1932: Waterless Mountain (Why Ethnographers Shouldn’t Write Fiction)


Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5

Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer, the 1932 Newbery Medal Winner, tells the story of a Navaho boy. Note: Armer uses Navaho rather than Navajo. I followed the author’s convention for clarity. Waterless Mountain intermingles legend with daily life as the boy progresses on a spiritual journey. He finds joy and knowledge through his interactions with the natural world, tying his physical environment to Navaho myths and legends.

The Good: The author, although not a formally trained ethnographer, studied deeply with Navaho friends and medicine men. She grasped the intricacies of daily life in mid-1920s Navaho society and used many of those details to good effect. For example, Armer discussed what kinds of dyes Mother used for dyeing her wool and what herbs Uncle, the medicine man, needed for rituals. Ceremonies were richly described, as were the garments. As a textile geek, the clothing and fabric production details are fascinating. Waterless Mountain also resisted the (very very common) urge to stereotype characters by either race or role. Big Man, the white guy that ran the local trading post, was a good friend of Younger Brother and gave generously to those around him. Cut Finger, a fellow Navaho, stole Younger Brother’s horse. The interactions of tradition and modernity are also interestingly drawn. In one incident, Younger Brother develops a rapport with birds and asks them to teach him to fly. Shortly thereafter, Big Man lands in an airplane, and Younger Brother gets his wish.

The Bad: The actual writing is…tedious. The author attempts to interweave myth and her main narrative of Younger Brother, instead knotting her warp threads badly and leaving a discontinuous, jerky narrative. Basically, she just doesn’t write very well. Flow is bad, language use is simplistic to the point of inducing extreme boredom, and character development is basic. Plot, too, can’t seem to decide between episodic and continuous narratives. Although it started when Younger Brother was 8, and follows him as he grew up, I never get the sense that he was actually, well, growing. The initial presentation of Younger Brother as an intuitive, blessed child continued throughout the book, and none of his experiences seem to challenge strongly his zen world-view.

Bottom Line: Skip this one, unless you have an extremely strong interest in the United States Southwest circa 1924. While none of the content is objectionable (unlike many of the 1920’s Newbery Winners), the book is straight-up boring.


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