Here is an interesting example of a long-forgotten genre: the Captivity Narrative!
Standing in the Light: The Captive Diary of Catherine Carey Logan, Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania, 1763, Mary Pope Osborne, 1998.
Captivity narratives are stories, basically, about white people being captured by non-white people, and how harrowing and terrible their experiences are. They were insanely popular in America, both before the Revolution and well after it, until nearly 1900. Generally, they involve a lot of religious themes and ruminations on the “alien” nature of the Indians, the goodness of God, the desire for redemption, and so on. There’s a lot of scholarly literature on this topic, because they’re incredibly fascinating and say a ton about what societies value and the way they view themselves and “others,” but some captivity narratives cross the line into being not only factually incorrect, but downright cruel.
Traditional captivity narratives were proto-thrillers, real page-turners, and frequently involved romantic themes, religious themes, heroic rescues, pretty much everything you’d need for a major bestseller. It’s no mistake that a lot of crappy romance novels were on the same premise—beautiful white woman abducted by virile Indians and learns to love them—it sells a lot. Standing in the Light is sort of a junior example of the genre, and it’s equal parts icky and well done. I’m a little reluctant to call it “great” across the board, but let’s get into it.
Catherine lives with her Quaker family on their farm in the Delaware Valley, in what is today part of the extreme eastern edge of Pennsylvania. She’s the oldest of four, with a younger sister, a seven-year-old younger brother Thomas, and another brother who’s just an infant. Her life is pretty chill, and revolves mostly around working at home with her mother, going to Meeting with her family, going to school with her friends (and being afraid of arithmetic), and having a crush on a boy there. Nothing unusual, nothing terribly exciting. There have been Indian raids very nearby, which terrifies Catherine’s mother, but her father refuses to leave for the city—thinking God won’t let anything happen to them.
But, as I’m sure you can deduce by the existence of this book, something does happen—Catherine and her brother Thomas are abducted by a group of Indians on their way to school one morning early in January. Instead of writing in a journal, she begins addressing her entries to her father, hoping that one day they’ll reach him. She’s petrified that they’re going to scalp her, and they take her and Thomas on a long, long hike. Eventually Thomas can’t walk any more—whether it’s physical or psychological, who knows—and Catherine is afraid they’ll kill him, but they don’t. They carry him the rest of the way to their final destination, which turns out to be a village on a riverbank. Both are left in a hut for the night with an older woman and a younger woman in her twenties or so, and her son. The next day Thomas is taken away, and Catherine is adopted as the new daughter of the older woman.
For weeks, they extend Catherine everything they can—they try as best they can to be kind to her, but Catherine despises them and refuses to even try to understand them. There’s a hunter not too much older than Catherine with an eagle tattooed on his cheek who she keeps seeing, and she is tasked to go and help him set traps. After she comes down with a fever and is on the mend, she starts randomly talking in English to him—angry, horrible, hateful things about how miserable she is and how awful the Indians are all are and how they’ll all go to hell, and randomly, about how she’s almost out of ink. She finds her ink jar mysteriously refilled, but thinks an angel did it, rather than taking the more-obvious step of thinking that someone in the camp speaks English and has overheard her insane ranting.
She just keeps talking and talking about everything—how sad she is and how much she misses her family and how afraid she is that she isn’t cut out to be a Quaker or have a family. Which is pretty sad. Actually, all of this is sad—she’s terribly, terribly traumatized and doesn’t speak the same language as any of them, and is still afraid they’ll turn on her and kill her. She’s obsessed with the fear that they’ve taken her brother away and they’re torturing him to death, and while she’s ranting away on this to the hunter, he turns around and says to her in English that Thomas is not being tortured, he’s perfectly fine. And that’s all he says. Catherine is almost losing her mind with confusion, and a few days later the hunter rescues her from crashing through the ice on the river and tells her that he was English a long, long time ago, but is now Lenape.
From then on, he speaks to Catherine occasionally, but it gives her enough spirit to keep going. He tells her how much he scorns her for not bothering to learn one single stupid word of Lenape, but what’s more, for not even respecting the women who have been, you know, feeding and clothing and sheltering Catherine and putting up with her crap. She thinks on that for a while, and after a few weeks asks the hunter—Snow Hunter, his name is—how to say hello, and what the name of the older woman is. It hadn’t struck her in four months that it may be important. Very, very gradually, Catherine begins to smile at the women, and eventually learns not to despise them any more, especially after she learns that she is a daughter to replace the older woman’s younger daughter, who died of the measles that the white men brought.
In the spring, Snow Hunter takes Catherine to see her brother in another village because he’s terribly ill. He’s brought back to White Owl’s hut, where she and her daughter look after Thomas and nurse him back to health. He recuperates slowly, and Catherine is a bit horrified to hear everything he tells her about his Indian friends and how much Lenape he’s learned and how much he likes it there. When Catherine asks Snow Hunter what he remembers from his childhood, all he says is “I do not remember,” and she’s afraid the same will happen to Thomas.
But very gradually as the summer wears on, Catherine begins to learn some Lenape, and she begins to see White Owl as a mother like her own mother, instead of a “savage.” As much as she’s afraid that they’re going to lose Thomas, she finds herself inexorably being drawn into their way of life. She learns how to make their food and their home goods, and enjoying herself. She’s equal parts horrified at herself and pleased with her life, feeling guilty and feeling happy. She spends more and more time with Snow Hunter, and White Owl and her other daughter begin to tease Catherine gently about him. And then she finds herself not writing to her father any more, but for herself, about how smitten she is and how she grows to love him.
Snow Hunter goes with the other men on a hunting expedition, and Catherine busies herself by helping White Owl gather medicines and heal people. She is afraid that the Quakers would never take her back, but she thinks she loves Snow Hunter enough to make up for that—but is it? The men are late coming back, and then very late, and then late enough for everyone to worry. A messenger from a nearby town says a band of Indians were set upon by white soldiers and killed, and that whites have been raiding local Indian camps. So Catherine and White Owl and the rest of the small band pack their things and prepare to melt away into the woods, but they’re too late. English soldiers crash into the camp and beat White Owl to death in front of Catherine and Thomas, then recapture both of them and set the rest of the camp ablaze.
It’s truly horrible. It’s the end of October when they’re recaptured, and Catherine’s father comes to collect them and bring them back home. But it isn’t the happy ending anyone wanted. Catherine is a stranger to her parents and her siblings, and when her former friends come by to visit her, they ask her awkward, painful questions. Catherine is totally traumatized by being ripped away again, and refuses to go back to school and wishes God would just strike her dead and be done with it. Her mother believes they’ve been tortured, but her father is more understanding. It doesn’t matter, though—Catherine is never going to feel comfortable in her community again. The end.
Rating: B. Hmm. There’s a lot of stuff to unpack in this book, which is pretty short. I feel like it would have done well to be longer and more in-depth—as much as it was interesting to explore Catherine’s changing feelings about the Indian band, it felt like it was a bit rushed. I did like the way her Quaker faith informed her outlook on life, and I think it was well handled. There just wasn’t enough real meat to the story. What was there was well done, it just was not thorough enough for my taste. Sub 150 pages (and short entries and large print) is just not enough to cover the real beef in this story, and I feel like there was a lot more to explore there.
However, this is an interesting example of the captivity narrative, repackaged for a modern youth audience. Rather than focusing on the cruelty of her captors, the focus is on Catherine learning to appreciate their way of life and even to fall in love with one of them. But the impact of that is taken away a little bit when the man she falls in love with is a white man who’s been living with the Lenape since he was very young. That’s my own personal irritant, though. It falls a bit into the “those noble Indians and all of their noble ways!” which is irritating in its own way, but I think Catherine’s journey from loathing them to appreciating them is realistically handled. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but the writing is good enough to elevate it.