he is a screenwriter; this book had after-school special or Disney movie written all over it. Mr. Crowley paints scenes well but his character development is weak. The characters act in very stereotypical ways, and when characters like the Captain show mercy, the reader does not know why, since he allowed so much cruelty in the past. The grandfather has Karate Kid-type wisdom; the soldiers are drunk and mean, the children establish their own Lord of the Flies hierarchy, Lionel becomes “more Indian” and discovers his “true self” as the novel unfolds: these are all devices I have seen before, either on television or in novels or in both. I understand that this is a coming-of-age novel, but I want more from authors. In the era of L. H. Anderson’s Chains and Forge, Philbrick’s Homer P. Figg, and M. T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing, the bar has been raised for historical fiction. Starfish reads like an old dusty book off of the shelf: informative, occasionally enlightening, but rather old-fashioned and slow.

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