The subtitle for this unique book reads “How a lonely orphan came to be accepted into a Tlingit clan.” Who is this orphan? A mouse!
First, a little background for non-Alaskan readers. The Tlingit Indians are indigenous people of Southeast Alaska. The Raven House of the book’s title is a clan house, used by the Indian community, in Haines, Alaska. You may have seen a photograph of the beautiful carving of a raven by renowned carver Nathan Jackson, which is attached to this building.
The story, a picture book, is told from the perspective of an orphaned mouse who stumbles into Raven House, attracted by the warmth emanating from a dryer vent as winter is setting in. Soon the little mouse observes the traditional dancing, drumming and singing practices that take place in the house, which is occupied by a man called “the caretaker.” Impressed by the dancers’ regalia, the mouse makes his own button-blanket, head band and drum from salvaged scraps. Soon he is practicing along with the Tlingit dance troupe, unobserved (he believes). Adventures and friendship ensue…
This interesting little story amuses and intrigues as much as it teaches. Tlingit cultural values are integral throughout, portrayed thoughtfully through the plot, characters, language, foreward, author’s note, glossary and art, rather than heavy-handed didacticism. Robert Davis, a Tlingit artist from the small village of Kake in Southeast Alaska, employs a traditional style of designs based on carving to represent all the characters, both people and animals.
Coupled with clean lines and plenty of white space, the overall effect is direct, unpretentious and engaging, the type of art that supports and enhances the story rather than overwhelming it with gorgeousness. This highly symbolic style of art, best known outside of Alaska in totem poles, is surprisingly effective, though it may require some interpretation for children unfamiliar with it. In terms of synthesizing the traditional and the modern, I especially enjoy the illustrations of the “dryer vent with glorious blast of steam,” the Christmas tree, and the caretaker, snoozing in his recliner amidst his regalia.Author Jan Steinbright dedicates Raven House Mouse to elder Austin Hammond (Daanawáak in Tlingit), who was the caretaker of Raven House for many years and “freely shared his wisdom and knowledge with all people.” He died in 1993. Steinbright explains in her author’s notes that inspiration for the story came from a little mouse that lived at Raven House with Mr. Hammond’s approval. This attitude of acceptance taught her a lesson about respect for all living things, which is reflected in this story.
Raven House Mouse includes a foreward, author’s notes, glossary, and three photos.