________________ CM . . . . Volume I Number I . . . . June 16, 1995

Branch of the Talking Teeth

Moore, Ishbel.
Montreal: Roussan Publishers, 1995.
96pp, paper, $6.95.
ISBN 1-896184-06-5.

Grades 4 - 7 / Ages 9 - 12.
Review by Helen Norrie


In the sky a rainbow appeared and in the man's heart a new understanding grew. When he looked at the woman he saw beautiful hair but a plain face. When he looked into her eyes, into her heart, he saw great beauty and wisdom.

Mo'ag brought the stranger to her chieftain husband and told him about the two other men. The chieftain rewarded the man's curiosity and willingness to learn by giving him one of his daughters and some land beside the river.

But Mo'ag rewarded him with her friendship, and from then on, the stranger and Mo'ag taught the people to look for beauty in the heart, to live in harmony with all creatures, and to work hard at a task until you have mastered it.

That is the story of the fifth tooth, the tooth of Mo'ag. I send heartfelt thanks to Mo'ag for her story.

Branch of the Talking Teeth is Winnipeg author Ishbel Moore's third children's book to be published by Roussan Publishers in less than two years. Unlike her previous novels, Summer of the Hand and The Medal, this is not a time-travel adventure, but rather one set in prehistoric time somewhere along the east coast of Canada, presumably in what is now Labrador.

      The story's unusual title is taken from Moore's literary invention -- a curved stick with six human teeth attached. The branch serves as a talisman and a memory aide for the community's story-teller, a powerful and important person in this society where oral history and tradition are revered. As Moonhead, the young blond hero who has been mysteriously cast up on the shores of this land (presumably originally from Norway or Iceland) explains, each tooth represents both a story and the famous story-teller who told it. He teaches the stories to Teta, a young girl from the "Land of the Blue Rock" who chooses to join him as he flees from a pursuing warrior, Soogat, who has challenged him for leadership of the tribe.

      While the stories are very simple ones, each teaches an important lesson about survival in the community: heeding the advice of elders; living in harmony with nature, and so on. They emphasise the power stories have on our consciousness, which is the underlying theme of the novel.

      The plot around which the stories are woven is not always as satisfying as the stories themselves. Crucial moments in Moonhead and Teta's flight from Soogat are sometimes described so abruptly that suspense is lost. Moonhead's fatal last encounter with Soogat, for example, is over much too quickly, and the critical period that follows is compressed into a couple of paragraphs.

      But the conclusion of the book, in which Teta sacrifices herself to preserve the Branch of the Talking Teeth is dramatic and powerful. The burial of Moonhead may be particularly colourful because the novel was partly inspired by the 1973 discovery of an ancient grave site on the Labrador Coast dating back some 7,500 years. Moore has used her fertile imagination to explain the details of what was discovered.

      While Ishbel Moore aims her novels at the intermediate age group (grades 4-6), this novel has enough historical content and suspense -- and even a little love-interest -- to appeal to slightly older readers. Unfortunately, the cover, in which the characters appear very young, may discourage older readers from picking up the book.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364