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N. Scott Momaday's Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story

By Steven Robert Allen

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  No one is selling anything here. Jolly Coke-swilling Santa has popped into his SUV and rolled home through the snow to Mrs. Claus. Likewise, the merry elves peddling stereos and vacations for two to the Bahamas have packed up their cases and headed home to their wives and elflets. Walt Disney has been temporarily banished to Siberia, and the thick wads of holiday advertising in the center of your Sunday paper have been incinerated in a holy bonfire blazing up to warm the frigid fingers of the ill and oppressed. We're left at last with what Christmas -- beneath the thick layer of commercial sludge -- should be all about.

The great Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday moved with his parents to Jemez Pueblo when he was 12 years old. The experience of his first magic Christmas at the pueblo never left him, and he has transformed his memory of that event into this wonderful children's book.

Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for his novel House Made of Dawn. In that book, he tells the story of a disturbed, urbanized Jemez Indian named Abel who suffers heartache and despair in the slums of Los Angeles. After seeking spiritual sustenance in peyote and Christianity, Abel eventually finds some bit of satisfaction and meaning in his life only after he returns home to his pueblo.

The darkness and menace of Momaday's previous work is stripped away in Circle of Wonder. He gives the reader a very simple story of peace and community designed to teach the value of communion with nature and humanity.

A mute Jemez boy named Tolo lived three seasons of every year with his parents in the village. During the summers he lived with his grandfather in a house on the great meadow at the foot of the mountains. Tolo loved those enchanting summers with his grandfather. Eventually, though, his grandfather dies, and Tolo feels a horrible emptiness eating away inside him, which is only made worse by the fact that he doesn't have a voice to express his memories of his grandfather to his parents and friends.

Christmas Eve comes, and Tolo's parents are selected to be the patrons of the Christ child during the festivities. Following midnight mass in the pueblo church, Tolo sees an apparition of his grandfather. This apparition leads Tolo to a bonfire burning at the edge of the great meadow. Feeling the spirit of his grandfather nearby, Tolo warms himself. Soon he is joined by an elk, a wolf and an eagle -- enemies of each other and of people. Their enmity is set aside, though, as one by one the animals settle themselves down beside the flames. In fellowship, Tolo and his new friends create a circle of peace around the fire.

As with all great children's stories, the effectiveness of Circle of Wonder comes from its appealing simplicity and magic. Momaday's story uses a syncretic blend of European Christianity and pueblo beliefs that seems a lot closer to the true spirit of Christmas than Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and all the rest of that sentimental Charlie Brown dreck we get bombarded with every holiday season. Any Christians who can cope with the occult paganism of Frosty the Snowman should find Momaday's book fairly inoffensive.

Momaday has ornamented the book with some of his own colorful paintings. These visuals are adequate, but they're nothing to write home about either. The story itself is the main attraction. Circle of Wonder has all the makings of a New Mexico classic.

On Christmas day when your tots are buried beneath an avalanche of boxes, ribbons, wrapping paper, and plastic baubles fabricated in some big, smoking factory in Taiwan, wouldn't it be nice for them to also have something of lasting value? Next season your kids won't know Pokémon from a Magic 8 Ball, but the story of Circle of Wonder will stay with them forever. (University of New Mexico Press, hardcover, $19.95)


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