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Waterlily (Ella Cara Deloria)

March 9, 2010

Today at lunch, I was talking with a friend who has read Waterlily, and I was struck by something she said. At this point in time, I was about 2/3 of the way through the novel and was saying how I’m not sure I would have realized that Waterlily was the main character until a good way into the text if not for the title. My friend agreed, and then said that the story is, at its core, a love story. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, most likely because (plot spoiler coming!!) I had just finished the part where Sacred Horse “bought” Waterlily.

While that’s all very interesting (to me, anyhow), there was another thing that came up in our conversation that is much more interesting. When I said that I was just past the part where Waterlily was “bought” our other friend (who was also sitting with us at the time) asked exactly what that meant — and was visibly surprised and somewhat disturbed at the idea of a human being being “sold” (which of course is not the case in the novel, but was the impression he got from our conversation). This sparked a larger discussion about how the novel really forces the reader to reexamine their own beliefs and take a close look at just how it is that they’re looking at the world. For example, at one point Waterlily and her family visit her father’s friend, and while they’re there they talk about the white people at the nearby fort. When Waterlily’s mother asks another woman about white children, the woman responds,

“Listen! those people actually detest their children! You should see them—slapping their little ones’ faces and lashing their poor little buttocks to make them cry! Why, almost any time of day if you walk near the stockade you can hear the soldiers’ wives screaming at their children. Yes, they thoroughly scold them. I have never seen children treated so… Only if a woman is crazy might she turn on her own child, not knowing what she did. […] I suppose,” the woman said, “when the children are naughty, that is the quaint way of training them to be good. By talking loudly and fast and by striking them, the people doubtless hope to scare them into good behavior. I know it sounds queer.” (103-4)

When Waterlily’s mother, Blue Bird, hears this, she wonders whether or not physical beauty can “compensate for so horrible a lot” (104). This is just one of the passages that made me think twice about the way I think. While I have never particularly given much thought to comparative child rearing techniques, I must admit that when confronted with that perspective I found myself agreeing with Blue Bird and thinking that the way the Dakotas raise and train their children (through quiet and consistent indirect instruction, as well as through example) in the novel is far superior to the way of life described in the passage above. Likewise with the idea of Waterlily’s being “bought.” While the word initially rubbed me the wrong way (vague notions of arranged marriage, child prostitution, and western feminist ideals were beginning to take shape in my mind), Deloria’s descriptions of the kind of honor and gesture this is ultimately reversed my initial (mis)conceptions of it. It’s things like these passages and words that draw the reader’s attention and ask them to reevaluate their way of thinking and the preconceptions they’re subscribing to that cause the initial reaction to or against the text.

*Note: I’ve indicated that this novel is from the 1940’s despite its 1988 first publication date. My reason for categorizing it in this manner is that Deloria wrote and completed the novel in the 1940’s, but it wasn’t published until approximately 40 years later. My categorization reflects the period during which it was originally written rather than published.

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