Dr. Sheila Benson teaches in the English education program as well as the Teaching English in Secondary Schools program at University of Northern Iowa. Dr. Benson's research focuses on how a school's working conditions align with English currricula. Along with her teaching and research, Dr. Benson also serves as advisor of the University of Northern Iowa Council of Teachers of English (UNICoTE), the student affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English, and, quite impressively, is a member of the Amelia E. Walden Book Award Committee for the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (ALAN). We are pleased to have Dr. Benson sharing her expertise today.
I settled in to read, and wow, what a ride! Indigenous futurism? Please give me more!
The novel opens with nine-year-old Nina at her great-grandmother Rosita’s hospital bed. Everyone else has left for lunch, and Nina does not speak any of the languages Rosita speaks, including the one she uses to suddenly start sharing an essential story, a story she wants to be sure Nina remembers. Too bad Nina’s translation app on her phone can only decipher Spanish. Nina knows this story matters, but it takes her until she’s 16 to understand why.
Meanwhile, in the mirror world (cue whatever transition music you’d like to hear in your head), Oli is the last of his nine cottonmouth siblings to strike out on his own—or more accurately, to be driven out into the larger world by his mother. (It’s part of his journey to adulthood.) She sends him off with a special blanket she has woven—a blanket which is stolen shortly afterwards when Oli makes the first of many, many mistakes as a newly independent cottonmouth out in the world. Oli wants that blanket back, but he eventually gives up and just keeps moving along, unwittingly headed to the path to anywhere-you-please, encounters with several monsters (including a giant catfish), and eventually crossing into Nina’s world.
Here's where things get complicated—complicated in an interesting way. On Nina’s side of things, Rosita has long passed on, but that final story lingers in Nina’s mind. When she’s 13, she starts a school project about Lipan Apache stories and becomes active on a storytelling social media site called St0ryte11er. Nina eventually decides that she needs to go to her grandmother’s house (Rosita’s daughter) with her dad; neither adult has any idea what Nina actually plans to do.
Nina thinks she’s the only one who knows about the mirror world. Turns out she isn’t. Enter creepy new neighbor Paul, who at best is the world’s most annoying, litigation-happy neighbor and at worst . . .? Well, that becomes clear near the end of the book.
Oli, who’s managed to escape several monster attacks, has made some friends in his new home: coyote twins Risk and Reign, a hawk named Brightest, and a toad named Ami. A few adversaries appear as well, most notably a bear bounty hunter (whose fee is lunch) and a mockingbird who wreaks havoc throughout the rest of the novel.
Another important fact: when any animal is endangered in Nina’s world, the parallel animal people become sick and eventually die (it happened to the bison people). When Ami suddenly collapses, Oli and his friends decide to cross worlds to save Earth toads so Ami can survive.
Guess where the cross-over point is? And who’s there to meet them? (Hint: not Paul.)
Oh yes—and there’s a hurricane headed for Grandma’s house. And because she’s tied to the land, she can’t leave without having heart problems.
Enough with plot. The plot is engaging, but that’s not the best part of the novel, at least not for me. I love all the storytelling that happens throughout the chapters, especially on Oli’s end. I’m a sucker for stories (aren’t we all?), and these are stories I haven’t heard, all from Lipan Apache culture. Darcie Little Badger has a lot of fun figuring out the animal people personalities and what their false human forms look like. Reign, for example, is a fashion designer and recruits Oli as a fashion model for her new clothing line at one point, and the bear bounty hunter is just plain funny.
I do feel that some plot threads weren’t quite tied up by the end of the novel, but as I said above, plot is not the most important part of the novel. The star is the storytelling. I occasionally felt disoriented, but it was a good kind of disorientation, a figuring-out-how-things-work kind of disorientation. I finished this book wishing that there was a mirror world I could peek into, some animal people I could meet. Maybe I should pay closer attention to whoever stands next to me the next time I’m in a bookstore.
You can learn more about Darcie Little Badger and her work here: https://darcielittlebadger.wordpress.com/about/. Happy reading!