Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets

I can’t believe we’re almost done with the Royal Diaries as well! Wow, time is flying by.

Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets, Massachusetts-Rhode Island, 1653, Patricia Clark-Smith, 2003.

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Now, here is something interesting. This is the only Royal Diaries book that closely intersects with a regular Dear America book (that being A Journey To The New World, which takes place in 1620-1621, and mentions a number of the same people). I know that doesn’t have a lot of bearing on anything, but I find it very interesting that as their pick for a North American native royal, they chose one whose territory already intersected with the very, very first Dear America book! Interesting, no? (You can say no, and I will understand.) At any rate, it’s a little bit difficult to find a leader in that vein (although they did do Anacaona for Haiti, and Kaiulani for Hawaii, but both of those are out of the realm that people usually consider “Native American princesses”) without doing Pocahontas, which I’m sure would have been a problem given the movie had come out just a couple of years before and also the story of Pocahontas is such well-travelled territory. (Although that didn’t stop them from doing, say, Cleopatra!) Anyway, you know who would have been an interesting choice? Nonhelema, the Shawnee chief who played a role in the American Revolution. I digress already.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult for authors who are dealing with illiterate protagonists in a diary-based novel series to come up with a way for them to “write their thoughts,” so the concept we’re dealing with here is twofold: Weetamoo occasionally will draw small sketches of her thoughts on birchbark, and these sketches are a way for her to “think about things.” On the one hand, it’s an interesting way to sort of peep into the mind, but on the other hand, is it all that effective? Let’s read and see.

As we open, it’s 1653 and Weetamoo is the fourteen-year-old daughter of the chief of the Pocassets, who are a Wampanoag band. They live very close to what the settlers have deemed the Plymouth settlement, and they’ve been over there for about thirty years now. But none of that is Weetamoo’s concern right now, since she is busy avoiding her parents’ entreaties that she behave better and teasing her little sister Wootonekanuske and looking after their infant sister Snowbird. She’s mostly looking forward to a visit to a neighboring band so she can see her best friend, Cedar, who also happens to be the daughter of their chief. At the gathering, she also sees Wamsutta and Metacom, Massasoit’s sons—Massasoit being another chief—who tease her and her sister in the way teenage boys tend to harass teenage girls.

They tell stories and feast and have a grand time, and Weetamoo wins a puppy in an archery bet with the boys. So the puppy comes home with her on their way to their winter village inland, which is not too far from the English settlement. Weetamoo follows her father to his meeting there (against, obviously, his wishes and orders), and notes that the English “Coat-men” stole the seed corn her people had carefully left there and eaten it all. Weetamoo is not impressed by their square houses and fences and gardens in boxes, but she does meet an English woman who gives her a little sprig of rosemary. Weetamoo wants to learn more about the English and about deer hunting, so she and Cedar opt to  try to hunt a deer themselves, even though they haven’t been taught how.

It goes horribly, of course, as most plans conceived by 14-year-old girls with no experience go. They injure a deer but don’t kill it, so Weetamoo has to confess to her father who spends a whole day tracking it down to put her out of her mercy. Cedar says her father told her that the girls might get special education on hunting, since they are both going to be sachems one day, but nothing more is said in the meantime and instead everyone just begins preparing for the midwinter feast. And at that feast, Weetamoo’s parents have the Powwaw (medicine man) look at Snowbird, who has never been healthy, and he says that she is never going to live and they can only wait until she passes, which probably won’t be very long.

Eventually everyone from miles around comes for the winter gathering, including Cedar and Wamsutta and Metacom, bringing English goods to bargain and trade for, like metal kettles and woven cloth instead of deerskin. Wamsutta tells Weetamoo about the English settlements and how a number of Indians have gone to join them in a Praying Town, having lost all their relatives and friends to diseases that the English thoughtfully brought with them. But Metacom points out that they have writing, which seems very handy, since you could talk to a person without being face to face with them—“if you had a whole paper full of such marks that meant whatever words you wished or promised, maybe no one could doubt a Wampanoag’s word, as Coat-men now often do. But I wonder.” Indeed.

At any rate, Cedar and Weetamoo are set to go through a sweat lodge and then sent to stay alone in the hills for two days and two nights, and hopefully they’ll each see a vision. At first Weetamoo is bored with nothing to do and no company, but she does have her vision, all right—except it’s the doe she wounded, who leads her to see Squant, their mother goddess, who is holding her baby sister Snowbird, and instead of being thin and unhappy Snowbird is chubby and cheerful and very, very healthy. Oh no. I feel like I can see where this is going. In her visions Weetamoo also sees her future—she sees herself and her sister and Metacom, and some children, but no Wamsutta.

“Why was Wamsutta not in that clearing with us [in the dream]?…He is sometimes very arrogant and boastful, but he is also strong and brave, and he makes me feel very alive, somehow.” This book does a really wonderful job of a coming-of-age story that isn’t too over-the-top romantic. It’s very clear that Weetamoo is in that terrible, awful, exciting, thrilling in-between stage, where things are equal parts terrifying and intriguing, and the adult world is looming. It’s so nicely done.

Anyway, it turns out Cedar mostly dreamed about villages being set on fire and unrelenting death, and the girls talk about how differently their fathers and Massasoit all think about things—dealing with the English, mostly. But Cedar also dreamed that Weetamoo was wealthy and encouraged Cedar to fight against the Coat-men, but she was too frightened to join in, so Weetamoo abandoned her. God, this is the worst foreshadowing ever. I mean, it’s fine foreshadowing as a frame of the story, but God, what a depressing future.

Weetamoo is finally able to go on a deer hunt, but when she comes back Snowbird has died in the meantime. Poor little girl. This is all so, so sad. Their mother sinks into a deep depression, and Weetamoo thinks that her mother was her age when she was married. “This is frightening to me. Not so long ago I would boast that I was old enough and smart enough to do anything. Now I am not so sure, not at all.” Weetamoo finally tells her mother about her vision with Snowbird, and it seems to help, and then their mother confesses that she’s going to have another baby in the fall.

It’s almost truly spring by now, not just thaw, and Cedar and her family leave to go back to their summer homes. Weetamoo goes with her father to Plymouth again, although she stays outside the town itself, and he refuses to tell her anything that they talk about. Their family goes to their spring fish camp and meet up with the other bands once again, and Wamsutta and Metacom are there. Weetamoo is poking around—well, following Wamsutta, really—and then “I scarcely know how it happened, but suddenly we were in each other’s arms.” She tells him all about their winter, and that she thinks he’s careless and boastful and that she loves him anyway. It’s very sweet and funny at the same time. After their families move on from the fish camps to the summer camps, and Weetamoo thinks how things are sweet and terrible and wonderful and frightening all at the same time, somehow.

In the epilogue, Wamsutta and Weetamoo don’t get married—at least not right away. First Weetamoo marries a different sachem, who dies, and then she marries Wamsutta and her sister marries Metacom in their late teens. Wamsutta inherits his father’s rule, and Weetamoo her father’s, and Awashonks (the woman Cedar is based on), inherits her father’s as well. But all the terrible things they see in their visions come true, and Wamsutta and some of his men are captured and he dies suddenly. Weetamoo marries another time or two and has at least one child, but then she isn’t heard from for thirteen years. And then it’s not good—it’s war by this point, and while Weetamoo saves most of her people, it sets a terrible tone for relations in the area. At any rate, she eventually drowns in 1676 near her childhood home trying to escape from the English, and Metacom is killed shortly afterwards, and Wootonekanuske and her son are sold into slavery.

Rating: B+. Well, that was depressing. The epilogue, I mean. The book itself is actually strangely uplifting. As I mentioned, it’s a really well-done coming-of-age story that doesn’t rely too heavily on the “sweat lodge and initiation” trope that’s so common in fiction about Native Americans. I mean, it happens, but it’s not the total focus of the plot. And I love that there is a small thread of romance, but it’s so subtle that it would function just as well without it. Weetamoo really does grow up, but it’s masked in the “I thought I knew everything but the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t,” which is so realistic for YA and so amusing for uh, actual adults. The reason I won’t give it an A is because I’m not all that enthralled with the hit-or-miss style of the literary conceit for Weetamoo’s “diary” (i.e., the “thinking and pictures on birchbark” style). It seems to be fairly unevenly enforced, and while I do understand why it was used, I don’t think it was the most effective one.

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2 thoughts on “Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets

  1. In thinking about how to manage writing historical diaries without literate protagonists, you might enjoy reading Annabel Lyon’s Imagining Ancient Women. Lyon wrote the acclaimed novels The Golden Mean (on Aristotle and Alexander the Great) and The Sweet Girl (on Aristotle’s daughter Pythias), and this is a short book – a lecture, really – on making the whole writing business both engaging and believable (striving for some version of historical accuracy).

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