Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1702

The central characters in this story are Morning Girl, her younger brother Star Boy, and their parents. There are also references to some of the children's friends and relatives, but the action is centered on the family and its daily doings. We are never told the age of the children,...

(The entire section contains 1702 words.)

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The central characters in this story are Morning Girl, her younger brother Star Boy, and their parents. There are also references to some of the children's friends and relatives, but the action is centered on the family and its daily doings. We are never told the age of the children, but the context of the story suggests that Morning Girl is perhaps eight or ten, Star Boy perhaps five or seven. Morning Girl often complains about having a noisy younger brother and is at the age where she is expected to help her mother and to watch out for her younger brother. Star Boy is a typical rambunctious little boy who runs, yells, acts impetuously, and sometimes gets into trouble with the adults. He is young enough to think that, after he has inadvertently set his father's canoe loose in the ocean, he can hide from the adults by rolling up and pretending to be a rock.

Morning Girl and Star Boy's names suggest their different personalities. Morning Girl tells us that "if the day starts before you do, you never catch up. You spend all your time running after what you should have already done, and no matter how much you hurry, you never finish the race in a tie. The day wins." Morning Girl does not wish to miss anything, and so is up before the day and before the rest of her family, trying to decide which idea to follow first in the day. Star Boy, on the other hand, is attracted to the night, to the stars that look like sand scattered on the sky, to the things that happen in the dark that no one else is aware of because they sleep. But both children share—although they are unaware of this—a deep and even poetic connection to the natural world around them. No one child can take in both the day and the night, but between them these two children have a complete experience of the world, one in which the reader can share.

The children have two loving parents who watch out for them, but who also give them freedom to learn on their own. Early in the morning, when Morning Girl and Star Boy are grumbling to one another, Father turns on his mat and says, "Ghosts. My house is filled with ghosts. They talk to each other all night. I'll have to build a new house. I'll live there in peace. It will be wonderful." He is gently joking with his noisy children, and Mother plays along with him, saying she will join him in escaping the ghosts who will not allow them their rest. The parents deliver the lesson that the children are disturbing them in a gentle and loving way.

Their loving and caring nature extends to the way they discipline their children. Star Boy allows his father's canoe to drift out to sea, a serious error, since the canoe helps provide the family's livelihood. Star Boy, to avoid confrontation with his father and possible punishment, tries to hide and protect himself by turning himself into a rock. His parents, of course, know where he is, and his mother sits close by and talks aloud to herself, assuring herself (and her son) that he would never disappear without saying goodbye. Later his father appears, and talks aloud about how the canoe has been found and rescued, and even had it not been found, it could be easily replaced. "But nothing can replace a son." Star Boy ceases being a rock and becomes his father's son again "because I heard the pleasure in his voice."

We know that not all families on the island are loving—this is not paradise, after all. Star Boy has a friend whose parents squabble and argue, so that their son must go live with relatives for a time. The availability and willingness of family and neighbors to take in troubled children underlines the theme of community and interdependence that is so important in this novel. On a small island, tribal members must depend on each other for survival. We can see this during the hurricane, when people come together to search for the missing, and later, to rebuild and to celebrate with a huge feast on the shore. Everyone has suffered, everyone helps, and everyone celebrates.

The feast also brings to the foreground the coming-of-age qualities of the story, for both Morning Girl and Star Boy. Star Boy, excited by his adventures during the storm and the fact that he will get to tell his tale as part of the celebration's entertainment, races around the beach and grabs food from every mat he sees before him. Morning Girl, older, knows that she can no longer indulge in such impolite and childlike behavior, but suddenly realizes that her brother is moving out of childhood as well: he receives the same kind of pointed and disapproving looks from the adults that Morning Girl remembers from her own earlier years. The people begin to call him by his baby-name, Hungry, and to make fun of him. His uncle says he thought he heard Hungry/Star Boy say "he had a grown boy's name, but look, he's the same as ever, the same as he has always been." Star Boy suddenly realizes that he is behaving inappropriately and does not know how to save himself—nor does he have to. His sister calls across to him, "Food! I'm so hungry I can't wait any longer to eat!" and begins to imitate her brother's behavior by taking food from the mats. Then Father says, "Let us eat!" as he greedily bites into a piece of fruit. Star Boy is rescued first by his sister and then by the rest of his family, and at the end gives his sister a private name, The One Who Stands Beside, and knows his behavior in future must change.

This episode shows Star Boy and his sister growing in maturity. Star Boy learns, through the quiet disapproval of his community, how a grown boy behaves. Morning Girl looks at her brother and discovers she loves and cares for him, and helps him through a difficult situation.

Morning Girl has had earlier moments of self-discovery, sometimes in conjunction with her brother and sometimes on her own. One of the things that perplexes her is that she does not know what she looks like. There are no mirrors in her culture, and water never stays still long enough for her to see her reflection clearly. Her mother tries to help her by having Morning Girl run her fingers first over her own features, and then over her mother's, searching for similarities and differences. Her father provides her with the best solution, however, asking her to look deep into his eyes, where she sees her twin reflection in his pupils. Not only does this reassure Morning Girl that she is attractive and that she resembles her parents, but it also provides her an example of male approval of her appearance, as well as of the love and caring of her father.

She must also come to grips with the facts of life. Although she does not reach the age of menses in this novel, her mother does become pregnant with a third child. The family is very happy, and Morning Girl, assuming she will have a little sister to play with in addition to her noisy brother, is especially happy. But then something happens: their mother goes away to stay with the grandmother, and when she returns she does not have a baby with her. She has miscarried. Morning Girl understands the nature of the catastrophe better than her brother, but both children have been frightened by the disappearance of their mother, the possibility that she might leave them just as the baby has left them, and that their family might be changed forever. It is overwhelmingly reassuring to the children when the mother returns and folds them into her arms. The children have learned something of birth and death, but they are still children and still need their mother. The episode captures the fluctuating nature of growing-up very well: the children seem older one minute, and much younger the next.

The end of the novel is poignant. Just as the childhood worlds of Morning Girl and Star Boy are beginning to open into the wider world of adulthood, so the tribe is about to be opened up to the wider world of European invasion and technology. Morning Girl goes for an early swim and sees a canoe filled with strangers who "had wrapped every part of their bodies with colorful leaves and cotton. . . .Their canoe was short and square, and, in spite of all their dipping and pulling, it moved so slowly. What a backward, distant island they must have come from." But Morning Girl is mindful of her manners and tries to make the strangers welcome, despite the language barrier. She motions them onto the beach and runs to tell her family of the arrival of the strangers, so that they can be made welcome, even if Star Boy will say she has just dreamed them. "But I didn't think that was true. I knew they were real."

These are the last words of the novel, except for the epilogue. The strangers, of course, are Columbus and his men, but seen from a Native perspective as backwards strangers who must be treated kindly: a terrible irony when one considers the difficult history of Europeans and Native Americans. Dorris does not comment upon these soldiers, except to let us see them through Native eyes, and to let Columbus speak for himself in an epilogue from his journal, in which he says "it seemed to me that they were a people very poor in everything." The reader knows this is not true: the natives are rich in food, in family, in love, in community, in the things that really matter and that will be threatened by the Europeans. But Dorris allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, based upon what we have learned of the family and community of Morning Girl and Star Boy.

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