A writer named Donna Pacini has written a children's book called The Loose End of the Rainbow. She's trying to get it published, or at least distributed to receptive audiences. Since it's about Native people, she's asked me for help a few times.
I tried to suggest that this might not be her best move. You don't necessarily want the most critical person in the world to read your unpublished manuscript. Especially when it features a generic group of Indians, as this story does.
But Pacini kept after me, so I finally agreed to read the first chapter or so. Here's my book report.
What it's about
This story is set in a time long ago, many generations before Columbus brought back word to Europe that there was a land where proud native peoples lived. This land would become the United States of America. For the sake of clarification, I call the New World clan from White Eagle's village Native American Indians, but this story is set in a time before America was called America.
A tribe of nineteen Native American Indian children, between the ages of ten-months and seventeen-years, along with some other small clans of courageous red, yellow, brown, black, and white children, from all four corners of the earth, embark on a daunting journey to the loose end of the rainbow.
Their parents, and all the adults in their tribes, disappear in the night, when a mysterious fever sweeps across the world. Their journey is difficult and sometimes dangerous. The clans are led by White Eagle and Paints-With-Words, who are both seventeen.
White Eagle and Paints-With-Words have supernatural powers, because they were born at the loose end of the rainbow. The clans encounter intimidating and treacherous challenges: venomous snakes, evil tricksters, monsters, and harsh weather. They are befriended by eight kindhearted universal knights, who roam the world protecting the innocent.
The conceptual problems
Generic tribe. The tribe has no name or location and nothing except a hint of a generic culture and history. Supposedly this tribe wandered from sea to sea. Never happened: no tribe roamed more than a few hundred miles regularly.
This tribe has tepees, papooses, hominy, green birch kettles, and maize bread. Never happened: I'd venture to guess that no tribe had all or even most of these things. Tepees were primarily found in the Midwest; papooses in the Eastern woodlands, hominy in the Southeast, green birch kettles in the Northern woodlands, and maize bread in Mexico and the Southwest.
Pacini helpfully footnotes these terms, which may appeal to educators. But she doesn't identify specific locations or cultures in the footnotes any more than she does in the main text. And some of her information is wrong. For instance, wigwams and tepees are similar but not identical.
How many times to I have to tell people that you can't mix and match items from different Indian cultures? That beliefs and practices from one tribe don't necessarily apply to others? That there were and are hundreds of distinct Indian cultures, not one generic culture?
Will I ever accept a generic tribe when a specific tribe would work better? No, no, a thousand times no. In other words, no.
If Pacini doesn't want to use an existing tribe, she could use an extinct one. Or make one up. Or refer to a cultural group of tribes: e.g., the Iroquois, Chippewa, or Pueblos. At the very least, she could tell us whether these are forest, plains, or desert Indians. But under no circumstances should she write as if all Indians across the continent were the same—as if they belonged to one big happy family.
"Native American Indians." Native people don't call themselves Native Americans or Indians as their first choice. They call themselves by their tribal name. But that's the problem here: this tribe has no name.
This phrase is particularly grating since the story is set in the time before Columbus. The word "Indian" (applied to the Western Hemisphere's inhabitants) didn't exist then. Neither did the word "American."
If Pacini has to use some identifer—which she doesn't—she should use "Native Americans," "American Indians," or simply "Indians." "Native American Indians" sounds like the choice of someone who has never met real Indians and doesn't know anything about them.Fairy-like names. Pacini must think she's writing an Indian version of Lord of the Rings or ELFQUEST. In addition to White Eagle and Paints-with-Words, her characters have names such as Daybreak Star, Soaring Arrow, Night Hawk, Wind Runner, and Dream Keeper. While some Indians may have had names like these, more often they were named Curley, Back Fat, Buffalo Hump, Matoaka, Goyathlay, or Tenskwatawa. In other words, there were few wolves, bears, eagles, hawks, suns, moons, or stars. Nothing precious or magical or fairy-like—nothing you'd use for a Smurf or My Pretty Pony. Just good working names that aren't supposed to sound "natural" or spiritual.
Paints-with-Words's ancestor is named Amethysta because she had lavender eyes. Again, never happened: "Amethyst" is derived from Latin and Greek; the word never occurred in pre-Columbian America. I'm guessing lavender eyes never occurred, either.
See "Funny" Indian Names for more on the subject.
Magical powers. I hope the two main characters are the only ones with superhuman powers. If Pacini's Indians all have magical abilities because of their magical connection to nature, that's another problem. Once again, that puts you into Neverland territory with the pirates, mermaids, and fairies.
In any case, Pacini spends several pages telling us who these children are, how their powers developed, and how they work. The operative word here is "telling." For example, "He has developed a keen ability to observe his surroundings and can detect subtle shifts in the emotions of the earth." As countless beginners have learned in countless Writing 101 classes: Show, don't tell.
Cover image. Judging by the cover illustration, the characters don't even look like Indians. Rather, they have the delicate look of dark-skinned elves. Note that one teenager has white hair and the other has lavendar hair and eyes. These touches reinforce the idea that Indians were exotic and otherworldly—i.e., denizens of a fairy-tale world with elves and unicorns.
If you want to write about pre-Columbian elves, no problem. Set the story in some "enchanted" time before the first Paleo-Indians came to America. Then you can pretend the inhabitants had fairy names, fairy powers, and a homogenized fairy culture all you want.
Showing a man with a severed arm on the cover is also ridiculous. This is a children's book, remember. The chance of a publisher using this image to sell the book is approximately zero.
The language problems
The first paragraph in the text, after a brief prologue, tells you enough about Pacini's writing style:
But I've already addressed that point. Let's look at the language. From this passage alone, you can see the problems:
Verbose style. Pacini could condense this:
Cultural anachronisms. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow comes from Irish mythology, I presume. The unicorns and fairies come from England or somewhere in Europe. Mythologically speaking, there were no unicorns, fairies, or pots of gold in pre-Columbian America. Similarly, there were no known songwriters—because few Indian cultures had writing and songs were transmitted orally.
Redundant use of adjectives. "Shines brightly," "spill loose," "little fairies with tiny flowers," "talking animals ... having conversations."
Mistakes and annoyances. A talking bee is a kind of talking animal, so there's no reason to single it out.
I stopped reading after 10 pages. I figure I'd already found enough problems to make this manuscript difficult if not impossible to publish. Back to the drawing board—or the writing screen—Donna. Your manuscript needs major revisions before publishers will touch it and Indians will support it.
Moral of the story: When you ask for my help, be careful what you wish for. You just may get it.
Tipis, feather bonnets, and other Native American stereotypes
The best Indian books
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Original text and pictures © copyright 2008 by Robert Schmidt.
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