The Forest for the Trees

January 22, 2022   •   By Tim Cummings

The Namer of Spirits

Todd Mitchell

DO YOU NAME things? I name everything. Our home is full of lush, lofty plants, and they each have a name. The stately fiddle-leaf fig is named Olivia, and the majestic ZZ plant downstairs is named Leaf Erickson. The unruly Monstera is Mona Beasta, and Lucy Whiteleaf is the alluring Dracaena we recently moved into the bathroom because she gets more north-facing sun in there. In my office, Harriet, a two-foot ponytail palm, stands on my desk, her stringy leaves a fountaining cacophony, like a sentinel to creativity and its inevitable blunders.

I name my journals. Those are usually males, not sure why — Frederick Cursor, Charles Xavier, Octavius Suckerbee, and Benjamin du Papier. Journals house our thoughts, feelings, observations, and ideas — how could they not then hold a place in our hearts? Isn’t that why we name things? To establish a relationship with that which harbors our emotions, both good and bad?

The allure of naming things lives in its propensity to identify someone or something. It provides order in a realm of chaos. It connects us to the person or object. The scientific world calls this “nomenclature” — the sheer volume of names that scientists have devised thus far to specify the relentless multitude of discoveries since science started naming things is astronomical. Children name things to make them more real and less inanimate. To make friends, as it were. Toys, stuffed animals, dolls, bugs, imaginary friends … a child’s world is a venerable naming factory suffused with the purest sense of imagination, innocence, and desire to connect.

Native Americans bestow perhaps the most prophetic and profound of names and their meanings, to elucidate their vital connection to nature and the external world. Achak means “spirit” (Algonquin), and Ahoti means “restless one” (Hopi). The Cherokee word for warrior, Dahnawa Danatlihi, literally means “War They-Are-Running-Place.” One translation of that is “They run to the place of war.”

Todd Mitchell’s glistering new middle-grade fantasy, The Namer of Spirits (Owl Hollow Press, 2021), takes this ritual, this tradition, to a spiritual and adventurous level. Ash Narro, aged 12, lives in one of a cluster of provincial villages (hers is aptly called “Last Hope”) that border a vast forest not unlike the rain forests in Brazil. Teeming with life and lush with natural resources, the indigenous people of the forest, known as the dao fora, exist in constant distress because the villagers pillage their land and burn their trees to make farms. But here’s the catch: they do this because they are given no other option to survive. It’s an anti-symbiosis, and it results in drought, pollution, unrest, and imminent war.

Ponder the current situation with deforestation in Brazil: colossal areas of rainforest are destroyed for farming, wood, roads, dams, mining, and real estate development. The government believes it is more economically sound to cut the forest down than to keep it standing. Increasing human consumption and population growth causes forest destruction due to the plentiful amounts of resources, commodities, and amenities we rob from the forest.

In Mitchell’s depiction of this travesty, the fate of the world lies in the hands of one young girl with a unique gift for naming things. Though she is considered an outcast for this gift, a girl with a runaway imagination, Ash doesn’t perceive it as such.

Rather than imagining things, she thought of it as paying attention to things that no one else noticed and seeing what could be — the way a weed could be a flower once you noticed its beauty. Everything had hidden possibilities and if she listened closely enough, she sometimes heard whispers of what those possibilities might be. 

Her trusty bag is called “Wayfarer,” and her newfound forked branch from the powerful ironwood tree is named “Kiki.” Wayfarer holds a small collection of named objects that are important to Ash. These objects take on roles and responsibilities later in the story as the adventure deepens. They show the reader the significance of the gift of naming because to do so Ash must listen; right below the surface, a rush of whispers calls out to her, asking to be named.

In Ash’s world of clustered forest-side villages, the destructive “illwen” keep attacking the residents and destroying land, structures, and resources. Think of the illwen like a particularly brutal attack of Santa Ana winds and the havoc they wreak on Southern California. Or imagine illwen like the tornadoes of the Midwest, whorling beasts hellbent on ruination. For the people of Last Hope and the other neighboring villages, illwen appear as giant dragons of smoke, snarling shape-shifters with wings.

During one pivotal attack on Last Hope, Ash encounters an illwen who she feels deeply into, sensing its resentment and sadness. She uses her gift and names the illwen “Lost Heart Puppy” and it literally turns into a small rambunctious pup, her companion for the remainder of the tale (until it too transcends into a different form). Think of it like Toto to Dorothy: though Toto presents as a small hairy yappy thing, he is arguably the depiction of Dorothy’s shadow-self, her subconscious at work; everything that happens to Dorothy, from her running away to her discovery that The Wizard is a fraud, happens because of Toto. It’s like the dog is a literal extension of her mischievous soul.

Before long, Ash is off on her adventure to figure out why the dao fora possess such malevolence, why the farmers who cut down the trees have no other choice but to do so, why the illwen keep attacking her village, and ultimately who is at the heart of the dark commerce that is controlling everyone’s lives and why it needs to destroy the forest to do so. Along the way, she rides mistcats (dewy leopards that appear and disappear like smoke in the denser parts of the forest where it is lusher and damper who dry up in the drier areas that have been mined); spends time with the mystical dao fora in their most reverent realm, the epic and forbidden Sky Tree; and rides in steampunk-inspired airships to the city to confront her own fraudulent wizard and attempt diplomacy between the dao fora, the villagers, the farmers, and the wildlife of the forest.

Echoes of great MG/YA fantasy books resound through Mitchell’s world and words. The Namer of Spirits shares DNA with the most celebrated epics featuring young female protagonists. Lyra Silvertongue from Philip Pullman’s grandiose His Dark Materials mythology, replete with Dæmons and Dust, is an apt comparison with its personified animals and dips in and out of parallel dimensions to uncover a conspiracy run by a guileful government steeped in dark religiosity. Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, where a young woman of extraordinary strength and skill battles some of the most sinister governmental manipulations and civilian exploitations ever seen in the canon of adventure literature. Meg Murry from Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved A Wrinkle in Time shows us a young girl who traverses the universe with the help of three trusty shape-shifting witches to confront a black hole of an entity who has stolen her father away and means to cover the world with blankness, with emptiness, with nothingness.

The sheer volume of imagination Mitchell deftly renders in this book called to mind the infinite sphere of creativity wrought by Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. In one of the most moving and mind-bending examples of how a fantasy novel alters the perception of our own individual sojourns through life, the story is a metaphor for the bridge between innocence and adulthood when navigating a great loss. Interestingly, the book also explores the theme of naming things: the book’s young hero, Bastian Balthazar Bux, must bestow a new name on the princess of Fantastica to stave off “The Nothing,” otherwise it is lights out for all stories in all realms for all time. That great fear of “nothingness” is a tremendous motivator, I’ve found, in many books for young readers. It runs rampant in young fantasy. Who wants to suffer the endless embarrassments of puberty and first heartbreak only to emerge on the other side of it into a world that’s a cold black hole?

But Mitchell also wants to expose the loss that the Amazon rainforest has suffered. From August 2019 to July 2020 alone, 4,300 square miles (11,088 kilometers) were destroyed, close to a 10 percent increase from the prior year. This surge in destruction is arguably the fault of the elected president Jair Bolsonaro, who has continued to encourage mining and agricultural activity, cut funding to the agencies that can stop it from happening, and accused these agencies of smearing his and Brazil’s reputation. Mitchell explores this dark hubris through a seminal character in The Namer of Spirits that Ash ultimately confronts. His name is Lord Ocras, and like Bolsonaro he shows a passion for economy over environment, product over people.

I wonder if Mitchell’s analogy here — the art and power of naming — serves to remind us that unless we call out those who prefer to keep us occupied in a virtual TikTok stupor, numb to the wonders of the natural world, it will all just disappear on us. And like the luminous mistcats who cannot exist in any part of the forest where it is not lush, and sentient, protected from the grabbing hand of greed, we too will dry up, surrounded by piles of meaningless stuff, all of it on fire as we gaze, unnamed, into the flames.

Thankfully that is not the message conveyed in The Namer of Spirits, a story that shows us a unique gift bestowed upon a brave girl who plumbs the depths of the darkness with the intention of helping others and making the world a better place. In life, it is not easy to take on the immense power of government and the manipulative dictates of bureaucracies. In most fantasy novels for young readers, however, this is always precisely what happens.

We’re told fire wiped out the world when a meteor hit the earth and set it ablaze. Mitchell’s inspired cautionary tale proffers that if it happens again, it will not be a meteor that causes our demise so much as our own fiery pride. We need these stories, these messages, to continue to inspire young women to acknowledge their gifts, claim their power, and take the necessary steps toward resolution. I hope other authors bear witness to these journeys as deftly as Todd Mitchell does through his majestic protagonist, Ash Narro.

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For further reading, please check out the following cli-fi for young readers:

We’re Not from Here by Geoff Rodkey
Tree of Dreams by Laura Resau
Hoot by Carl Hiaasen
Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly
The Last Panther by Todd Mitchell

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Tim Cummings holds an MFA in Creative Writing for Young People from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BFA from New York University/Tisch School of the Art. Recent publications include works in F(r)iction, Scare Street, Lunch Ticket, Meow Meow Pow Pow, From Whispers to Roars, and Critical Read, for which he won the “Origins” essay contest and also received a Pushcart Prize nomination for his essay, “You Have Changed Me Forever.” His debut novel, ALICE THE CAT, will be published in the summer of 2023 by Fitzroy Books. Tim is represented by literary agent Charlie Olsen at InkWell Management.