A Snake Falls to Earth is a meandering story—it takes its time finding some momentum. There’s a long and slow build up to the snake actually falling to earth.
Geared for a young-adult audience, the novel is premised on old stories about travel between the Reflecting World, where animal people reside, and the Human World, home to the human protagonist, Nina—a Lipan Apache, the same tribe where the book’s author, Darcie Little Badger, is an enrolled member. An earth scientist with a PhD in oceanography, Little Badger turns to science in her vivid storytelling. From massive weather events to climate change to the near-extinction of a rare species of toad, scientific knowledge intertwines with mystical events that push the plot forward—an echo of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s insistence in Braiding Sweetgrass that indigenous and scientific ways of knowing aren’t in binary opposition. It doesn’t have to be either or; the two can coexist.
A Snake Falls to Earth is Little Badger’s second novel; her first, Elatsoe, a work of fantasy, won critical acclaim when it came out in 2020. Her second title—on the National Book Awards longlist—certainly comes at the right time, in a moment where wider American audiences seemingly have an unprecedented appreciation of and desire to read about Indigenous life and peoples. And on that front, the book delivers: Native characters are central and centered, as a simple fact without leaning on white characters as some sort of pseudo-justification for its existence. And the book makes, what felt to me, a significant stride in this area, in that it isn’t tethered to a reservation, which has come to be a shorthand for Indigenous life in the American cultural imaginary—a trope that this book defies with its characters moving between worlds.
To this reader’s delight, the Lipan language is also featured—if only intermittently and briefly—as Nina tries to decipher an old Lipan story her great-great-grandmother told her to better understand her family’s connection to the Reflecting World. Deciphering that story is another problem altogether, as Nina’s phone app can’t recognize the Lipan words that seem to hold the key to solving the whole mystery of the two worlds. “The app made a mess of everything,” Nina’s mother, “a genuine polyglot” tells her. Relatable content. The damn (fictional) app doesn’t even understand Navajo, a language spoken by a lot of people, Nina complains. While I wanted to read more words of the Lipan language, we just get glimmers of the way it operates: no gendered pronouns.
The book opens during a scene in a hospital, where Nina’s great-great-grandmother Rosita is dying. Death, dying, and extinction are the high stakes that the story takes on through both of its protagonists: Nina in the human world, whom the narrative follows from age 9 to 16, and Oli, the titular snake, who lives in the Reflecting World. These characters take turns narrating as their worlds inch a bit closer together and they try figuring out the mysterious relationship between the two, ultimately aiming to save the lives of the ones they love most.
At times overwrought, the novel feels like it’s checking off the boxes of big themes in Native American life: environmental devastation in the face of climate change, the importance of storytelling, language revitalization. Little Badger even manages to shoehorn the story of bison extinction on earth into the plot of her story about how two worlds reunite. Oli’s great-grandmother tells him the story: “‘They were slaughtered,’ she said. ‘A human breed known as colonizer killed millions.’” To which ‘Oli’ replies: “’Their appetite must have been enormous!’” His great-grandmother explains this brutal and factually correct chapter of American history: “’They didn’t hunt the bison for food. The colonizers desired to annihilate another group of humans. Indigenous peoples.’” Thematically, it’s relevant—stylistically, forced. But it’s only Little Badger’s second novel, and, I suspect, not her last—which means it’s possible we see her writing evolve in the future.
One of the characters, a bird-human named Brightest, even goes by they/them pronouns, which was fun—and not a convention that I’ve seen widely adopted in other recent fiction I’ve read, although I’m sure that will start becoming more common. And it speaks to the audience that Little Badger writes for. I’m glad that YA readers will have a book like this that reflects identities not always seen in literature.