As there are a few common themes woven through these four books, children (ages 6 - 11) might enjoy reading some of these together. As Long as the Rivers Flow, and Himalaya both offer fascinating information about the economies of two very different rural existences, and the ways that survival strategies become enriched by culture, ritual, and many different types of knowledge. The characters in these stories have lives filled with hard work, but also with a strong sense of community and astounding expertise.
The other two books also focus on the day-to-day routines in the lives of two different characters. A Brave Soldier lays out the unremarkable steps that somehow bring a young man face to face with death in the trenches during WWI. The Fire depicts the daily drudgery and suffering of a slave who can no longer live without freedom. In each of these books, the everyday lives of hard-working people rub up against life-changing events.
As Long as the River Flow is a picture book that belies its format. The length and complexity of the text is easily that of chapter books for younger readers, the sort which usually contain a few illustrations per chapter.
The author, Larry loyie, is a Cree who grew up in northern Alberta in the 1940s, just before the destruction of native society through the assimilationist agendas of the residential schools. This book is his autobiography presented as a 3rd person story about Lawrence, a 10- year-old native boy. The story establishes some common ground with children everywhere. There is a pesky little sister, a peer group of cousins to best when picking berries or comparing pets, and the universal longing to grow up quickly and do adult things. But for the most part, this story is an earnest, serious effort to preserve in memory a very different time and place, to recover the values of a way of life and pass them on, because that life has been largely destroyed.
The text is packed with information about Cree practices and traditions, all filtered through Lawrence, who learns from every adult around him. He applies his uncle's teachings about how to read moose signs, and his grandfather's explanation of the difference between grizzly and black bear tracks. His grandmother educates him about medicinal plants, and reminds him always to give thanks to Mother Earth for each thing taken from it: a pinch of tobacco replaces each dug-out plant. And like the orphaned owl the children have adopted, whose evenings of play on a clothesline also strengthen its wings, readying it for flight and independence. Even Lawrence's games such as "fooling a beaver" help him develop the patience and discipline required by a hunter. Whether he's doing his many chores or reflecting upon the wise tales of his elders, everything in Lawrence's world teaches him and prepares him for life as a native man on the land.
Some of the elements in the story are ones we tend to associate with pioneer life. Picking and drying berries, smoking meat and fish for the winter, rootcellars full of vegetables from the garden, wagons to carry the family to summer camp, log cabins and sheds. This portrait of almost contemporary 20th century life in the north, reveals a relatively successful blending of native and European economies; the many kinds of skills and knowledge the native peoples shared with the settlers, and some of the agricultural knowledge the natives adapted for their own ways of life.
This is a story of a resourceful, skilled and wise community of native peoples. Both the text and the sweetly rendered watercolors strive for an idyllic realism, strive to be faithful to this time and place. The paintings of the land and people glow with life and warmth. But what happens when the life of the Plains Cree community is disrupted by a force so powerful and incomprehensibly cruel that the culture under attack has no means of defending itself? When the crow-like men in black gowns come to take the children away, that is literally the abrupt end of the storyłthe end of a childhood, a community, and a history. The flow of life within the extended family, the passing on of knowledge and responsibility from one generation to the next, is cut off.
After the telling of this story, colored by the memories of a wonderful childhood, the closing epilogue assumes a very different look and tone. In a dry factual voice and with the accompaniment of black and white photos taken of classes at the residential school, the text, still in the 3rd person, goes on to describe the harsh school years experienced by the children in the story, and the cruelty inflicted on them and the tens of thousands of others who were processed through these institutions.
Because native peoples today are still dealing with the legacy of this history, this book is more than a proud messenger of a culturally rich and economically/ecologically sustainable way of life. It is also part of a program, co-founded by the author, to encourage those who have been scarred to remember their rich past and relearn their traditions, in an effort to rebuild their lives and recover a rich and unique way of life.
In As Long as the Rivers Flow, the adults are all strong and wise. While each one has special skills, none are shown to have any specific weaknesses. Himalaya offers a fascinating counterpoint. Based on the screenplay for the film of the same name, it presents a cast of characters, all of whom are skilled and knowledgeable but decisively limited by their own particular frailties. Wisdom and foolishness spiral into one another in this gem of a story that offers a buddhist perspective on the human condition.
Himalaya is set amongst the salt people of Nepal. It offers young readers (ages 6 - 8) a good description of the ways in which people adapt to harsh surroundings. In these high mountain regions, the land does not yield enough barley to see the people through each winter. They must undertake long journeys to the high Tibetan plateaus to collect salt from vast beds, which they then trade in the warm valleys of central Nepal for additional grain. This is the story of one such caravan expedition, undertaken by the people from the village of Dolpo.
The book is illustrated and co-written by Tenzing Norbu Lama, a lama whose childhood home was this very village. The illustrations are highly stylized, and extremely beautiful, appearing to imitate styles used in central Asia in the 16th century. There is an almost humorous expressiveness to the paintings, perhaps a twinkle in the yaks' eyes. Large and elaborate, the pictures make use of curling, fluid lines and muted tones of grey and ochre: the people and their homes are fitted into the colorscape of rock, snow and mountain.
The illustrator has inserted himself into the story, taking on the character of a lama who spends his monastic life painting murals to celebrate the life of Buddha. This 'fictional' lama is reluctant to become involved in village politics when his brother, Dolpo's leader, dies in an accident during a salt-collecting expedition.
The father of the dead man believes he should assume the mantle of authority himself until his grandson is old enough to inherit the position. However, there is a young pretender to the seat of power, who believes he is capable of leading the salt caravan to trade for grain. The arduous, time-consuming journeys are traditionally organized around ancient rituals that show great deference to the elders who have travelled the routes many times. While the old man faithfully observes traditional practice, the young man is impatient with talismans, and sanctified departure dates. This is a wonderfully told tale of a village torn by differing loyalties. There are races instigated through beast-filled valleys and snow-filled passes, and only after many hardships are peace and unity achieved.
Through it all, there are those who act well and those who act badly. Even the beloved deceased leader had been foolish in taking too great a risk by refusing to heed advice. The old man is too stubborn and wedded to the old ways to hear other people's points of view. One villager remarks that "Talking to Tinle (the old man), is like talking to the snow falling." But another villager wisely remarks that the two opposing personalities, the young man and the old ". ..are exactly the same." Both are doing what they truly believe is best for the villagers. As each acts on his strengths and ignores his own weaknesses, the story remarkably allows the readers to see each of the characters as being both wise and foolish. These lives, embedded in a meagre rural economy in rugged terrain, are beautifully enriched by ritual and deep Buddhist principles. Woven into the rigorous daily routines of these people is a deep understanding and acceptance of human frailty.
A Brave Soldier is written and illustrated by a man who grew up in northern France, surrounded by countryside that continues to give up the remnants and ghosts of the World War I battles fought on its soil. The big reasons for war are not explored or rationalized in this book. Instead, the story challenges us to consider the very ordinary, human dimensions of war, beneath the noise of ideological rhetoric.
Debon has patterned the book's inside cover papers with repeating arrangements of six different figures, each mounted on a stand. The figures, representing medics, nurses, German and British soldiers, guns poised, are the sort that boys have played with for decades, signifiers of the adventure and excitement of war games. This is a powerful ploy, as it immediately connects readersłyoung and oldłto a commonplace and 'safe' image of war. And then, Debon proceeds to work against our comfortable familiarity. He brings one of these figures "to life" on the title page, and this image then becomes the slight, blankfaced everyman, Frank, whose story is told here.
First, Debon shows us how innocuous beginnings such as a comrade's easy bravado, "Let's go whip the Germans...we'll be home by Christmas," and a young man's fear of appearing a coward, can draw an innocent such as Frank into the inexorable momentum of the war machine. Then he sets out the details of Frank's journey from his Canadian hometown into the trenches of northern France. Against simple, matter-of-fact descriptions of the ocean trip, the