I was excited when I first heard about the Heartdrum imprint, and even more excited to see this Navajo middle grade fantasy coming from it.
Healer of the
by Brian Young
Read from library copy.
12-year-old Nathan asked to spend the summer with his grandmother Nali in her trailer out on the rez, but he’s not really happy about it. He has a good relationship with Nali, but the trailer has neither air conditioning nor water. Still, it’s better than going to Las Vegas with his dad and his dad’s despised new girlfriend.
Nathan has decided to occupy himself with a science project, comparing the growth of modern vs. traditional corn, both seeds and growing methods. But the summer quickly takes a turn towards the magical when Nathan discovers a grumpy horned toad stealing his traditional corn seeds, and then a dying water monster. Could this poor water monster, which belongs with the shrinking local lake, be the cause of the years-long drought that’s been affecting the area? As the water monster and Nathan become friends, Nathan is determined to do everything possible to save him. But everything possible turns out to be a nearly impossible quest, especially since nearly everything requires him to speak Navajo, which he doesn’t know…
Meanwhile, in the mundane world, Nali’s other son, Nathan’s uncle, has come back home after losing yet another job. He’s in bad shape, suffering from PTSD, depression, and alcoholism ever since he came back from serving in Afghanistan. There’s disagreement in the family about whether the uncle needs a ceremony with their medicine man, Western medical help and counseling, or both – but the uncle doesn’t want either, so that Nathan is trying to keep his family from falling apart at the same time as the quest with the water monster.
While there’s always something happening, I really appreciated that it’s a long time before the actual quest begins – Nathan has to build the skills and find everything he needs. Though the water monster is a fantasy element, the issues surrounding it – radiation poisoning and drought – are real. The traditional belief system, the water monsters, and current issues are woven tightly together, taking it for granted that all these things belong together. There’s also a note at the end on the use of traditional Navajo religion in the book and what parts the author changed to work with the story, as well as definitions of some of the Navajo used and explanations of the family relationships. My biggest quibble might be the cover – while the picture of Nathan and Nali is great at showing their relationship, it doesn’t look like the fantasy adventure that it is, which might help it find its audience better. I really hope it does well anyway so that I can read more of Nathan’s adventures!
Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse also spotlights Navajo culture in a middle grade fantasy, while The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez by Adrianna Cuevas and When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller also feature close relationships with grandmothers.