The only thing—literally the only thing at all—I remembered about this book was the cover, because there was a copy in my library growing up and I thought the girl on the front was a vengeful ghost spirit or something. Can I also note that the cover blurb “Related with all the impact of a hard-hitting documentary” is A) false and B) not a great pull quote, either?
I Am Regina, Sally M. Keehn, 1991.
As this blog goes on and on we delve deeper and deeper into the realms of “that book? Who even remembers that book?” and this falls pretty squarely into that category. I know I read it as a kid because I remembered the cover, but I had zero memory of it. It was for the best. Now I’ve read it as an adult and I have to have the memory of it forever, which may possibly be worse.
First of all, everything about this book is strange. It’s based on an allegedly true story, which is that Regina Leininger, who was a Pennsylvania German girl taken from her family home during an Indian raid and lived in captivity with a tribe for many years, and was returned to her mother after many years and recognized her only after her mother sang “Alone Yet Not Alone Am I,” which was a hymn the family had sung together. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Now, you may think that it’s ripe for drama and entertainment, but this story fails to deliver any of it. But don’t worry, let me tell you all about it in detail.
The beginning of this book is almost a carbon copy of Indian Captive by Lois Lenski, which I haven’t recapped because it’s from 1941, but I may get there eventually because it had so much influence on so many of the fictional captivity narratives that have been published since. Regina lives with her German-speaking family on their farm in Pennsylvania, and one day while they’re sitting at their dinner table two Indians burst in on them. Regina’s mother and brother, John, are away in town at the mill that day, but her father and older brother are killed immediately and their cabin and barn set on fire. Regina and her sister Barbara are bound and forced on a long, long trek with the two Indians—Two Feathers and Tiger Claw. They’re joined by more Indians and three of Regina’s neighbours and a little girl she doesn’t recognize.
Barbara at first tries to talk about escape, but Regina is too beaten down by carrying the toddler girl she names Sarah that she can’t think of anything but her pain. Barbara makes an escape attempt by stealing a horse, but the Indians catch her and are ready to burn her on a bonfire (dear God) but she manages to escape at the last minute by refusing to cry or show weakness, which impresses them. A few days later the sisters are parted, and it’s just Regina, Sarah, and Tiger Claw. Regina carries Sarah, and Tiger Claw beats her, and they walk and walk and walk for weeks.
When they finally reach the village, it’s not a particularly prosperous one. They’re given to Tiger Claw’s mother, Woelfin, and adopted into the tribe. Woelfin is cruel and sends Regina out into the woods to gather food without any instruction, but luckily Regina manages to befriend what seems like the only kind Indian in the world, Nonschetto, who teaches her what to gather and how. Nonschetto, Regina’s only friend, teaches her how to tap maple trees for syrup at the end of winter, and catch fish in the stream, and all the while Woelfin berates Regina and beats her and treats her like a servant.
Regina, who’s only eleven at the start of the book, suffers badly under Woelfin’s treatment and the near-starvation conditions they live in. Tiger Claw drinks heavily when he has it, rather than hunting for his mother, which certainly doesn’t help the discord in the house. Regina eventually learns that Woelfin was widowed a few years ago when her husband was killed by a white man—shot in the back while camping and scalped. Their home is not a happy or prosperous one, even when the rest of the village is doing OK.
The village has a festival one evening when Regina has been there about a year, which begins well but ends terribly when the French trader turns up and begins giving alcohol to some of the men. That night Tiger Claw tries to rape Regina, who is TWELVE, and is only rescued by Woelfin, who begins yelling at Tiger Claw that he’s a shame to their people. She curses him, and the next morning Tiger Claw leaves to go raiding. Regina is bewildered—how can Woelfin, who’s been so cruel to her all this time, be so kind now?
Shortly after that, Nonschetto goes with some others on a trading expedition, but is shot by a white man along with her toddler son—suddenly Regina understands the terrible fury that leads the Indians to pillage the white farms after being attacked. When Tiger Claw returns, Woelfin asks that Regina agree to marry him (although confusingly, she says it has been “many moons” since the attack, but according to the text it’s only been two or three months? It’s not the only confusing thing about this book.) Rather than being horrified and enraged, Regina just tries to tell her that she doesn’t want to be married to anyone. This is all so confusing.
When Regina is fourteen and has been with the Indians for three years, the wars between the Indians and white men end—sort of. Things settle down to a more peaceful pattern, but then the news comes that English forts are springing up all over Indian territory, which is not strictly allowed. Or allowed at all. So the men return to raiding, and one time Tiger Claw comes home with a wife called No Thought. (How kind, especially because the reason No Thought is thoughtless and kind of dumb is because she was clubbed in the head as a child.) The fighting just won’t stop, even after the Alleghenies join forces with the Seneca and Shawnee and Tuscarora around them, and most of the men in the village are killed.
The winter that Regina is sixteen or so they know will be a hard one. The men who are still alive travel to council and promise to return with weapons and blankets, but there’s nothing left to eat in the village. They’re slowly starving to death—the few that are left—and just barely make it through the winter, but the men don’t come back. When they do, it isn’t until summer, and they bring only a few sad blankets and the news that the war is over and nothing has been gained. The other thing they bring is smallpox.
Tiger Claw dies, and No Thought dies, and their infant dies, and Sarah is very ill, but pulls through. The village is just six women, five children, and their elderly chief now, and Regina knows they won’t be able to make it through another winter. A Tuscarora warrior comes with the news that all the Indians in the area are being forced to return their captives, and the chief says they have no choice but to flee. Woelfin refuses, though, and she and Regina and Sarah stay behind while the others move on.
The white men do come, though, and ask Regina and Sarah who they were before they were Indians—but Sarah doesn’t remember any such time and Regina doesn’t know what her old name was. The Indians threaten Woelfin, and Regina defends her, and then they burn Woelfin’s home—they take Regina and Sarah with them, and Woelfin flees into the woods, saying to go with the white men after all.
Regina and Sarah go with the white men, but Sarah is devastated to leave the only home she remembers, and Regina remembers almost nothing of her old home and life. They travel for days and days before arriving at the fort, where almost two hundred other captives are brought to be returned to their families. Some of them don’t want to return at all—one woman is married to a chief and has an eight-year-old son and only wants to return to her Indian family. They march for days, stopping off at forts on the way to split off and take various captives to their homes. At the last fort, Regina and Sarah are boarded with a German-speaking family, who have a German Bible that Regina can read, even if she doesn’t understand German any more. It’s at this fort that the captives’ families come to greet them, and a woman appears who thinks she might know Regina. Of course, it’s been eight years, and she wouldn’t recognize her eleven-year-old daughter anymore, but the woman begins singing that same song—“Alone Yet Not Alone”—and Regina remembers, at last, who she is.
Rating: D. I really hated this book. For starters, it’s confusingly told—it’s in present tense, which is fine, but likes to switch back and forth between present and “now I’m in the present but recalling a memory so it’s past tense,” which makes it hard to follow. The timeline makes very little sense—like I said, sometimes there’s conflict between the narrative and what characters say. And more confusingly, even when there should be growth and development, it’s implied that there is but you can never really tell? I certainly don’t think everything should be spelled out for the reader, since down that way lies madness, but there’s a difference between “subtext” and “the reader can’t tell if this is supposed to be implied or just got left out.” I guess it’s possible that this is a very sophisticated story of Stockholm syndrome, but frankly I kind of doubt it. Overall, the whole story comes off as flat and depressing for the sake of depressing, which isn’t a good look, and there’s almost no character development, of any kind, in anyone. It’s boring, which sounds awful for a book that had a lot of potential, but it’s true! Give this one a miss.