Those of us who have seen the arid beauty of the Arizona desert and Four Corners part of the United States know that it is a place of magic — compelling, powerful, and spiritual. For those not so fortunate or those who enjoy arm-chair traveling, W. Tussinger’s novel Fourth World is a fine introduction to the wonders of this area.
Set on the largest Native-American reservation in the country, the background lends itself well to the author’s tale of spiritual journey. Fourth World is both a coming of age story and a compelling cry for a return to the old ways of traditional living — Navajo, in this case — where man and nature are in balance, and the earth and the animals and the needs of the soul are respected.
The novel recounts the tale of three adolescents growing up on the reservation and the story starts out with their struggle to thrive as they deal with the modern world around them. Some of their dilemmas are common to all teen-agers — whether to cut school classes, pull various pranks or engage in criminal activity. Others are particular to Navajo life — how to deal with alcoholism on the reservation (especially when it’s your parents), whether to speak English or Navajo, and whether to embrace the old ways when “traditional” is equated with “poor” and “materialism” is equated with “rich.”
Throughout, Tussinger provides rich details of the traditional Navajo language and customs. One of the boy’s grandfathers is a healer and has passed on much of his knowledge to his grandson. This knowledge becomes crucial as the boys accidentally stumble into a hidden entrance to another time — a time of legends and magic, where animals speak and guide them, and where each must fight to restore balance to a world gone out of control through greed and the quest for power.
In this strange, ancient Fourth World the boys encounter men and creatures that are clever metaphors for our modern society. There are “skinwalkers,” men who have sacrificed their humanity in return for the promise of power. Others are entranced by the lull of smoking a “weed” that leaves them powerless and unquestioning. There are animal nations that said and did little while their young were seduced away — not because they didn’t care, but because they didn’t want to interfere with another’s free will. Finally, one animal nation has become too powerful and threatens the well-being of all the other nations. Tussinger is at his strongest as he illuminates the pit-falls and ethical questions that the boys, (and we as a society) must face.
Ultimately, it is the old knowledge and a willingness to embrace the old ways that leads the boys to triumph and restores the balance. Along the way, they have harrowing adventures and moments of great insight that they know will serve them well when they return to the regular world. But before they can return, there is a surprise element no one had expected — a clever, final twist to the plot that the author delivers nicely. Both adults and teens will find much to enjoy in this fine tale.
The author does a good job of capturing much of the humor, confusion and love that all adolescents feel for those around them. More importantly, Fourth World addresses significant points and challenges with which we as a society must struggle and for which we must ultimately work out our own answers. Most readers will agree that we do live in a world that is out of balance in many ways, and so the boy’s dilemma becomes our dilemma, too. Tussinger, by describing Navajo culture and traditions as an example, offers us a possible solution, a starting point. Ultimately, Fourth World is a finely crafted invitation — it asks us to join the quest — to acknowledge the demons and find the “magic” that will restore that balance.
See the related article by the author: The Fourth World by W. Tussinger