Belleli (Contes de la Lune, 2005, etc.) tells the story of a continent-crossing hero in this mythology-infused children’s novel.
Tali Nohkati is the child of the first man and first woman, watched over by Moon and Coyote, the two primordial beings who created the world. After a great fire kills Tali Nohkati’s parents and renders the land barren and dead, the Moon and Coyote are forced to send the boy on a journey to find a new home in the lands beyond the horizon. He first goes to the White Land of ice and snow, where the polar bear Yupik teaches him to hunt. When winter comes, he builds a boat and follows the whale Atii south to warmer climes. Along the way, Atii helps him fish, and when a storm destroys his skiff, the whale allows him to ride in her throat. After further adventures in forests, plains, and deserts among wolves, bison, and snakes, respectively, Tali Nohkati finally reaches the Land of the Red Earth, where he finds his fellow men. Rakenika, a man who wears an eagle feather in his hair, adopts the boy into his tribe and teaches him the ways of the Great Hunt. The world of men is even more complex than that of animals, however, and Tali Nohkati will have to weather a host of dangers—both human and superhuman—before he’ll find peace. Belleli, as translated from the French by debut translator Heller, tells the story in the simple but often lyrical prose style of a folktale, as in this passage, in which injured bison Atsina entreats the boy to make use of his body: “ ‘But who talks of leaving me?’ the bison said reassuringly, in a last effort. ‘You will take me with you. You will eat my meat, and I will give you my strength. You will tan my skin, and I will shelter your nights.’ ” The novel appears to borrow bits of mythology from across the Americas, from the Eskimo-Aleut names of the polar bears to an appearance by the monstrous Huracan of the ancient Mayans. Often allegorical and always magical, the book manages to feel simultaneously ancient and contemporary.
A delicately rendered homage to Native American storytelling.