11 February 2009

The Fantasy Element in Diamond Willow

Cybils Middle-Grade Fiction nominee Diamond Willow, by Helen Frost, takes place in central Alaska. The heroine Willow’s mother is from the Upper Kuskokwim people, whose language is part of the larger Northern Athabascan grouping: she’s studying Dinak’i, or “our words.” Her father’s family came from Europe through Canada. Willow has a younger sister Zanna, and her mother’s parents live a dogsled-ride away.

Willow also lives among the spirits of her dead ancestors, as reincarnated in various animals around her: mouse, spruce hen, lynx, and so on. This aspect of the story was apparently inspired by a Northern Athabascan belief. In American Indian Religious Traditions: An Encyclopedia, edited by Suzanne J. Crawford and Dennis F. Kelley (2005), Phyllis Ann Fast writes:

some northern Athabascan traditions include a belief in the reemergence or reincarnation of the spirits of humans and other creatures after death.
Those ancestral animals narrate sections of the book. They look after Willow and her friends, sometimes calling the youngsters’ attention to crucial information. Eventually the link between Willow’s family and animals turns out to be a crucial revelation for readers, though the characters never fully tumble to it.

Diamond Willow presents this form of reincarnation not as the characters’ belief system, but as the way the world works. On her website Frost has written:
The spruce hen and the other animals are a protective presence in the story, and are especially helpful when the characters are attentive to their surroundings. They do not represent anyone's spiritual or religious beliefs.
It’s not necessary for a character to believe in that form of reincarnation or belong to the Upper Kuskokwim ethnic group to return as an animal. Willow’s paternal ancestors show up just like her maternal ancestors; people who died as infants are reincarnated alongside people who died after decades of life in central Alaska.

I therefore classify Diamond Willow as a fantasy, like any other story set in a universe of supernatural forces. That label seems especially apt after a little mouse/great-grandfather guides Willow to a piece of paper with crucial writing on it--the supernatural element clearly affects the plot. (That said, this book wasn’t nominated in the Cybils Fantasy and Science Fiction category.)

As far as I noted, Diamond Willow doesn’t depict its characters--even the Upper Kuskokwim grandparents--as talking or thinking about the form of reincarnation its story depends on. When Willow’s family discusses how to treat an injured sled dog or how to get rid of mice, they don’t wonder if those animals hold the spirits of their relatives.

It appears, therefore, that Frost was inspired by the Upper Kuskokwim people’s understanding of how spirits work, and showed readers how such a universe might play out, but didn’t portray those people as sharing in that understanding.


Anonymous said...

I'm confused about how the aspect of people reincarnated as animals can be based on Athabascan religious beliefs but also "not represent anyone's spiritual or religious beliefs". I'm probably more comfortable with the idea of this book as a fantasy, which I hadn't considered (and I'm not sure why--other books with talking/thinking animals are fantasies, right?--but you're the first person I've seen suggest this), but it still troubles me. Oh, well, my issues with the plot were bigger. Thanks for writing about this new angle on the book.

J. L. Bell said...

I feel comfortable saying that Frost seems to have been inspired by this particular belief of some Northern Athabascan because seeing that belief reflected in a story set in such a community can’t be a coincidence.

But Frost isn’t claiming that her portrayal of the reincarnated spirits reflects that belief exactly. And I don’t know enough about it to judge. (It’s not clear to me even how many groups of people speaking Northern Athabascan languages share that belief.)

It raises interesting questions about our ideas of fantasy, spirituality, and fictionalizing. But indeed that’s only one aspect of the book.