Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: A Boy Called Slow by Joseph Bruchac

Author: Joseph Bruchac
Title: A Boy Called Slow
Illustrator: Rocco Baviera
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: 1994
ISBN: 0-399-22692-3

In the winter of 1831, the family of Returns Again to Strike the Enemy of the Lakota Sioux tribe was blessed with the birth of a boy. Unknown to the family, this boy was destined for greatness, but first he needed to be given a childhood name. He ate slowly even when hungry; he moved slowly even though he was not sleepy. So they named him “Slon-he” or Slow. Slow did not like his name. He dreamed of earning a powerful new name by having a vision of bravery or by doing a special deed. One day, Returns Again met with an ancient bull buffalo who passed on four more names for Returns Again. Slow was proud of his father and knew that one day, he, too, would have a different name. He was careful and deliberate in everything he did, but once he decided on a course of action, Slow would go forward and not turn back. His name came to mean determination and courage. Still, Slow dreamed of having a braver name.

When he was fourteen, Slow decided to join his father and some other men as they raided the Crow. The war party took their places and waited for the Crow to come nearer. Slow decided it was time. He charged ahead so quickly that the other warriors could not catch up. Slow struck an enemy’s arm with his coup stick deflecting the aim of his arrow. The Crow saw the band of warriors riding toward them and fled. The fight was over. Not one Lakota life had been lost. Slow was a hero. His father gave him a new name, one of the names the old buffalo had given him...Tatan’ka Iyota’ke...Sitting Bull.

Joseph Bruchac is a writer and storyteller of Abenaki, English, and Slovak ethnicity who focuses on northeastern Native American and Anglo-American lives and folklore. The illustrator, Rocco Baviera, has won numerous awards for his artwork. For A Boy Called Slow, Baviera visited the Dakotas, the land of the Sioux, where he met Sitting Bull’s great-great-grandson, Isaac Dog Eagle. Together, Bruchac and Baviera captured the essence of Sitting Bull’s land, life, and people through carefully chosen words and images.

The setting is established on the first page as a child is born in a teepee late at night during the year 1831 to the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota Sioux. Lakota terms printed in italics are used throughout the book, adding a feeling of authenticity to the culture represented. These terms are often defined for the English reader soon after they are used. “U we!...Come here quickly!” “Nihwa hwo?... Are you sleepy?”

The importance of women to the culture is demonstrated. The father, Returns Again to Strike the Enemy, thanks Wakan-Tanka for giving him a son even though he knew “that women are the heart of the nation.” Slow’s mother is shown to be wise, teaching him, “You must always help and protect your people…. A true Lakota shares everything with the people.”

The custom and importance of bestowing a childhood name is described. “Such names came from the way a child acted. So it had been with Returns Again and his father before him.” His tiyospaye, his extended family, all watched the boy closely until a name was chosen. If he had tried to eat everything, he might have been named “Hungry Mouth.” If he had been quick and watchful, he might have been named “Mouse.” Instead, he was slow and deliberate in his actions. “Slon-he,” his father said. “That is the name for our son.”

Storytelling is important to the Lakota Sioux, and so the story of how horses came to the people is told to Slow by his uncle Four Horns. History says the white man or wasicun brought the horses, but Slow’s uncle tells the story of how Wakan-Tanka sent “a new animal as faithful as our dogs but able to pull our loads and carry us as quick as the whirlwind into the hunt, the Shoong-Ton’kah, the ‘Spirit Dog.’”

The respect for nature is seen when Returns Again, who is known for his ability to understand the speech of the animals and the birds, earns him four more names from an ancient bull buffalo after he prevents the buffalo from being harmed. Slow, too, “knew that his gray pony understood him…, it was as if the two of them were one.”

For the Lakota Sioux, adult names have to be earned. New names are given to children after they have proven themselves through a vision or a deed. “Slow wished for this vision of bravery to come to him.” After he had seen fourteen winters, Slow followed his father on a raid. Wearing only his moccasins and his breech cloth with a coup stick in his hand, Slow kicks his horse’s sides shouting, “Hiyu’wo!” as he leads the attack on the Crow. For his bravery, Returns Again gives him one of the names granted him by the buffalo, Tatan’ka Iyota’ke or Sitting Bull. He had earned the respect of his tribe and his new name.

The oil paintings used as illustrations are dark, mysterious, barely defining the faces of the people, yet they add an almost spiritual sense of the land and of the people’s lives to the actions in the story. Touches of color against the darker palette accentuate the action by adding splashes of warmth and light in the morning sky, the glow of the fire, the paintings of the teepees, and the brown hide of the horse and the skin of Slow as they race into battle. Finally, the individual features of Sitting Bull are revealed in a portrait through which the land and the sun can been seen as if they are one.

Although not a true biography given the undocumented words spoken by the characters, A Boy Called Slow is a wonderful historical fiction picture book that will inspire young readers to seek out more information on Sitting Bull and other Native Americans.

Review excerpts:
School Library Journal
(Oct95) “This book works beautifully as historical fiction; it is less successful as biography as none of the dialogue is documented. An inspiring story.” (Gr 1-6)

Horn Book Magazine (Sep/Oct 95) “The pictures evoke a sense of timelessness and distance, possessing an almost mythic quality that befits this glimpse into history.”

Publishers Weekly (January 9, 1995) “Bruchac's meaty yet cohesive narrative is richly complemented by Baviera's large, atmospheric paintings.... Satisfying for its attention to historical and multicultural issues; stirring in its consummate storytelling.” (Ages 5 & up)

Booklist (March 15, 1995) “In brilliant counterpoint to the story's emotional timelessness is Baviera's vision of the Lakotas as spiritually and culturally distant from us.” (Ages 6-9)

Native Peoples Magazine (Spring 95) “Joseph Bruchac, a writer of Abenaki descent, invests Slow’s search for a worthy name with spiritual significance through the tribal wisdom he learns from his elders.” (Ages 5 and up)

Kid’s Choice Award (Buffalo Alliance for Education) 2006
ALA Notable Children’s Book 1995
National Education Association’s Native American Booklist 2010
Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association Regional Book Award 1996

Study the Lakota people by reading nonfiction books such as The Lakota by Michael Burgan, part of the First American series (2009) or Lakota Sioux Children and Elders Talk Together by E. Barrie Kavasch (1999). Visit websites such as http://www.lakhota.com/ where you can learn some of the Lakhota language. Facts for Kids at http://www.bigorrin.org/sioux_kids.htm provides background information to compare to other sites and books read while searching for authentic information. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe website at http://www.sioux.org/ will offer current information from an official Sioux site. For fun, read a traditional Lakota story like The Star People: A Lakota Story (2003) or Gift Horse: A Lakota Story (2000) both by S. D. Nelson, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the Dakotas.

You may also want to study Sitting Bull’s life in further detail. Sitting Bull Remembers by Ann Warren Turner (2007) has mixed reviews, but it presents an interesting viewpoint whereby Sitting Bull reflects back on the details of his own life. Seeing the Future: the Final Vision of Sitting Bull by Jennifer Silate (2007) looks at Sitting Bull’s life after he and his people were sent to the reservation at Standing Rock, North Dakota in 1883.

Explore other famous Lakota Sioux. Crazy Horse’s Vision (2000) by Joseph Bruchac centers around Crazy Horse’s vision quest as a child after he sees U.S. Army Soldiers attack his people. Black Elk’s Vision: a Lakota Story (2010) by S. D. Nelson describes how a childhood vision influenced the life of Black Elk, a Lakota-Oglala medicine man.


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