Veronika Charles has a affinity with folk tales. Stories originating from many different parts of the world seem to have attracted her attract her throughout her career. She has drawn on tales from Japan (The Crane Girl), South America (Necklace of Stars) and the Czech Republic (Stretch, Swallow & Stare-Czech) and this time she has turned her attention to a Seneca legend explaining the formation of the Horseshoe Falls on the Niagara River.
The Seneca peoples have offered many gifts to placate the river god, Hinu, who they believe has sent them a plague, to no avail. Lelawala, the chief's daughter decides that she must go down the river herself. She comes to the falls, but is not afraid. She "felt peaceful and safe, almost like. . . being carried in someone's gentle arms." In a cave below the falls, Lelawala finds Hinu's son kneeling before her and asking her to remain with him. He tells her that it is not his father who is poisoning her people but a monstrous horned snake. In a dream, Lelawala in turn, is able to tell her father what to do to get rid of the sickness. The chief and his warriors, joined by Hinu and his sons, defeat the serpent. The snake's writhing body is caught in the boulders at the waterfall's edge and creates the bowed shape we now know. The tribe rejoices, but Lelawala's father sits pensively at the falls and listens for his daughter's voice.
The motif of a young woman sacrificing herself for her people is common in folk tales. What Charles attempts to do in this telling is to imbue the heroine with self-determination and courage, rather than passivity. She avoids being maudlin by emphasizing the choices Lelawala makes toward living a "new life" rather than ending her life. The story itself is told with simplicity and a little bit of distance. Reading this story is like looking through a lens. Like a traditional tale, there is little character development, and extraneous detail is left out in favour of a quickly moving narrative. The story is well-paced and the ending is subdued but honest and satisfying.
Double-page spreads fill this book with the colours of nature. The illustrations are rough-hewn in a primitive way which suits the ancient setting. Lelawala's people, however, are drawn with little individuality which does make them particularly appealing. Adopting an unusual visual approach which lends the story an added air of mystery and drama, Charles depicts Lelawala entering the story with her back to the reader. Only when she goes over the falls, does Charles turn her around, facing the reader for the first time, which both suggests Lelawala's self-awareness and enabling the reader to truly identify with her.
What could have been a complicated and perplexing story, in Charles's hands, has become an accessible tale for younger readers. ò
Theo Heras is Children's Resource Collection Specialist at the Lillian H. Smith Branch, Toronto Public Library