“A season in the life of a ballclub” books are staples on publishers’ (and often bestseller) lists. Professional sports teams, college teams, even the Brave Dragons of the China Basketball Association have had moments in the book biz sun.
Michael Powell’s “Canyon Dreams” is different. Yes, there are basketball games and practices described on its pages. But it’s less a basketball book than a Native American “Fiddler on the Roof,” a book about young people caught between tradition and bilagáanas, the world outside.
Problems on the Navajo Nation reservation in northern Arizona abound. Prejudice, alcohol and a lack of opportunity are the Navajos’ Cossacks. Powell estimates one-third of the families living there don’t have running water and electricity; there is a 45% unemployment rate.
Yet the Navajo find comfort in the community and the old ways, in a life surrounded by sacred mountains and stories of the different clans repeated for generations. Even those who leave are often pulled back by the ancient ways — which is kind of how this book began, 27 years ago.
Powell’s wife, Evelyn, served two months as a midwife for Navajo Health Services. Michael spent the time wandering the reservation and finding comfort “in this achingly beautiful land and its people.”
When they returned to the real world — or at least New York City — “Evelyn and I resisted surrendering our loose-jawed state of grace. We balked at returning to what was.”
He called editors in the Southwest to see about jobs, not worried about pay as he once might have. “To accept and explore a nonmaterial word seemed a fine life’s journey.”
As it often does, though, materialism triumphed; the desire to return to Arizona faded. But a quarter of a century later, after surviving cancer, the reservation pulled him back, too. And this book was his return ticket.
Powell found his Tevye in Raul Mendoza, 70 years old, 40 years a coach, holder of a state championship ring, hired to lead the once hapless Chinle Wildcats, to provide control over a team used to playing undisciplined fast-paced Rez ball.
It is grueling trying to coach a squad whose players pay as much attention to bahadzidii or the taboos as they do to practice. One, a shooting guard, wrapped corn pollen in his socks before a game. Another puts a pouch of protective bitterroot in his shorts. Parents pay medicine men to sing protective songs.
But these same youngsters rap and play video games and practice handshakes like the stars they see on TV. Ultimately, Mendoza — acting as much as mentor as coach — succeeds, mostly, in earning their respect.
Powell, a sports columnist for the New York Times, has a fine reporter’s eye and sensibility. He talks to aunties and uncles and makes you understand why despite it all — the broken homes, the poverty, the lack of opportunity — the reservation is home. “Canyon Dreams” is a sports book, but one unlike any you’ve read before, and one that will stay with you long after the final horn has sounded.
Curt Schleier is a book critic in New Jersey.
By: Michael Powell.
Publisher: Blue Rider Press, 263 pages, $28.