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Initiation

by Virginia Frances Schwartz

Initiation, Virginia Frances Schwartz’s latest novel for young adults, is a complex and intriguing text that will invite discussion and perhaps controversy. Set in 15th-century northwest British Columbia, the novel interprets a Kwakiutl transformation myth, a move that could be perceived as cultural appropriation. However, Schwartz, the award-winning author of If I Just Had Two Wings, manages to tread carefully in this terrain with a well-researched story, written in consultation with First Nations elders and accompanied by a thoughtful author’s note that addresses some of these issues.

Nana and Nanolatch are the twin children of a powerful Kwakiutl chief. On the verge of adulthood, a transition that will be marked by their individual initiations, they are full of fears and hopes for their futures. Their normal angst about adulthood is compounded, however, by their growing realization that they are not originally human but are the Salmon Twins, supernatural beings sent from the underworld. They are helped in this journey of self-realization by Noh, a young Salish slave who discovers her powers as a shaman and steers the twins to find their true destinies. In the end, Nana sacrifices herself to save her people and the salmon, returning to the underworld where she belongs.

Schwartz draws her readers into the story through nuanced characters whose human sides are not eclipsed by their mythical qualities; Noh and Nanolatch’s budding romance remains firmly in the human realm, as does Nana’s resistance to the limited roles assigned to women in the tribe. Though slow-moving and often dream-like, Initiation remains compelling, a haunting coming-of-age story that blends history and myth in ways that will engage a range of readers ages 13 and up.