PIECES OF WHITE SHELL: A Journey to Navajoland by Terry Tempest Williams

PIECES OF WHITE SHELL: A Journey to Navajoland

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Delicate, unassuming sketches of a cross-cultural excursion--or pilgrimage. Williams is a curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City. She is also a Mormon, or at least of Mormon descent; and one of the disappointing things about her book is the way she suggests a kinship bonding Mormons and Navajos (both ""spiritual people,"" ""caught between modernization and tradition,"" suspect to outsiders, etc.) in her prologue, but then drops this promising theme as she wanders through the natural and mythic landscapes of the Great Basin. In a typical chapter, Williams begins with a dream-like sequence where a yucca fiber basket turns into a coiled snake and then a mysterious ""Sha-woman."" This leads to a Navajo fable explaining the origin of yucca from the butchered head of Tracking Bear, after he fell victim to the hero Monster Slayer. Williams describes the pollination of yucca flowers, the practical and ritual uses of yucca suds, the Kinaalda ceremony (3-5 days hallowing the menarche), the taste of yucca (like summer squash), the games children play with it; then comes another etiological tale (how the Animal People used yucca sticks to decide the length of day and night). Finally, there is a muted lyrical recapitulation: ""Yucca. The desert torch burns and returns its ashes to crimson sand. A snake slithers across the way and recoils itself under a slickrock slab. This is what I heard: Sha-wom. an, Sha-woman, hiss. . . Silence. A basket sits before me, coiled: around and around and around and around. It is striped with persimmon."" Williams' simple, painterly style occasionally turns mannered and bardic, and she idealizes the Navajo (ignoring their depredations against the Hopi, for example). But she has some gifts of observation that make this performance reminiscent of (though inferior to) Mary Austin's Land of Little Rain.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 1984
ISBN: 0826309690
Publisher: Scribners