Friday, January 29, 2010

Stepping Back: Night Wings by Joseph Bruchac

To us time is not a straight line, and the past is never left behind. Instead, everything is a circle, and things keep happening again and again. Like the turn of the seasons or the movement of the earth around the great sun that makes day and night, day and night, in an endless circle.

I'm not talking about time travel like in one of those corny movies when someone goes back in a machine or a souped-up car.... I'm talking about stepping into a past that is always with us, a past that was then and is also now, where the flow and the balance remain unchanged.

With his parents both deployed to Iraq, thirteen-year-old Paul Fortune moves in with his Abenaki Indian grandfather, a retired guide for the wilderness area around Mt. Washington and famed for his knowledge of the forest and Native American lore. As Paul is settling into his new life, his grandfather Pete turns down the offer of a job by Darby Field, a sleezy television producer leading an expedition in search of the mystery of Pmola, the legendary bird-like monster said to guard a treasure atop Mt. Washington. Darby, a sort of Indiana Jones gone bad, produces and stars in a hyperbolic cable series which Grampa Pete intuits is merely a pretense to plunder cultural treasures wherever he can.

Undeterred by Grandpa's refusal, Darby and his stereotypical henchmen Stazi, Louise, and Tip capture Paul and Grandpa Pete and take them on a forced march through the wilderness toward the peak of Mt. Washington, where legend has it that Pmola hid his treasures. But when Paul notices that the usual air traffic over the area has mysteriously vanished and spots a small group of caribou, extinct in this region for centuries, he realizes that his grandfather is cunningly leading the kidnappers into a time warp which will eventually lead them to a face-to-face encounter with the legendary monster they seek to exploit.

A strangled cry comes from up the mountain. And although I probably shouldn't look back, I can't help myself. Field and Louise have fallen to the ground and are looking up at the tall dark figure above them, its wide black wings spread, blotting out the setting sun.

Paul, too, is touched by the encounter with the giant and deadly Pmola in a coming-of-age adventure that will keep middle readers enthralled as this high altitude adventure unfolds. Bruchac, the skillful author of other perennially popular Native American monster cliffhangers such as Skeleton Man, Whisper in the Dark, and The Dark Pond, knows how to fashion a taut, page-turning suspense novel which nevertheless imparts knowledge and wisdom to its target audience along the way, and his latest, Night Wings (HarperCollins, 2009) is no exception.

As Booklist's reviewer puts it, "Bruchac's fast-moving tale is steeped in Indian lore that injects this otherwise straightforward thriller with a sense of meaning and even spirituality. A perfect book to gobble up in a single, sweaty sitting."

And for a sample of the prolific Bruchac's excellent historical fiction, young adult readers should not miss his terrific Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two, reviewed here.

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