The prose saga of Anpao is a blending of history and myth, for within the novel are two distinct journeys. First is the trip through American Indian legends that the boy undertakes on his quest to find the Lodge of the Sun. The story of this journey, written with the cadence of the storyteller, incorporates many techniques found in the oral tradition. The voice of Wasicong, the storyteller, is formal as in Western European ep-ics. The settings are intentionally vague, with many flat, one-dimensional characters and many stereotypes and symbols. Each adventure represents at least one of the four main types of American Indian myths: family drama, trickster tale, transition story (from life to death), and passage through the animal world. As he makes his journey, Anpao learns about many things that became important in American Indian culture, such as corn and buffalo, and about the respect that people should have for nature, animals, and their elders. The final uniting of Anpao and Ko-ko-mik-e-is can be seen as the unification of the Sun and Earth (Anpao) with the Moon (Ko-ko-mik-e-is).
This first journey of Anpao has been compared to parts of Homer’s Greek epic The Odyssey. Just as The Odyssey blends stories from various parts of the ancient Aegean world into the adventures of a young boy on a quest to become a man, Anpao draws its tales from a variety of American Indian tribes. Among the tribes represented are the Blackfeet, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Papago, Zuni, and Sahaptian.
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Anpao was published at a time when people were beginning to realize that American Indians had a “literary” heritage that was well established when the first explorers came to the North American continent. The novel was named a 1978 Newbery Honor Book and received a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award. In addition, it was named a Best Book for Young Adults in 1978 by the American Library Association. With Anpao, Jamake Highwater became the first author to unite tales and legends from a variety of American Indian tribes into a single story.
Highwater continued to explore the history of American Indians and the decline and fall of their world in many of his other books for young adults, including his Ghost House Cycle: Legend Days (1984), The Ceremony of Innocence (1985), I Wear the Morning Star (1986), and Kill Hole (1992). Beginning shortly before the arrival of white people in North America, these partially autobiographical novels follow the story of Amana Bonneville, her daughter, and her grandsons. Like Anpao, Amana, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, sees her people destroyed by disease and the traditions of the past replaced by alcohol and the values of the Europeans.
Along with N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, and Simon J. Ortiz, Highwater is given credit for beginning the writing of serious American Indian fiction. He sees his works as forming a bridge between the private, traditional world of American Indians and the public, often-destructive world of Western Europeans.