Darcie Little Badger creates a world brimming with folklore, myth, friendship and family in “Elatsoe,” her young adult debut. The novel is a fun and compelling read, and it’s no wonder that Little Badger’s novel has received so much praise from critics. Kirkus Reviews claims the book “educates about settler colonialism while also entertaining with paranormal twists,” and Time Magazine named “Elatsoe” one of the 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time.
“Elatsoe” takes place in an alternative United States, similar to our own, where tedious homework loads, clever best friends and pistachio ice cream are still perfectly normal. However, this alternate country has been greatly shaped by the magic and legends of its people over time. For Elatsoe and her family, who like the author are Lipan Apache, a type of traditional magic has been passed down through generations, allowing some of their family members to summon spirits. Elatsoe, also known as Ellie, has been practicing this skill since she was young, and has even gained the ghostly companionship of her loyal childhood dog, Kirby.
When her cousin, Trevor, dies near a mysterious town in southern Texas, he visits Ellie in a dream. Trevor tells her he was murdered and even reveals the murderer, though gives no other clues before disappearing. While Ellie is forbidden from waking the spirits of dead humans since they would likely return as vengeful ghosts, that minor inconvenience does not stop her from desiring to look into the full story. As she and her parents attempt to help her cousin’s widow, Ellie begins an investigation against the most prominent man in town, with her dog and her best friend, Jay, by her side. Together, they find that the small town of Willowbee is hiding some gruesome secrets, and Ellie will have to rely on her skills and friends to uncover them and protect her family.
Endearing Character Dynamics
A prominent factor in the novel’s charm is how the author portrays her characters. Full of authenticity and spunk, readers are certain to enjoy Little Badger’s delightful cast of characters.
Ellie’s friendship with Jay is particularly captivating. On her own, Ellie is a bright and curious 17-year-old girl who loves adventure and aspires to one day run her own paranormal investigation business. She’s also openly asexual, which is a great fact on its own, since this particular orientation is not often represented in YA novels.
Ellie has known Jay since they were small, and he’s her second-best friend, only after Kirby. He’s smart and loyal, in addition to being on the school cheerleading team. With Jay also comes his sister and her boyfriend, a vampire who plans on proposing early on in the book, which makes for an amusing side plot. Many of Ellie’s and Jay’s lines are comical and witty, often leading to heartwarming scenes. Since many young adult fiction novels revolve around romantic relationships, it is refreshing to see two characters swap romance for a platonic partnership in a paranormal investigation.
Additionally, Ellie’s relationship with Jay is not the only refreshing character dynamic. Like many teenagers, Ellie is often patient, and other times stubborn, though her parents often allow her to sort out her emotions for herself. She respects her parents’ boundaries, but sometimes bends them a little when she feels she is capable of more. Her parents also respect her drive to do more in life, and unlike many parents in teen fiction, they believe her when she tells them that her cousin has been murdered. Additionally, Ellie is comfortable enough with her parents to recognize that some of her dangerous adventures would be safer with them around, and they even join in occasionally. It can be moving to see a whole family working together to fight the paranormal, and it is also apparent throughout the narrative that Ellie’s ancestors are highly important and present in her life. Overall, Ellie’s relationships with her friends and family are healthy and welcome depictions compared to the lives of other young adult protagonists.
World-Building and Representation
On top of weaving usual magical creatures such as vampires and fairies into the story, Little Badger also incorporates folklore from her Lipan Apache heritage. This Lipan Apache representation is embraced and blended throughout the narrative, and was included with plenty of care and thought.
On several occasions, one of Ellie’s family members will tell her a story about their ancestors; these stories often reflect Ellie’s life and her personal struggles, helping her realize that she is not alone in her worries. Other times, such stories provide answers to conflicts experienced by the characters.
Ellie’s identity as Lipan Apache is proudly maintained, and Little Badger often sprinkles the narrative with bits of education about what Indigenous people, and the Lipan Apache in particular, suffered at the hands of colonists. The author includes topics of native land and group belonging into the story at various crucial plot points, especially in the vampire folklore side-plot. Additionally, the main murder mystery is strongly intertwined with a group of modern settlers’ false belief that they can take what they want, from the land and its people, without paying any kind of price. Comprehensively, Little Badger grounds her novel in Indigenous heritage and integrates lessons of the harms caused by colonialism throughout American history, making for a powerful and educational read.
Ghostly Tales and Self-Power
According to a review from NPR, the novel introduces and maintains a “spooky warmth” throughout. Some scenes including the supernatural, particularly in the last act, are chilling as well as thought-provoking. In addition to her attempt to solve her cousin’s murder, Ellie faces supernatural dangers such as hungry vampires and questionable ghosts. However, not every creature is untrustworthy. Ellie’s childhood dog, Kirby, is a great companion to her and the other characters, and there are many anecdotes of ghostly animals her family has kept before.
The connection between Ellie’s supernatural abilities and her ancestors is highly significant to the plot and aids her in her personal journey of self-understanding. At times, Ellie succeeds as a result of her personal strength, and because of that grows more confident about who she is and where she comes from. “Elatsoe” is ultimately about the power of recognizing yourself in spite of a society that wants you to forget your true value.
In the end, Ellie’s confrontations with ghosts, fights with vampires and accidental descent into the underworld help solidify her sense of belonging in her strong Lipan Apache lineage. Although the novel may have a few slow scenes, as with many debut books, “Elatsoe” is an authentic and delightful read from beginning to end, and readers are sure to be enchanted by this world of magical realism that Little Badger has created.