Monday, January 13, 2014

Written in Stone by Rosanne Parry

The van ride was abuzz with students flipping back and forth between a collage of languages: English, Chinese, French, Singlish. Speaking in multiple languages for these high schoolers is like breathing. For me it is a reminder that I am a monolingual foreigner living in a different culture. I feel like a child looking through a window pane at a lush candy display case. Chocolate candy, that is. Yum. I see the candy and people inside but don't hear them. Even immersed in Chinese culture it is difficult understanding customs. That is what makes this book so amazing. The author, who is an outsider to the Pacific Northwest Indians, creates a story that makes it seem she is Native American. She captures the traditions, economics, society, and religion and uses rich language to develop a character that speaks to any young girl no matter what her nationality. Not an easy feat in a book that is less than 200 pages.

Pearl Shaw was honored and highly regarded as the daughter of the best whaler and weaver in the Makah tribe during the 1920s until being orphaned recently. Her world is rapidly changing as Native American traditions and way of life are being threatened by foreigners overhunting whales and mill industries expelling pulp and paper pollution that is poisoning rivers and depleting salmon populations. The Makah have to find different ways to earn money and many are heading toward cities, factories, and dangerous timber jobs. Pearl is not sure what she wants to do with her life and muses, "I would have to learn something of value now that the power had gone out of my name." When a trickster tries to con her villagers out of their natural resources, Pearl realizes that she must be the storyteller or voice of her people preserving their traditions and rich past.

*spoiler alert*
The controversial messages in this book could take on a preachy tone, but the author avoids that trap with understatements that are more powerful than lectures. When the con man wants to celebrate with her family by drinking whiskey, Pearl reveals a repeated saying by her uncle, "Whiskey was invented for the purpose of stealing from Indians." That loaded sentence reveals a painful past full of the exploitation of Native Americans by foreigners. One of the few times there is a speech of some sort it is laden with wisdom and hope. Pearl's grandma spoke at the potlatch,"I believe the whales have seen the greed of the big whaling ships. They have gone deep, they have taken my son, our finest whaler, with them. They will wait in the deep for men to change their ways. And we will wait with them." She continues to exhort the listeners to honor the whales even when they are gone. "For I believe, I do believe our whales will come back to us one day." Adding strain to the community was a law banning the practice of the potlatch, a gift-giving feast where lavish gifts were given or destroyed and reciprocated. Pearl explains how another tribe was not able to reciprocate after her tribe gave them most of their goods, adding to their lack of food. By disrupting the potlatch, the government disrupted the Native Americans economic system. 

Some of the transitions between chapters were confusing and I lost my sense of place. I had to go back and reread some sections, such as when it looks like Pearl is going to take the canoe and follow the men after the potlatch and then doesn't. The Pitch Woman is mentioned as some scary person that kept Pearl from going off into the night but the story isn't revealed to the reader. The author says in the notes at the end that she didn't explain the Pitch Woman or the Timber Giant story out of respect for the Native Americans and feeling that they are not her stories to tell but theirs.The reader gets the gist that it is a Boogey-man type story but I was confused not realizing it was to scare Pearl into not going after the men. I can't ever recall an author purposefully weakening their story out of respect for a culture. This act shows tremendous empathy for the Makah people and their traditions. Perhaps she could have invented her own story to strengthen the chapter.

The characters are distinct from each other and easy to visualize. Pearl describes cousin Charlie as a "hunter of applause." He is a bit lazy, yet good at entertaining and assessing people. He sees that the white man doesn't understand that his grandpa wants him to observe him making a mask so he graciously offers his seat directing the adults in a way that makes everyone not be annoyed with each other. Henry, the oldest cousin, is kind and willing to bend traditions when changes mean the best option for the family. He's not afraid to publicly disagree with others, but isn't disagreeable in the process; hence, people listen to him. Pearl is less diplomatic and more blunt but she's so good at observing others that the epilogue suggests she learns how to be a leader herself and like her father, she finds strength in the stories of her heritage.

The author shows Pearl's grief over the death of her parents from anger to sadness. Pearl is angry at her Aunt Loula who has never lost any member of her family and who criticizes Pearl's lack of talent at basket-weaving. Pearl hangs onto a shell of her mothers and rubs it whenever she wonders what her mother would have done in a difficult situation. In a moving scene she releases the shell into the ocean so her father can find it in case he is alive underwater with the whales and needs a sign of sacrifice from her. She is moving toward the comfort of the memory of her parents found not in an object, but in her mind.

The prejudiced shown toward the Makahs is seen at the department store and theater. The girls at the counter paid no attention to Pearl and her cousin, Ida. At the theater a mom blatantly got up and moved when Pearl's family sat down in the aisle. Charlie poked fun by imitating a snobbish woman resulting in his family laughing off the shunning. Minority groups all have stories about being looked down upon. I have my own overseas stories. I, too, choose to laugh. But sometimes it is hard to overlook as Pearl describes at the theater: "We had paid the same cash price for a ticket, but their silent indifference said you don't belong here, as clear as shouting. Charlie Chaplin was as funny as ever, but this time I didn't laugh." Parry's story makes me think I should work harder at understanding the culture I am living in. If she can make sense of the Native Americans, then I can maybe make more sense of my surroundings in a Chinese culture. Whether I'm successful or not it doesn't matter. I just need to work harder to open that window pane and crawl into the cultural candy shop.

Reading Level 3.9 (a bit low)
4 Smileys

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