Secret of the Andes
Ann Nolan Clark (1953)
Read to: 2nd - 5th grade
Read independently: 6th - 8th grade
This is a nice story. The writing is beautiful and descriptive but not complicated. The setting and storyline is so far removed from modern day American life it would seem to be over the head of my 7y3m son but it was evident by the questions he asked at bedtime and the correlations he made in the daytime that he not only followed the story well but enjoyed it.
The story centers on Cusi, a young Inca boy in the Peruvian mountains and his caretaker, Chuto. They tend their llamas in a very remote part of the mountains. Early in the book Cusi observes a family in the valley below and is so awed by them Chuto reflects, "The boy had seen no people in the eight years he had lived here. He had been too young to remember what had gone before." (p. 12) And there it is, the setting up of the recurrent theme, that there is some sort of mystery to who Cusi is.
A minstrel (as in Adam of the Road) comes along and Chuto decides the minstrel can tend the llamas while he and Cusi journey to the Salt Pits. "Cusi looked at the llamas ... They were the heart of his home. At night he slept among them. Their silky fleece kept him warm and dry. Their nearness kept him unafraid. By day they gave him company. When they were pleased, they hummed for him. ... They understood his words and his moods. They obeyed his commands. They were his companions. Cusi was not certain that he wanted to leave them even for a day. He was not certain he wanted to leave his mountain world for a journey to valleys beyond." (p. 16)
Chuto was not eager to travel either. "Chuto was busy with the baby llamas. He really did not want to leave them even for the short time the trip to the Salt Pits would take. He was happy here in Hidden Valley and never wanted to go away. Twice a year he went down into the valley beneath them. The first trip was to get the food supplies that were left for him there. The second was on a mysterious errand that he never talked about. These trips took only a day. Since Cusi had come to live with him, Chuto had never been away from his flock overnight. But this time he must go. Uninvited, the outside world had come to beckon Cusi to go beyond the mountain. Chuto must take him. It had to be done." (p. 23)
The trip seems to be just one step in Cusi's coming of age journey. Another is getting to accompany Chuto to "greet the sun". The chant is much like a prayer and is printed in poetic verse style. They greet the sun before they go on their journey. Returning from the special place of ceremony Cusi notices that Chuto is troubled. "He does not want to see the outside world, the boy thought and felt guilt at his own excitement in going." (p. 36). This is just one example of how Cusi is insightful and considerate, especially for a boy who is not fully mature.
Before they leave the minstrel tells Chuto, " 'Hidden Valley takes care of its flock and the keepers of its flock. Not so the world outside. The outside world is filled with people who are strange to you. They are people of two bloods. They are and they are not. They know and they do not know. They care and they do not care. Think, brother. Are you certain that you want to ford this river of people whose blood runs fresh and salt in never-mixing streams?' / Chuto answered simply, 'I do not want to go. There is need to go. It has been asked of me. Once I received a like request and I refused it. The cost of that refusal lies heavy in my heart.' " (p. 37)
So finally they get on their journey and Cusi has an opportunity for personal growth and facing fears. "Now terror touched him with its cold fingers, and hot excitement filled him with the thought of what he was about to do. He felt that he never could move a sandaled foot a half-pace forward. Yet he knew that he would move. He knew that he would cross the bridge. He knew that nothing could hinder that first step that would lead forward." (p. 44)
Along the road to the Salt Pits they spend the night in a place known as Condor Kuncca with some people that Chuto knows. One of the old men greets Chuto and asks about Cusi saying, " 'This one, of course, is one of the Chosen! The other one did not return?' / Chuto replied, "Death has no returning. Yes, this time a good choice, I think.' / Cusi looked at him. Why is it, he wondered, that Chuto talks in riddles to other men, but to me, Cusi, his words are simple and plain." (p. 48)
When they arrive at the Salt Pits the reader is treated to a nice explanation of how the salt is extracted from the water. It is a hot and tiring process and when Cusi wants to rest Chuto tells him to chew some coca (leaves). It's never clearly defined what coca is. In present day it is probably a derivation of cocaine but in the context of this book it is very much a cultural thing.
Aside from getting salt Chuto also uses the trip to barter for other items with yarn he and Cusi have spun from their llamas hair as they walked on their journey (talk about resourceful!).
In happenstance Cusi sees a vehicle and Chuto explains, "It has wheels instead of feet. It has a motor instead of a heart. It has evil-smelling blood by the name of gasoline." (p. 57)
After they return an Amauta visits and educates Cusi in many things. Then Cusi gets the honor of choosing the llamas they will give away, as they do every year. Even with the teachings of the Amauta there is much knowledge that still eludes Cusi. Such as when Chuto says he always takes the gift of llamas to the family in the valley. Cusi argues it can't be so since the family just recently arrived but Chuto says there is a family there every year. "Cusi was more surprised than ever. 'But I never saw them. These were the first I saw.' / Chuto laughed. 'Did you look?' he asked teasingly and at Cusi's headshake he said, 'Young birds look down from the nest only when they are nearly ready to fly.' " (p. 75) I thought that was a rather poetic idea yet it was the Amauta's words that echoed more for Cusi. "Your heart is good and brave. It now commands your actions." (p. 80) When Cusi finds some golden sandals on an altar-type carved stone he uses these words to justify taking them. It seemed to me like surely this was a mistake and would lead to a great life lesson but it really winds up being totally okay - as if it is somehow connected to his mysterious birth right.
Armed with the sandals Cusi goes on an independent journey in search of his heart's true desire - a family. His first thought was to join a family in a valley, but when he gets there they are gone. "Surprised but not bitter, Cusi was learning to accept the way that had been laid out before him. He was learning not to wonder, not to question, not to rebel but to go forth step by step and step by step as the trail became deeper and the signs along the way more clearly marked." (p. 87)
So as he goes deeper on the trail he winds up going all the way to Cuzco. He goes to a church even though, "The Amauta had not told him of temples built to a different god." (p. 96) It seemed he might've found his family there. He finds Cuzco full of people, "Indians, Latins, those of the two-blood mixture. There were others, stranger than the mixed bloods - Arab, Anglo-Saxon, Chinese. (p. 101)"
He also observes some candles and all their supposed uses and charms.
He comes close to finding a family but couldn't bring himself to share the golden sandals. "If it had been Chuto who needed them or Misti, I could have given them because- because- the boy struggled for the right word and suddenly leaped to his feet, ... . They would have a right to them because we are part of each other. We are a family. We belong to one another and everything we have can be shared together." (p. 119)
So he rushes home to Chuto and tells him what he's discovered. Chuto hesitates to accept the role of father saying, "It is I who falter because I love you. Give me time to open this door to you that, once opened, closes itself forever." (p. 125) It doesn't take much time though and the story concludes with the reveal a great Inca treasure that is now Cusi's responsibility to guard.