Hey, did you know that November is ‘Native American Heritage Month?’ No? Well, don’t feel bad, most people don’t either. It’s not exactly heavily promoted, and the placement––right after Columbus day in October, and smack dab in the middle of spot-the-historical-inaccuracy Thanksgiving plays––kind of perks the awkward-o-meter more than little bit. But hey, any excuse to read some good indigenous lit, am I right?
When I went looking for a good YA book to review for NA Heritage month, I was thrilled to have many wonderful selections to choose from. Yeah, there’s still plenty of the usual crap out there: “Oh, make me a dream-catcher my vaguely-Plains-nation hero, before you disappear like the buffalo!” But there’s also lots of excellent work being produced, work which portrays indigenous experiences and cultures in nuanced, human ways. Wabi: A Hero’s Tale (Dial Books) is one of these stories.
Wabi was written by Joseph Bruchac in 2007. A writer, poet, and storyteller of Abenaki descent, Bruchac has made studying and sharing indigenous culture his vocation. To that end, he has published over 120 books––a startling fact made even more terrifying by the idea that, if Wabi is any indicator, those 120 books are all probably pretty good. So right off the bat, you know you’re in safe hands.
Anyways, I was only a few pages into Wabi before I realized it was going to be a very fun and engaging little tale. It’s essentially the hero’s journey of a young owl, named Wabi. After being pushed from the nest by his ‘ornicidal maniac’ brother, Wabi finds his great-grandmother and grows into an accomplished owl. As part of his owling, Wabi protects the local Abenaki village from monsters and keeps an eye on the silly humans that inhabit it. It’s then that he falls in love with a human girl, Dojihla. With the aid of his great-grandmother, and a little magic, Wabi becomes a man and tries to win her heart. Unfortunately, Dojihla’s pretty headstrong, and Wabi’s a little awkward––being born an owl doesn’t really give you the opportunity to learn those smooth dating moves, y’know? But after many trials and tribulations––as well as a healthy dose of humor––everything works out.
My crummy summary doesn’t really do this story justice, because it really is excellently written and constructed. Straddling the line between YA and Middle Reader, Wabi’s bite-sized chapters keep the narrative from becoming overwhelming to reluctant readers. The chapters are also basically vignettes, complete with their own miniature story arcs, which again works to keep the story moving in a quick and engaging way. The characters are also loveable, and everyone comes across as an actual person (or owl), rather than a tintype of what a ‘hero,’ ‘love interest,’ or ‘Indian’ should be.
Bruchac is also an expert at sneaking in educational information, and readers end up learning a lot about owls without realizing it, as well as Abenaki customs, myth, and vocabulary. By the time you’re done, you’ll probably have learned far more than you thought possible from a 198 page adventure story.
This brings me to my only real beef with Wabi––I wanted more info! Bruchac went through a lot of trouble weaving educational material into his narrative, and I feel like the publisher really dropped the ball by not augmenting his work. I desperately wanted a glossary and pronunciation guide to the Abenaki words, for example. Additional information on the myths the monsters are based on, as well as the Abenaki themselves, would have been amazing too. Not including support material like this just feels like such a huge, huge wasted opportunity for learning. Whoever designed the lame cover also did the book a huge disservice, as long as I’m kivetching.
Failings on bonus material aside, Wabi is a wonderful little gem of a book that I highly recommend to anyone who has a reluctant reader, an interest in indigenous myths and culture, or just a love of fun stories.