Journey to the Sky

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Jamake Highwater has enriched the reading public in the past with his penetrating looks into the cultural makeup of the Indian American. His last work, Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey, was honored with the 1978 Newbery Honor Award. Highwater, being of Blackfoot and Cherokee heritage, has energetically taken on the task of putting to the page the rich traditions of the First Americans. His previous works have explored the topics of Indian painting, dance, and music—all elements of the ceremonial experience that form the sacred for the various tribal nations. A storyteller in the best sense of the term, Highwater weaves tales that are as economical and colorful as Indian blankets. As he discards any excess material, especially any words that are unable to complete the desired pattern, the author escorts the reader between towering cliffs on an anguished trail that leads to wisdom. This is evident in his work, Anpao, which is a collection of Indian folklore tied together by the author’s insertion of Anpao as the central character who searches for his place in the universe. The individual Indian and his relationship to tribe and fertile Earth are themes dealt with in Anpao and the rest of Highwater’s canon. A mythical quality runs through his writings, rustling the trees, riding on the wind, and carrying the weary Indian back to his roots, where he can be one with Mother Earth; and the reader follows inquisitively and faithfully.

Jamake Highwater has in his latest entry, Journey to the Sky, brought together linked elements that are sure to lure the reader. The idea of high adventure, discovering a lost civilization, and the heroic efforts of the central characters, all pull the reader into the story until the journey is completed and glory has been justly awarded. Journey to the Sky is a novelized version not only of the actual adventures of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood as they penetrate the jungles of Central America on a diplomatic mission for the United States, but also of their search for the rumored lost cities of an ancient civilization. What they stumble upon is the world of the Mayas, a civilization which once flourished within the area of what is now known as Guatemala, Honduras, Chiapas, and Yucatan. The Mayas had reached their zenith between A. D. 250 and 900, after having commenced around 600 B. C. Eventually they were conquered by the Spanish, though their way of life had long since begun to deteriorate. Their great cities had been left deserted; this episode is still a matter of speculation. It could have been due to failing crops or an outbreak of disease. The jungle reclaimed the cleared land and overtook the structures until they were almost unrecognizable. At the height of their civilization, the Mayans surpassed all the peoples of the Americas in their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics as well as in the complexity of their calendar. They were able to make accurate observations of the heavenly bodies, independently come up with the concept of zero, and devise a writing system that was partly phonetic. When the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, they were befuddled by the half-hidden cities, deserted and crumbling, yet still possessing a magnificence. Even with the chains of the jungle stretched across the ruins, the elegance pushed them toward the sky and the viewer gazed at them in awe.

John Lloyd Stephens is considered the author of the finest travel record in American literature. He was sent by President Martin Van Buren on a diplomatic mission to the newly formed and unstable United Provinces of Central America. Between the years 1839 and 1842, he and his close friend and fellow adventurer, Frederick Catherwood, explored, tracked down government officials, and rediscovered the Mayan ruins of Central America. Stephens kept a journal—a vibrant narrative—of the entire experience. The publication of this journal, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, startled the reading public back in the United States; the bizarre and incongruous nature of what the explorers found sparked interest in Central America. Both Stephens and Catherwood were young and came from relatively wealthy families. Stephens was an attorney in New York when he received his assignment from the President; Catherwood was an English artist and architect.

At the time of the assignment, Central America was in the midst of bloody turmoil; it was unclear who had legitimate control of the United Provinces of Central America. A guerrilla war was taking place and skirmishes were common, making it highly dangerous for the two adventurers; they had to be careful not to antagonize either of the warring factions. It was nevertheless Stephens’ duty to locate the rightful head of state and report back to Washington on the situation as he found it. Francisco Morazan, a liberal who wished to institute reforms, had been elected President of the Central American Federation and was recognized by North America, Great Britain, and France as the rightful authority. But Morazan’s reforms aggravated the local Catholic clergy, which eventually sent ripples back to King Ferdinand of Spain and the Pope. Both refused to recognize Morazan as President, thus leading to the rise of Rafael Carrera, an Indian conservative. Carrera and his guerrillas marched against the Federation, and a full-scale civil war was under way by the time Stephens...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Highwater, Jamake. Shadow Show: An Autobiographical Insinuation. New York: Alfred van der Marck, 1986. Highwater discusses the cultural conflicts of his American Indian characters, which also have a personal resonance for him. In Shadow Show, he describes the jet-set circles among which he lives at the same time he is writing his works on American Indian culture.

Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed. “Jamake Highwater.” In Twentieth Century Children’s Writers. 3d ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1989. An entry on Highwater draws on personal comments from several autobiographical sources.

Shirley, Carl R. “Jamake Highwater.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1985. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Provides a comprehensive biography of Highwater that includes commentary on his writings.