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secret of the andes

1 december 2013

A few weeks ago, I read a scholarly discussion of why E.B. White's Charlotte's Web didn't win the 1953 Newbery Medal. The discussion didn't say anything about the book that had won the 1953 Medal: the novel Secret of the Andes, by Ann Nolan Clark. I had never heard of Secret of the Andes; I'd never met anyone who'd heard of it. But it was as close as the nearest branch library.

Secret of the Andes has many literary virtues. If it's not as good as Charlotte's Web, so what: prize juries of 1952-53 weren't prescient, and anyway White's novel was a runner-up (now called Honor Books), so it was hardly neglected. Secret of the Andes participates in the strong multicultural trends of mid-20th-century children's literature, taking other cultures seriously in their own terms. It's written in lucid, poetic language, and it doesn't patronize its audience. It adopts an isolated child's perspective and then expands that child's horizons, always a powerful world-building structure.

At the same time, there isn't a chance Secret of the Andes would see print if you submitted it to a children's editor today. Consider the amount of coca-chewing that goes on. The adults chew the stuff; so does Cusi, our child hero. At one point there's a matter-of-fact discussion of the principal products of Cusi's country:

The men were bartering with the newcomers, the men of the truck. This truck was full of coca leaves for the highland markets. They had come from the eastern slopes of the Andes, where coca is grown. In between their trading talk they told of other things. They told about coca growing. How it grows only in the wettest lands, how it grows in low, small bushes and must be lovingly tended. They told of the skill and care needed in picking the leaves four times each year. They explained how it was dried and packed in woven net bags. "Eighteen pounds to the bag," they said, "no more, no less." (48)
I have to assume that the only reason Secret of the Andes isn't continually banned by war-on-drugs puritans is that nobody reads it anymore, despite its Newbery ubiquity. Of course the novel isn't an advertisement for coca, anyway. Ann Nolan Clark, a keen observer of Native American folkways, was interested in how cultures adapted to environments, and built economies in the course of such adaptation. If you're going to wander the hills the way her Peruvian Indian characters do, a little coca is an adaptive supplement.

Coca is central to the culture Clark portrays, but no more so than the llama:

Sometimes while he was shearing Cusi would have time to look at the animal he was working on. […] Like all Indians of the Andes highlands, he loved the graceful beasts. They were his friends, his companions, and his burden-bearers. They gave him his sandals, his cap, his poncho, and his blanket. They gave him his textile bags and his rawhide net bags, his rope and his sling-shot. They gave him fuel for his fire and blood for his ancient sacrifice. They were a part of his past and his present, his everyday and his spiritual existence. (54)
There isn't a heck of a lot else going on up in the high mountain pastures where Cusi lives with his elderly guardian Chuto. There's only the two of them, and the occasional weirded-out visitor who arrives to play panpipes or say gnomic things. Only if Cusi lies on his belly on a flat overhanging cliff rock can he see a nuclear family down below behaving like it's the 1950s.

In fact it is the 1950s, one of the subtler touches in Secret of the Andes. At one point Chuto and Cusi are driving some llamas down a road when they encounter an oncoming truck, a "creature" Cusi can barely fathom (47). Later, when Cusi has gone off to a city in search of a "real" family to take him in, he thinks of bartering some llama wool for a few "pink and purple plastic combs" (94). (And then thinks better.) The ultra-traditional lifestyle that Chuto and Cusi lead in their hidden valley is slowly revealed to be marginal to that of modern economies and nation-states. So why are they doing the ancient llamaherd thing?

Well, if I told you that, I would be revealing the Secret of the Andes. Cusi himself, as the most interested party, would also love to know why he's boxed away in a canyon with his furry friends. Much of the novel involves Cusi's quest for his own identity. Twice in the course of that quest he's told something to the effect "Grieve not if your searching circles" (103). Good advice even if you're not an obscurely-chosen children's-book hero.

Clark, Ann Nolan. Secret of the Andes. Illustrated by Jean Charlot. 1952. New York: Puffin [Penguin], 1987.