Monday, August 22, 2016

Soldier Sister, Fly Home by Nancy Bo Flood, illustrations by Shonto Begay

Tess, 13, is having a hard time trying to come to terms with just who she is.  Part Navajo, part white, she doesn’t feel like she belongs in either world.  Despite being a champion-fast runner, Tess’s teammates at the white school she attends in Flagstaff, Arizona, call her names like ‘Pokeyhontas,’ never seeing her as anything other than an Indian.  But when she returns home to the Rez, she never feels Navajo enough.

Tess has been annoyed at her sister Gaby, 19, for joining the Army after her friend Lori Piestewa was killed in Iraq, the first Native American woman to fall in combat.  Now, however, Tess can’t wait for Gaby to come home on a two week leave.  Maybe Gaby can help Tess sort things out for herself.  But Gaby is no sooner home, than she must tell her family that her two week leave has been cancelled, she is being deployed to Iraq, and only has a few days home.   

Tess is beyond angry at her sister for leaving, an anger that is compounded when Gaby asks her to take care of Blue, her spirited stallion, and a horse that Tess simply does not like - and the feeling seems to be mutual. 

For the first time, Gaby won’t be going with their grandmother to sheep camp at the bottom of the canyon for the summer.  Tess, who has never spent the whole summer in the canyon with them, decides to accompany her grandmother, her sheep and mares, and Blue this year.  Tess has never ridden Blue by herself, always just leading him by the reins.  But on day, while out exploring the canyon with him, a cold, soaking rain begins and, remembering her grandmother’s words that a galloping horse is the fastest way home, Tess rides Blue back to camp.  From then on, the two begin to make friends with each other.  Now, Tess determines to find the secret waterfall where she and Gaby spent precious time together, and to send some sand from it to her sister - a reminder of those times.

Little by little, Tess begins to come to terms with who she is as she develops more confidence riding Blue and through serious talks getting to really know her grandmother, a woman who knows a lot about who she is and the people who see her a just an Indian.

When tragedy strikes, Tess is faced with a difficult decision, one that will require all the strength she has, but one that will ultimately allow Tess to begin to discover just who she really is.

Soldier Sister, Fly Home is more than just a good coming of age story about family, tradition, culture. It is also a story about 'home' in the literal and metaphorical sense.  Above the canyon, the mesa, is home to the Tess who lives there in the world of school, cell phones, malls.  As the summer goes by, the canyon, a world of hogans, animals, unfettered nature, slowly begins to feel like home to the Tess, who loves the beauty of it.  And it is her grandmother who helps Tess reconcile these two different worlds within herself, to feel at home in both.  

But it is Blue who finally takes Tess 'home.'  Gaby has told Tess that if she ever got lost riding Blue, he would always find his home if she loosened the reins and let him.  And he literally does, twice when they are out riding in the canyon.  But Blue also takes Tess home in the figurative sense when she is forced to make a decision about him that will determine who she is from than on. 

All of this is told in Nancy Bo Flood's beautiful lyrical storytelling style.  I lived in Arizona for four years, and really fell in love the land.  I think you will find some of the most breathtaking places on earth there. Flood's beautiful descriptions really made me feel an acute homesickness for the Arizona landscape.  Flood has made her setting every bit as much a well-developed main character as she has Tess and her grandmother.

And while I loved Soldier Sister, Fly Home, I did think it was not without one flaw that really bothered me.  I felt that Tess's grandmother was perhaps too stereotypical, sounding like the wise Indian speaking in aphorisms.  Ironically, this seems to happen in the canyon than up on the mesa, where she seems more like a real character and less like a stereotype.  

I should mention also that there are scenes in Soldier Sister, Fly Home that may upset readers sensitive to animals being killed, though it is never done gratuitously or cruelly in this novel.   Also, there are a number of Navajo terms used throughout the story and there is a Glossary and Pronunciation Guide at the back to the book.  

A Writing Prompt Guide has been prepared by Nancy Bo Flood and can be download HERE 

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was an ARC sent to me by the author


  1. Hello Alex, this sounds absolutely beautiful, but I am never keen on reading anything where animals get killed. I will have to think about it for a while, but it certainly sounds like something I would enjoy – with reservations.

  2. This is a beautiful book, but I agree, I also don't like reading stories where animals are killed or hurt, and yet, this felt different. Perhaps it is the respect and gratitude that is given to the animal for its sacrifice.

  3. Thank you, Alex, for such a thoughtful and careful review. Thank you also, Barbara, for you comments and concern. One of the themes in Soldier Sister is the realization by Tess that death is part of life and we do not have control, especially when a sister is deployed. I share your feelings that I don't want anyone to die needlessly, including an animal. But when death occurs, we can honor - and accept - the lost life with respect,gratitude, and reverence. This is a tough understanding that I continue to learn.


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