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Zinnia: How the Corn Was Saved by Patricia Hruby Powell

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Zinnia: How the Corn Was Saved: 03/29/17

Zinnia: How the Corn Was Saved by by Patricia Hruby Powell

Zinnia: How the Corn Was Saved by Patricia Hruby Powell caught my eye when I was doing a keyword search for corn, cornfields, and maize at my local public library. I have found that the "crossing the cornfield" trope or motif as I'm calling it, is worth pursuing. The tropes are presented in their most concentrated form in the picture book format.

Zinnia: How the Corn Was Saved got my attention because the catalog coughed up a poorly rendered title that I recognized as Navajo. The Navajo title is Zíiniya: Hait'éego Naadáá' Shónáózt'é. This was a happy find for me as I was hoping to read some Native American tales involving cornfields as corn is native to the Americas and a staple of many indigenous diets. It's good to step back from transcribed European tropes and see the source material in a different perspective.

The story opens with a massive corn crop failure. The women in charge of planting and tending the corn have tried every method they know and nothing is working. Or rather, the corn crop has managed to fail in every imaginable way. Feeling that something bigger than just the corn crop was amiss, or out of balance, they go to a hataali for guidance. He says that the boy Red Bird (Tsidiilschii) to find Spider Woman (Na'ashjé'ii Asdzáán) as she will be able to help.

To the observant reader, Tsidiilschii finds her straight away but doesn't recognize her. He's expecting someone grander. He is so focused on the importance of the quest — one that could mean life and death for his people that he doesn't take in his entire environment.

Instead, Tsidiilschii goes from animal to animal asking for directions to Na'ashjé'ii Asdzáán. In this regard, the story is a classic building tale (like the House that Jack built) where one thing leads to another until finally reaching its conclusion. There are no tangents, no detours, no backtracking unless instructed.

In this regard, Tsidiilschii's quest is like a caper, for all through all his adventures and meeting the animals of his surrounding valley, he is both given directions to the Yei who has the answer and the actual solution to the cornfield crop failure.

Zinnia: How the Corn Was Saved ultimately is a how-so story of how Na'ashjé'ii Asdzáán taught the Diné to plant zinnias between the rows of their corn to encourage a healthier crop. It's also a how-so story of how the Diné learned to assume that any spider could be Na'ashjé'ii Asdzáán in disguise. It's also a story of the importance of corn to the People.

Here the cornfield is neither a barrier nor a portent of something evil. The cornfield is important, sacred, and tied to the well being of the people who grow it. There is also the lesson of how to use a secondary plant to protect the main crop. Zinnias or similar are even used here in California between the rows of corn.

It should be noted that Patricia Hruby Powell isn't Navajo but the book does include information to how she went about researching the story and getting sensitivity readings. There is a second book by the trio who wrote, translated, and illustrated this one, Ch'ał Tó Yiníló: Frog Brings Rain (2006).

Four stars

Comments (2)

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Comment #1: Monday, April 03, 2017 at 23:47:13


This sounds like a fun as well as educational read! The cover is interesting too. Thanks for sharing.

Comment #2: Monday, April 03, 2017 at 21:12:47


It was a lucky find at the library.

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