CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 3. . . .September 26, 2008
The Secret Legacy.
Rigoberta Menchú with Dante Liano. Illustrated by Domi.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2008.
64 pp., hardcover, $19.95.
Maya mythology-Juvenile literature.
Preschool-grade 3 / Ages 4-8.
Review by Jennifer Draper.
Reviewed from Prepublication Copy.
Once upon a time there was a girl in Chimel who would go to the river every day to wash her clothes. One day, as she was getting ready to begin washing, she heard a gust of wind, or perhaps it was the song of a bird or the rustle of leaves. It happened quickly, like the blink of an eye or a shadow crossing the mind. It distracted her, as if she had fainted for a split second. And when she regained consciousness, she saw her face reflected in the river and realized that she had lost the light in her eyes.
The Secret Legacy is a collection of Mayan legends told by a seven-year-old girl, Ixkem. Out of all the relatives and people in the village, Ixkem is chosen by her grandfather to tend his cornfield. He is 100-years-old and is ready to pass on this responsibility to the next generation. Although she is young and nervous about this big task, Ixkem is a dutiful student and has always listened well to her grandfather's teachings. She realizes the importance to the village of a good crop of corn, and she takes to heart her duty of scaring away wild boar, parakeets, and worms. Growling and jumping on her observation mound, she keeps away all corn predators but attracts the attention of the b'en, tiny creatures that live underground. Wondering what is making all that noise above their world, they send a committee to investigate. There, they find Ixkem and ask her to come home with them and tell stories about what the world above is like. Unable to resist this invitation, she leaves the field and joins them. What follows are a number of tales about Mayan life, beliefs and customs that fascinate the b'en. These stories range from tales about how people marry, why humans are the most powerful animals, and how (in general terms) babies are born in the villages.
When Ixkem finishes telling as many tales as she should (some stories need to be kept secret after all!) the b'en take her back to the corn field. But, before they let her leave, they tell her a great secret. When her grandfather finds her, she tells him this great secret, and it turns out that is the real reason she was at the corn field in the first place. Happy that he now possesses this secret, the grandfather is content to die.
Magical and riveting, this collection of tales is a fascinating read. The tales are told simply without too many new words. Each new word, such as b'en, is explained and then the story continues without pause. There is also a glossary at the end for readers who forget what things like a Ajkun or nahual are.
Throughout the book, Ixkem grows as a character as readers learn more about her life when she explains it to the b'en. At the end of the book, she seems more mature and ready to take on her new responsibilities.
The illustrations created by Domi, a noted native Mexican artist, are a work of art in themselves. Placed at the start of each story, they portray a scene from the tale. Colorful and culturally appropriate, they add to the overall feel of the book. The mood of the stories varies according to each story's subject, but overall, there is an ethereal quality to the tales.
The primary author, Rigoberta, lives in Guatemala and is an advocate for the rights of Mayan Guatemalans and other First Nation Peoples. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, has many honorary degrees, and has won numerous awards. Dante Liano, the co-author, is also an esteemed Guatemalan writer currently living in Milan.
I am happy to add this book to my personal collection and can see it being recommended to parents for bedtime stories or read out loud in classrooms or libraries. Having read a number of dry text books on Mayan culture, I found this book brought to life the society in an exciting way. A crowd pleaser and highly educational, The Secret Legacy is a recommended first purchase for any library.
Jennifer Draper is a librarian/children's literature aficionado living in Oshawa, ON.
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