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Waterless Mountain (1931)

by Laura Adams Armer, Sidney Armer (Illustrator)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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278874,742 (3.33)19
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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Newbery Medal 1931. Story of A Navajo boy and his journey to manhood and his learning to be a medicine man. Poignant look at traditional Navajo life as of the early part of the 20th century. ( )
  LindaLeeJacobs | Feb 15, 2020 |
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. ( )
1 vote rdg301library | Oct 2, 2019 |
I read this book in the spirit of the time it was awarded the Newberry Award, 1932, but I still had issues with the racism. I stuck with finishing the book because I was interested in the Navajo culture. Reading about Laura Adams Armer, I learned that supposedly the Navajo called her "the woman who wears the turquoise" and "hard working woman". She was the first to be allowed to film the sacred Mount Chant ceremony in 1928. Did the Navajo truly name Armer? Was there pressure applied to allow the sacred ceremony to be filmed?

This is a difficult review to write because I'm torn as to whether I should be allowed to know the details of the Navajo that were provided. I can't determine what is true, what is embellished by the white author, and what is intrusive.

This is not a book that is full of action. I call this a quiet story that follows the journey of a young man as he learns to become a medicine man.

Armer wrote her first book, Waterless Mountain, at the age of 57. When she won the 1932 Newberry Award, Armer hadn't even heard of the award and ended her acceptance speech with "it is pleasant that you considered it the most distinguished book for children publisher in 1931." Armer worked as a photographer and artist for most of her life.

I rated this book as 3 stars because I truly enjoyed the depiction of Navajo life. My dilemma is that I continue to feel guilty about enjoying the narrative. If anything, this book has spurred me to research for Navajo writers in order to get a true perspective of Navajo beliefs. ( )
  MNTreehugger | Oct 20, 2017 |
Although this a pleasant story about "Younger Brother" and his childhood discoveries that lead to him becoming a Medicine Man, the dark history of the Navajos and white men is glossed over with passing references to Kit Carson and the Walk of Tears, but little else. In a way, although Armer worked hard to faithfully and realistically portray the customs and beliefs of Navajo people, it seems too pretty to be truly realistic. The photographs and illustrations are beautiful, as are the end papers featuring a replica of a traditional Navajo sand painting. ( )
  GReader28 | Jun 6, 2016 |
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 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Armer, Laura Adamsprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Armer, SidneyIllustratormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Fick-Lugten, W. A.Translatorsecondary authorsome 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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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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Book description
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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