Friday, April 1, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Waterless Mountain, by Laura Adams Armer (1932)

I'm a day late in posting my review of Waterless Mountain. However, this one was laborious enough to get through that I don't really feel bad about my tardiness.

Waterless Mountain is, on its face, a sort of coming-of-age tale about Younger Brother, a Navajo boy who will eventually become a medicine man. The episodes, though, are loosely linked and largely uncompelling -- there's little real conflict, and Younger Brother's through line doesn't serve to create much of a plot. He discovers his destiny very early in the book, and there's never any chance that it won't come true; he's also a flat, uninteresting character, who learns new things but exhibits almost no change or development during the novel. The supporting cast isn't much better. Only Elder Brother's wife hints at any hidden depths, and she appears for only a few pages over the course of the book.

Very nearly the only times that Waterless Mountain comes alive are during the retellings of Navajo legends and the descriptions of the various ceremonies. Indeed, those sections are so much more compelling than any of the rest of the book, that the flimsy plot seems more like an excuse to include this cultural material than anything else. This being a children's book published in the '30s, there aren't any source notes for the stories or rituals, but I did a bit of research on some of them, and the ones I checked seemed to be more or less accurate. Laura Adams Armer spent a great deal of time on the Arizona Navajo Reservation, and she does appear to have done some homework.

This, nevertheless, brings us to another aspect of Waterless Mountain. At the time of its publication, the book was hailed for its sensitivity towards the people it portrays. A representative quote from the book's jacket, from a Dr. A.L. Kroeber who headed the University of California's Anthropology Department, claims that the novel "shows that we have entered a time when the Indian is no longer a dummy to hang our own romanticism on, but an interest and appeal in himself as he really is." Eighty-odd years later, however, what struck me was the uncomfortably paternalistic relationship between the Big Man (the white man who runs the nearby trading post) and the Navajos. Armer, who was ahead of her own time when it came to ideas of equality and race relations, reads as noticeably backward now. It would be churlish to blame her for that, but it does make for an awkward reading experience in the present time.

Famously, Armer had never even heard of the Newbery Award before winning it. She was primarily an artist and photographer -- Waterless Mountain, her first book, was published when she was 57 years old. She would write only six more books, and all of her work except Waterless Mountain and Farthest West (1938) is now out of print (including The Forest Pool, which she wrote and illustrated, for which she won a Caldecott Honor in 1939).

Six Honor Books were named in 1932. None of them are particularly well known now, although Rachel Field's Calico Bush is at least still in print. I will confess that I haven't read that one, and so don't know whether I'd argue that it would have been a better Newbery choice. I will say that I have a hard time categorizing most of the winners from the first decade or two of the Newbery -- even the rather dreadful ones -- as mistakes, given that American children's literature was very much a work in progress.

Now, on to the 1940s!


  1. I have read quite a few winners and honor books from the 30s including Waterless Mountain. On the whole the 30s are much better reads than the 20s. I quite enjoyed Waterless Mountain. It seemed to me to be a genuine attempt to portray the Navajo peoples accurately and with sensitivity and respect. Please remember I am Australian and know little about the subject. This lack of knowledge may have enabled me to enjoy the book as it was entirely new subject matter and many of the details were interesting to me.

    I still have a few books from the 30s on my list to read but so far On the Banks of Plum Creek (1938 honor book) has been my favourite read and Pageant of Chinese History (1935 honor book) has been my least favourite.

    1. Oh, I think it was a genuine attempt to do so. The subject is so historically fraught that parts of it read as questionably sensitive today, but I'm certain Armer was trying.

      I remember liking On the Banks of Plum Creek when I was a kid, although I haven't reread it as an adult. I've never read Pageant of Chinese History, although it doesn't sound like I'm missing much! My favorites from the '30s of the ones I've read are Roller Skates (1937 winner -- I reviewed it on the blog a couple years ago) and The ABC Bunny (1934 honor).

    2. ABC Bunny is certainly in the top reads of the 30s I enjoyed it so much I bought it even though my grand children are way to old for it. It is one of a very few I have bought since starting to read as many Newbery winners and honor books as I can. I hadn't read the Little House books as a child but I had seen some of the TV show which I didn't really like. I was surprised to enjoy the books as much as I did.

      I have recently read Thimble Summer (1938 winner) which I found slightly more enjoyable than Roller Skates but they are both really enjoyable stories which still might appeal to children. Pageant of Chinese History has shades of The Story of Mankind about it, don't bother.

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