Belagana-Belazana: An Outsider’s Quest in the Navajo Nation Terry Winetsky
A small Navajo town and a school filled with students with learning disabilities is the setting for this novel. Hired as an English as Second Language teacher, Sean learns that the dynamics of his job and the requirements have been changed. No longer teaching English he is now the PE teacher and the counselor for the dormitory and in charge of many of the staff. His assistant, Leonard, speaks the language and seems to have problems dealing with the bureaucratic end of things, the cultural differences and how to best help the students. Taking a tour of the school he learns about the limited funds, the fact that he is now the coach of all of the teams and that everything is not what he expected it to be. He also learns that the students are at times difficult and some even miss being home so much that they try to escape and run away.
Working in a remote government school in the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona he would learn the meaning of belegana or white man and belegaza: apple or red apple. As we meet Miss Wilson and Miss McAdams who are teachers in this school we note that some members of the staff have issues that make them seem angry or bitter while others along and are not aware or care about the bureaucratic and complicated matters.
This school as many boys that are difficult and two run away because one as the book summary states fears for the lives of his family as Samson his father is an alcoholic. Noland and the dorm director have to find them before they freeze to death. Added in is the situation with the water.
The fourth in this series the author’s goal is to support young people who lack access to quality education and I have to agree with something written in an interview he gave that he has little patience for educators who disregard the needs of nontraditional students or any students. Inflexibility is not an option and the books in this series of which I have reviewed all of them deal with the issues of prejudice, injustice, racism, teacher issues and apathy to substance abuse.
As Sean and Leonard explore the Rez more and he becomes familiar with the area they bump into two brothers that seem and find themselves saving an old dog. Listening to Leonard we learn that he has aspirations for college and maybe premed but money is the object right, which is holding things up. The author describes the area in detail and we can tell that much of it is really old, the wiring archaic and the amount of communication and connections poor. Yet, Sean seems to want to try his hand at this job and only time will tell if he decides to remain as the Principal of the school is retiring and he will be in charge for at least a month. But, Leonard had another reason for befriending Sean and that was because he suspects that the water is contaminated and he wants his help to look into it. Making those in charge aware of the issue got his stonewalled. Going further might cause him to lose his position but when Sean saw the water in the kitchen, the bathrooms and other places he too realized that the color was off. Before even starting as the head of the school until they get another Principal he seems to be getting opposition from many places and actually told by a staff member that each person does their job in their own way and he’s to not interfere.
Added in the author introduces us to the Shephard brothers who are quite difficult and cause him to have damage on his windshield. However, the only ones that can repair it are the Shephard brothers and Sean has to work out a deal with them. Even more interesting is that Calhoun Shepard is the assistant coach.
The weather gets icy and dangerous and Sean and Leonard head over to find Billy and learn where Hawthorne might be. Two young boys escape and Sean and Leonard are on the move to find them but will they? Listening to Ms. McAdams talk we hear her enthusiasm for the students, watch as her daughter Beth handles dealing with the library and then we understand why so many are discouraged. Each student has his or her learning difficulty and it seems that no form of remediation seems to work, which is disheartening to say the least. One young man named Billy can no longer remain in the school because he’s too far behind and needs more help. Can they find a program for him?
The author flashes to skiing with Leonard and how Sean gets hypothermia and has difficulty breathing and keeping up in the cold. Finding Hawthorne under a blanket of snow outside and needing him to help with Sean, as he was getting worse. Added in we learn more about the students that registered for Raven Point, we witness his first day of PE and as an instructor he is really great and getting the kids motivated even better. Dedicated educators are hard to find but when Mona the teacher of the lower grades accuses Leonard of inappropriately touching children the way the staff comes together and rallies around him is touching and great leaving Mona to plot along with Samson her next move. Even Dot her close friend does not agree with what she is doing.
The water issue is still unsolved and in order for the kids to drink water during or after PE he has a special cooler and cups for them. What I loved is that he allowed and encouraged everyone no matter who to join the Basketball team after school, which this reviewer can identify with.
While Sean and Leonard searched for the two missing students someone was holding his family hostage and the scene plays out like an episode from CSI Victim’s Unit. With a father who was drunk and aiming to take out anyone in his way, an assistant superintendent refusing to deal with the lead in the school’s water, the end result might be more tragic in many ways. With lead in the water it would account for the learning problems that many of the students have. Uranium would make it worse. As you hear the upper echelon talk and you hear Sean’s retorts you realize that he is up against many brick walls.
But, the highlight of the book are the basketball games, the team spirit, the outstanding way Randall helps to coach and Hawthorne who does a 360 and is an amazing player. With Leonard and Abby about to get married and Beth starting to come around and warm up to Sean, will everything turn out okay when the higher ups come to discuss the water situation? Will anyone be fired? Will Sean remain as the Principal or will he be asked to leave?
The final result of the meeting is quite startling as the superintendent and his assistant make an announcement that some find wonderful where others know they are biding for time. What will happen to Raven Point? Where will the students wind up? What happens when Amanda, Leonard’s sister and lawyer states the facts about the water and why so many children have lead poisoning? Some endings give hope while others leave many unanswered questions for the reader to ponder about and wonder what author T. Lloyd WInetsky has in store for the students of Raven Point, Sean, Leonard and an amazing staff of teachers who are dedicate and care? What about Mona will she finally get what she deserves? Read the ending and find out? You just might be surprised or maybe yet get a good laugh.
A story that will enlighten educators, parents and administrators to the importance of helping every child, dealing with differences and cutting around red tape. The purpose of a school is to educate and keep the students safe. What happens that changes it all? What about Samson’s children? There is much more to come for Ruth, Carlton, Randall, Billy, Beth, Abby, Elizabeth, Hawthorne (one of my favorite characters) and a cast so well defined and well crafted that I was sorry the story ended.
Fran Lewis: Just reviews/MJ magazine