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Dystopian Book "Shadows Cast By Stars" Revolves Around Aboriginal Race and Identity

When I started this column on race in dystopian YA literaturea reader recommended I check out Shadows Cast by Stars, Métis author Catherine Knutsson's dystopic tale set on Canada's western coast 200 years from now.

Shadows cast by Stars coverIn the book, a plague has ravaged the world. The only cure is antibodies found in the blood of aboriginal people (or "Others" as they are known by non-aboriginals). Government forces, or "searchers," round up people of aboriginal descent so that their blood can be harvested to cure Plague victims. The aboriginal people die in the process but the government rationale is, "What is the loss of one when that person can help so many?"

Unlike the other books I've looked at so far, every character who appears in Shadows is aboriginal. This does not mean racism has disappeared. There are mentions of schoolyard bullies who torment aboriginal students, the faceless searchers firing from helicopters overhead and, of course, the looming threat of the non-aboriginal government, but they are off in the distance. This is a novel centered entirely on its aboriginal characters.

Sixteen-year-old Cassandra Mercredi, her twin brother Paul, and her father live on land once owned by her great-grandfather. They live the Old Way—without central heat, etherstreams, data nets, or food gels. Every morning, Cassandra and Paul take the train to school in a city while their father drives to work. Because their mother was not aboriginal, the twins are less at risk for being hunted and harvested for their blood. Their father has managed to keep his aboriginal heritage a secret at work, but Cassandra worries that "sooner or later someone will catch on, and my father will be entered into the UA inventory."

Then, a new strain of the Plague hits and the government begins rounding up people of partial Aboriginal descent. Cassandra and her family flee to the Island, a territory protected by a group called "The Band"—they're what remain of indigenous and aboriginal nations in North America. Two hundred years earlier, the Band negotiated five treaty territories. The Island is one of them.

Most of the novel takes place on the Island. At times, Shadows could be simply another novel of a girl moving to a new town and trying to find her place. There's a normalcy about everyday life. Cassandra tries to make friends. She meets a boy. Her brother begins finding his own way and drifts apart from her. Cassandra no longer has to hide her ability to see people's spirit animals. The Band's medicine woman, Madda, takes her as apprentice. (Okay, so those last two aren't usually in the Girl-Moves-to-New-Town-and-Tries-to-Fit-In narratives.)

Although every person on the Island is aboriginal, like native people throughout the U.S. today, they vary in appearances. Avalon is blonde while Helen is dark-haired and moonfaced. Bran, the son of the Band's missing leader, has auburn hair and gray eyes while Cedar is stout with dark hair and dark eyes.

And, while the Island itself is protected from government forces and searchers by a mystical boundary, it is not inoculated from the prejudices of the outside world. Some of the Island's inhabitants hold both Cassandra's mixed ancestry and her origins against her. For others, Cassandra's gender is also an issue: When Cassandra becomes apprentice to the Island's medicine woman, she experiences the sexism of the Island's all-male Elders first through Madda's frustrated attempts to reason with them and then firsthand. When Cassandra escapes a sexual assault, the Elders imply that she brought the attack upon herself.  

Shadows Cast by Stars is a great way to introduce kids—and adults—to an aboriginal-focused story. Then there are plenty of real-life groups around today to keep up the education around aboriginal issues.  

Given that Shadows is set in aboriginal Canadian land, I'd be remiss in not encouraging blog readers to keep up with Idle No More, the grassroots and indigenous-led movement that emerged in Canada and has spread throughout North America this past year. And, in the U.S. this month, Lakota grandmothers and elders have embarked on a thirteen-city Truth Tour to raise awareness about the abuses against the Lakota people, mobilize solidarity networks to benefit Lakota Elders, and renew the Lakotas' traditional matriarchal leadership. (Did you know that the Lakotas were traditionally matriarchy-led? I didn't until the Truth Tour brought this to my attention.)

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Comments

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Good to know

Haven't head of this book before, but would love to read more books featuring Aboriginal characters. Thanks for reading and discussing it here.

other novels featuring indigenous characters

Shadows Cast By Stars is the first novel I've read featuring Canadian Aboriginal characters.

For authors who write indigenous characters in the United States (but are not dystopic), I'd recommend:

*Louise Erdrich
*Joy Harjo (although she might be mainly a poet)
*Chrystos (again, mainly a poet)
*Leslie Marmon Silko
*N. Scott Momaday

For non-fiction by indigenous people in the United States:

*Leonard Peltier's Prison Writings
*Stormy Ogden (Native woman incarcerated in the state of California)

I've been told that Sherman Alexie is very very good and have also been recommended Mary Crow Dog's memoirs Lakota Woman, but I haven't read either.

Do other readers have suggestions for novels featuring Aboriginal characters?

Indigenous Writers

I'm glad that SHADOWS CAST BY STARS prompted you to look for Indigenous writers. You'll find that many of them--including Sherman Alexie--poke fun at the sort of thing you read in SHADOWS CAST BY STARS.

My site, American Indians in Children's Literature, is widely read by professors, librarians, teachers, and parents who are looking for reliable information about American Indian/First Nations peoples. I grew up on our reservation (Nambe Pueblo) in New Mexico. I'm tribally enrolled. I've taught at two different schools for Native children and was on the faculty in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois. My articles and book chapters are in journals and books used in library science and education.

On the top right of my site you'll find recommended book lists, by grade level. My guess is that you're more interested in YA or adult fiction. If so, you'll want to see my list of books for high school students.

I also link to full text articles.

If you're interested in knowing more about Indigenous literature, I highly recommend you check out the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures. 

This book was incredibly

This book was incredibly racist. If the author is Metis, and I mean IF, she obviously knows nothing about her culture. I'm a Metis woman and I constantly wanted to bash my skull in while reading this. She refers to Metis people as half-bloods, which is incredibly offensive, and somehow thinks that being half First Nations and half white makes you a member of the metis nation (it doesn't). And Metis people most definitely have a language! This one especially pissed me off. It's called Michif, and it's a real language! And don't even get me started on the butchered, stereotypical representation of native spirituality. It was just a bunch of over the top, stereotypical bullshit. There was nothing really aboriginal about this book. It was written by an outsider with no understanding of the Metis culture whatsoever.

Agree with Maren

I publish AMERICAN INDIANS IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE and wrote an extensive review of SHADOWS CAST BY STARS. Like Maren, I had many questions about the author and the story she tells. It felt to me, as it did to Maren, that it was written by an outsider.

While writing my review, I learned on the author's blog that she is relatively new to knowing she is Metis. She has since revised that text to say that she is "proudly Metis." I don't doubt that her Metis heritage was unknown to her. That is a common experience for many reasons. A major problem, however, is that if one is raised outside that culture and never questioned stereotypical representations and "knowledge" in texts and media about Indigenous peoples, they're likely to replicate those stereotypes and "knowledge" in their own work once they start claiming an Indigenous identity. Unfortunately for all---including BitchMedia---your own lack of knowledge of who we are doesn't raise red flags when you read something like SHADOWS.

Many Native people raised with their people spot problems like the ones in SHADOWS easily. If you read it carefully and with knowledge of Native peoples, you'll see lot of problems.

I noted many of them in my review.

Here's the link to my review: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2013/01/catherine-knutssons-shadows-cast-by.html

thanks for the resources!

Thanks for pointing these flaws out. (You're right--my own lack of knowledge about Indigenous culture and customs is a huge stumbling block for me to see problematic & stereotypical representations)

And a HUGE thank you for the resources you listed in your previous comment. I will be sure to check them out!

I am far from an expert on

I am far from an expert on Métis and North American aboriginal customs -- huge thanks to those of you who are speaking up here about the flaws -- but I thought that the characters were bullying Cassandra by calling her "half-blood" because her mother was white. Though now that I've said that, I am not sure if I made that up, and I've already returned it to the library so can't check. But no, on re-reflection, something happened to her mother that happened only because she was non-aboriginal. So the "half-blood" slur might've been because of that, not her Métis heritage.

Anyway, I just wanted to say I nearly yelped aloud with joy on the bus the other day when I got to the part where a young man explicitly asks for consent, and a young woman considers her boundaries, and then freely gives consent.