Sunday, July 15, 2007

Whisper In the Dark

Bruchac, Joseph. (2005). Whisper in the Dark. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN-10 0060580887.

Whisperer in the Dark is a horror story about an ancient evil who has been twice buried in the caves and tunnels near Providence, Rhode Island (near Brown University) who, after years of imprisonment has decided to come back and seek revenge against the Narragansett man who shut him away, Cononchet. And Maddy, who is half European-American and half Narragansett, is just who he has come after.

It all started with a phone call. After asking several times who was there, Maddy received a whispered, “I am. I’m coming for you” before the line went dead. She thought it was maybe her best friend Roger up to his usual tricks—he and Maddy are both great fans of horror films and scary prank calls—but something about that whispered response told Maddy, deep in her gut, that the threat was read. She remembered the Narragansett legends her Grama Delia about the “Whisperer in the Dark” a Narragansett pawwaw (medicine man) who had become so evil that he had morphed into a non-human creature of pure evil who liked to drink the blood and rob the heads of his victims.

Maddy tries to shake it off, but when her Aunt Lyssa’s dog Bootsie is injured by a mysterious creature with razor sharp claws. As she’s rescuing the dog, she notices a messaged, scratched deeply on her back door. “I am here.” Now she has no doubt that the Whisperer in the Dark is after her. After a crazy chase all around Providence and after many taxi cab rides provided by her Indian (Asian Indian) friend Mr. Patel, Maddy and Roger finally make their way back to Maddy’s house in order to save Aunt Lyssa from her impending beheading by the Whisperer in the Dark. She finally defeats him by using his one weakness (light/fire) in the form of a laser pointer.

The police said that the murdering madman was not the Whisperer, but rather an escaped psychopath named Wilber Whatley. But, Grama Delia told her that all the excavation around Providence had let the Whisperer’s spirit escape—leaving no proof who the real monster was.

This book surprised me. It was the first story I’ve ever read about a Native American whose purpose is not to present the ancient customs of Native life, but rather the Native-ness of the character is merely a part of the character’s background—a normal girl in her early teens who happens to be Native American. The story isn’t ABOUT her Native-ness, but rather the horrifying situation she is in—the horror overshadows her origin.

HOWEVER, the book does seem to meander AWAY from the story to tell historical and personal background that seems to have very little to do with the present. Therefore, the premise of having a “normal” girl who happens to be Native American in a situation of peril is defeated by the here-let-me-teach-you-about-Native-Americans asides. In other words, those flashbacks and informational tidbits, while interesting under another context, feel somehow disconnected from the story and, in turn, artificial. I think it does the story a disservice. It comes off as didactic—injected for the purpose of maintaining that the book is a Native American book. This can do more harm than the intended good.

Another thing I noticed was that there were cultural references made that, while humorous, make me scratch my head. I’m not sure if they help or hurt the story or the cause of the presentation of the Native American (or this half-Narragansett girl) as just like anyone else—they seem to imply she is aware of herself as being “other.” Then again, on the other hand, poking fun at oneself is sometimes somehow freeing—making one’s otherness less serious can sometimes lighten the mood. I’m not sure how to feel about it.

For example, early on in the book, Roger calls her and this is their exchange:

“Did you just call me?” I said.
“You mean right now?”
“No, before this, like a minute ago.”
“No, ma’am.”
“Are you sure?”
“Honest Injun.”
I groaned a little at that, which had been his intention. We were good enough friends to tease each other that way, like my saying, “That was white of you,” sort of semi-sarcastically whenever he did something dumb. It’s the kind of thing real friends can do with each other.

This exchange reminds me of the “real friends” teasing I have with my Mexican-American, Pakistani/Indian-American, and African-American friends I have had. My Mexican-American friend used to say how something I did or said was very “Mestican.” My Pakistani/Indian-American friend calls me a FOB (Fresh off the Boat) for keeping Hot Mix (this yummy, very spicy, Asian snack) in my car. My African-American friends are constantly calling me a chocolate sandwich—all white bread on the outside but thickly chocolate inside. I’m proud of these exchanges. It makes me feel more connected to them and it takes away the tension of being too serious. But I wonder if this is okay. *shrug*

Another one (admittedly less humorous):

The next thing I knew, Roger was paying our fare and the two of us were standing on the curb outside Mr. Patel’s cab.

“Remember, Maddy,” he called back to us over his shoulder as he leaned out the passenger side window, “if you need help, just call for Patel.” He grinned broadly. “We Indians must stick close together.”

I thought this was cute and PREGNANT with meaning and history. And for some reason, I was a little disappointed that this wasn’t explored more.

As for cultural markers, one of Maddy’s musings very clearly summed up the overarching cultural tone of the book:

It isn’t easy at times being Indian. I know I’m half white, but it doesn’t make the Indian part of me any less. Plus, I look Indian. My skin is dark, my eyes are slanted, and my hair is thick and black. My dad used to say that all I had to do was put on a buckskin dress to look just like a Narragansett girl from the seventeenth century.

But I live in these times, times when people find Indians interesting but sort of quaint. Modern-day people claim to be rational—even though they believe in urban legends and their kids all read the Harry Potter books and dream about being wizards. So if you start talking about Indian stuff as if you really believe it, they may just look at you as if they pity you for believing crap like that. And if you talk about the past, a lot of people say you should just forget it. Live in the present day. Whatever happened, happened. This is the twenty-first century. Forget about it. But Indians don’t forget. I might listen to Eminem on my Walkman and play video games and send e-mail, but that doesn’t make me a different person. It doesn’t change the beat of my heart. We Indians know what century we are living in , but we also remember how we got here. And we remember the stories created along the way.

This is an interesting and revealing quote—and as I said, it encapsulates the tone of the book—however, as I also mentioned, it was very disconnected from the story. Just after this quote, Maddy launches into a dialogue with Roger about the Whisperer in the Dark. This disappointed me. Maddy talks about how hard it is to be an Indian, but the author doesn’t put her in any situation IN THIS BOOK to illustrate this point, making the assertion seem somehow besides the point.

Linguistically, this book was very troubling to me. With regard to its content/reading level, it read quite, well, “young” to me considering it is marketed as a Young Adult book. The characters’ ages are not known, but they act and speak a little young for a YA book—they are somewhat clinical and one-dimensional. Also, there are Narragansett words peppering the book, but the way they appear—as Maddy’s seemingly subconscious utterances where she doesn’t know from whence they come or why she knows them—seems a little unbelievable. It almost trivializes the Native language—which seems to be counterproductive to having a story about Native Americans. It just doesn't seem to be the most effective use of interlanguage.

As a story, I hate to say, I was disappointed. I also read Eagle Song by Joseph Bruchac and was delighted by how well-integrated the Native American references were into the actual story. So, when I chose to read Whisper in the Dark, I expected more of the same. As a horror story, Whisper in the Dark was not very convincing, it was poorly organized and the information about Native Americans was so poorly-integrated it made it a “page counter” for me. I couldn’t wait to get it overwith.

Reviews (via

Gr. 5-8. Thirteen-year-old Maddie lives with her aunt Lyssa in Providence, Rhode Island. Her parents' death in an automobile accident has left her among the last living descendants of Canonchet, a Narragansett chief who died fighting for his people's freedom. Although of mixed race and living with her white aunt, Maddie learned many of the Narragansett ways from her father, and Grama Delia continues to share with her the stories of their people. When Maddie receives two threatening messages and discovers her Irish setter wounded by beastlike slash marks, she is convinced the Whisperer in the Dark--a formidable Narragansett monster--has come for her. To confront it, Maddie relies on the assistance of a loyal friend and a good-hearted cabbie, and on the power of her Native heritage. Like The Skeleton Man (2001) and The Dark Pond (2004), Bruchac's twining of Native lore with contemporary situations is unique and interesting. This supernatural/horror tale, though slight, will prove compelling enough for upper-elementary children and younger teens; the illustrations add to the youngish feel.

School Library Journal: Grade 5-8–Thirteen-year-old Maddie, the descendant of a Narragansett sachem, lives with her aunt in Providence, RI. She and her friend Roger love to share scary stories, which helps her to deal with the trauma of her parents' recent death. Maddie doesn't quite believe her grandmother's tale of the Whisperer in the Dark, the Narragansett vampirelike creature who comes with his razor-sharp claws only after his victim is paralyzed by fear. Then she receives a frightening hang-up phone call. She and Roger discover the words I'M HERE scratched into her back door and soon find her dog cowering and covered with deep lacerations. In between hearing chilling whispers and seeing visions reflected in a window, Maddie tells Roger about the legend. When he suggests that her aunt might be in danger, the two friends rush home, and the book comes to an exciting conclusion. Maddie's narration is swift and spare, creating a mood of terror tempered by Narragansett words and chants of courage. The end of the story turns out to be logical and reassuring as a probably-not-supernatural maniac is brought to justice. This fast-paced, macabre novel is perfect for reluctant readers, youngsters who have graduated from R. L. Stine's Goosebumps series (Scholastic), and for those who might not otherwise encounter Bruchac's Indian legends.

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