Darcie Little Badger’s new novel mixes folklore and oceanography by Lipan Apache – Texas Monthly
It’s not uncommon for a first-time novelist to receive praise for her debut, but the superlatives Darcie Little Badger has earned for her young adult fantasy novel, Elatsoe– released last year during the pandemic – exceeded even his wildest dreams. Not only did the book make the year’s best lists of BookPage, Buzzfeed, Kirkus, NPR, Editors Weekly, and Tor, but a panel assembled by Time which included the giants of the genre – Diana Gabaldon, Neil Gaiman, NK Jemisin and George RR Martin among them – went even further. Elatsoe landed on the magazine’s October 2020 list of hundred best fantastic books of all time, inserted right next to it Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Fellowship of the Ring, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Little Badger, now 34, had become a published novelist two months earlier.
Elatsoe is a haunting read, a moving young adult ghost story about Ellie, a seventeen-year-old girl who, like Little Badger herself, is a member of the Lipan Apache tribe of Texas (which has approximately 4,300 registered members ). Ellie uses her ability to summon animal ghosts to help her investigate the murder of her cousin, who died in the Rio Grande Valley (where the author made countless childhood visits to see her grand- mother to McAllen). Now Little Badger, who lives in San Marcos, has published a second novel, A snake falls to earth (Levine Querido). It’s another YA story set in Texas, though it has an even wider scope, interweaving two narratives in its exploration of myth, oral storytelling, and the animals that once lived on earth. Both books tackle grief to an unusual extent in young adult literature, which makes sense when you learn the story of Little Badger.
ElatsoeLittle Badger’s success was experiencing a personal tragedy, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. âThe week I found out I sold it for publication was also the week my dad was diagnosed with mesothelioma,â she says. His father had worked in a steel plant in San Antonio to pay for his college education; he then spent time on construction sites. According to his doctors, one or both of those jobs exposed him to asbestos, which led to a terminal case of stomach cancer. The pandemic meant Little Badger and his brother were unable to attend chemotherapy appointments; once their father entered the intensive care unit, they transferred him to a smaller hospital where a masked, COVID-negative family member was cleared to his bedside at a time. âI was actually more concerned with family issues than the excitement of having a book published,â says Little Badger.
Still working as a science writer at that time, she had cut her part-time to look after her father, editing the novel around family and work obligations. When the deluge of praise for her book arrived, the moment was odd: âOn the one hand, I’ve had all this work-related success, but on the other hand, I really care about my family the most. “, she says. Little Badger’s online community of fantasy and sci-fi writers have come together to support her. When she struggled to find the energy to promote her work, her friends helped her take responsibility by posting the book on social media and posting its awards and reviews. Soon this support spread, and Elatsoe found its way to librarians, teachers and young readers, who shared rave reviews. But the reader whose opinion mattered most to Little Badger was his father, who had worked his way from his job at a steel mill to that of director of the writing department at Western Connecticut State University. She was able to bring him an early copy in May 2020, shortly before his death at 69.
“It was one of the last times he smiled,” she recalls. âOne of the greatest blessings of my life has been to have someone like this who is still my cheerleader, and he was able to see all the work he did to support me pay off in my dream come true. ”
As far back as she can remember, Little Badger knew she wanted to be a writer. When she was seven, while her father was getting his doctorate in English, she wrote a mystery book, which he edited and submitted to a publisher on his behalf. âI had a very gentle rejection, which he framed, and told me that one day I would use it to see how far I was going,â she says. Rejection has become a theme in his career. She followed the mystery with an unreleased three hundred page fantasy epic when she was twelve, and after graduating from high school at Texarkana, she went to Princeton to study English. But when she applied to the university’s undergraduate creative writing program, she was twice rejected. âI always assumed that my natural path would be to go to college and study writing, and eventually become a writer,â she says. Forced to change gears, she instead took an introductory oceanography course, which opened her eyes to the possibility of studying earth sciences. âI’ve never lived near the ocean before,â she says. “Texarkana is nowhere near the Gulf.”
Little Badger was captivated and hung on to oceanography, eventually earning a doctorate in the field of Texas A&M, focusing on plankton. After graduation, she combined her two passions and accepted a position as science writer, fine-tuning research papers submitted for publication. This is a specialized job that consists of helping scientists, whose mother tongue is not always English, to present their research clearly and precisely. She loved the job, but when she sold Elatsoe, it has become impossible to juggle scientific publishing and writing fiction. âI love them both, but writing has been my biggest passion all my life,â she says.
However, it keeps one foot in the scientific world. Little Badger always reads the latest plankton research and serves as a science advisor to the Lipan Apache tribe. âI’m called the Tribal Geology Advisor, but due to my background I’m comfortable giving advice on topics like water issues and even biology,â she says.
Science is a theme in her new book as well, in much the same way as the stories of Lipan Apache it draws its inspiration from, or contemporary technology and social media that the book’s target audience is steeped in, or the heartbreak that Little Badger experienced throughout the writing process. A snake falls to earth builds on it all, creating a story that reads like Darcie Little Badger is the only writer who could have told it. To give a few examples: one of the main threats the characters face is a hurricane; the invasive monster species in the book echo the invasive plants she studied as an intern; and the tendency of mankind to drive species to extinction is one of the main reasons that the animals of the Reflective World are beginning to enter the human world. Mourning intersects with technology, and the combination profoundly informs the story. Protagonist Nina struggles to translate the stories her great-great-grandmother told her while she was dying, with words distorted by an app on her phone that wasn’t designed to recognize language lipan she was talking about. The book’s episodic opening chapters eventually give way to a rich and exciting climax in which climate change, technology, family duties, and the animals of the reflective world all descend to South Texas at once.
For Little Badger, it is obvious that everything fits together. âI end up incorporating things that I learned as a scientist into my work,â she says. âIt’s hard for me to even write fantasy without recognizing the cool, interesting and beautiful things in the world we live in. ”