Saturday, December 4, 2010

Dawn Land

Just finished a graphic novel called Dawn Land, by Joseph Bruchac and Will Davis. It's based on a novel by the same name published back in 1993. I'd never heard anything about when I saw it on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. The cover struck me though, and as I flipped through and realized it was a Native American tale, I was interested.

The title refers to the place inhabited by the Abenaki people, known today as New England. They called it the Dawn Land because it was the first place in North America touched by the rays of the morning sun. The time is just after the last ice age. The ice has receded and warmer temperatures are returning. A menace is stalking the nearby villages, in the form of malicious giants who walk the earth, satiating their need for human flesh. One child watches his parents taken from him, but his life is spared. Instead, he is marked by the giants to help them later on, when he is older. As he matures, his behavior becomes more erratic, He kills animals for no reason, and attempts to rape one of the young women. He runs away from the village, and becomes a loner, responding to the giants' call when he is needed.

Enter Young Hunter, a young member of the tribe who is chosen by the ancestors to fight this menace. He is introduced to the Long Thrower, which is basically a long bow with extraordinary range and power. Armed only with this, and his knowledge of surviving in nature, he must trek north to face the giants and defeat them before they obliterate the "only people" from their homeland.

As the story develops, we're shown certain aspects of the Abenaki lore, such as a creation story, what the "deep seers" of the tribe know of the threat to their way of life. Young Hunter meets many challenges along the way, but he isn't alone. He's joined by three dogs who serve as his loyal companions and protectors. His journey is a few days in length, and it is late in the year, as the colder weather is setting in. He must contend with other tribes who are not friendly to him, and what appears to be a Sabretooth tiger, what he calls an "ancient one." By that point, there were probably few of them left, most of them having been culled by hunting or climate change.

Bruchac's prose and dialogue are natural, organic. He is a native himself, and well versed in the beliefs of his people. We are introduced to many members of the village who help and guide Young Hunter, in particular the mystic members of the tribe. Their names for everyday objects reveal the simple wisdom with which they interact with the world: the sun is the "sky walker"; a rattlesnake which bites Young Hunter is called the "brave one" or "close to the ground people". In english, these names seem rather awkward, but in the native tongue I'm sure they were more elegant.

I was enthralled from the first step of the journey, as I am often with stories and details of Native culture. Their spiritual outlook has always resonated with me, and it is something sorely missing from our modern western life. You see it in episodes from the story, as Young Hunter prepares for a "pure hunt", one where he must hunt a deer without the benefit of weapons. He is successful in the endeavor, and after accomplishing his task, thanks the deer for giving its life for him.

Davis is a veteran illustrator, and his style suits the story perfectly. He works in brushed gray tones, accentuating the timeless aspect of the tale. Many panels have no dialogue, or are written with a script that may or may not be a Native language. There was a time or two when I was a little frustrated they weren't translated, but it didn't lessen my enjoyment of the narrative, or disrupt the flow.

The three dogs who accompany Young Hunter get a lot of screen time in the book, and their interaction with him was humorous and touching. He refers to them as his "brothers", and many's the time they put their own lives in jeopardy to protect his. Bruchac mentions this in an afterword in the book, noting that people have suggested he call the book "Dog Land". He couldn't go wrong either way.

I read some comic blogs and websites, and I'm surprised this book hasn't been mentioned more often. It's easily one of the best I've read all year, if not the best. The elemental nature of the story is the perfect antidote to the rushed, structured life we lead today, with its immersion in soulless technology. I found it to be a true escape to a simpler time. It might not have been quite so comfortable back then, but it seems like it must've been more rewarding on a daily basis. To us, i-phones seem almost magical with their features and apps, but to the Abenaki of ancient times, magic was everywhere. In the rocks, trees, streams, rivers and mountains that they lived amongst. It's tragic that we've lost so much of that.

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