Setting

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495

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...

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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 large puddles left by the rain, "silver fish carried from the sea could amazingly be found." Perhaps best of all, the wind has blown the bugs away, so that the people can celebrate the passing of the storm without lighting smudge fires or coating their skin with ashes and soot.

Other details of setting also help ground this novel in reality. Star Boy likes to collect shells, but only perfect ones with no chips or imperfections. His shell collection connects him to contemporary children, many of whom like to collect shells when near the ocean, as well as to his time and place. There are few toys for children; children must make their own amusement, and Star Boy does so. Star Boy is also protected by a large tree during the hurricane, a tree that his people think holds the spirits of deceased tribal and family members. Again, Dorris uses the physical details of this island to make a connection to the culture and beliefs of the people living there. As in many traditional Native American cultures, here there is little, if any, distinction between the natural world and the humans who inhabit it. This can be seen even in the names of the characters, Morning Girl and Star Boy, names that both define the nature of the children and connect them to the natural world around them.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1034

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 also the catalyst for Star Boy's maturity, as well as his sister's. The hurricane literally and metaphorically blows away the old and ushers in the new, but Dorris makes clear that hurricanes are a natural part of this world and that much survives in their wake. The tree that shelters Star Boy during the storm has withstood many hurricanes, and Star Boy and the other tribal members believe that the spirits of ancestors and deceased loved ones inhabit this tree. Here the tree becomes symbolic of the rootedness of the people, their connection to their own "family trees," and to the cycle of life on the island.

The language of the novel is especially evocative. Dorris is a spare writer, but each word is carefully chosen and precisely right. Star Boy says that what you see with your eyes closed during the day is "like deep water, a pond that's draped with shade." In the middle of the hurricane Star Boy does not waste time on dramatic description, but tells us, "I watched the way you watch when you know you want to remember: Slowly, even though everything was going fast." Morning Girl likes it when her world fits together like shells sunk into sand after the tide has gone out, "before anyone has walked on the beach and left footprints," and then tells us that her brother Star Boy "was the footprints. He messed up the niceness for me."

Morning Girl's imagery here is typical of that in the novel. Whenever Dorris has one of his characters speak metaphorically, they choose metaphors from the world around them, images based on sand, or water, or flowers, or parrots, or stars. There are no long descriptive passages, no set pieces that give us a vision of the tropical island as a whole, but individual details and the children's use of metaphor based solidly upon their island reality give the reader a very strong sense of both place and character, and of the interaction of the two.

The names of the characters also suggest both the nature of their culture and the closeness of the people to the land. Morning Girl and Star Boy have names connected with the sky and its stars, but we also meet Red Feathers (one of Star Boy's friends); the children's uncle Sharp Tooth; and one or two other named characters (although Mother and Father retain their titles and we do not learn their names until the very end of the novel). Unlike the names of stereotypical Native American characters, these names are linked to the characters' natures and are important to their understanding of themselves. As Morning Girl says, "If your name is true, it is who you are."

It is the point of view of the story that in the end is most evocative. Because we see the world through the eyes of Native American children, when we see the European explorers, we see them anew, shorn of the mythology textbooks associate with Columbus and his sailors. Names here are important again, because Morning Girl hurries away to announce their arrival before she learns their names, before she learns who they are. And it is the fact that she does not know their nature, that she assumes they are somewhat slow-witted strangers who need help and does not realize that they are the beginning of the end of her people, that gives the novel its poignancy. It also allows the reader to view Columbus and the European discovery of the Americas from an indigenous point of view.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

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.

The communal nature of tribal life is also interwoven into the story. Families help each other and their neighbors: neighbors shelter Red Feathers when his parents are having difficulties; the grandmother helps She Wins the Race when she miscarries; the entire village searches for the missing Star Boy. But it is not only crisis that brings the village together: they also come together to feast and to celebrate.

We are given, again and again, details of how simply, yet how elegantly these people live their lives. From a European perspective they have little by way of material goods and wealth, but from a Native perspective they are wealthy indeed: wealthy in food, in love, in community. Their canoes may not seem as technological as the rowing dinghies of the explorers, but as Morning Girl notices, despite many men rowing, the boats move very slowly indeed. The Europeans are not suited to the environment they have landed in, whereas the native inhabitants are exquisitely matched to the land they inhabit, and know how to fish its waters, survive its storms, collect its bounty, and enjoy its nature.

Dorris' training as an anthropologist and ethnographer helps him, in this novel, to successfully imagine not only the physical world of a people long ago, but also their culture, beliefs, and thoughts. His training as a writer enables him to deliver his imaginings in a beautifully poetic way.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 137

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): 225-37.

McDermott, Alice. "The Girl Columbus Discovered." New York Times Book Review, (November 8,1992): 33.

Slapin, Beverly, and Doris Seales. Books Without Bias: Through Indian Eyes. Berkeley, CA: Oyate Press, 1988.

Ruoff, A. Lavonne Brown. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. NY: Modern Language Association, 1990.

Ruoff, A. Lavonne Brown. Literatures of the American Indian. NY: Chelsea House, 19

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