Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
Elatsoe (2020), a YA debut by Darcie Little Badger, creates a richly woven world of folklore, myth, story, friendship, and family, all set in “a slightly stranger America,” one “very similar to our own … [but] shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and not.” As a debut, it shows some of the typical first-book characteristics (issues with pacing, transitions, etc.), but it’s overall a warmly rewarding and enjoyable read.
Elatsoe — “Ellie” for nearly all the book — is a 17-year-old Lipan Apache girl with the ability to raise ghosts, a skill passed down through generations of her family. Ellie used her gift most recently to raise the ghost of her dead springer spaniel, Kirby, who is now always by her side as companion and protector. While Ellie and her ancestors can raise human ghosts, it is strictly prohibited because they almost always return as cruelly dangerous monsters. Ellie can, however, sometimes speak to them in her dreams.
When her older cousin Trevor is killed in what appears to be a simple if tragic car accident, Ellie’s mother flies down to Texas to help out Trevor’s wife Lenore, not only newly widowed but a new mother as well. That night, though, Trevor appears to Ellie and tells her he was murdered by an Abe Allerton and then asks her to protect his family from his killer. Ellie and her father drive down to link up with Ellie’s mother and Lenore (joined later by Ellie’s best friend Jay) in the isolated town of Willowbee, hoping to find out what really happened and bring justice to Allerton, who turns out to be a wealthy, highly respected doctor who runs the incredibly successful clinic in town.
Ellie herself is a strong and engaging character, one confident in herself and her abilities but also well aware that she still has a lot to learn about her gift, the world, and people. This means rather than the typical story where parents are somehow removed (killed off before the book, gone on vacation, or simply implausibly oblivious), the mother and father are heavily involved and Ellie actually listens to them, though she’s also willing to question their decisions or push back on their fears. The matter-of-fact warmth and closeness of this small family unit was one of my favorite parts of Elatsoe.
“Family,” though, isn’t limited to this nuclear unit. Besides the closeness amongst cousins and in-laws, we also see the importance of past generations, most particularly Ellie’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, referred to as “Six Great” throughout the book. Six Great was a famed monster-killer, and Darcie Little Badger intersperses her adventures throughout the text, sometimes via Ellie recalling family lore and sometimes through her mother telling her stories. While this was sometimes executed a bit clumsily or awkwardly (one of those debut issues), the stories themselves were a strength for several reasons. One is how they helped build the world the story takes place in, a world filled with magic, with river-monsters and animal-people. Another plus is to highlight the power of story. And finally, the way it further emphasizes the importance of family, not only because the stories themselves are sometimes directly relevant to current events but also in the way family serves as the repository of history, the way older generations pass down knowledge to the younger ones of where they came from and thus, of who they are.
Ellie’s relationship with Jay is also warmly endearing, the two of them working completely comfortably with each, no sense of competition, no jockeying for domination in the friendship — it’s a relationship of complete equals. That Jay takes a back seat in some ways is not a measurement of their “power” in the relationship but simply reflects the fact that this is Ellie’s cousin they’re talking about. And any of that trite “will they or won’t they” subtext is taken off the table as Ellie is asexual, something simply respected without comment by Jay and everyone else. Jay, meanwhile, also furthers the theme of family’s importance, as he’s not only quite close to his sister (who is in the midst of organizing her just-announced wedding) but also makes a strong effort to engage with her fiancée (whom the parents aren’t thrilled with, partly due to him being a vampire, or “cursed man”).
Focused as the novel is on these aspects, Elatsoe doesn’t shy away from exploring broader societal issues, those that go beyond family and friendship and deal with topics around cultural identity, bigotry, colonialism, ecological problems, etc. At one point, Ellie notes how Trevor and Lenore had a “common point of contention” regarding culture:
Lenore, who was a mix of Spanish and unknown ancestry, wasn’t Native, but Trevor figured marriage could change that. After all, their children will be Lipan … But Lenore had her own culture, her own experiences. It was one of those complex, deeply personal matters of identity with no one-size-fits-all answer.
Meanwhile, bigotry raises its head in several brief but effective ways. As when Ellie is always carefully watched in public places like the local mall. A reality of her existence is emphasized later when Jay wants to go buy another ice cream cone at the shop they’d just exited, saying, “It’s not like the waitress can refuse my money. We haven’t done anything wrong,” and Ellie starts to reply, “You’re so whi — I mean, right Jay.” Historical racism is also not forgotten, popping up for instance when Ellie refers to a 20-dollar bill with the face of “Indian Killer Jackson” on it, or when her mother explains to a shocked and confused vampire her power to banish him:
“We’re Lipan Apache.”
“So? Is that like … magical?”
“No. Christ. We’re Indigenous to the southern US and northern Mexico. Really, you’ve never heard of us?”
“I know what Apaches were —”
“Were? This land is still our home, and Euro-vampires can’t occupy a home when they’re unwelcome.”
“I pay taxes!”
That last line also shows the humor that flashes often throughout the story, leavening some of the often quite dark elements: the impact of racism, the grief of a young widow, murder and exploitation.
As noted in the introduction, some typical debut flaws do arise. The aforementioned awkwardness of how the Six Great stories were woven in, some other rough or abrupt transitions, some pacing issues, the ending in particular feels more than a little jumbled and muddily frenetic. And while an adult will find much to enjoy here, particularly those warm familial relationships, it is more YA than crossover, especially when it comes to plotting.
Early on, we’re told Ellie has hopes of opening up a PI business, possibly after college though possibly even before. There’s no sense throughout the story or in its resolution that Elatsoe is anything but a stand-alone novel, but I for one would be happy to read further adventures by Ellie.
This sounds really good, and I love the cover!