November is Native American Heritage Month, a month dedicated to the history and current culture of the Indigenous peoples of this country. A great way to learn more about Indigenous cultures is to read books by and about Indigenous peoples. If you are participating in the Manhattan Public Library’s ReadMHK reading program, you can read a book by a Native American author and log it for this month’s theme of “Native Authors.” Looking for a young adult option to fulfill the prompt? I encourage you to check out “Elatsoe” by Darcie Little Badger, who is an enrolled member of the Lipan Apache tribe of Texas.
I picked up “Elatsoe” solely because of the book’s cover, which was illustrated by Rovina Cai. It depicts a girl in a hooded jacket surrounded by running white dogs in a painted style. Once I found out the book was about a teenage girl with a pet ghost dog who goes on a journey to investigate the mysterious death of her cousin — I was all in.
The book follows a 17-year-old girl named Elatsoe, or Ellie, who is Native American and grounded firmly in her Lipan Apache tradition and culture. Ellie lives in an altered version of modern-day America. There are the usual things like high school, best friends and over-protective parents; however, there is also magic and monsters that are shaped by the legends of its peoples — Indigenous and otherwise. For instance, Ellie has the gift of “ghost-calling,” allowing her to raise the ghosts of dead animals, thanks to a skill passed through generations of her family. In the book, Elatsoe’s namesake, Six-Great-Grandmother, is legendary for her ghost-calling gift. Woven into the main plot are tales of Six-Great summoning and training the ghosts of ancient animals to serve as guardians for her people.
The inciting incident of the story is when Ellie is informed that her beloved cousin Trevor has died in a mysterious accident, leaving behind his wife and infant son. When Trevor visits her in a dream and tells Ellie he’s been murdered, she knows she needs to figure out what happened so his spirit and family can be at peace. With the help of her family, best friend Jay, and ghost dog Kirby, Ellie uncovers secrets surrounding Trevor’s death. She and Jay are led to the small, mysterious town of Willowbee, Texas, where the population is overwhelmingly white, lawns are surprisingly lush in the scorching Texas sun, and inhabitants experience a lack of injury and illness.
With expert storytelling and worldbuilding, Little Badger blends modern-day America with Lipan Apache lore that plants the reader solidly in the world. The story confronts the grief of losing a family member and the human desire for truth and vengeance. Even as an avid fan of crime shows and novels, I was genuinely surprised by the sinister motives unearthed, and the twists and turns Little Badger takes the reader through.
If you read young adult novels, you know that even YA fantasy books tend to have romance at their centers. It was refreshing to see that Ellie and Jay’s friendship remains a platonic boy/girl relationship. It is even explained in the book that Ellie is asexual, which is an identity not often represented. That doesn’t mean the book lacked any love, though. Ellie’s strong connection with her family members, and deep trust of her best friend are palpable throughout the book.
I highly recommend “Elatsoe” to anyone who enjoys legends, mystery, fantasy, and reading about close familial relationships. If you need more convincing, “Elatsoe” was named on TIME’s list of 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time. Be on the lookout for Darcy Little Badger’s next book coming out this month called “A Snake Falls to Earth,” which weaves together the lives of Nina and Oli in another tale of family, monsters, and magic rooted in Lipan Apache legend.
Rashael Apuya is the teen services librarian at Manhattan Public Library.