The Star Maiden

Book Review From THE FIVE OWLS

At last we have a beautiful children's book about the Indian culture of the Great Lakes Region. This Ojibwe legend, rewritten for children, is complemented by beautiful and refreshingly accurate watercolors. Esbensen's source is Kah ge ga gah bowh, also known as George Copway, a convert to the Christian religion who in 1850 wrote this oral traditional tale in a book of history, customs, and legends. As Esbensen notes, "He was afraid this valuable information would one day disappear." Kah ge ga gah bowh, an Ojibwe whose name translated means Stand Forever, wanted his work forever in print and accepted by his romantic white readers. He wrote carefully in the style of the times.

The story takes place in a mythical time so long ago that there were neither wars nor winters and only American Indians populated the land. A star appears to the Ojibwe asking to live among the tribe. The star, a young woman, has tired of wandering the skies and would rather be near the people whose children play so happily. The young star woman appears to a young man in his dream to petition his help. He in turn asks the elders, respected for their wisdom in Ojibwe society, for advice and guidance. The tribe has a religious welcoming ceremony, dancing and praying to welcome the star visitor to earth. The star is given a choice of earthly forms, and her final choice brings her close to the canoe people, the Ojibwe.

Legends entertain, but they also educate because they contain the culture in the oral tradition. In this legend we see the values of strong family and tribal ties and the willingness of the people to help one another and to welcome strangers while allowing individual choices.

The terms "maiden" and "brave" used throughout the story, belong to the 1850s (Copley's time) and the dual worldview of Indian people as either savages or pristine innocents. Indian people did not use such romanticized words to discuss their own people, and Indians today don't need this way of thinking reinforced. Society is already full of Indian stereotypes. When reading the legend to children, one can easily replace "maiden" and "brave" with "young woman" and "young man," more appropriate terms.

The illustrator, Helen K. Davie, paints incredibly detailed and exquisite pictures and borders. The stylization of floral and geometric border designs appear to be copies of authentic Ojibwe beadwork and Great Lakes tribal ribbon work. Her research shows the attention given historical traditions. For example, the girl wears the shoulder strap dress with a jacket cape copied from the earliest known drawings of an Ojibwe women's dress. Each illustration is bursting with details of Indian life. Bordering each page are authentic designs from old porcupine quillwork, ribbon applique patterns, and woodland scenes. The drawings incorporate such details as the birch trees and Ojibwe birch bark canoes. Davie uses softer colors and some softened shapes, such as the star woman fading out when enveloped in starlight. The integration of the colors and the blending of tones are effective for the mood of this romantic tale. The effect created is that of the natural world - the use of natural dyes and the real beauty of Mother Earth in the northern woodlands.

Ojibwe stories contain the culture of the people. They are rich in history, knowledge of plants, animals, and human nature. Many stories contain valuable information on how we must learn to live. Esbensen and Davie have done their homework well, presenting us with a gentle and loving work to be relished by both children and adults. --Sally M. Hunter

Barbara Juster Esbensen Memorial

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