Christie Harris Essay - Critical Essays

Harris, Christie


Christie Harris 1907–

Canadian novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, and editor. Harris has written historical fiction, novels about contemporary young adults, and several volumes of Indian legends retold for the modern reader. As a child, she lived with her homesteader parents in a log cabin in western Canada and credits this with her affinity for tales of that area. The West she depicts is a peaceful one, in contrast to the violence of the American West. Her interpretations of Indian myths are sensitive and stress universal concerns against the unfamiliar background of Indian life. She says, "I've found it a real challenge to take their tragic history, their magnificent culture, and their fascinating legends; and then make it all real and understandable to today's young people." Her research has not been confined to historic accounts and anthropological archives: she has also spent much time with the Indians themselves. Harris's historical fiction also deals with the Canadian West but is often criticized for lacking life-like dimensions: her facts are accurate and her research is painstaking but the characters often seem wooden and their actions implausible. In addition, she has written several works of fiction dealing with the lives of her children; however, these novels seem to lack the artistic distance necessary to develop convincing characterization. Harris seems to be at her weakest when attempting to present a moral. The Indian legends, which confine this didacticism best, are her most successful works. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 6.)

Ruth Hill Viguers

[The stories in Once Upon a Totem] have the complexity, variety of human beings and supernatural creatures, and conflicts between good and evil that characterize all great hero stories and reflect mythology, history, and intricate social systems…. The brief introductions, one for each story, throw light on unusual customs or traditions and give the book additional value. (p. 173)

Ruth Hill Viguers, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright, 1963, by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), April, 1963.

Ethna Sheehan

Tribal law and its abuse is [a significant theme] in Christie Harris's legends of the New World [collected in "Once upon a Totem"]. Ancient custom was the basis of the legal, moral and social code of the North Pacific Indians; disobedience brought punishment, always certain if sometimes delayed. The totems were the heraldic symbols of the clans, and behind each crest was a story of heroic achievement or sacrifice…. These tales memorialized on clan totems are not bloodcurdling tales of savagery; they are the records, here evocatively and sensitively retold, of a disciplined and artistic people. (p. 28)

Ethna Sheehan, in New York Times Book Review (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 12, 1963.

Helen M. Kovar

[You Have to Draw the Line Somewhere] is the story of a young Canadian girl who aspires to become a Vogue fashion artist. The British Columbia setting is refreshing, and the style humorous. Although the emphasis is on the heroine's pursuit of her career, there is enough of family life and boy-dates-girl to interest a wide variety of readers. It is a frank picture of the non-glamorous side of fashion art and modeling and the amount of work necessary to become first-rate in either profession. With a light touch the story offers depth and mature values…. This has much more to offer than most girls' fiction. (p. 72)

Helen M. Kovar, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the April, 1964 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1964), April, 1964.

Margaret Sherwood Libby

Christie Harris has achieved a minor miracle [in You Have to Draw the Line Somewhere], a romance-career story that is sparkling and well written, filled with humor that springs naturally from character and situation….

More detailed than Cheaper by the Dozen, it is just as funny. The scenes of family life are wonderful—everyone quipping at the parents' expense, never-failing brotherly wisecracks, and the two young sisters—ardent young conformists—trying to hide their ambitions, their originality and their parents' delightful eccentricities from their young friends…. [This book is a genuine slice of life giving equal attention to] frustrations, successes, and dull stretches…. (p. 19)

Margaret Sherwood Libby, in Book Week—The Washington Post (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), May 17, 1964.

Ruth Hill Viguers

Linsey Ross-Allen [the protagonist of You Have to Draw the Line Somewhere] tells the story of the long road—from her dreams at the age of nine—to her successful career as a fashion artist. The book is episodic, without real plot, reading like lively autobiography, which it comes close to being…. Because this is first of all the story of a career, no great effort is made to develop the characters; but, even so, the parents particularly emerge very clearly…. The book gives a special bonus by continuing after Linsey's marriage to show how she meets the challenge of being simultaneously successful in home and career. Written with verve and humor, it is often very funny and should find a wide audience among teen-age girls and their mothers. (pp. 290-91)

Ruth Hill Viguers, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1964, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), June, 1964.

Benjamin Capps

The journal of two Englishmen … who crossed western Canada in 1863 is the basis for this fictionalized account ["West with the White Chiefs"] of a perilous trip through little-known, difficult land….

Comic relief is supplied by a roguish Irishman, a ridiculous, helpless freeloader who intrudes into the party and makes the journey with the explorers. He quotes Latin aphorisms, is generally unavailable for any work, always makes outrageous demands on the others. He is a wonderful creation, a delightful contrast to the hard-working, serious Indians and Englishmen, but he loses some of his appeal as the author overworks his helplessness and, in the end, makes a completely unsympathetic character of...

(The entire section is 130 words.)

Priscilla L. Moulton

Characters are overdrawn and not always convincing [in West with the White Chief], but an abundance of humor—a rare quality in exploration accounts—Louis' faith in his father, the nature of the expedition, and the now-Canadian setting distinguish the story from others of its type. Once past a confusing first chapter, boys will find entertainment and adventure with a satisfying conclusion. (p. 280)

Priscilla L. Moulton, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1965, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), June, 1965.

(The entire section is 79 words.)

Priscilla L. Moulton

[Christie Harris has] rediscovered and reproduced a dignified and inspiring picture of [Haida] culture in a work of epic proportions [Raven's Cry]. Painstaking research and intense absorption in anthropological details have enabled the author to write with rare commitment and involvement from the Haida point of view. She sings the saga of the three chieftains, of their larger-than-life deeds, of the people they led, of the gods they honored. Her account is richly adorned with details of custom, ceremony, and costume. Dealing as it does in a highly artistic and complicated manner with the whole range of human emotion and character, it makes demands of the reader but rewards him with new understanding of the...

(The entire section is 155 words.)


[Raven's Cry] is so thoroughly immersed in the life of the Haida, the remarkable industrial Indians of British Columbia … that the book is first-rate ethnography…. The story is poignant: firearms, Bible, gold, whiskey and smallpox play their traditional roles. But the Haida are so like us in their determination to excel—in skill, in trade, in wealth, in status—that the story is much richer than the pastoral tragedy of so many tribes. (p. 144)

Philip and Phylis Morrison, in Scientific American (copyright © 1966 by Scientific American, Inc.; all rights reserved), December, 1966.

(The entire section is 90 words.)

Helen M. Lothian

[Confessions of a Toe-Hanger is a companion book to You Have to Draw the Line Somewhere and] tells of the struggle of Linsey's younger sister Feeny to find herself. It is too episodic for children looking for a story and although older girls would enjoy the romance it is doubtful if they would be interested in the early chapters of the young Feeny or her later struggles as a young wife and mother.

Although the book is told in the first person it left one with the feeling that the insights into the central character were those of a loving and understanding mother rather than Feeny's own. Mrs. Harris is not only loving and understanding but a good writer, and I would look forward to more...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

Colin M. Turnbull

Raven's Cry … does not pretend to be any more than a novel.

As such it catches the interest and holds it, while at the same time introducing, almost by sleight of hand, many very real and pertinent anthropological observations. Social institutions such as the potlatch, totems, family structure, and trade are brought into the picture like the sweetest sugar-coated pills, and anyone reading this book is, whether he likes it or not, going to emerge not only interested but informed. Yet the book is utterly without pretense. (p. 28)

Colin M. Turnbull, in Natural History (copyright © the American Museum of Natural History, 1967; reprinted with...

(The entire section is 108 words.)

Ruth Hill Viguers

The author's ability to create convincingly alive characters is as evident [in Forbidden Frontier] as in her other books, but Mrs. Harris has such a lot to say about the times, the people, and the problems that she has crammed too much into one story. Events move fast enough to hold readers, however, and girls who read the book for the story of Alison and Megan will learn a great deal about the settlement of the Far West. (pp. 182-83)

Ruth Hill Viguers, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1968 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), April, 1968.

(The entire section is 96 words.)

Kathryn C. James

The arrival of farmers and gold seekers to the Canadian West brought change and upheaval. To the Indian it meant adjustment to a new way of life often with disastrous results. To the fur trader it meant the loss of livelihood. To Alison Stewart, daughter of a chief trader and an Indian princess it brought grief and bitterness. To Ross MacNeil, the son of a chief trader and a Shuswap Indian it brought ignominy and revolt. To Megan Scully, newly come to the West and with the memory of an Indian massacre fresh in her mind, it meant fear and a chance for wealth. Through their eyes, the conflict of Indian and white settlers is portrayed with honesty and fairness [in Forbidden Frontier]….

In spite...

(The entire section is 156 words.)

Julie Losinski

[In Let X Be Excitement, which is based on the life of her son, Harris] has created a new, commendable addition to her collection of family portraits. For Ralph, discovering his life's occupation meant finding a job that offered intellectual challenge and satisfied his love of excitement and the outdoors…. Ralph's satisfaction in doing what comes naturally, combined with a sense of humor, results in an appealing zest for living. Readers (boys particularly) facing career decisions will empathize with Ralph, and enjoy, even though they may not be able to equal, his adventures. (p. 124)

Julie Losinski, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the September, 1969...

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Penelope M. Mitchell

More than a who-wore-what version of the history of dress, [Figleafing Through History: the Dynamics of Dress] attempts to show that clothing has never been merely utilitarian, that it is a reflection of mores, rank, and philosophies. As a result, what is had here is a brief history of civilization—Eastern and Western—as seen through man's bodily adornment. Simplification has not distorted the overview, and the necessary postulation of changes in attitude during pre- and early history does not seem out of line. The author's personal bias does occasionally emerge especially in the final (approving) chapter on current Western trends in dress. (p. 127)

Penelope M....

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Frances Postell

[Secret in the Stlalakum Wild is an] interesting although not entirely successful attempt to use the lore of the Northwest Coast Indians in a message fantasy. The Stlalakums (spirits of the Old Coast Salish Indians in British Columbia) begin to speak to Morann, a normal little girl with a very active imagination, and urge her to find what she understands to be a great treasure. She joins in the quest reluctantly at first, but later gains enthusiasm when she comes to believe that finding treasure will make her important in her family. Morann eventually discovers that the treasure is the wilderness itself which the Stlalakums want people to love and save. After this initial build-up, the ending may disappoint...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Virginia Haviland

[Sky Man on the Totem Pole?] combines mythological beliefs with the possibility of men coming from outer space and with modern theories about bioplasmic energy in an attempt to explain what might have happened in Temlaham, the Indian's Promised Land. The story's structure is confusingly episodic, weaving back and forth with changes of scene and points of view. An Indian community sees a falling star or comet; it turns out to be the spaceship Colonizer, directed to the planet Tlu's colony on Earth. After the Indians migrate to Temlaham, the narrative returns to the spaceship. It is aiming to save its doomed planet when data banks show the extermination of growing things to be imminent and Doomsday only...

(The entire section is 191 words.)

Kenneth Radu

The general competency of Secret in the Stlalakum Wild is surely the result of years of tending to the craft of writing for young readers. The hallmark of [Harris's] style is a good-humored briskness which carries the story along in an uncomplicated, well-paced narrative….

Indian folk-lore and mythology have quite clearly made their imprint upon Mrs. Harris's imagination. Her finest work is directly concerned with the Indian life and legends of the Northwest. Raven's Cry … remains a singularly moving paean to the now extinct Haida civilization of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Fully and accurately researched, Raven's Cry portrays the complexities and uniqueness of the Haida...

(The entire section is 1147 words.)

Pat Mitton

Christie Harris combines her considerable talents for writing richly evocative legends and imaginative novels in [Sky Man on the Totem Pole?, a] fascinating Man-from-the-Sky legend….

The author has not zipped off a trendy tale to cash in on books like Chariots of the Gods by von Daniken, but has provided her readers with a thoughtful piece of writing recognizing the values of both modern and primitive thought on how to best work with nature to preserve both the natural and human elements. (p. 34)

Pat Mitton, in In Review: Canadian. Books for Children, Autumn, 1975.

(The entire section is 93 words.)

Sheila Egoff

The potential for children's literature inherent in the Indian legends is most fully realized by Christie Harris on Once Upon a Totem…. Other collections may have more charm, or a more fluid style, but the legends chosen by Harris and her interpretation of them are outstanding in that they seek quietly to illuminate universal values. The stories are very much a part of early Indian life and very much a part of today.

The book contains five legends relating to the Indians of the North Pacific Coast, a people unusually rich in myth and legend. (pp. 24-5)

Harris does not interpret the intricate character of the trickster-hero Raven but is concerned to present a group of...

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Richard B. Davidson

Christie Harris Sky Man on the Totem Pole? … concerns, among other things, the relation between the Indian and White cultures. In the vein of von Daniken, the question is this: did visitors from other planets furnish the images for the mythology of Earth's denizens? In this novel, might spacemen have provided the Indians of the Northwest with the basic imagery and narrative core of their central legend of Temiaham?…

I am sorry to say that while I am aware of Harris' reputation and respectful of her impulse to do something fresh and new, I do not find this a good book. It is contrived, made up of elements that work against each other. For example, if you write a novel and introduce...

(The entire section is 384 words.)


[Mouse Woman and the Vanished Princesses, a] collection of legends from the mythology of the Northwest Coast Indians of Canada is uniquely linked through the character of Mousewoman, a Narnauk or Supernatural Being…. The stories are clearly and lyrically told, with perhaps the most distinctive quality being the characterizations of the Narnauks. Harris manages to evoke the magical and essentially alien World of the Supernaturals and also its familiarity to the Indians, for these spirits were a daily part of their lives….

There is a surprising amount of variety in this collection, given the confines of the theme, vanishing princesses. Some of the tales are poignant, others almost grisly in...

(The entire section is 371 words.)

Gwyneth F. Evans

Sky Man on the Totem Pole? has some fine moments in it [but] … Christie Harris attempts too many disparate tasks. Ultimately Sky Man falls apart from lack of internal unity or sense of development. The heart of the book, and its real strength, is its retelling of the legends of [the] people of Temlaham; the adaptation of such legends into exciting and appealing stories for children is Mrs. Harris's forte. (pp. 117-18)

The chief weakness of Sky Man is the didacticism which imposes a kind of superficial unity on the disparate elements of the book, but which is obtrusive, often shrill, and remains stated rather than felt. Didacticism is certainly not alien to fantasy—George...

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Jane Abramson

[The] seven cautionary folk legends [in Mouse Woman and the Mischief-Makers], told with spare strength and humor, are exceptional for revealing the bedrock upon which the Northwest Indian culture stood. Harris recreates a world where balance and harmony among living creatures are valued above all and where even supernatural narnauks (including proper little Mouse Woman herself) can occasionally become "mischief-makers." (p. 67)

Jane Abramson, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the April, 1977 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1977), April, 1977.

(The entire section is 87 words.)

Frances M. Frazer

The young heroines of [Mouse Woman and the Vanished Princesses] are not sweet and simple variations on Pretty Redwing, but accomplished, haughty young ladies who guard their dignity even more strenuously than they do their personal safety. And although the narnauks of these stories, like the supernatural beings of other Indian cultures, can change their physical forms, they confine themselves to two guises, one animal, the other human. Consequently, the ground-rules of the fantasy are kept reasonably clear, and the stories seem less arbitrary than most others of the genre….

Beyond her ability to shift her own shape, and on one occasion in this book to lend mouse guise to a human...

(The entire section is 712 words.)

Jessica Latshaw

The primary source for the tales [of Mouse Woman and the Mischief-Makers] is not given so it was impossible to check the authenticity of her version. The tales, however, are not as carefully written as the author's earlier collections and are needlessly interrupted by a restatement of the underlying moral principle involved. (p. 47)

Jessica Latshaw, in In Review: Canadian Books for Children, Spring, 1978.

(The entire section is 63 words.)

Janice Bick

[Mystery at the Edge of Two Worlds is an] imaginative, well-told story of two teenagers, Lark and brother Joe who take a trip to visit their Gran and learn the art of sailing from Gran's neighbour Skipper Peery. Lark had been told by her mother that it was time she got out and did things, not just sit and think and read…. However, the unravelling of the mystery of Lucy Island and the meeting with red-haired Andy Fergus did much to change Lark's summer….

With all the magic potions needed to make a successful mystery, Christie Harris draws undivided attention from her reader. Characters are well-drawn, the plot moves at a swift pace and enough chills and excitement complete the story....

(The entire section is 150 words.)