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Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer

Waterless Mountain (1931)

by Laura Adams Armer, Laura Adams Armer (Illustrator), Sidney Armer (Illustrator)

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Younger Brother, called Little Singer by his medicine-man Uncle, was an unusual child, attuned from a young age to the deeper realities of the world around him, and observant of all its beauty, both natural and man-made. Marked out as a future medicine man himself, and tutored by Uncle in the traditional songs and beliefs of his people, the young Navajo boy came of age in the small circle of his loving family, living with them under the great Waterless Mountain. The rhythms of their daily life - Younger Brother's shepherding of the sheep, Mother's weaving, and her cooking for the family, Father's silversmithing - and the interruptions to those rhythms - Elder Brother's marriage to their neighbor's daughter, Younger Brother's epic journey to the far western water, in search of Turquoise Woman's house - are depicted here in a gentle, contemplative narrative that is suffused with a quiet joy.

The Newbery Medal Winner in 1932, Laura Adams Armer's Waterless Mountain was praised, at the time of its publication, for its lyrically sympathetic portrayal of Navajo religious beliefs and customs. As someone almost wholly unacquainted with those beliefs, I feel ill-equipped to judge Armer's depiction, from a factual standpoint. I found the book well written, and the narrative engaging enough, but there could be glaring errors of fact or tone here, and I would never know it. More generally, it's difficult to know whether Armer successfully captured a young Navajo boy's perspective, or whether her text is an outsider's imposition. Given the history of misrepresentation of America's indigenous peoples in vintage children's literature, it's tempting to assume that it was the latter, but it's impossible for me to judge with any certainty. I'd love to get the viewpoint of a Navajo reader on the subject! According to what little I have read of Armer, she was well-respected enough, by some Navajo elders, that she was allowed to reproduce a number of sacred sand paintings - a privilege not previously accorded to any outsider, from my understanding.

Although unable to come to any definitive conclusion, as it concerns Armer's depiction of traditional Navajo beliefs, I can say that her Euro-American characters, particularly the "Big Man," seemed unrealistically positive, giving a sense that white traders on Indian reservations were benign and benevolent forces for good, something that does not at all accord with my own understanding of the history. The inclusion of this kind of "Great White Trader" figure is problematic. I also think that, if this had been a genuine Navajo narrative, the feelings of the people, about The Long March, and their forced exile from their homelands, as well as Kit Carson's scorched earth campaign against them, would have been much more strongly expressed, and not as easily dismissed, in the brief exchange between Younger Brother and the Big Man, toward the end of the book.

I vacillated, in rating this book. It does have some good qualities, and I found some of the passages quite beautiful. But it is also, unfortunately, a little bit dated, and I'm not sure that it does what it sets out to do, in communicating a genuine Navajo worldview. The "Great White Hunter" theme, here transformed into a "Great White Trader," also gives me significant pause. In the end, I think this is one I would recommend primarily to Newbery completists like myself... ( )
1 vote AbigailAdams26 | Apr 10, 2013 |
The best thing about this book is the sense of atmosphere and place that the author creates. While there's not much of a story, there is such a beautiful picture of Navajo life in the early part of the 1900's. Granted, the view is filtered through the non-Navajo writer, but it is beautiful nonetheless. Younger Brother is one of those characters who is in tune spiritually with the world around him and Ms. Armer is able to show that without the character coming across as naive, or as mystical. ( )
  tjsjohanna | Jan 22, 2011 |
This is the coming-of-age novel of a young Navaho boy, Younger Brother, as he learns the world of his people and learns the secrets of his tribe's wiseman and learns the ways of the larger world. Younger Brother helps a friend, The Big Man, with car problems. He goes on a long quest and finds he can survive on his own. He saves his horse from thieves. All the tales are told with a background of magic and mystery, with the mountains and desert as a magnificent setting. ( )
  debnance | Jan 29, 2010 |
Waterless Mountain is a sincere, sweet, and delightful story of Younger Brother, an eight year old Navajo boy. The setting is the present day (1920's-1930's) and the reader is able to capture both the world on the reservation and the wider world represented through the trading post and its owner, a kindly white man, called Big Man. Laura Adams Armer captures the thoughts, deeds and perceptions of Younger Brother, his eagerness, his sincerity, his faith in the goodness of all life. Waterless Mountain is a fine book and a good introduction into Native American wisdom, knowledge, and ways including the respect for every living thing. A gem of a book! ( )
  SHARONTHEIL | Sep 26, 2009 |
This 1932 Newbery winner is set in Navajo country in northern Arizona in the late 1920s or 1930-31. The main character is referred to as Younger Brother (his unused Navajo name means “Dawn Boy”, but his family often calls him Little Singer). At the beginning of the book, he is eight, and he is at least 12 by the end. The Waterless Mountain of the title may be the Kaibab Limestone formation north of the Grand Canyon, which was porous and had few sources of water.

As described in the New York Times shortly after the book’s publication (“Book Notes," 9/2/31, page 17), “the narrative deals with the experiences of a Navajo boy who is learning the lore of the medicine man. Various Navajo ceremonies, chants and beliefs are worked into the background of the account of Younger Brother as he develops from boyhood to youth. These tribal customs and legends are all authentic, according to the author,...,who lived long among the Indians...[Armer] went to Arizona to devote herself to an artistic and literary career. She painted pictures and acquired a wide knowledge of the Navajo chants and legends.”

The Navajo stories told in Waterless Mountain do appear to be authentic. I was unable to find any evidence contradicting information in this book, and lots of references on the web to yays (gods), chindi (ghosts), Spider Woman, Turquoise (aka Changing) Woman (or Estsanatlehi), and Whirling Logs sand paintings.

I think, for the time it was written, that this book is a better example of one about another culture than most. Although the author is not Native American, she spent many years observing them and grew to be accepted by them. It is appropriate for older children, ages 9 and up. It rates anywhere from grades 5 to 9 on various readability scales, so it may be difficult for some children, particularly since it is episodic rather than plot-driven. There would be numerous ways to tie the book in with a study of Navajo culture, legends, ceremonies, and arts (Younger Brother’s mother weaves and his father makes silver and turquoise jewelry, while sand painting and pottery are also discussed).

The 1936 edition of Waterless Mountain has black-and-white illustrations, four by Armer, eleven by her husband Sidney, and one by them both (the plate opposite page 26 of which Armer wrote: "The deer are mine and the background is Sidney's." The dust jacket and the frontispiece are the same, a painting by Armer, based on a composite of two of her photographs. Her other works are (in my 1936 edition): the plates opposite pages 20 (of the Bumble Bee), 128 (“The Sun Bearer and the Turquoise Woman,” my favorite), and 174 (of the Pack Rat) all signed by her. The endpapers of my 1936 edition have a Whirling Logs design similar to this.

For more information, see my review at Bookin' It. ( )
4 vote riofriotex | Jul 13, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Laura Adams Armerprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Armer, Laura AdamsIllustratormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Armer, SidneyIllustratormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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To Lorenzo Hubbell whose faith inspired this book.
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The month of Short Corn, when drooping clouds floated white against the blue, and fringed dust rose from the washes, Younger Brother tended the sheep.
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Admirably told with a quiet authority in limpid and poetic prose, Waterless Mountain is a sincere and beautiful story of a present-day Navaho Indian boy, full of imagination and poetry and the dignity of his race. The eight years of his training in a deep understanding of the ancient religion of his people as well as in a practical knowledge of material existence is vividly painted against the arid sandy wastes.
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Younger Brother, a Navaho Indian boy, undergoes eight years of training in the ancient religion of his people and the practical knowledge of material existence.

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