First-time author Buhler’s charming childhood memoir about growing up on the Navajo Indian Reservation in the early 1960s.
Although the dusty, red landscape of Navajo country has changed little in the past four decades, its people are measurably different today. Even so, not much has been written about the Navajo shifts from traditional culture to modernism during the ’60s, making Buhler’s take an entry-level immersion into one of the most important decades in Navajo history. That the story is captured in real time through the eyes of a young girl is far less important than what those eyes see: newly paved roads, new clinics being built and a turbulent clash of cultures. Coming from a small Texas town and a family tree of racial discrimination, young Buhler’s parents pack her and her siblings up and move to Shiprock, where her father takes a job as gym teacher. Situated across the street from the Navajo boarding school in a segregated housing complex, after months of adjustment, the white family adopts two Navajo boys and slowly absorbs into the culture. On the occasional family reunion back to Texas, Buhler is asked to remove her concho belt and moccasins (traditional Navajo wear), as not to offend her relatives. The stage is set, and the reader delves into the stark contrast between the old generation of white racial intolerance and the new generation thrown into embracing misunderstood cultures. Later, when Buhler’s family leaves the reservation permanently, the road is studded with tension and even tragedy as the world at large shuns her Navajo brothers. Since this narrative is captured through the point of view of a little girl, the story drifts along with day-to-day details and simple language. Yet on turns the book sparkles with revealing moments of poignant insight, such as when the narrator observes the Navajo children entering the boarding school with long hair, only to leave with shaved heads. Or when a Navajo woman points with her lips at another person and not with her finger because the latter is taboo. The epilogue is the most elaborative chapter as the story ends in the racially motivated murder of her adopted brother and Buhler’s self-reconciliation through the Navajo worldview.
A sequel to this author’s extraordinary debut is hopefully in the works. One senses she has much more to say.