It is the late 1800s, and the U.S. Government has mandated native tribes send their youth to Indian schools where they are stripped of their native heritage by the people they think of as The Others.
Otter and Sun Song are deeply in love, but when they are sent East to school, Otter, renamed Gideon, tries to adapt, where Sun Song does not, enduring brutal attacks from the school headmaster because of her refusal to so much as speak.
Gideon, thinking Sun Song has spurned him, turns for comfort to Wendy Thatcher, the daughter of a wealthy school patron, beginning a forbidden affair of the heart. But the Spirits have different plans for Gideon and Sun Song. They speak to Gideon through his magical storyteller's bracelet, showing him both his past and his future. You are both child and mother of The Original People, Sun Song is told. When it is right, you will be safe once more.
Will Gideon become Otter once again and return to Sun Song and his tribal roots, or attempt to remain with Wendy, with whom he can have no future?
This is a story which takes a terrible and hidden part of American history - the enforced schooling of Native American children in the ways of the white man. There is an excellent Wikipedia article on the subject here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Indian_boarding_schools which reveals that the events depicted in The Storyteller's Bracelet - such as the abuse of Sun Song by the evil headmaster - are very much based on what really happened. Hats off to Smoky Zeidel for writing about the subject and doing so in a way that gives us an excellent story whilst not shirking from the darkness of the subject. Sadly the removal of indigenous children from their homes to often brutal boarding schools with the aim of taking away their culture and identity was not confined to North America.
The novel is not simply an account of Otter and Sun Song's experience in the school. It is also a spiritual and mythical journey, which evolves into a creation story. The fact that magic realism is so often focused on a clash between a dominant white European culture and an indigenous one is a problem for those of us white European authors who want to explore the subject. How does one approach it without appropriating the indigenous culture one is writing about? Smoky Zeidel is very clear that she is not Native American and so rather than take one first nation's experience and legends as her focus, she has drawn on different First Nations' beliefs and culture to create a creation story of her own. She does so with huge respect, admiration and love for the beliefs in question. That is one approach. Another, and one I followed, is to create a realistic fantasy world. Some people may understandably argue that no appropriation is acceptable. But where does that leave the freedom of the artist and the imagination? Comments/thoughts welcome.
Smoky Zeidel is an excellent storyteller herself. The central characters are well drawn - sympathetic while not being perfect. The pacing of the story was compelling. Recommended.
I received this book from the author in return for a fair review.