Storytelling, Magic, and a Whole Lotta Heart: Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

There’s nothing like some good fantasy and some deeply engaging storytelling for the depths of the summer, in my humble opinion. And my latest good read not only combines both of those things, but also has a true heart of gold. The book I’m talking about is Elatsoe, by Darcie Little Badger.

Hot Tip: Always look underneath the dust jacket to see if there is any cool art hidden underneath!

Elatsoe (Eh-lat-so-ay) is named for its protagonist, a teenage girl living in a fantastical version of our own mundane world. It has many of our world’s same features and problems—for example, group projects in high school still suck, and the river near Ellie’s house is polluted and toxic—but this world also has ghosts, fey folk, sinister scarecrows with human eyes, and vampires.

The story begins when Ellie’s cousin is killed, and his spirit visits her in a dream to name his murderer and ask Ellie to keep his wife and young son safe. Ellie’s own particular magical gift is waking and training ghosts—a dangerous and secret skill that has been passed down through her mother’s lineage—and so this visitation is not out of the realm of possibility. And while those around Ellie are frequently concerned with her strong link to “Below,” no one ever doubts her experiences or questions the messages she receives from the dead.

Elatsoe (which means hummingbird) shares her gift and her name with her Six-Great-Grandmother, a woman whose ghost-training abilities have become the stuff of legend, and whose stories continue to be passed down from generation to generation. Six-Great, as Ellie calls her, lived in a time when their Lipan Apache people were being actively hunted and eradicated, and her gift was a tool to be wielded against the attempted genocide of her people.

In contrast, Six-Great had trained ghost hounds for war. Her heroic pack could rip apart an enemy in seconds. Howl so terribly, entire fields withered. Ellie always reasoned that Six-Great lived in a more violent era; one that transformed pacifists into warriors. Six-Great didn’t fight because she enjoyed it; she had to protect her family and friends from genocide.

There were still people to protect. That, Ellie now realized, would never change.”

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

This is a book that honours stories, and there are many stories within the main narrative, told by the characters to each other. These stories give a larger context and framework for understanding the world, both for the characters and for the reader. And, for the reader, they contribute to the incredible worldbuilding that Darcie Little Badger has accomplished here.

And what a world it is! The supernatural elements give it an enchanting magical vibe—at times creepy, and at times whimsical. But the thing I loved most about this book was its depiction of the mundane—a depiction that gives me hope for the way things could be.

First of all, Ellie’s family is fantastic. They are loving, supportive, willing to challenge each other, and deeply connected. Like I mentioned at the beginning, there is no tropey parental skepticism, no need for Ellie to waste time trying to convince anyone of anything, or to sneak around. And I LOVED that. From page one, her family are on board and behind her every step of the way.

And then there is Ellie’s friendship with Jay, who is an elven-eared, vegetarian, relentlessly sunshiny, descendant-of-Oberon cheerleader (and I mean that literally—Jay is on the high school cheer team). Their relationship is touching, and it is a joy to watch them not only accept, but also appreciate, the differences between them.

Lest you start wondering if there is any romance in that lovely relationship, let me assure you that there is not. Ellie is asexual, and, wonderfully, that goes unremarked upon (in any critical way) by anyone in the entire book. There are matter-of-fact statements about it, but it’s never an issue for anyone. Again: LOVE.

I hate to think that these representations of love and acceptance and self-determination can only happen in a fantasy world, but the fact that there are ghosts and vampires does tend to curb any potential criticisms that this portrayal is “unrealistic.” At the same time, Little Badger does not fall into the messy trap of metaphorizing real-world prejudice—as some authors have done, and have failed spectacularly at (ahem J.K. Rowling ahem). No, in Elatsoe‘s world, Ellie’s Lipan Apache heritage is still intertwined with a violent history of colonialism. And although vampires face discrimination, so too do Indigenous peoples.

Another of my favourite elements of this novel is Kirby, Ellie’s ghost dog best friend. Animals, both living and ghostly, play a huge role in this book, and I love me a good animal character. Kirby is a gem. There are also thoughtful musings on the separation between the living and the dead, the through-lines that connect all beings past and present, and Ellie’s desire to wake up prehistoric animal ghosts. Another highlight was a wondrous depiction of the sea of the dead, in which dwells every marine creature since the beginning of time. (Darcie Little Badger has a PhD in Oceanography, so you know she knows her stuff!)

Adding to the magic of this novel, each chapter has an illustration at the beginning of it by artist Rovina Cai (who also illustrated the cover of the book). At first glance, some of the illustrations don’t seem to have much connection to their chapters, however if you take them together you find that they tell a whole other story—that of Six-Great.

Chapter Two illustration by Rovina Cai

Combine all of this with some fantastic queering of gender norms (the toughest badasses are Jay’s sister and her all-female basketball teammates); some old-fashioned evil villains; interesting twists on traditional vampire tropes; and mystery and intrigue (and even a heist of sorts), and you have yourself a truly enjoyable story.

Darcie Little Badger’s next book, A Snake Falls to Earth, is due out October 12, 2021, and it’s at the top of my autumn reading list. In the meantime, you can find her short stories listed and linked to on her website. I’ve already acquired and devoured “Story in a Bottle,” which I also loved.

Well, what are you waiting for? I must have convinced you by now. Go read Elatsoe!

Later, Ellie and Jay met near the skull-and-crossbones PCB warning sign. Under a sky lit by ripening sunlight, the Herotonic River glinted like quicksilver.

“You’re early!” Ellie said. They were supposed to gather at sunset, but because the definition of “sunset” was unclear, she’d decided to play it safe and arrive before the color show began.

“I didn’t want to make anyone wait,” Jay said. He thrust his hands into his jean pockets. Tragically, his pants were so tight, he reached an impasse at the knuckles. “But I guess Al won’t show until the sky is red.”

“No worries,” said a third person with a faint Minnesotan accent. “I use sunscreen. Plus, early birds eat toast, kiddos.”

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

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