Morning Girl takes place on a tropical island late in the fifteenth century, where Morning Girl can wake and "watch the ocean or slip into the mango grove," where there is the "rich scent of the large red flowers." It is an island rich with fruit and beautiful with birds and flowers, but it is not a paradise. There are "hungry bugs so small you don't know they're there until they bite you," and storms so violent the rain "was before me and behind me and all around me, a thick crashing wave, and all I knew was water and movement that slammed and hissed and screamed my name," storms that flatten the village.
The setting is realistic, and developed with small but vivid details that help the reader imagine what such an island and its people must have been like before Europeans arrived. We hear of "digging sticks" and "cassava patches," helping us to understand that these are people who are settled and who farm. We hear of the palm leaves that thatch the family house and of the mats the family sleeps on, giving us an idea of domestic architecture, and also a sense that these are people who know how to live with the land and what it has to offer—an important concept in all traditional Native American philosophy. We learn that even violent storms bring some good things. Houses need to be re-roofed, but "the palms were already spread on the ground, perfect for thatch." Coconuts lay on the ground, saving the people the trouble of climbing trees for them. And in...
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Morning Girl is a brief novel, and seemingly simply told, but in fact it is lyrical and moving and suggests more than it says outright. Although the novel is named for the female protagonist, Morning Girl shares equal footing with her brother Star Boy. There are nine brief chapters, five focused on Morning Girl and four on her brother. Although the final chapter is from Morning Girl's point of view, each of her family members gets nearly equal attention in the chapter, providing an integration of family to suggest the integration of child and adult in the children, and to suggest ironically the coming disintegration of Native culture as the Europeans arrive.
Each chapter is told in the first person, and both Morning Girl and Star Boy have distinct voices. Morning Girl is older, and therefore slightly more articulate about her feelings, and she also thinks more about others than her brother does. In the opening chapter Morning Girl plans to weave necklaces of flowers for her parents before they wake, anticipating their pleasure and surprise. Star Boy, on the other hand, is younger, and lives more in the present than his sister does. While Morning Girl can generally identify and name her feelings, Star Boy gives us impressions and allows us to draw our own conclusions. For example, when he tries to hide by imitating a rock, the reader understands his shame and guilt and fear of punishment, although Star Boy himself never articulates these feelings: he simply concentrates on what it must feel like to be a rock.
The novel creates a vivid sense of place through the use of concrete details that are both familiar and foreign to children. Star Boy collects shells and Morning Girl likes to weave flower necklaces, tasks familiar to many small children. But in the context of the story, the actions seem foreign because they provide almost the only "toys" these children have, although their lives are rich in imagination, in family love, and in play.
The sense of place in the novel also provides not so much a symbol as an atmosphere for the coming of age stories of the children. We begin the story in the family's thatched house, in the comfort of the known; the houses are blown away during a hurricane; and the story ends on the open sea with the arrival of the Europeans. Thus just as the world of the children is opening up and expanding, so does the setting of the story. The hurricane is the single most dramatic event in the story, providing not only the drama of high winds and the lost Star Boy, but...
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Morning Girl, written as it is by a Native American writer and an anthropologist, is sensitive to Native American culture and to the complex history of the confrontation of Europeans and Native Americans. Dorris does not blame Columbus and the explorers, but lets Columbus speak for himself. In the epilogue to the book, which consists of an excerpt from Columbus' own journal, we hear him speak of "savages" and of his intention to take some of them out of their own world and back to Europe to exhibit. Letting Columbus' words stand without commentary by the author, and letting them stand after the end of a narrative told from the indigenous point of view, allows readers to draw their own conclusions about the nature of European expansion into the Americas.
Dorris is also sensitive to stereotypical presentations of Native American characters. None of the characters in Morning Girl is the least bit stereotypical, nor are they simply modern characters in historical dress. The thoughts and words of the characters are sensitive, thoughtful, and lyrical. They dress simply, as befits people living on a tropical island. When the houses are described, they are described from the Native point of view, and thus are not presented as flimsy thatch cottages (which might be the prevailing European point of view), but rather as airy and comfortable dwellings that, when blown down by wind, are easily repaired, easily moved to other locations.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Explain the main complaints Morning Girl has about her brother Star Boy, and give examples from the text.
2. What do you think Star Boy complains about most where Morning Girl is concerned? Can you find details in the story to back up your ideas?
3. In what ways is the tree that Star Boy shelters beneath a symbol for the life of his family? How is it a symbol for the life of the entire tribe?
4. What events lead Morning Girl to change her opinion about her brother?
5. Why are the disapproving looks of the adults at the feast after the hurricane so disturbing to Morning Girl? Why doesn't Star Boy notice these disapproving looks?
6. What things in the story support your preconceptions of what life was like for Native Americans before Columbus came? What do you find surprising about the portrayal of Native culture in this novel?
7. Why do you think the novel is called Morning Girl, when half the story is devoted to Star Boy? Why is the novel not called Morning Girl and Her Brother, or Morning Girl and Star Boy?
8. Look up what a "homonym" is. What is the homonym in the title of Morning Girl? Does the homonym give you a better sense of what the end of the story might mean?
9. Read the epilogue (the excerpt from Columbus' journal) carefully. What does he not understand about the Native Americans? What assumptions does he make about their lives and...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Research the outcome of Columbus' journey to the New World. Did he take any Natives back to Europe with him? If so, what was their fate?
2. Look at your school's history or social studies texts' for their portrayal of Columbus coming to the New World. From whose point of view is this story told in the textbooks?
3. Research the fate of indigenous peoples in the Caribbean after the arrival of Columbus. How many are left? What was the fate of those who disappeared? Do the governments of these islands have any policies governing native peoples?
4. Research and describe the flora and fauna of the Caribbean islands. What grows there? What animals and crops can people eat?
5. Research the history and nature of hurricanes in the Caribbean. How often do they occur, and when? How strong are the winds? What methods do people today use to survive hurricanes? How do these methods differ from the methods we see used in Morning Girl?
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Dorris' other two works about Native Americas and the early Americas, Guests and Sees Behind Trees, are other fine portrayals of American history seen through Native eyes. Joseph Bruchac, another Native American writer, has written a trilogy of Native life as it might have been ten thousand years ago, the first volume of which is entitled Dawn Land. There is an increasing number of novels and stories about contemporary Native American life, among them David Seals' Pow Wow Highway; Paula Gunn Allen's edited collection of stories, Spiderwoman's Grand Daughters; Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven; N. Scott Momaday's The House Made of Dawn; James Welch's...
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For Further Reference
Allen, Paula Gunn. Studies in American Indian Literature. NY: Modern Language Association, 1983.
Bourne, Daniel. "A Conversation with Michael Dorris." Artful Dodge 30-31 (1996): 20-32.
Caldwell-Wood, N. "Native American Images in Children's Books." School Library Journal 38 (May 1992): 47-48.
Helbig, Alethea. "Teaching American Literature from Its Real Beginnings: Native American Stories." In Young Adult Literature: Background and Criticism, eds. Millicent Lenz and Ramona M. Mahoud. Chicago: ALA, 1980: 259-66.
Markstrom-Adams, Carol. "Coming-of-Age Among Contemporary American Indians as Portrayed in Adolescent Fiction." Adolescence 25 (spring 1990):...
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