Soldier Sister, Fly Home

Soldier Sister, Fly Home

  • 1695

By: Nancy Bo Flood / Illustrated by: Shonto Begay

A sister at war. A hot-headed horse named Blue. Tess’s Navajo and white identities at battle. The summer is turning out to be anything but easy.

Thirteen-year-old Tess and her sister Gaby are as close as sisters can be, or at least they were. But then Gaby enlisted in the Army, and soon after that she was deployed to Iraq. And this on the heels of the death of their friend Lori, the first Native American woman to die in combat on foreign soil. When Gaby asks Tess to take care of Blue, her beloved but headstrong horse, Tess is furious—about being left behind with a horse she doesn’t trust and about the danger Gaby is facing. And Gaby was the only one who understood Tess’s problem: on the Rez Tess wonders if she’s Navajo enough, and at school in Flagstaff, she’s singled out as the “Indian girl.”

Accompanying her grandmother—her shimá sání—to sheep camp in the canyon for the summer gives Tess the opportunity to come to terms with her sister’s choices. But when tragedy strikes, can Tess’s relationship with Gaby ever be the same? Will Tess learn how to balance her two worlds?

From author Nancy Bo Flood comes a touching coming-of-age story that invites readers into Tess’s bicultural world and the universal struggles of growing up. Flood draws thoughtfully from her experience living for fifteen years in the Navajo Nation. Cover illustrations and chapter decorations by Navajo artist Shonto Begay round out this lyrical middle-grade story.

Author & Illustrator Bios:

Nancy Bo Flood, author

Nancy Bo Flood was a research psychologist and studied brain development at the University of Minnesota and the University of London before writing books for children. She has a special interest in legends and folklore. Her titles include Warriors in the Crossfire (Boyds Mills) and Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo (WordSong). Nancy lives in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Read more about Nancy.

Shonto Begay, illustrator

A professional artist since 1983, Shonto Begay spends his time painting and speaking to audiences of all ages. His art has been shown in more than 50 shows in galleries and museums including The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, the American Indian Contemporary Arts' museum in San Francisco and Phoenix Art Museum.

Read more about Shonto.

Awards & Honors:

    Colorado Authors' League Book of the Year in Juvenile Fiction
    WILLA Literary Award Winner

Editorial Reviews:

Publishers Weekly, starred review

In this slender, elegant novel from Flood (No Name Baby), half-Navajo/half-white Tess, 13, feels like she doesn't belong anywhere. Schoolmates at her Flagstaff boarding school call her anmes like Pokeyhontas; on the reservation she looks--and sometimes feels--more white than Navajo. Set against the backdrop of the Iraq War (the book opens with a memorial ceremony for a young Navajo woman killed in combat, and Tess's beloved older sister, Gaby, is deployed soon after), the book successfully presents Tess's shifting emotions as she grapples with the vicissitudes of a close sibling relationship, revels in her daily runs in the desert, and struggles to bond with a temperamental horse. Navajo traditions, ceremonies, and family relationships are described with gentle reverence; even the butchering of an ewe is depicted as a beautiful act. Navajo words and phrases are used throughout in a fashion that always feels natural. Flood lived and taught on the Navajo Nation for 15 years, and this quietly moving story of Tess's growing maturity as she searches for her cultural identity resounds with authenticity. Art not seen by PW.

School Library Journal

Tess and her older sister, Gaby, siblings who live in Navajo Nation with their family, are close, but when Gaby enlists in the military, their bond is threatened. Gaby entrusts Tess with her beloved stallion, Blue, whom Tess deems unstable and scary. Tess would much rather take in and experience the canyon while running on her own two legs, yet she makes the promise to her sister that she will look after Blue. After Gaby leaves, Tess questions where she fits into the world and how her biracial identity affects her sense of self. At school, she is seen as "the Indian girl." Even at home on the reservation, Tess still feels like an outsider. After spending time with her grandmother, her shima sani, at sheep camp, she begins to realize there are many answers as to what makes a person who they are. When tragedy strikes Blue, the true strength of the sisters' bond is tested. Tying in this book with the death of real-life fallen soldier Lori Piestewa feels a bit forced; the story would have stood alone without this inclusion. Endnotes suggest that Flood consulted with Navajo people; however, there is no mention of Piestewa's family. A tender story set in contemporary Navajo Nation, with themes that will resonate with many readers on their own journey toward self-discovery.


When Tess' older sister is deployed to Iraq, the 13-year-old is bereft. To make matters worse, she is grappling with her sense of identity as a part white, part Native American teen--an inner conflict exacerbated as she splits her time between a mostly white boarding school in Flagstaff and her Navajo reservation. Racist taunts, both on the reservation and at school, leave her unsure of where she belongs. After school lets out for the summer, Tess joins her grandma for "sheep camp," where she helps care for a flock and experiences several important revelations. Flood provides a detailed portrayal of Shima Sani (Grandma)--an iconic figure who can weave Pendleton rugs as well as she can work the Internet, and herd sheep as easily as she can connect with Emily Dickinson--who plays a pivotal role in helping Tess bridge the two cultures of which the girl is a part. Despite some cultural heavy-handedness, this engaging coming-of-age story will resonate with middle-grade readers beginning to find their place in the wider world.

Kirkus Reviews

The daughter of a Navajo woman and a white man struggles with her older sister's deployment to Iraq and her own sense of self. Thirteen-year-old Tess feels abandoned when Gaby, six years older, shocks the whole family by enlisting in the military. Worse, Tess must reluctantly accept the responsibility to care for Gaby's feisty horse. Flood nicely captures Tess' anxiety as she makes several attempts to befriend her sister's aggressive stallion, as well as her sadness as a lone sibling left behind. She feels out of place both at boarding school in Flagstaff, where she's taunted for being an "Indian," and at home on the Rez, where kids call her an "apple": red on the outside but white on the inside. She slowly comes to peace with her sister's absence and her own identity during a summer idyll with her grandmother, taking care of the family's sheep in the canyon. Tess narrates her story with a healthy sprinkling of Navajo, and though she is likably earnest, there is a lot of telling—to Gaby, her family, and readers—about her cultural clashes with her peers and not enough showing. This story loses its way by not letting readers into the modern world of the Native American teenager, who would more likely write rap songs than ceremonial poetry. At times Tess' grandmother feels more part of that world, with her purchase of Day-Glo green sneakers, than Tess does. Heartfelt and poignant, the tale nevertheless feels a little out of touch.

The Pirate Tree

“Right now, this moment, this night, here felt good. I was me – not part white, part Navajo – just me, sitting quietly in the night. The Milky Way was a river of stars – millions of universes.” --from Soldier Sister, Fly Home by Nancy Bo Flood with cover art by Shonto Begay, Navajo

As in Nancy Bo Flood’s award winning novel, Warriors in the Crossfire about the indigenous people of Saipan, Soldier Sister, Fly Home opens with lines of a poem that invite the reader into the rhythm and language of a culture.

Tess is part Navajo, part white and part of her story is the story of many Americans: figuring out who we are with our disparate parts and maybe finding the whole of ourselves. Tess’s life is thrown upside down by her older sister Gaby’s decision to enlist in the Army. When she goes, Gaby entrusts her mustang, called Blue, to Tess’s care, a horse that to Tess is wild and dangerous and she has sworn not to ride him.

A power of the novel is in the physicality of the setting, the terrain of the Navajo Nation, the canyons, desert, the danger of a rock wall split in two they call “Knife Cut, wind that “hit like sandpaper”, a land described in Tess’s grandmother’s warnings, “Hot sun. Flash flood.” Grandma also warns, “Injury from thirst or drowning. No second chances.”

The novel unfolds the summer after Gaby is deployed to war and Tess and her grandmother work at sheep camp with the family’s flock. Flood keeps the reader close to the land, the need for animals as food, the sacredness of sunrise.

From page one there are clues that Soldier Sister is a novel of a young girl’s growing understanding of living with the knowledge of dying. With her grandmother, Tess will understand. Her heart grows, and a courage is required that the storytelling foreshadows, but will break the reader’s heart.

I imagined the 10 or 12-year old reader discovering Soldier Sister and that the story would shift her life. She might never have met a Navajo child, but now she’s met a girl and her grandmother painted with the deepest respect. The reader also learns the story in the Author’s Note about a real Hopi-Mexican American soldier, Lori Piestewa, who died in combat and was loved by her people and the country. Flood offers a bridge between cultures for children. For just a while, we all can be Tess and imagine how it changes a girl who discovers the vastness of life and rides a horse named Blue.

In a letter to readers, Flood wrote about the memorial held for Lori Piestewa. Many of Flood’s students where she taught at the Navaho college in Tuba City had also enlisted, and Flood had gone to the memorial. Flood writes, “The memorial reminded me of when my sister died. She was five, and I was only seven, but somehow my child heart felt that I should have prevented it. Like Tess, I eventually learned that I cannot control life or death. But I can write about it. And so I wrote this book to understand, to heal, and to share.”

S.D. Nelson – Standing Rock Sioux, author of Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bird Girl and Black Elk’s Vision

I could not put down this book. I give this stirring story four stars****— Tess is a mixed-blood teenager, both Navajo and White. She is troubled with doubts, but possesses the dedication of a long distance runner. Will her strengths enable her to deal with the unknown dangers ahead? Will she find the courage needed when one undertakes the heroes’ journey? On the reservation, time is not measured by digital clocks, but by the passage of the fiery Sun and Sister Moon. The remote canyons of Navajo Country are a land of shifting sands and spirits, where dreams and reality become one. In this mysterious landscape Tess journeys, seeking answers to hard questions. She finds the answers in the Beauty Way of her people.

Mom Read It

Thirteen year-old Tess is struggling with her identity. As someone who's part white and part Navajo, she feels too white when she's on the rez, but she's called "Pokey-hontas" and "squaw" at the white school she attends in Flagstaff. Her older sister, Gaby, whom she adores, has joined the military in order to get money for college; when she comes home to tell Tess that she's being deployed - shortly after Tess and her family have attended a memorial service for Lori Piestewa, a member of their community and the first Native American woman to fall in combat - Tess is devastated. Gaby asks Tess to take care of her stallion, Blue, while she's gone; it's a challenge, to be sure, as Blue is semi-wild and doesn't gel with Tess, but over the course of the summer, Tess learns more about herself from Blue than she could have imagined.

Soldier Sister, Fly Home is a quietly tender novel about family, identity, and loss. Lori Piestewa, whose memorial service opens the story, was a real-life soldier who was killed in Iraq and was a member of the Hopi tribe. From Lori's tale, Ms. Flood spins the story of Tess and Gaby and Native American identity. Their grandfather is a veteran, a World War II Code Talker; they live in a community of proud warriors, descended from warriors. Tess is frustrated as she tries to embrace a cultural identity: but which culture to identify with? Her grandmother is a guiding force here, as is Gaby, who loves and reassures her younger sister, even from a world away. Blue, the stubborn and half-wild horse, teaches Tess patience and helps her recognize her own inner strength throughout the book.

The book includes notes and a glossary on the Navajo language, a note honoring Lori Piestewa and her service, and a reader's group guide. Writing prompts are available through the publisher's website, as is a link to a seven-page excerpt.

Soldier Sister, Fly Home has received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. It is a beautiful story and an important addition to all bookshelves.

Nancy Bo Flood was a research psychologist and studied brain development at the University of Minnesota and the University of London before writing books for children. Additional books include recognized and award-winning titles, such as Warriors in the Crossfire (Boyds Mills) and Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo (WordSong).


ISBN: 978-1-58089-702-0

ISBN: 978-1-60734-821-4 EPUB
ISBN: 978-1-60734-822-1 PDF
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Ages: 10 and up
Page count: 144
6 x 9

Correlated to Common Core State Standards:
English Language Arts-Literacy. Reading Literature. Grade 7. Standards 1-3, 6, 10
English Language Arts-Literacy. Reading Literature. Grade 8. Standards 1-3, 10

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