THE FIGURE OF THE supernatural helper with magical powers, guide and protector of mythological heroes, is an ancient one. Wing-footed Hermes played this role in classical mythology while ibis-headed Thoth dispensed divine aid in the mysteries of ancient Egypt. In Navaho myth, these qualities belong to Spider Woman, guardian of the Twin Warriors. More familiar to most of us is the mythic protector who peers from the dark forests of European folklore in the form of a gnarled old woman.
Now Christie Harris has called forth another magical guide filled with great power - and great humor - in Mouse Woman and the Mischief-Makers. Released from the dark crannies of folkloreic scholarship, Mouse Woman comes leaping and laughing across the pages of this wonderful collection of tales from the Northwest Coast indians. Her eyest glistening, Mouse Woman watches over the Real People, monitors the mischief of her fellow narnauks (spirits who make life miserable for real People at the most unexpected moments), and protects heroes and heroines from monsters - and their own folly.
When eight princes are devoured by the terrible Wasco, a creature half-wolf, half-whale, it is tiny Mouse Woman who provides the ninth prince, with the magic to vanquish the monster and bring her brothers back to life. In another tale, a beautifully realized rendering of the hero-journey, the little grandmother mouse aids sea hunter Na-Na-simgat. he seeks to rescue his wife, kidnapped by the Monster Killer Whale. In the course of this adventure, we are awed by the Great Sea Otter, repulsed by the ravenous Killer Whale famil, and reduced to laughter by a bumbling trio of fish-headed helpers who might have stumbled in from The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
Mouse Woman, that "busiest of busybodies," when not dispensing practical advice to a Hero about to be swallowed by a Monster, or deflating a pompous Porcupine Chieftan, finds time to serve as divine matchmaker between a Real Person and the Daughter of the Sun. Always, this tiny creature's goal is no less than restoring a proper balance to the world and "making things equal." As reward for repeatedly accomplishing this immense taks, Mouse Woman asks for nothing more than a tiny bit of woolen fluff to soften her nest.
Harris's writing is consistently excellent and evokes the power of the nature-bond between men and animals that is precious to the Indians of the Northwest Coast. When we read of a beautiful maiden "shiningly pale as a birch tree in moonlight" we are carried to the mysterious, misty forests where these tales were born. Objects, customs, and rituals that may be unfamiliar to the reader are placed clearly in context; there is never a doubt as to their meaning and function. The poetic cadence of folklore, along with considerable humor and irony, is sustained throughout.
Powerful pen-and-ink drawings by Douglas Tait illustrate this handsomely produced volume. Artist Tait has combined elements of Northwest Coast tribal masks with a strong personal style to produce images that straddle myth and reality. Though he just misses capturing the visual essence of Mouse Woman, his rendering of a rainy coastal forest is haunting and his whirling porcupine dancer has an eerie presence.
Our thanks to Christie Harris for bringing these fantastic characters creeping, hopping, and leaping into life. Mouse Woman, with her bright eyes, her "ravelly little fingers", and infinite wisdom, is an invaluable guide along the path of the imagination. Harris has given her dignity and humor. She has also accomplished the feat of imbuing a mouse with human qualities without lapsing into cloying cuteness. Young readers will love these stories, as well as readers beyond both ends of the age-range designated on the book jacket. The marvelous adventures of Mouse Woman should also be read aloud, acted out, and celebrated in dance and song.
Blue-Wings-Flying, a story about a young Hopi boy growing up in a Mesa Pueblo, is a chronicle of daily events interwoven with fragments of folklore, myth, and ritual. The central episode - the birth of a sister - prompts the boy's search for a suitably poetic name for the newborn girl. Along the way, we are introduced to the dwellers of the Pueblo at their daily routine and catch a glimpse of the initiation ceremonies and activities of the masked Katchinas.
The author, a long-time resident of Hopiland, has patiently and lovingly compiled a record of daily life in the Pueblo. DeHuff treats the young reader to scenes of corn grinding, bread baking, and moccasin making, and a bit of drama; the boy slips over the edge of the Mesa and is rescued by an older tribe member (literally, "a cliff-hanger"). Her recollections carry the touch of reality and her descriptions of Kiva ritual hint at the mystery of myth. The powder blue-and-buff illustrations by Dorothea Sierra are superficial reworkings of traditional Pueblo motifs and convey little of the dynamism of tribal art.