The Silent Stranger

Published in 2005; author Janet Shaw; illustrators Bill Farnsworth and Susan McAliley


With a stretch of mild weather in the usually-cold winter, Kaya and her camp are preparing for a solemn horseback ride to mark the end of the time of mourning for Swan Circling. Kaya has the honor of leading Swan Circling's riderless horse. But soon a mystery presents itself: a young woman from another, unknown tribe is found in the woods. Her hands have been badly burnt, and she's traveling alone. She doesn't speak any language that anyone in Kaya's camp knows, and doesn't use sign language (either because of her injuries or because she doesn't know it), so there's no way to tell who she is or where she's from or why she's alone in the bitter winter. She's very reserved but opens up a tiny bit to Kaya when she sees Tatlo. Something about the dog softens the woman's wary exterior just a little. After the horseback procession, Kaya is happy to see that the woman is allowing herself to be cared for, although still not attempting to communicate. 

Speculation runs rampant over where the woman came from. Some of her clothing is like that of the tribes by the sea, and some like inland tribes: could she be an escaped slave? Maybe she was driven out by her own people as punishment: will she bring misfortune to Kaya's camp? Maybe the woman is actually the spirit Coyote, in disguise to play a trick. Kaya's grandmother is adamant that they show her hospitality; it's the right thing to do. Kaya agrees, especially as the woman seems only sad, not dangerous. She sees the woman watching a hawk circle and thinking that a hawk may be the woman's wyakin, decides to call her Hawk Woman until she learns her real name.

Hawk Woman remains withdrawn, silently accepting food and other help, but always avoiding eye contact. Clearly there will be more questions before any answers are found. Kaya sees Hawk Woman walking into the woods with Tatlo and follows. She finds Hawk Woman cradling a doll and singing to it, a very peculiar behavior. Tatlo seems entranced. When Hawk Woman sees Kaya, she hides the doll and holds up her hands, empty, as if trying to hide that she was playing with a doll. Kaya offers to help the woman find whatever she's looking for, but Hawk Woman either doesn't understand or doesn't want help. Trying to find the right way to help Hawk Woman, Kaya offers her one of Tatlo's sisters since Hawk Woman seems to like dogs. But Hawk Woman refuses and instead holds Tatlo close. Maybe the people who think Hawk Woman was exiled as punishment are right. Maybe she has no respect for anyone or anything, and would be content to simply take whatever she desires whether it belongs to someone else or not. 

That night, Hawk Woman has what seems to be a night terror, vacillating between rocking her tattered doll and lashing out. Kaya's finally able to calm her with a lullaby, but Hawk Woman is no more forthcoming about her past. In the morning, when Kaya's toddler cousin (the one Swan Circling saved) runs past Hawk Woman, headed for the river. Hawk Woman just stands and watches and doesn't try to stop the little girl. Fortunately Tatlo heads her off. Kaya can't understand why Hawk Woman would just stand idly by while a toddler was at risk of drowning. Add to that the fact that Tatlo seems to be growing attached to Hawk Woman and Kaya's starting to resent Hawk Woman. And then Tatlo's sister is killed by a mountain lion, and Hawk Woman is seen in the brush nearby. Does Hawk Woman have the power to summon the forces of nature to do her bidding?

Kaya talks over her concerns with her grandmother. Her grandmother remains steady that they need to care for Hawk Woman. While the injuries to her hands are healing, something has grievously injured her spirit. They must have compassion for Hawk Woman. Other Nez Perce are arriving for the Spirit Dances, and Kaya hopes the medicine man with them can help Hawk Woman. During the ceremonies, Hawk Woman disappears. Kaya tries to track her but has no luck until she's visited by a wolf which might be an apparition; the text isn't clear. It tells her (Kaya could communicate with Lone Dog this way too) to look for Hawk Woman not with anger, but with an open heart. She can't hold it against Hawk Woman that Tatlo follows her. Tatlo is trying to help Hawk Woman too.

The wolf's advice helps Kaya, and she finds Hawk Woman in a cave with Tatlo. She convinces Hawk Woman to come with her at least a little way, though Hawk Woman--finally using sign language--says she must go north, but she can't remember why. Then the doll she's been carrying falls in the fire and when Kaya rescues it, Hawk Woman suddenly remembers everything. She'd been taken captive years before, and eventually married a man from another tribe. She and her husband were traveling with their baby, to whom the doll belongs, when lightning struck. It killed her husband, horse, and dog (who looked like Tatlo), and started a fire. Hawk Woman couldn't find her baby, only the doll. When Kaya returns to camp with Hawk Woman, one of her family members tells her a story that one of the visiting Nez Perce had related, how he found a baby by the body of her father just as his wife had borne a child. They've cared for the baby as their own. Kaya puts two and two together; the story matches Hawk Woman's. As quickly as she can, Kaya arranges for Hawk Woman to see the baby, and Hawk Woman instantly recognizes her daughter.

Kaya couldn't be happier for Hawk Woman, but she still feels like she should do more for her. She consults Swan Circling's spirit, and in heart she knows what she must do. She tells Hawk Woman, who reveals name is actually Hawk Rising, that when spring comes and they meet with traders who can take her back to her people, Hawk Rising must take Tatlo with her. Hawk Rising is moved by Kaya's generosity, and she's not the only one. Kaya's grandmother saw Kaya's selflessness, and decides that Kaya is ready to Swan Circling's name and, once the weather is better, to go on her vision quest.

Looking Back

Although many Native American tribes traveled and lived in overlapping territories, they didn't all follow the same customs. A stranger from another tribe would instantly identifiable as such by different hairstyle, dress, and mannerisms. Individual tribes had their own languages as well, but many knew the same sign language and could use the communicate across cultural barriers. A stranger traveling alone with no way to communicate--like Hawk Woman--was cause for unease. Traveling alone could mean that a person had been exiled, but it also might mean that the person was an escaped captive. Because a stranger's intent wouldn't always be easily known, a shaman would inspect the new person to determine whether harm could be brought to the village. Hospitality was an important virtue for the Nimíipuu, and taking care of a stranger like Hawk Woman, who would probably die on her own, was the right thing to do.


This book is dedicated to "Kathy Borkowski, historian, with love and gratitude."

I thought the big reveal would be that Hawk Woman's child had died and she was out of her mind with grief. I'm glad that the baby was still alive, even if she's just a fictional character.

I usually don't like the American Girl mysteries (or the Baby-sitters Club ones), but this was really good. It had a cohesive plot without lots of dead ends or pointless tangents. It might even be my favorite Kaya book.

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