Children's Books

WHALE BROTHER, Barbara Steiner, illustrations by Gretchen Mayo, Walker and Company, 435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014, (800) AT-WALKER, (212) 307-1764 FAX; simultaneously in Canada, Thomas Allen anmd Son Ltd, Markham: Ontario. 1988, paper, 28 pages 8 x 12 oversize, $6.95, 0-8027-7460-1

This beautifully illustrated book is an example of a depiction of Native life by a person who knows absolutely nothing about Inuit people's living conditions in the past, and has created a mini-legend about a white suburban family in brownface and furs. Omu, who wants to be a carver, lives in an igloo (snow dome), which means he is in the central Arctic, and it is winter. He trades his spear -- which he happens to jsut carry around -- for a harmonica to a trader. We can stop there a moment and note that traders (and no one) visited the central Arctic in winter during the period -- before World War II -- when Inuit people built winter igloos. It's the winter night there then! Kids didn't fossick around looking for things to do and giving away valuable survival possessions, sasurvival occupied the people -- including all non-infants -- in this toughest of environments. Anmyway, Omu can't play the thing, so when pops rprimands him for making noise in the igloo, he goes outside (into the 40 below dark) and plays this metal instrument. Kids and adults make fun of hisa artistic and musical ambitions, so Omu swipes a kayak and goes off by himself. Somehow there is no shore ice, he makes friends with a pod of Orcas who (unlike dolphins) aren't the least friendly to humans, and certainly don't hang around shallow bays to get killed by the People, who greatly value their flesh, fat and bones.

One day when he's playing around in the valuable kayak he sees one of the whales beached. Instead of telling his pople about this bonanza, he stays away from home, keeps it alive for 4 days pouring water over it from a handy bucket and plays his harmonica for it. This wouldn't work, because a beached whale, even small orcas, dies of its own weight maldistributed on land, but never mind. The other is shallow bay, toss him a walrus tusk, which he carves into a likeness of Skana, that takes in the spirit of the dead whale. He returns home and says he's sorry his parents worried (actually they wouldn't have worrid, the kid's gone 5 days they would certainly assume he was dead, and in fact he would be dead if it was really the Arctic), but he had to stay with this dying whale, his bro. The parents show no interest in the whale (Arctic natives would have been off at once in an umiak to flense as much as was left befor birds and other scavengers got it -- which would be long before th whale finally expired). Instead of supposing he must be some kind of evil spirit to have taken off so oddly and survived (and probably killing him), they praise him for the fine carving and his newfound talent at playing a metal harmonica without freezing his mouth. This is a white lady's fantasy that bears no relationship to Native life in the Arctic, native customs, native values, native lif, native stories. Her little moralistic tale has nothing to do with Inuit life nor Inuit art, except to deny and falsify everything it's about. Beautifully illustrated example of a bad book. Reviewed by Paula Giese

File: ch40

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Friday, March 15, 1996 - 5:22:42 AM