Sunday, July 15, 2007


Dorris, Michael. (1994). Guests. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 0786820365.

Guests is the story about a Native American boy in turmoil. On the one hand, Moss greatly wants change—he wants to experience his “away time” in which he’ll find his purpose in life and thus, a new name; on the other hand, his father has invited some strange guests to the yearly feast and Moss strongly feels that their presence will taint the tribe’s once-a-year opportunity to feast and celebrate.

In a rebellious fit of rage, Moss tells his parents that he will simply not attend the festival but will instead go out into the forest. Even he’s not sure if he means it. But, a certain turn of events—following a girl from the other side of the village, Trouble, and following her out into the forest—makes up his mind for him. He wanders further into the forest where he becomes lost, alone and terrified that he’ll never find his way home. He is torn between what he knows he should do and that’s stay in one spot and wait to be found and what he thinks is his only choice and that’s go further forward and face the consequences of his bad decisions.

Once there, hungry and tired, he meets a porcupine who rather gruffly counsels him to accept himself by telling him, “You are what you are.” Moss has an epiphany about himself, his place in the world and in his community and about the “guests.” But by then, he wonders if it’s too late. Just then, he meets Trouble and they discover that while they both thought the other gender had it easier, they have many of the same complaints. Trouble ends up showing him the way back to the village where they both go to the feast.

In the end, the guests eat with them and invite the Indians to bring food to THEM next year, in response to which Moss’ mother tells a story about a little girl named Never Enough whose foolhardiness and greed separated the peoples. Moss realizes that even though his father invited the guests, he didn’t want them there either, but that he had made his decision out of a need to be true to himself.

I had a very difficult time at the beginning of this book. I found myself lost in space and time. It wasn’t until several pages into the story that I realized it was set in pre-colonial or colonial times. But then, when I understood we were reading about a village of Native people back before the whites began causing friction, I allowed myself to be swept along by the story and the description—both of which I enjoyed, for the most part.

If I had one criticism, content-wise, it would be that there were perhaps too many subplots. I couldn’t tell if the story was supposed to be about Moss and his turmoil with regards to wanting change on the one hand and resisting it on the other; whether it was about change in general (as in both Moss’ and Trouble’s); or whether it was just a sliver of Native life with a few life lessons thrown in.

One example of this is, when the kids find their way back to the camp, Trouble appears later visibly upset from crying and with a bruise on her cheek, but the issue of this abuse (or if it was really considered abuse by a majority of the tribe) is not really explored so I wonder why it appeared in the story at all. It seemed pretty “drive-by” to me.

Linguistically, I found the story to be very rich, especially for a “juvenile” aged book. There are several passages that seem very realistic to me and helped set the scene—they helped me visualize what life at a Native American at that time might have been like, and how Moss must have felt:

I tried one last appeal to my father. “These people are not our relatives. We don’t even know their names. We can’t talk with them because they speak a language no one but they understand. They make me uncomfortable with their oddness.”

“Me, too.” My father always surprised me when he spoke to me without acting like a father, almost as though I were another grown-up. I didn’t know what to say, and so he filled the pause that followed with a big rock I couldn’t move. “Yet we can’t turn them away. An invitation once given cannot be taken back.”

(I found this quote to be doubly interesting when taking into consideration what the expression “Indian giver” is supposed to mean.)

I wanted to listen to Grandfather’s familiar stories and to say awake late, my head against his side, as the fire died down and we watched together for the stars that formed the outline of the bear to rise. I wanted this year to be just like last year and the year before that, as far back as I could remember.

But the guests would spoil everything, even blur my memory of other feasts. I wished they had never left wherever they came from before they got here. I wished they would return there again and forget the trail through the sea that they had followed. I wished they would grown their own food, trap their own furs, keep their pots and thin cloth and hard-headed hammers. I wished for just one more right time before things began to change.

There are many more such examples—all rich in their language and description. But one thing I found to be refreshingly absent, and I cringe even to write it down, and that is language. In the other texts I have read so far by Native American writers, their use of interlanguage seems so heavily contrived that it might eventually do a disservice to the progress of modern (and hopefully someday mainstream) Native American literature. I don’t remember one instance where a Native American language vocabulary word was thrown in for effect and I do believe that it actually helped the story along. In my honest and humble opinion, the use of interlanguage, if not skillfully done, can hinder more than help the flow of the story and in turn, the taste in the reader’s mouth.

Reviews (via

Publishers Weekly:
At dawn, as the "light from the smoke hole in the roof turned from black to gray," Moss is playing with a string of wampum when it breaks apart, scattering abalone shell beads in many directions. The design of the beads had held a story "from long ago," and even Moss's grandfather can't recall the beads' arrangement. "Now you owe us a story, Moss," he tells his grandson gravely. Dorris (Morning Girl) gives this boy in search of a story a fine tale to tell. Moss, a gentle and penetrating narrator, reaches deep within himself and delves into the fertile ground of his tribe's legends. Disgruntled that his father has invited strangers from another tribe to the family's harvest feast, Moss disappears into the woods, where he unexpectedly experiences his "away time," a rite of passage that involves-in Moss's case-a conversation with a special porcupine. This episode, and his unprecedented communication with Trouble, a village girl who follows him into the forest, transform Moss by the time he returns home to share the feast with his family and their guests, whom he holds responsible for "every strange and confusing thing that had happened to me today." Though his narrative may at times seem a little subtle for the intended audience, Dorris has drawn a piercing portrait of a boy and the powerful traditions that shape him. Ages 8-12.

Gr. 4-7. Without portentous stereotypes, Dorris tells a story of a Native American boy who leaves home to find himself. Moss isn't sure why he walks away into the forest. His life seems stale. What's more, he's mad at his father for inviting a group of white strangers to be guests at the village harvest festival. Lost and alone, Moss opens up to the natural world and becomes "the forest's welcomed guest." He meets a fierce runaway girl, and they help each other get home. Moss knows that he hasn't encountered a noble mentor on his vision quest; he hasn't suddenly become "a man." What he has found is a new view of himself and the world around him. He realizes he has been selfish and inhospitable. And now he can see that neither the guests nor the village hosts are comfortable at the feast. They can't understand each other. The strangers are hungry, but why are they so greedy and grasping? Even for a sensitive boy, Moss seems too articulate about his inner journey. But Dorris dramatizes that universal experience of feeling stuck at home, as well as the excitement of finding what you didn't know was there. As in Morning Girl (1993), the encounter with Europeans is seen through the eyes of a young person. Several stirring old creation stories woven into the narrative underline Moss' quest for both freedom and responsibility. Dorris' casual sentences are simple and beautiful, showing in their very particularity that Moss discovers the wonder of familiar things.

A brief look into Native American life just before it is irrevocably changed in this rite-of-passage tale of a young Indian boy. Moss is annoyed with his father for inviting the strangers--white men--to the village's annual harvest festival. He declares that he will not celebrate with the guests and goes to the edge of the village to sulk. There he meets Trouble, a girl about his age, and boastfully announces that he is going on his ``away time''--a boy's solitary journey into the forest to become a man and take a new name. Trouble does not believe him, so Moss foolhardily treks alone into the forest to prove her wrong. In the forest he learns about life, nature, and beauty from a grouchy old porcupine and transforms himself from a selfish little boy into a sensitive young man. Moss and Trouble meet again, and this time he shows a real interest in her. They develop a bond born of mutual understanding and return to the village to share in the festival. Interspersed with Moss's story are Indian legends that give the whole an added richness and depth, but the abrupt ending leaves the reader dissatisfied. Dorris obscures the simple story by weaving in too many threads--the white men, Trouble's troubled homelife--that dangle at the conclusion. A book that might have been outstanding had it delivered more or attempted less. (Fiction. 8-12)

School Library Journal:
Grade 3-6-Moss's father extends his hospitality to a group of strangers who speak an entirely different language and who make the boy "uncomfortable with their oddness." When his efforts to convince his parents that the guests should not participate in his people's harvest feast are rebuked, Moss runs away into the nearby forest. There he meets Trouble, a distant relative, and in trying to impress her, finds himself forced into his "away time." Lost in the woods, he learns to look and listen, and begins to realize what it means to be a man during an encounter with a porcupine. He also finds solace in his conversations with Trouble, who eventually helps him find his way out of the forest. Though she is struggling with the strictures placed upon young women in her clan, they share universal early adolescent emotions about the lack of understanding their families afford them. Dorris's writing is elegant, full of evocative images and lush metaphors. He develops his intriguing characters in a leisurely way, and places little emphasis on plot. Young readers will need to work hard to piece together the clues that suggest the setting (someplace by the sea) and the identity of the guests (probably white settlers since they arrived after following a "trail through the sea"). They will be able to comprehend the words, but some may miss the story's ultimate meaning.

No comments: