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BACK IN THE BEFORETIME: TALES OF THE CALIFORNIA INDIANS, retold by Jane Louise Curry; illustrated by James Watts (Margaret K. McElderry: $12.95; 134 pp.; ages 8-12).

September 06, 1987|KRISTIANA GREGORY

Before the Spanish missionaries landed in what is now the state of California, there were nearly 300,000 natives living here. It's sad to remember how little survives, often only a few place names--Malibu, Pismo, Hueneme. Smallpox and the white folks' habit of changing every thing they see took care of the rest.

Jane Louise Curry tries to remedy that with this collection of legends and folk tales. She says she's a storyteller rather than a folklorist, and that her purpose is to give readers an overall feeling of what was told. As in most societies, there are tales of creation, tricksters and "of the Animal People, in whom animal and human natures are mingled--reminding us that once there was a time when Man was more fully at home in the natural world."

Out of 22 stories, only one mentions a specific location. "How Old Man Above Created the World" tells about Shasta, the "white teepee mountain" with the smoke curling up from its tip. Readers who travel to that area will have a broader vision and perhaps a sense of what life was like for Indians living within sight of the mountain. In other tales, there are references to a sea lion, the redwoods, salmon and juniper, but unfortunately, they are too vague to give you a feeling for California Indians.

Curry succeeds as a storyteller, but (Shasta, aside) we could be in Anywhere, America. At one time, there were 16 tribes who fished, hunted and canoed among offshore islands and along the coast. Surely there must be a legend or two about how the ocean influenced life style. The Yurok, who lived along the Klamath River, are believed to have had the most advanced civilization before the missionaries came, but which tale is theirs?

But Curry's heart is in the right place. We need more writers who care, as she obviously does, about our First Americans. James Watts' pencil illustrations are excellent, and his color cover is one of the prettiest of the genre to appear in a long while.

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