Time for a major time skip!
Chickadee, Louise Erdrich, 2008.
I’ve definitely raved about Louise Erdrich and the Birchbark House series before, because she and it are both so fantastic, and they’re usually compared to the Little House books. But with one, fairly major, exception! The first three Birchbark House books are about Omakayas growing up and her family, but the fourth and fifth are about her twin sons, Chickadee and Makoons. As titled, of course. I really love the concept, and I love that it’s handled very well—a lot of books and series like this tend to fall into the “exactly like it was before and everyone acts exactly as they did when they were teenagers,” but in these the focus is definitely on the children with a really interesting and well-done portrayal of Omakayas as an adult woman.
At any rate, Omakayas marries Animikiins, as was foreshadowed in The Porcupine Year, and they have twin sons, Chickadee and Makoons, which means Little Bear. They live near the great lake with the rest of their family, and as the story opens everyone else is safe at home while Animikiins is out hunting a moose and getting caught in the icy lake. He manages to survive, but just barely, while at home the boys and their sister Zozie (who is not actually their sister, but is Two Strike’s daughter (yes! Two Strike marries and then immediately discards her husband, and then essentially lets Omakayas and Angeline raise her daughter because she freely admits she has no idea what to do with kids)) are out looking for small game since it’s the end of winter and they’re all starving. Animikiins manages to snare his moose after all, but not before living through a terrible snowstorm that badly frightens Omakayas. But he makes it home safely with the moose, which will carry them through the rest of the winter and his being away is just dramatic foreshadowing for the rest of the story.
Now we’re into serious Deep Cuts territory, very deep into the canon. This is For Serious Fans Only.
Look to The Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, A French Slave Girl: New York Colony, 1763, Patricia McKissack, 2004.
Now, okay. It pains me to say this because I really love Patricia McKissack and I think she’s great. (I would have liked it better if they had more than one author to write about black characters in Dear America, but she was the only one until the rebooted editions, when they had a story about a girl at an integrated school in the 1950s.) And I enjoyed that it covered a different aspect of the French and Indian War, even though it takes place the exact same year as Standing in the Light (which is a pretty standard captivity narrative, that I’ll get to in a different entry). But. But.
This book is just not all that interesting. I know. I hate it too. But it is dull. And it has no reason to be, because it’s a really thrilling story, with a lot of real-life influences, and a lot of really interesting reflections on slavery and freedom, but it just never really comes together and sings. All the components are there—interesting and flawed characters, an engaging story, deep thoughts. It just doesn’t quite cross the barrier, which is a real shame.
We’re back in the Birchbark House for the third installment!
The Porcupine Year, Louise Erdrich, 2008.
OK, so The Game of Silence was pretty depressing, let’s see if the third book will be any better. At this point, Omakayas is twelve and her family has moved from their original home, and it looks like things might be stabilizing a bit. But clearly not all that much, because as we open Omakayas and her younger brother Pinch are in the process of being washed away in a canoe down some rapids. But they end up lost and alone further down the river without a good idea of how to get home.
They find a baby porcupine which looks delicious, but in the process of hunting it, Pinch gets quilled badly in the face—but instead of eating it, Pinch vows to spare the porcupine’s life. So even though Omakayas would rather not, they bring it with them to camp and then head out the next morning, porcupine riding comfortably on Quill’s head. The rapids that they lived through are so dramatic and awful that they’re sure that a protector spirit helped them through it, and Omakayas sacrifices her red beads that her grandmother gave her in thanks.
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.
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.
Look! We’re back again with Omakayas for the second edition, Darker and Worse. It’s great, but I’m not going to lie: if Birchbark House was depressing to you, you’re probably not going to like this.
The Game of Silence, Louise Erdrich, 2005.
The very, very, very first chapter of this book, before we get into anything, straight-up tells you it’s going to be a bad time. A group of ragged, starving people reach Omakayas’s family’s settlement—their leader is Miskobines, the uncle of Fishtail—a family friend. They’re all starving, and Omakayas’s mother takes a baby that no one could identify but the starving people brought with them, who becomes Omakayas’s new little brother, Bizheens. She gains a cousin, too, one of the quiet and angry-looking boys who goes to live with her other cousins.
There’s a game the adults play with the children when they need them to be quiet—the adults all contribute a gift to a pile, and the children stay silent as long as the adults are talking, and the one who lasts without talking the longest gets to pick first from the pile of presents. They know something is terribly wrong when it’s a miraculous pile of gifts. Turns out what the adults are talking about is how the white men are moving in and forcing the Ojibwe to leave their ancestral homeland and move west. They agree to send scouts to see what’s happened—maybe there’s been a treaty dispute or an Ojibwe killed a white man and this is retribution. Fishtail agrees to go out, as do a couple of other men, and Angeline (Omakayas’s very beautiful older sister) sends Fishtail off that summer and no one knows exactly what will happen when they come back. Omakayas is afraid they’re going to be forced to leave the only home she’s ever known, and even knowing that she won’t be separated from her family isn’t enough to soothe her fear.
I hear you! Believe me, I hear you, and I also think Sunfire is the most hilariously awful crap to grace the pages of “books” in many years. This one promises to be especially bad, since it contains actual, real historical people. Probably depicted poorly, I’ll hazard a guess.
Merrie, Vivian Schurfranz, 1987.
Before you start, “Merrie” is a variant on Mary. If you’re like me and stood there goggling at it going “What the fuck?” for a few minutes. I already don’t have a good feeling about this book. Also, the cover is atrocious—Merrie has some kind of wild cape going on with an oddly-Victorian-looking merlot gown, while there’s two dudes: one wearing a…scarf around his neck and what appears to be blue jeans with one of those blousy pirate shirts? And the other wearing a Pilgrim getup that looks like it was purchased from Crazy Frank’s Halloween House Of Fun. He’s even clutching a buckled hat. Helpful hint: the Pilgrims wore normal clothing for their day, including all the colours, and didn’t wear buckles on their hats.
And starting this book I already don’t think I’m going to like Merrie. The whole premise of this book is that she’s stowed away on the Mayflower to escape an arranged marriage. Except she’s supposed to come from wealth, which means that she would have been brought up with the idea that marriage would not be strictly a love match, and secondly, why the Mayflower of all the godforsaken ships in England? Surely you could find a ship going somewhere warm and not a completely isolated place in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, Merrie is discovered on page six and we’re ready to rock and roll.
I always complain that these books about boys are boring and dull, but this one was not. Probably because it’s a Kathryn Lasky book, so it’s going to be a good bit above the general run, but I was still genuinely surprised! Incidentally, this book was rereleased with a new title and cover, and you tell me which one is more engaging.
The Journal of Augustus Pelletier, The Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804, Kathryn Lasky, 2000.
So, here you go. The initial title looks exactly like every other single My Name Is America book, which is not super thrilling, but the reissue is…it’s a little bit pulp-fiction-y, isn’t it? I’m not an 11-year-old boy so I’m probably not the target audience here, but am I wrong? The expressions on everyone’s faces here are hilarious—grinding fury, complete irritation, and what looks like the guy in the back who may have just heard the world’s most hilarious joke. I don’t know what’s happening here.
Gus here, our teenage protagonist, is preparing to secretly follow the Lewis and Clark expedition in search of a little adventure, and his brilliant plan is to wait until they’re too far along to tell him he has to go back. As stupid of an idea as that is, and believe me it is truly dumb, it is definitely something a teenage boy would come up with. He’s half French and half Omaha, calls himself a half-breed, and speaks French, Omaha, and English, which as you imagine might come in handy. He immediately begins complaining about how slow the whole expedition is going, which is not surprising considering that they’re a good bit more clunky than a single teenage boy and his knapsack.
Can you believe I’ve reviewed almost every book in the Dear America series? Unfortunately that means we’re down to the books I didn’t like all that much. Or, in the case of this one, the books that were a complete waste of paper and ink. Oh yeah. Strong words for a DA book! That’s because it’s horrifyingly bad!
My Heart Is On The Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, A Sioux Girl, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880, Ann Rinaldi, 1999.
Oh boy. I might as well start off by linking to a much better review that points out the millions of things wrong with this book: besides the numerous factual errors, like the fact that a girl from this specific nation would have never described herself as Sioux (way to put that on the COVER), the fact that Captain Pratt is treated as a model of reason in the book, while in real life he was a bully and an autocrat who tried to beat the Indian out of the students at the Carlisle Indian School. Well. Anyway, just go read this, it’s going to point out that fifty bajillion factual errors, while I’m going to focus on everything that’s wrong with the book from a literary standpoint. Spoiler: IT’S A LOT. Ann Rinaldi wrote this book! What the hell?
Nannie is a Lakota girl sent to the Carlisle Indian School with her brother, Conrad, in order to learn the “white man’s ways” and “bring honor” to her people. I know. It’s already awful. Stay with me. If you wanted to read an accurate and well-written book about Lakota girls growing up, you should have picked a better one. This is one of those books where the premise is “someone who doesn’t write English learns to do it better.” The same thing is done in Dreams of the Golden Country, except better. All of this is done in terrible stereotypical English, where she calls her diary “talking leaves” before she learns the word “die-eerie,” and I’ll point out that no one says “diary” like that, and also that’s not at all a phonetic spelling.
Now for a classic, and another edition of “I Can’t Believe I Didn’t Read This As A Kid!” It’s even a Newbery Medal winner! Again: I was maybe too busy rereading every book in the extended Baby-sitter’s Club universe rather than reading books that would improve my moral fiber or whatever.
A Gathering Of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-32, Joan W. Blos, 1979.
Now, I didn’t have this exact edition, but I know every elementary-school library had a copy with a pattern of leaves around the edges. For some reason my passion for historical fiction and diary-style books never led me to this one in particular. God only knows why. I think for a long time I was possibly confusing it with Catherine, Called Birdy, which was the other diary-style book I never quite managed to crack open. They couldn’t be more different, though, because while Catherine, Called Birdy is irreverent and humorous and wittily charming, A Gathering of Days is much more plodding and frankly, depressing. It’s realistic, which is nice—wonderful verisimilitude is never something to sneeze at—but it feels much more like School Assignment Reading. As usual, here is the question: would I have enjoyed this more as a kid?
Anyway, we also have a Catherine as our protagonist, here, and I wonder if part of the reason I don’t recall reading it as a kid was that I read the first page and watched as the story stalled out before even going anywhere. Books like this are the reason every story I wrote as a kid started out with an exhaustive recounting of the protagonist and their family and their life story. Because that’s how this one starts out—Catherine lives with her father and younger sister Matty in New Hampshire, her best friend Cassie lives on the adjoining farm, and they go to school together with a strict but good teacher. I’m bored already.
This book is so weird. It feels like it goes on for ages and ages and ages and never actually manages to go anywhere interesting? Thankfully, it’s the last one in this trash fire of a series, so buckle up because this is a bad one.
Tempestuous: Opal’s Story, Jude Watson, 1996.
This is the Very Special Episode of this series, because it’s about a Black Woman, and while it makes a good effort at actually talking about race relations, it mostly falls flat because the writing isn’t all that good and the characters are hilariously flat and also Opal kind of sucks. She is the classic example of “Maybe the grass is greener on the other side? No it isn’t! It sucks over there! Maybe my first boyfriend will take me back!??!”
Also, let’s talk about the cover art. Opal is a seamstress, so she should be wearing a beautiful hand-sewn creation she made for herself, but I swear to God this outfit looks way more like buckskin and a skirt over trousers. I get that it’s a trick of shadow, but like…that’s the best outfit you could give her? It’s not even a colour. It’s non-colour with an orange stripe. Opal, you can do better than this.