“Sing Down The Moon” Or How If You Want Dystopias, You Need Only Look at the Past

186384“On the high Mesas above our canyon spring came early that year.” 

Imagine this: Your once idyllic home is now under constant threat. South of it, bands of marauders are on the hunt for young women to enslave. Enemy soldiers with highly-evolved technology keep encroaching on your territory. Your traditional enemies have partnered up with new menaces to ensure your destruction. Your leaders are paralyzed, as their traditional tactics are no match for what is unfolding before their eyes. Your on the brink of becoming an adult, but have no guarantee that you’ll even survive your childhood.

All of this would make a fantastic set-up for the new Hunger Games/Divergent/Uglies/City-of-Bones/Dystopian-Teen-Novel-Here sensation ready to take their world by storm. But Sing Down The Moon doesn’t take place in the future, and it doesn’t take place in an alternate universe. Instead, the Scott O’Dell novel is based of the very real displacement of the Navaho nation from their Arizona homeland and into New Mexico.

The story centers around Bright Morning, a fourteen-year-old Native American living in the Canyon de Chelly circa de 1860s. While tending to her sheep, her and her friend Running Bird are capture by Spanish slavers and forced to make their way to the European settlements. You think this will be the focal point of the rest of the book. You’ll be wrong. Because even though Bright Morning’s indentured servitude is a terrible enough fate, it’s not even the worse thing that happens in the book. The real tragedy begins after she escapes and find herself back home, and the Long Knives (a.k.a the American army) expel the Navahos from their ancestral land.

When the dystopian Boom exploded, I began to wonder why a similar historical-fiction one didn’t occur along with it. After all, if the oppression and destruction of a people really gets your creative juices flowing, there are countless moments in history where this all played out. The fate of Native American communities is one of the most harrowing. As Bright Morning’s father notices a bit too late, the Long Knives didn’t just want to burn their houses, raze their fields, and cut down their orchards. Their end goal was the total annihilation of the Navaho people.

Of course, one could argue that what teens really respond too is the quest for freedom in these books. And Sing Down The Moon is, at the end, a young woman’s search for independence. As the Navahos are thrust further and further away, Bright Morning conjures up a plan to return to her land, come what may. That this comes at great personal risk and with immense sacrifice is a given. Anyone who’s read a dystopian novel can predict that. However, where these two genres diverge (see what I did there?), other than on its factual basis, is the fact that history doesn’t always lend itself to a happy ending. Sing Down the Moon can’t indulge in an all-is-swell finale, because all was not-swell for the Native American community after the arrival of the white man. You could argue that all-is-not-swell even now. This book is a great portrayal of what was lost and the impossibility of its recovery.