The Magic of Spider Woman

written by Lois Duncan
illustrated by Shonto Begay

Lois Duncan's The Magic of Spider Woman

Book review by Monica Friedman

Ages 7-12

A Navajo Legend about Weaving, Perfection, and Following Instructions

The Navajo way seeks balance in life, and this teaching tale illustrates the dangers of “too much.” To be strong, creative, and different is good, the story says. To become so focused on these differences as to exclude the rest of society, however, is dangerous.

There is a reason, this story argues, for every rule.

The Navajo people, or Dinéh, as they call themselves, came into being when the animals decide that the “world is too beautiful not to be shared.” So, the Spirit Being creates humans. These new creatures are shown seemingly springing up from the earth and looking in wonder upon their new home.

Review - The Magic of Spider Woman

The story’s protagonist is a maverick called Wandering Girl, a “strong-willed and stubborn” shepherd who has herded her sheep into the mountains over the summer, and thus missed all the lessons brought by the Spirit Being concerning hunting, farming, building, and living “the Blessing Way that would keep the People healthy and in harmony with nature.” When she returns to her newly educated people in the winter, she does not understand that they have all built hogans and are “keeping warm by their fires.” She cries for help, lest she freeze to death.

Here Spider Woman appears, teaching the girl to weave wool blankets, with the admonishment, “You must promise not to weave for too long, or a terrible thing will happen to you.” Wandering Girl promises carelessly.

Still, she would be too cold to spin, save for the love of Boy with a Dream, who has long admired Wandering Girl, and welcomes her into his Hogan as his wife.

Wandering Girl becomes Weaving Woman, while Boy with a Dream becomes Man Who Is Happy. Alas, all too soon, Weaving Woman forgets her promise to Spider Woman and, in making a weaving to honor Spirit Being, loses herself. She falls down, “stiff as her spindle” and cannot speak.

First the Hand Trembler, and then the Shaman, treat Weaving Woman. She can speak to them, but her voice comes not from her own body, but instead from the blanket she has been weaving: “She has woven her spirit into her blanket.”

To set her free, Spider Woman must open “a spirit pathway through the border of the blanket.” She must make the blanket imperfect, as all Navajo weavings are still made today, to remind the weaver that “we must not allow…pride to become master of our spirits.”

Review - The Magic of Spider Woman

Native artist Shonto Begay has created rich and magical paintings to illustrate the text, showing both the realistic details of the Navajo design as well as the fantastic, spiritual element of the world in which Weaving Woman and Man Who Is Happy live. The lines between the world of humans and the world of spirits are almost nonexistent in this story, and the drawings communicate that feeling, along with the lovely patterns and textures of fabrics, feathers, jewelry, and spider webs.

As a cautionary tale, a multicultural piece of literature, or a bedtime story, The Magic Of Spider Woman creates a wonderful sense of place and community. It teaches that one can be an individual and remain part of a group at the same time, and promises readers that love will overcome and save the day.

More Native American children's books.

Read more of Monica's reviews.

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