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sing down the moon

30 november 2013

Scott O'Dell's Sing Down the Moon, a Newbery Honor Book for 1971, is a sparely-told tale of expropriation and displacement in the 1860s American Southwest. O'Dell tells the story of a Navajo community from a highly immediate perspective, packing what limited exposition and background he has to offer into a terse epilogue. We experience the disorientation of these Native people as outsiders from several directions break in on, and all but destroy, their way of life. Published in the early days of the American Indian Movement and other pioneering civil-rights activism among Native Americans, Sing Down the Moon is as much about 1970 as it is about 1864. Kids who read the novel and identified with its heroine-narrator Bright Morning in the early '70s grew up to be today's multiculturalists.

Sing Down the Moon proceeds in three large movements. The first inverts the usual Indian-captivity story. In fictions like The Searchers, Indians abduct a white girl; in Sing Down the Moon, white "Spaniards" abduct Bright Morning. These early chapters describe a repellent period in the history of the Southwest, when trade in Indian slaves flourished under the auspices of the U.S. Government. Slavery had been abolished in Mexico well before the U.S. Civil War, but evidently Navajo human rights did not count.

The larger movements of the story are out and back again. Bright Morning's clan is uprooted from their ancestral valley by American soldiers, and marched to Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico. Here they languish, far from their traditional foods, economies, and rituals, till Bright Morning and her husband Tall Boy engineer an escape and find refuge back home after a long return trek.

"Husband" is an odd word to use, anymore, with reference to the heroine of a children's novel. Sing Down the Moon would not at all fit the conventions of 21st-century children's publishing; latter-day Newbery juries wouldn't know what to make of it. But in a publishing world not so hemmed in by age-segregated reading "levels," O'Dell was able to make a coherent fiction of a slice of a girl's life from late childhood to young adulthood. His language is simple (though poetic) and he never even alludes to sexuality, but we see a girl grow up and change realistically all the same.

We also see a community of Navajo women exerting leadership in the larger clan. As feminist as it is multicultural, Sing Down the Moon portrays male vanity and punctures it. Tall Boy seems to be suffering from near-fatal testosterone levels throughout. He continually endangers himself and his whole clan with macho stunts. Only when he forms an equal partnership with Bright Morning does his family find their place again in the Navajo country.

O'Dell, Scott. Sing Down the Moon. 1970. New York: Yearling [Random House], 1992.