Sees Behind Trees
By Michael Dorris
cover image retrieved October 30, 2012 from
Dorris, Michael. Sees Behind Trees. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1996. ISBN-13: 9780780777392
Walnut is a young Native American boy excited, but nervous, about going through the rites to become a warrior. Part of his training requires him to shoot his bow and arrow at a target, hitting the bulls-eye. Walnut’s family realizes that he is continually missing the target due to poor vision. He is devastated, becoming melancholy and uncertain of his future. His family and friends help him to rely on his senses, and the things he does well, to compensate and be a contributing member of his tribe.
Cultural authenticity is rich in the tale of a young Native American who has very limited vision, but an astute sense of observation with is other senses. Character names have cultural accuracy, according to Native legend. The youngsters are dubbed with a playful name, such as Walnut, Frog, or Sleeps Late. Once they have passed a test set forth by the tribe weroance, they are officially considered men and given grown-up names, like Brings the Deer, Gray Fire, or our title character, Sees Behind Trees.
Foods, customs, names, and the way of life described throughout the novel are culturally authentic, the result of much research on the author’s part. Traditions, such as the mother teaching the young boy to shoot a boy and arrow and hit a moving target, reflect the ways of the Native Americans, where the women assumed such roles while the men hunted. It was the custom of the tribe in this novel for boys to accomplish certain tasks before they were considered young men. Walnut was unable to accomplish the task, which his family realizes is due to his poor vision. There is no way of knowing if tribes would actually adjust the requirements if a boy was unable to perform the stated task, as happened in this novel. The story is told with sensitivity and relevance, leading the reader to believe that it would be a reasonable act on the part of the tribal leaders.
The second half of this novel centers around an expedition Sees Behind Trees goes on, accompanying a respected elder, Gray Fire. At times mystical and unrealistic, the expedition is important to Sees Behind Trees as he becomes a man, but conflicting with the authenticity of the rest of the book. The title character’s transition into manhood could have been achieved without this mystical twist, so one wonders why it is included in an otherwise good book that treats the customs of Native Americans with respect and dignity. The book is worth reading, with the disclaimer that cultural authenticity is slightly discounted by an unneeded mystical episode.
The authenticity of the characterizations and setting will ease readers toward acceptance of the quasi-mystical adventure that crowns the story. It's a thrilling read, with the pleasures compounding at every turn of the page.
School Library Journal Luann Toth
This compelling coming-of-age story set in pre-Columbian America is rich in imagery and chock-full of wisdom. There is a timeless quality to this 15th-century adventure that will be meaningful and immediate for young people today. Dorris takes on some meaty existential issues here; he does so with grace, bighearted empathy, and always with crystal-clear vision.
The New York Times Book Review, Nancy Cardozo
In Michael Dorris's novel Sees Behind Trees, the author, who writes for both children and adults, doesn't mess with the current fashion for accounts of angst. [A] fine example of a rite-of-passage novel that can be read as metaphor or message.
Awards/Best Book Lists:
Minnesota Book Awards, 1997 Winner Young Adult Fiction United States
Adventuring with Books: A Booklist for Pre-K-Grade 6, 12th Edition, 1999 ; National Council of Teachers
of English; United States
Best Children's Books of the Year, 1996 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Booklist Editors' Choice: Books for Youth, 1996 ; American Library Association; United States
Books for You: An Annotated Booklist for Senior High, Thirteenth Edition, 1997 ; National Council of
Teachers of English; United States
Capitol Choices, 1996 ; The Capitol Choices Committee; United States
Children's Books, 1996 ; New York Public Library; United States
Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, 2001 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Children's Literature Choice List, 1997 ; Children's Literature; United States
Instructor (Intermediate), 1996 ; Instructor (Intermediate); United States
Kirkus Book Review Stars, 1996 ; United States
Lasting Connections, 1996 ; American Library Association; United States
Lasting Connections, 1996 ; Book Links; United States
Middle And Junior High School Library Catalog, Eighth Edition, 2000 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Publishers Weekly Best Children's Books, 1996 ; Cahners; United States
Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, October 1996 ; Cahners; United States
School Library Journal Best Books, 1997 ; Cahners; United States
School Library Journal Book Review Stars, October 1996 ; Cahners; United States
Teachers' Choices, 1997 ; International Reading Association; United States
· Students will consider how their own life would be different with one of their senses greatly diminished. Students will consider a common daily activity, such as going to the school cafeteria for lunch. Students will create a five-frame storyboard showing how that experience would be different without each of the senses.
· Gray Fire searches for a place he remembers from many years ago. He describes it in great detail to Sees Behind Trees. Students will think of a place they visited in the past (not recently) and write a descriptive paragraph or narrative paper relating details to describe it completely.
· Sees Behind Trees uses moss on trees to help guide his way back home, after Gray Fire disappears. Students will research how moss on trees, shadows, and other nature clues are used to mark directions in the wild. Students will each create a poster showing nature clues and how they can be used for guidance and survival.
· Gray Fire describes in great detail the land of water he remembers from his youth. Sees Behind Trees adds to the descriptive detail when he finds the land. Students will create an original work of art inspired by these descriptions. Students will write a caption for the illustration, using descriptive language and imagery to create a “word picture.”
Other books by Michael Dorris:
Native Americans Five Hundred Years After (with photographer Joseph Farber, 1975)
A Guide to Research on North American Indians (with Mary Byler and Arlene Hirschfelder, 1983)
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987)
The Broken Cord: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Loss of the Future (1989)
The Crown of Columbus (with Louise Erdrich, 1991)
Route Two and Back (with Louise Erdrich, 1991)
Morning Girl (1992)
Working Men (1993)
Rooms in the House of Stone (1993)
Paper Trail (essays, 1994)
Sees Behind Trees (1996)
Cloud Chamber (1997)
The Window (1997)
(Editor) The Most Wonderful Books: Writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading (1997)