The rare murder among neighboring tribes forces a young Native American man to quickly grow up as he hunts his father’s killer in Dickinson’s novel.
The golden foothills of the Sierra Nevada, studded with black oak woodlands and icy rivers, seem as timeless as the indigenous peoples who populate the caves and riverbanks of this unnamed era. The setting’s important because everything needed for survival comes from the land: Acorns and the occasional mule deer provide sustenance, and the earth offers up raw nuggets of gold that may ultimately prove to be one tribe’s undoing. Jupa of the Miwokitul learns this last part the hard way when, one morning, he discovers his father’s dead body. With the help of Keleli the Elder, the young “hunter in the making” sets out to find who killed Naketi and, just as important, why. A gold stone in Naketi’s pouch provides the first clue. Eventually, they suspect someone in the band of Nokotul people to the south of the Miwok caves. Keleli’s methodical investigation echoes other impressive detective stories, but it’s what happens in the background that really draws the reader into Jupa’s world. Dickinson marvelously conveys his research of the day-to-day lives of these Northern California peoples, and the details captivate. The constant pounding of acorns for porridge and tea, the revered arrow-making tradition, training a wolf pup to hunt, the integral myth of Cougar Man, Jupa’s first mule deer hunt—all capture the sometimes harsh reality for those dependent on nature. Dickinson weaves the details together with strong, evocative language that expresses the bitter cold of spring water and the sound of ravens constantly spying from overhead. The pacing slips a bit toward the end, but a lovely final scene rescues a somewhat predictable resolution.
Rich visuals and an unusual mystery make this short novel an intriguing read.