Aboriginality and Alternating Narratives: Books and Themes

Posted: November 27, 2008 in aboriginality, alternating narratives, children's and young adult literature

I’ve now made my way through what I’ve been able to find so far of novels for young people with alternating narratives that relate in some way or other to aboriginal characters or issues, and I’d like to take a look over them as a group and see what themes or patterns might be emerging and what lines of further thinking I should be pursuing.   In previous entries on this blog, I’ve looked at the following:

I’ve discussed two books by authors identified as aboriginal:

Joseph Bruchac’s Children of the Longhouse
John Smelcer’s The Trap

I should note, however, that Smelcer’s claims to an aboriginal background and by implication, insider knowledge of aboriginal culture have been challenged, as I discussed in another blog entry.  Nevertheless, these books do seem to focus on exploring the value of traditional culture and the need for preserving it.  Indeed, I think I can safely say that all of these books do that–that being publicly aboriginal or writing about Native North American characters seems almost automatically to make the value of aboriginality central.   that may seem to be too obvious to e even worth saying, except that it;s not true of fiction by or about mainstream white characters of various European backgrounds, in which the overall validity of the ethnic or racial background in, usually, simply taken for gratned.  It is not an issue, then, just a taken-for-granted ideology.  And that might simply be an accurate representation of the way things are: genetic background and its associated cultural values are inevitably a significant factor in the lives of aboriginals and other minorities (especially people of colour), and an equally significant but usually unacknowledged and unthohgt-about factor in the lives of the mainstream “white” majority.

I’ve also written here about these books for young people centrally about aboriginal characters by non-aborignal writers:

Liza Ketchum’s Where the Great Hawk Flies
William Mayne’s Drift
Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth

And while it’s not about North American aboriginals, I discussed one other novel that deals with similar issues, this time in terms of a tropical island aboriginal culture invented by the author:

Terry Pratchett’s Nation

I’ve also discussed a couple of texts with alternating narratives for adults that relate to issues of aboriginality:

Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road
John Adams and Peter Sellars’s opera Dr. Atomic

While Boyden makes claim to a small amount of aboriginal heritage, it is indeed very small–so it fits uneasily into either of two categories: books by aboriginals, and ones by non-aboriginals.  The relationship between the depiction of aboriginality and alternating narrativers in Dr. Atomic is perhaps a little tenuous, but, i think, revealing.

Later,after I gather together lists of other books I’ve read but not yet discussed here on the blog,  I’ll consider the extent to which these books have similar themes, patterns, and implications.  I’ll also explore whether or not the novels for young people engage the alternating narrative form differently from the novels for adult audiences,  and also, whether the novels by aboriginals do so different from the ones by non-aborginals.  And there might be a third set of distinctions based on national provenance: the possible differences between authors located in Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere.

Books I’ve Read But Not Discussed Here

My earlier work on aboriginality and alternating narratives in books for young people focussed on texts published in Canada by Canadian publishers, all of them by non-aboriginal writers.  These all dealt centrally with encounters and/or friendships between white and aboriginal characters.  Some of them, however, told their stories as focalized through and understood by the white character:

Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens
Farley Mowat’s Curse of the Viking Grave
John Craig’s No Word for Goodbye
Ted Stenhouse’s Across the Steel River
Ted Stenhouse’s The Dirty Deed

While the first three of these were published some decades ago, Stenhouse’s books appeared in 2001 and 2003.

A larger group of books offer varying degrees of alternating narration from a character of European background and one of aboriginal background:

Joan Clark’s Hand of Robin Squires (a brief intrusion of an aboriginal focalization into what is otherwise the story of an English boy as told from his point of view)
Joan Clark’s The Dream Carvers
Monica Hughes Log Jam
Welywn Katz’s False Face
Welwyn Katz’s Out of the Dark
Martha Brooks’s Bone Dance
Kevin Major’s Blood Red Ochre
Greg Jackson-Davis’s Digging for Philip

I’ve already written in some detail about a number of these in “”At Home on Native Land: A Non-Aboriginal Canadian Scholar Discusses Aboriginality and Property in Canadian Double-Focalized Novels for Young Adults,” a chapter of Home Words: Discourses of Children’s Literature in Canada, ed. Mavis Reimer. (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier UP, 2008): Clark’s The Dream Carvers, Katz’s False Face, and Major’s Blood Red Ochre.

In addition to these Canadian novels, I’ve also read the following:

Virginia Frances Schwartz’s Initiation (which, while about the Kwakiutl people who live on Canada’s west coast, was published ion the U.S. by an author who lives in the U.S.; also, unlike the group above, its alternating focalizers are both Kwakiutl, and there are no characters of European descent, it being set in times previous to European contact)
Michael Dorris’s Morning Girl (alternating between a brother and sister who live on an island in the Caribbean just prior to Columbus’s arrival).
Joseph Bruchac’s Sacajawea (alternating between the Indian Sacajawea and the white Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition)
Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door (alternating between an Abenaki boy and a Quaker one)

I’ve also looked at a few other books by Canadians:

David Richards’s Soldier Boy
David Richards’s Lady of Batoche
Richard Wagamese’s Keeper ‘N Me (for adults).

There’s also:

Lee Maracle’s Will’s Garden

This book is not an alternating narrative, but presents white/Indian relationships from an aboriginal viewpoint–Stenhouse, etc., turned upside down.  Upside up, there’s a New Zealand novel:

David Hill’s Treasure Deep (Maori/Paheka relationships form a Paheka point of view).

And another book that might be relevant, discussed earlier on this blog is:

Berlie Doherty’s  Abela: the Girl Who Saw Lions.

I’m thinking of it in this context because it involves the same kind of colonial relationships between a European group and an indigenous one as North American aboriginal stories often do.

That’s it so far.  If anyone reading this entry knows of other books with alternating narratives that involve issues of aboriginality, I’d be pleased to hear about them.  And I’ll do some further exploration of this group of books as a whole soon.

  1. rebecca says:


    When I recommended Ellen Hopkins’ Identical, I hadn’t absorbed that you were focusing on books that “relate in some way or other to aboriginal characters or issues.” I recommended it purely for its duel narrative structure. Sorry ’bout that.

  2. rebecca says:

    Um, rather, DUAL narrative structure. Heh.

  3. pernodel says:

    Rebecca, my project isn’t focused exclusively on aboriginality. If i think of it as a book (which i sometimes do), that’s going to be just part of one of the chapters. I’m also looking at a range of other aspects of alternating narrative–its structural implications, the range of thematic interests it sustains, its use in relation to depictions of a variety of kinds of difference, including those of race, gender and sexuality. So I’m pleased to have had the recommendation for Identical, and in fact, I’m in the middle of it right now and plan to comment on it here soon.

  4. pernodel says:

    And by the way “duel’ narrative structure” in this context is very good–an example of sharp rapier wit?

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