Waterless Mountain

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NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1932

Waterless Mountain

by Laura Adams Armer

Age: 10+

Interests: American history, First Nations, Navajo spiritualism, life in the desert, religion

David McKay Co., 1931

212 pages

Little Brother lives with his family in Arizona, in the shadow of Waterless Mountain, so named for its lack of fresh springs. Life is hard but Little Brother enjoys contemplating nature and pondering the ancient stories his uncle, a Medicine Man, tells him. Little Brother is extremely attuned to his environment. He receives signs and messages he believes are from the Navajo spirits of land and sky, signs that lead him to a hidden water source on the mountain, and later to a long-lost cache of tribal masks. His uncle is teaching him the complex songs and rituals of their people, and says he is destined to be a great medicine man.

At the beginning of the story Little Brother is only eight, and dreams of some day travelling to see the home of Turquoise Woman, who long ago left the desert to live with the Sun Bearer in the west, on the ocean waves. When he is eleven he finally sets out on his pony heading west, and discovers not only the ocean, but cities, movies, trains and airplanes.

This book was written in 1931, and it is old-fashioned in that it requires great patience from the reader, and is not what you’d call action-packed. It’s unusual to centre a novel upon a character who lives so much in his head, and who spends most of his time in spiritual thought. It rewards the reader’s patience, however, with a glimpse of a very different way of looking at the world around us.

Laura Adams Armer spent a lot of time with the Navajo and wrote this, her first book, with a very deep knowledge of their ceremonies and culture, making this a valuable document of a lifestyle now long gone. Her narrative is not about conflict between natives and whites; the characters in this story are actually tolerant of each other. The local white man, a prosperous businessman who runs the local store, is fairly paternalistic, though he is respectful of local customs and deals with the Navajo in a fair and generous manner.

I found this book to be interesting, but I am not sure if it has the power to win over young readers today. The recommended age is 10, but not because of any problematic content. There is nothing here that is inappropriate for younger children, but the philosophical, slow pace of the book may be appreciated more by grade fives and up. A child prone to thinking deeply about the natural world and/or who is interested in other cultures and religions will enjoy this book.

 

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.