Review: Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac

Synopsis: (SPOILER ALERT)

Molly, the protagonist, begins her narrative in the middle of the story, when she still isn’t sure what is going on. Her parents have vanished and she is imprisoned by a mysterious old man who claims to be her uncle. Molly doesn’t believe him. Molly remembers the tales that her dad, who grew up on the Canadian side of a Mohawk reserve, used to tell her, and she is sure that her so-called uncle, whose so-called proof of relationship was taken right out of her missing parents’ wallets, is the monstrous skeleton man who ate his own body, and then killed and ate his relatives.

Molly can’t convince any adults other than her beloved, cheesy-show-tune-singing sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Shabbas, that something is wrong. The bars on her bedroom window and the locks on her door are removed – temporarily – by the time the sceptical school counselor makes a visit. Certain that the food her “uncle” offers is drugged, Molly pretends to eat and goes hungry most of the time.

Molly knows she is on her own. But, drawing on her dreams and what she remembers of her first nations heritage, Molly is far from helpless. In the tale her father told her, a little girl defeated skeleton man and restored her family. Molly is determined to do the same…

Bruchac - Skeleton Man

The scene where Molly and her teacher visit the counselor is brilliant, a modern nightmare. The counselor either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that Molly is plainly afraid and hungry. The questions the counselor asks – “Has he ever touched you in a bad way way? … So he’s never hit you?” are bang on the nose. They are good questions to ask, but they’re not always the right questions. There is more than one way of abusing a child, and the counselor is so plainly stuck in her expectations of what is “bad” adult behaviour that she can’t see that something is obviously wrong. Ms. Shabbas, on the other hand, provides Molly with a reliable adult who cares about her, and at the same time is unable to help much, leaving Molly with all the agency she needs to secure her own rescue.

One of the chief delights of this tale was the way in which Molly is fully contemporary – she knows how to use power tools, for instance, and expresses anger as well as affection and fear (“For some reason, that makes me angry. After all that’s happened I don’t need some furry Oprah Winfrey to tell me I need to get my spiritual act in order.” (p. 60) – and fully invested in her Mohawk heritage. The traditional stories her dad tells her are more than just stories. Molly is a beautiful example of a first nations protagonist – a female first nations protagonist – who lives in a present-day city and who embraces her city life/times, and her culture. To Molly, her heritage (strong women ancestors, stories, and spirituality) isn’t a matter of way-back-when, but of here-and-now. It isn’t something she has to rediscover, but something she is part of, and learns even more deeply when it is all she can rely on.

Which leads into my one complaint about the book. The pace was good, the characterization was consistent, and the setting and action were clearly described and easy to visualize. Molly stands on her own two feet and has a close relationship with her dad. However, Molly’s mum is barely mentioned. We get the sense that Molly loves her mum, and in the first half of the story there is still hope that more of their relationship will emerge. However, it doesn’t. I was disappointed.

Possible reasons for the barely-there mum:

  1. Molly’s mum isn’t Mohawk (or otherwise of aboriginal ancestry)?
  2. The focus is on the father-daughter relationship to present a modern native man who is a good father? (Countering vicious stereotypes.)

Problems:

  1. I don’t think Molly’s mum’s background is ever mentioned, although it is implied that she doesn’t have the same kind of hair that Molly does. This doesn’t preclude reason #1, but I would have liked her background and a bit more of her role in raising Molly to be stated. At the moment, she is kind of a non-entity. Her husband is allowed to participate in their rescue; why not her, as well?
  2. Okay, this is a good point, since the story shows a really awesome dad who isn’t drunk or abusive and who actually is there and engaged with his family, but this needn’t come at the expense of the mother-daughter relationship, of which far less is described.

Overall? I would definitely recommend Skeleton Man to young readers (and older readers looking for a non-angsty story with a protagonist of first nations heritage). I should thank Saeyong, who recommended this book to me. Keep an eye out for other books by Joseph Bruchac (see photo below) – he’s a writer worth watching!

Bruchac_headshot