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Starfields by C. Marsden

Marsden, Carolyn.  Starfields.  Sommerville, MA.:  Candlewick Press, 2011. Print.

This book makes me sad, not for the content, but for the unrealized potential.  The central premise, parallel stories of a modern-day girl in rural Mexico and an ancient Mayan boy-priest, is an interesting one.

However, there are several problems with the execution of this work.  When writers fictionalize the culture, religion and history of a group of people, they have a duty to know that group well enough to speak for them.  In addition to thinking carefully about ethical issues that surround cultural appropriation and telling stories that are not theirs to tell, writers must respect their subjects by representing the depth and complexity of their world. California writer Marsden states in her notes that she “gathered information from the photographs and accounts of those who’ve spent time among the contemporary Mayans.”  She also indicates that she has “spent time in Mexico and Belize and … also called upon [her] own personal experience of Mayan culture”. However, many passages read as though they are descriptions of photographs.  The presentation of the people and their relationships also lacks depth.

The crisis in this story is the rather clichéd building of a road to the remote village, which is causing environmental damage and threatening traditional ways of life.  It seems absurd, in a land-based society, that a young girl is the only person who could notice that there is an environmental crisis going on. Further she only knows this because a new friend, Alicia, visiting from the city with a research team, points it out to her.  Rosalba is too frightened to speak to the elders until an ancestral boy-priest tells her in a dream to weave images of dead corn fields into her work.  This causes the elders to recognize that there is something wrong with her and then, she has the courage and opportunity to alert them to the crisis.

One expects less reality of the story of the boy-priest, because it must, of course, be imaginary.  However, when Rosalba thinks that he has made physical contact with her, and he confirms this in his story line, the plot unexpectedly moves temporarily out of modern day reality into fantasy.

There are undeveloped themes throughout the book.  For example Rosalba’s parents were Zapatista revolutionaries, but we learn very little about them. We just know that they would fight for their land.  The title, “Starfields”, refers to the night sky, which both the boy-priest and Rosalba can see.  The starfields are important in Mayan mythology and religion, however, the theme is not developed.  These, combined with the presence of a number of Mayan and Spanish words, which have to be looked up in a glossary and the parallel stories, which do not intersect until close to the end of the book, make for a choppy, disconnected and frustrating read. While sophisticated young adult readers may make their way through it, it would not be a first choice for libraries with limited budgets.

Recommended with reservations: 2 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: Sandy Campbell

Sandy is a Health Sciences Librarian at the University of Alberta, who has written hundreds of book reviews across many disciplines.  Sandy thinks that sharing books with children is one of the greatest gifts anyone can give.