“The Next to the Last of the Mohegans,” by Joseph Bruchac, is an Own Voices story about a young Mohegan man named Billy and his trouble-making mad scientist best friend.
Just about every culture has stories about little people, or fairies, or spirits, or small gods, or beings that aren’t quite human. Although a lot of modern culture has spun stories of these beings to be light and cute and benevolent they generally have darker roots. They are the things in the dark that we should be afraid of, should be afraid of crossing. In “The Next to the Last of the Mohegans,” Arlin Sweetwater gets into trouble- again- and Billy has to get him out of trouble – again. It’s a well worn pattern of behavior. If there’s one thing Arlin’s good at, it’s getting himself and Billy into trouble. (Another thing he’s good at, apparently, is exploding labs and also making a working time machine.) Arlin specifically got into trouble this time by spying on the Makiawisug, the Little People. Despite being told not to. Numerous times. Over the course of his life. They closed him up in a tree, and also put his feet on backwards just to drive the point home. So Billy, of course, has to set things right. Luckily, he can talk to animals.
“The Last of the Mohegans” is a light, funny, character-driven story that feels intimate when it comes to Billy and Arlin’s relationship. The story stresses the importance of stories, of history, and of friendship… and of realizing and respecting the Weird in the world. Arlin can “travel,” moving in a way that sounds like teleportation. Billy can speak to and understand animals. This is just part of their lives, something that’s normal and part of them even while it’s not normal for others. Super smart Arlin got full scholarships to STEM schools, he studies time travel, he can teleport as an innate ability. He’s curious about the world, of course he wants to study the Makis. He’s pretty sure he can outsmart them. He’s smart but… not that smart. It’s the trap smart but not that smart humans fall into all the time.
It’s a very good story, and an excellent reminder not to trespass in worlds we don’t belong in. It’s written with a deft humor and sympathy that render the characters very real, even though we don’t get to spend much time with them. I’d love to read more about them and their adventures.