One of the most admirable things writers do is to embed in the cultures they create. Mary Mackey is a storytelling master who develops worlds so deeply she creates cultural cues, such as songs, which are vital to cultures. In Mackey’s novel The Year the Horses Came, she explores the relationship between Marrah, a priestess of the Shore People, and Stavan, a marooned warrior. Mackey’s use of song is an effective and brief way to say a lot about a people’s history with few words.
One way Mackey illustrates the depth of culture through song is through teaching stories. In the prologue, Mackey writes:
There was a time out of memory when the Goddess Earth lay sleeping under a shining blanket of ice. In those times human beings fled south to find shelter from the wind and many lands were hidden. One day the Goddess began to wake. Her glaciers melted, and bright streams of clear water ran everywhere. (xi)
This passage is the start of the story of the Shore People, and how, during the little ice age, the glaciers in Europe receded. It shows the definitive change of land and therefore was an important memory in the people’s history which signifies a change from the ice and toward the growth associated with that period.
One of the most important moments in a Shore People woman’s life is when a girl becomes a woman; this day is marked with ceremony and a canoe journey to a sacred island (1-32). When she returns from the journey, Marrah’s tribe welcomes her with song:
Marrah has left her childhood behind her.
She has given it to Amonah.
She has thrown her shells back to the womb of water
where all shells are made /
Welcome back, Marrah.
Welcome back, dearest sister. (33)
This illustrates the shift from girlhood to womanhood and marks the change in status of the woman.
One of the most original uses of song takes place when Marrah goes on a journey; she needs to return to her Mother’s people to warn them of her visions of invaders. Marrah’s mother reverses her map-song (101). Her mother sings:
The way to Sharra is long,
and the first steps are the hardest,
but Marrah and Arang
are Sabalah’s children.
They watch the Goddess Stone
grow smaller and smaller
but they go on bravely;
they don’t turn back.
They follow the whale road
past the great wombs of Hoza
to Gurasoak, where the river
flows out of the forest.
They follow their mother’s song to Shara,
and Sabalah blesses their every step…
The Shore People do not have a written language. Everything, including maps, must be translated through song. This is the most unique use of song I’ve come across in my study, and bears examination. Mackey lays out the plan for the character’s journey through song, and through repetition, her character can follow the map.
At one part in the novel, Marrah travels to get permission from the “Mother-of-All-Families” (114) to go on the journey. Earlier in the story, Mackey illustrates how the matrilineage works. Mother Asha, as the matriarch, is the story-keeper for her family and her people’s families. She is the one who knows all the stories of the past. Mackey writes: “The entire history of the Shore People was memorized; to forget the words to even one song was to forget some essential piece of the past” (58). I have spoken with Native Americans who tell me their family stories are sacred and only one family is allowed a sacred song and dance; no other family may dance their dance or sing their song (Reilley 2013).
The Year the Horses Came is the first book in The Earthsong Trilogy. Mary Mackey is a bestselling author who has, as Marija Gimbutas states, “A researcher’s precision combined with storytelling magic” (Mackey rear cover blurb). This book calls to a larger segment of Indigenous literature which celebrates oral histories and the deep roots of the culture of humanity.
I give this book five stars.
Mackey, Mary. The Year the Horses Came. Lincoln, NE, iUniverse, Inc.,1993. Print.
Reilley, Darlene. Interview with a Makah Elder. Personal Interview. 19 January 2013.