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daughter of the mountains

13 november 2022

Louise Rankin's Daughter of the Mountains is Momo, a plucky Tibetan girl. In Kurt Wiese's 1948 cover illustration for Rankin's book, Momo happily holds a little creature that resembles a tiny Abominable Snowman. It is really her puppy Pempa. Not long into the novel, mean traders kidnap Pempa and abscond with him to India. Momo sets off on an epic journey to get her dog back.

Daughter of the Mountains is another of these odd books that drew critical acclaim (Newbery Honor 1949) by placing a resourceful kid with proto-Western get-up-and-go in the context of an exoticized foreign culture. Louise Rankin apparently knew something about her setting, though. Daughter of a professor of Greek at Johns Hopkins, Rankin married an oil executive and accompanied him to his corporate post in the Indian subcontinent in the years before the second world war. She got to know India, and she came home with the idea of setting a children's adventure story there. The result is the doubly-exoticized Daughter of the Mountains: we get to know Momo's Tibet but then to travel with her across the Himalayas to an India as unfamiliar to her as it is to us.

Daughter of the Mountains, on one level, is simply a good story. It doesn't get weepy or saccharine. Momo eventually gets Pempa back – I can't imagine that's a spoiler – but despite the plot predictability, Rankin shows a good sense of structure and offers quite a bit of suspense. The novel is a nice example of the method of taking a hero and sending her into a world that gradually opens up before her, becoming wider, more various, and more incomprehensible than she could ever have imagined. It becomes traveloguey at times, but in crisp, attractive description, not in portentous allusions to places the narrator has been but the reader hasn't. I read the whole book with attention and intrigue.

But it's also, at times, a bit hard to take. Momo is an appealing character; if even a 63-year-old white English professor can identify with her, I imagine that kids from many backgrounds could. But of course she appeals to a Western reader for all the ways in which she breaks free from her own culture. Character after blocking character tells her to give up and go home and stay within her family circle. Momo insists on following her independent, heroic bent.

Throughout the novel, Momo prays to a benevolent Blessed One, at first clearly identified as the Buddha, but as things go along, a generalized deist Deity who seems to blend in many ways with a generalized Christian God. There's a lot of talk of "the Lord's will" (105), and Momo's sentiments read at times like lightly orientalized versions of the Serenity Prayer (76) and the Golden Rule (120). Early on, some monks explain Buddhist spiritual goals to her, centering on reincarnation or the avoidance thereof (26), but by mid-novel Momo is focused on making a villain pay "In this life … for your evil deeds!" (120).

Momo gawps at various Western items that Rankin defamiliarizes for Western readers: a seltzer bottle with a marble in its neck (21-22) that Momo treasures; motorcars "faster than the fastest yak" (120); the "te-rain" for which one needs a "tikkut": "a great black creature … like a dragon" with "a line of little houses … like beads" (122). This isn't really offensive, though it makes Momo seem mildly idiotic; not everything in the world is as familiar to everyone across the world, and many Tibetan customs are presented respectfully.

But when we get to India … there's an uncomfortable excursus on how the British have never been able to shake Indians of their venal reliance on bribery (174). And worse yet, the book's effective helping characters are all white, all leading figures in the British Raj. These upright, compassionate English people, a string of Lat Sahibs and Memsahibs who are just bursting to shower love and material help on a little Tibetan girl and all her friends and family – let's just say that they are a bit much. I think they would have read as a bit much even in 1948. Maybe especially in 1948.

Rankin, Louise. Daughter of the Mountains. Illustrated by Kurt Wiese. 1948. New York: Viking, 1967.