Allison's Book Bag

Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac

Posted on: March 29, 2012

One morning Molly wakes to discover her parents have disappeared. Social Services turns Molly over to the care of a great-uncle whom she has never heard of before, a twist which initially made me think of the Baudelaires in The Unfortunate Events. Then Molly starts having dreams about a skeleton man from an old Mohawk tale that her father used to tell her. Within those dreams might lay the answers to where her parents are and why this mysterious man has shown up now to claim himself as a relative. Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac is a deliciously creepy tale, in which nothing is the way it should be. At some point, I even began to wonder if Molly’s reality is what she thinks it to be. Skeleton Man made me want to read more of Joseph Bruchac’s books, of which there are plenty.

Now that I’ve tempted you to read Skeleton Man, let’s talk about its Native American foundation. On the acknowledgement page, Bruchac writes that he couldn’t have written the book without the lessons he’d been taught by tradition bearers. They helped him “understand even more deeply how different the strong women in our traditional American Indian Stories are from the dependent damsels of European folktales who hope for a prince to rescue them. Not only do our Native American heroines take care of their own rescues, they often save the men too!” I grew up loving our European American tales and yet have been surprised through critically evaluating them how dismal some of their messages for females.  My fifth-grade students just finished reading versions of Cinderella from across the world. Except for a Canadian Native tale, every single one of the stories depicted Cinderella as needing a prince to bring her happiness. Perhaps that’s why some of our European American fairy tales are being modernized. What negative messages have you learned from literature? What positive messages have you learned?

Otherwise, the most prevalent way that Native American culture is interwoven into Skeleton Man is through its references to old tales and to dreams.  There are the stories that Molly’s dad told her, which he’d heard growing up on the Mohawk Reserve of the Akwesasne on the Canadian side. One of Molly’s favorites is about the skeleton monster. Its mine too, despite of (or because of) how gruesome it is! The story reminds me of the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. It also reminds of the Goosebump television series by R.L. Stine, which often start with kids sitting around a campfire and telling ghastly stories. What tales did you grow up with hearing from your families?

There are also the “aware” dreams, in which you know you are a dreamer. According to Mohawk tradition, these dreams can help you if you’re alert. Our European American culture used to place higher value on dreams, but these days we tend to put more stock in scientific explanations. The school counselor tells Molly that her problem may be a chemical one and wants to throw a prescription at it. Fortunately, she ignores that advice. How you feel about the way problems are often solved today?

There are other smaller references to Native American culture such as the explanations for Molly’s name and for storms. Last, while Molly finds help from American books and teachers, she also draws upon Mohawk wisdom for guidance: “It doesn’t matter if you are the hunted or the hunter. Sometimes the most important thing you can do in a tough situation is to keep quiet, breathe slowly, and think.”

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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