Thursday, February 28, 2013

Arilla Sun Down, by Virginia Hamilton

Pretty good young adult fiction. Arilla is the younger sibling of an interracial couple. Her father is Native American, or Amerind, while her mother is African American. Set in the 70s, the family attracts unwelcome stares in public, but Arilla’s primary plight is lacking a sense of identity. She doesn’t relate to her peers, and what few friends she has is due to her mother’s profession – she teaches dance to the girls in the community. Her older brother Jack Sun Run’s popularity grates on her; he embraces his Native American roots and celebrates its more romantic elements by riding his horse nearly everywhere, wearing a bandana, and expertly using a lasso. The young men envy him and the girls fawn. In contrast, Arilla feels inconsequential. Her brother calls her Moon, and while fitting, the name annoys her. 

What appealed to me most throughout the story was, ironically, the very thing that initially turned me off. Arilla recounts her youth with a writing style that reflects her age, meaning the opening scene and the entire first chapter is from the POV of a six year old.    

Late in the big night and snow has no end. Taking me a long kind of time going on the hill. Would be afraid if not for the moon and knowing Sun-Stone Father is sledding. Way off, hear him go, “Whoop-eeeee!” Real thin sound, go, “Whoop-eeeee!”

This style evolves so that by the time Arilla is 12, not only is the obnoxious staggering syntax of her six-year-old self gone, but the patois of her prose has become endearing and more engaging. Jealous of her brother’s charms and determined to demonstrate her own skills with the mare she received as a birthday present, she smarts off to her older brother:

          I’m about to burst into crying … But instead I laugh, short and sweet. “Call me whatever you like, ugly brother, but guess what? I’ve got her running to me when I clap my hands!”
          “My, my,” he says. “Just like that, you got her turned into a puppy dog.”

Hamilton, who’s won several writing awards, evidently enjoys a challenge. Her approach is unorthodox, like the family described. And the narrative fluctuates as she reminisces. Later, by Chapter 11, Arilla expresses her anxiety on her first bus ride.

We had started out on this old two-lane, which probably wouldn’t have been such terrible bad news on any average dry day. But this morning it was black and sleet with wet. It was snowing again and I had visions of us hitting this streak a ice and going into one of those long, horrible skids that end in an explosion. 

Three-quarters into the story, during a terrible storm, she and her brother Jack Sun Run are horseback riding when he has an accident. Arilla seeks help, ultimately saving his life. This event changes the dynamic of their relationship. She’s no longer eclipsed by him. He stops calling her Moon. As he recuperates in half a body cast, he admits as much.

          “We really aren’t enemies,” he says. Then, real quick: “But you did something more or less remarkable. So what’ll we call you – Girl Who Saves the Sun? Or Rides the Horse Fast? What name do you want?”
          I’m sitting there with my mouth open. And knowing the name but I don’t want to say it.
          …“So. You already have one,” he says. “So what is it? Come on, you can tell me.”
                    “If I did, you’d just have to laugh,” I say.
          “I won’t laugh, promise,” he says. “Because this is very important stuff.” And not a hint of teasing. “You know it,” he says. “This is no joke.”
                    Arilla Sun Down. But I won’t say it.

Arilla returns to the place where, as a child, she and her father, sledding, had almost plummeted to their deaths. In the interim, a fence has been built along the chasm. Now, more comfortable in her skin, she finds some reconciliation with her family and her adolescence. Recommended.   

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