Great Sky Woman: A Novel
Great Sky Woman not only manages to completely avoid condescension and anachronism, but goes on to immerse its reader deep into the detailed world and complex culture that it creates.
The story gives an account of the Ibandi, a fictional indigenous tribe at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, probably thousands of years before European civilizations began. The story focuses on Frog Hopping, a young boy of the tribe who aspires to become a hunt chief, and T'Cori (which literally translates to "nameless" in Ibandi), a girl who was abandoned by her parents and ends up apprenticed to the Dream Dancers (medicine women). Both must survive during a time of change: Father Mountain (Kilimanjaro) breathes fire and ash into the sky and a foreign tribe, larger and fiercer than the Ibandi, has invaded their lands. During all of this, they must grow, find love, and find their places in the tribe.
Great Sky Woman is simultaneously a heartrending coming-of-age story and a wonderfully detailed account of a foreign civilization. For me, the power of the story came from how immersive and natural the civilization felt. The language of the Ibandi is simple, but never feels simplistic. They consider times in quarters and sunsets, describe their bodies in terms of their seven "eyes" (face, hands, feet, genitalia), count in groupings of fives--the number of fingers on a hand--and more. Barnes references and details elaborate ceremonies and social mores and makes them feel natural and immersive. I'm not sure about Barnes' background, but I did get a sense from the book that some significant research went into the story, woven together by Barnes' imagination. When I went through my mythological/folklore phase, I focused heavily on Celtic and European societies. When I did attempt to dip into other civilizations, I was often disappointed. Such stories often felt unemotional or condescending towards their subjects, possibly because they typically came from an oral tradition and only xenophobic foreigners or unemotional anthropologists transcribed them. Barnes tells his story as a true storyteller. I didn't always like all of the characters or approve of their decisions, but I always felt that I had a glimpse into another world, and that rather than looking down into it, I was inside the community itself.
Overall, I recommend Great Sky Woman to anyone looking for a very different type of read: a story of a very different culture and of coming of age within it.
As Barnes says, "Humans created story, but in another, perhaps deeper sense, story created humanity."