Waterless Mountain is about a way of life that Armer profoundly admired. Its slow pace, its insistence on the minutiae of tribal life, and its many interpolated legends and stories all underscore the closeness of the Navajo culture to the cycles of nature. The family is the central unit. Each person has a clear role to play at every stage of life: Younger Brother herds his mother’s sheep, his father makes beautiful silver jewelry, and his mother weaves as well as managing the household affairs and trading. At any important point in life, there is a ceremony—for initiation, for betrothal, for sickness, for harvest. Armer believed that exposure to the ways of the Navajo released her own creative abilities; all of her significant work in art, film, and fiction was done after she began studying the Navajo culture in her fifties.

The retellings of Navajo legends and the descriptions of Navajo ceremonies remain compelling features of the book. The plot itself, in which a young boy matures, leaves home to find himself, and returns to take his place in society as an adult, is almost submerged beneath the weight of the expository material about Navajo culture. This aspect of the book has caused it to be more popular with critics and teachers than with young readers. Armer’s simple, beautifully balanced prose, however, is one of the books’ strongest features.