Waterless Mountain

Waterless Mountain

Laura Adams Armer (1932)

Read to: 2nd - 4th grade

Read independently: 5th - 7th grade

This book is very similar to Smoky and the Cowhorse with its pace and inclusion into a world that is foreign to most. In fact, the foreword, signed by an unrecognizable name, sets up Ms. Armer as someone who has become unusually close to the Navaho people and, "has probably come as close to painting a true picture as anyone save a medicine man can do. Many readers will question the high religious ideas, the constant talk of beauty, the mysticism, that she ascribes to Younger Brother and his priestly Uncle; one can only say that, contrary to the general idea, many Indians are so." (p. viii)

Names are scarce in this book and its not until page 158 that we learn why: "Children are precious and mothers do not want everyone in the world knowing what name sings in the mother's heart." The book looks at Indian life through the eyes of eight year old "Younger Brother". I don't know if its the era, the culture, or a combination of both but Younger Brother has a lot of responsibility and a lot of freedom for a boy of his age. Younger Brother lives in a hogan with his two parents, Elder Brother and Baby Sister. Uncle (his mother's brother) lives nearby. Younger Brother is an aspiring medicine man, in training with his uncle. He appreciates the history and customs of his people like no one I've ever known of. what is presented as matter-of-fact cultural tradition may be too graphic for more conservative families as in this early example from pages 3 and 4:

On the eighth day of the ceremony twenty boys and girls were to be initiated. They sat on the ground in a semi-circle, with their backs to the north. All the boys were naked but the girls were dressed in their very best velveteen jackets fastened with silver buttons. Strings of turquoise and coral hung about their necks.


Looking up he saw the holy one with naked body all dazzling white and with a mask of deerskin over his face. The Yay's long black hair fell over his painted white shoulders and a fox skin hung from his silver-girt waist.

Younger Brother was told to stand while pollen was sprinkled over his body. After that he was struck with two long yucca leaves. He was not afraid. He did not cry a bit. He was feeling queer. He had never felt like that before. It seemed as if the whole world were whirling light and warmth. He could feel life gliding over him in warm waves.

While the book deals much more with daily life than these unique events, consider in your own life how many special days you celebrate in the course of a year counting family birthdays and weddings, religious observations and national holidays and figure that this book will spend an equally proportionate amount of time on their similar events.

As you can imagine since Younger Brother is only eight the reader accompanies him on several firsts in his life, such as:

    • seeing his first white person

    • riding in a plane

    • having his picture taken

    • entering the ocean

    • visiting a museum

At the end of Chapter 11 Younger Brother and some other navaho children experience Christmas at a nearby trading post that is run by a white man. They are presented with Santa Claus and gift giving and quickly discover the spirit of Christmas.

An occasional reference to First Man might be interpreted as Adam but creational events are attributed to First Man and the coyote such as on page 157, " 'Did you once tell me that Coyote put the lights in the sky?' / 'Yes, First Man asked him to because the moon was not there every night and it was too dark. First Man planned the big star in the north, the star that never moves, and he planned the seven stars that move around it there.' " So while this is in diret contrast to traditional views of creation, I wouldn't let it discourage you from reading the book. I remember hearing many such folklore as a child. I found it entertaining and perhaps it was even the first seed planted in my appreciation of other cultures. You may have already read some of Eric Kimmel's popular Anansi stories with your child - this is very similar.

And so seasons pass and years pass. By Chapter 12, a little less than a third of the way through the book, Younger Brother is now 12. By Chapter 15, not quite half way through the book, the point of the story comes to fruition, Younger Brother begins a journey westward. He has become enchanted with the legend of the "Turquoise Woman" and things he goes in search of her but, as is usually the case with finer literature, it will be a journey of self-discovery. On the journey he:

    • befriends a white boy (and his car)

    • escapes a flood

    • has his pony stolen

    • helps a relative whose husband dies of pneumonia

This book is different though because after his personal journey of discovery, the story does not end. Younger Brother reunites with his family and returns home to share and use his new knowledge as well as continue to grow. Surprisingly though the book still ends with a vague equivalent of Happily Ever After. I sort of expected a Lion King "Circle of Life" ending but the closest we get is Younger Brother "dancing" with a girl.