The White Oneida (2014), by Jean Rae Baxter

Baxter - White O In her earlier young adult historical novels—The Way Lies North (2007), Broken Trail (2011), and Freedom Bound (2012), Jean Baxter explores the lives of the United Empire Loyalists, Native Americans, and African-American slaves during and shortly after the American Revolution. We follow the history of the Cobham family—among others—as they flee persecution in the United States, separated by the turmoil of the conflict. John Cobham and the eldest son, Elijah, left to fight for the British; the second son, Silas, later followed them; the youngest son, Moses, ran away and was found and adopted by an Oneida community; the only girl, Hope was a babe in arms as the family fell apart.

The White Oneida follows this exploration into the aftermath of political decisions made at the time, specifically those regarding the First Nations and land rights. The White Oneida is Moses Cobham, raised from the age of ten as Broken Trail. As the story opens, Broken Trail has been sent by Thayendanegea—known in history books as Joseph Brant—to Sedgewick School in Vermont, where promising young Native youths were being taught the White Man’s ways ostensibly to prepare them to “go forth to preach the Gospel in many tongues” (13). This, however, is neither Thayendanegea’s nor Broken Trail’s intent. Broken Trail is being educated explicitly to help forge alliances between the various First Nations, to gain a “gentleman’s education that will help prepare [him] to assist [Thayendanegea] in negotiations with white diplomats as well as with his plans to make a better future for native people” (5), and Broken Trail approaches his commission very earnestly.

In a twist on the Muscular Christianity “school novel” tradition, lacrosse plays a role in honing Broken Trail’s leadership abilities, but in the interest of promoting unity amongst the native peoples, not in the promulgation of Christian doctrine. This plot element draws also on historical allusion. The story, roughly told, is that at the outset of the Pontiac Rebellion of 1763, lacrosse functioned as a Trojan Horse: the First Nation warriors played lacrosse in the fields outside Fort Michilimackinac so often that the activity was considered harmless. When a ball was sent over the fort walls in a particular match between the Ojibwas and the Sauks, the British opened the door to return it; the natives surged through, decimating the fort. In The White Oneida, the metaphor of lacrosse as “the little brother of war” (49) functions on a deeper level. At Sedgewick School, the game, in traditional fashion, pits the Algonkian Shooting Stars (populated by students from the Mississaugas, Potawatomis, Ottawas, Shawnee, and Mohican nations) against the Six Nations Eagles (with students from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations: the the Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayugas, Onondaga, and Tuscarora). Recognizing the politically divisive nature of this recreational rivalry, Broken Trail asserts that he will only play if he plays for the Shooting Stars; he is supported by Lean Horse–Abraham, a Mohican who crosses the floor to the Eagles’ team (109). This is Broken Trail’s first success as a leader: despite initial opposition, not only the students but two of the teachers are converted to his position that “with mixed teams we’ll feel more like brothers than rivals … that’s what we need if we’re ever going to stand shoulder to shoulder to defend our lands” (111).

Broken Trail comes to Sedgewick School as a firm acolyte of Thayendanegea, but his hero-worship is disturbed by his teacher, half-Mohawk Mr. Johnson, whose opinion of Brant is less idealized. Thayendanegea, Mr. Johnson tells Broken Trail, means “places-two-bets”: a fitting name for Captain Joseph Brant, who “gambled to become a fine gentleman in the white man’s world and a war chief in ours. He won both bets” (67). Baxter - Haldimand TractIn 1784, Brant “won” for the Six Nations the Haldimand Tract: a grant of land stretching 6 miles either side of the Grand River for its entire length, 950 000 acres, give or take, in total. When Broken Trail comments that “the Haldimand Tract doesn’t belong to Captain Brant. It belongs to the people of the Six Nations,” Mr. Johnson derisively asks “Does Brant know that?” (67). Mr. Johnson further tells Broken Trail that Brant has been “selling off Six Nations land as if it were his own property” (139); it is historical fact that Brant did sell parts of the Haldimand Tract to white settlers. Later in the novel, Brant is given his own voice to respond to such accusations. Brant disillusions Broken Trail of his belief that the Haldimand Tract was granted to the Iroquois in recognition of their loyalty, explaining the military rationale behind the grant (220). He goes on to explain that the grant was “both too small and too large”: “too small for the Six Nations to live in the old way [but] more than what we require for farms. So why not sell land we don’t need in order to raise money for the things we do?” (221). By this point, we are willing to believe that Brant’s rationale is what he believes to be true, but it is to Baxter’s great credit that—like Broken Trail—we are not really sure that any of the versions we are given are actually truth.

In the context of the novel, the cynical Mr. Johnson has a valid perspective. This is another of the strengths of Baxter’s historicity: her fictional characters are constructed such that their knowledge and opinions are justified and believable. Brant, as a historical figure carries his own credibility, but the fictional characters seem equally “real.” Mr. Johnson, for example, is presented as “one of Sir William Johnson’s sons” (27) from his union with Molly Brant, Joseph Brant’s sister. The Dictionary of National Biography verifies Baxter’s information about the Johnson family, should a reader choose to check. They likely wouldn’t: so much of Baxter’s information reads as historical truth.

(An interesting tangential note is that Canadian poet-performer, E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), who adopted her great-grandfather’s native name of “Tekahionwake,” or “Double-Wampum,” was descended from Sir William. Twice widowed, in 1759 Sir William “married” Molly Brant, who bored him eight children. Johnson had 3 children by his first wife, Mary Wisenburgh, and an unspecified number by his second long-term liaison with a Dutch woman whom he married on her death-bed—hence Broken Trail’s classmate’s comment about Johnson making “good provision for all his children, whether their mothers were native or white” (27). In his will, Johnson calls Molly’s children his “natural children” (see Dictionary of National Biography entry, below). Broken Trail’s fictional teacher, Mr. Johnson, was one of these children, as was E. Pauline Johnson’s entirely non-fictional great-grandfather, Jacob George “Tekahionwake” Johnson.)

It is not the well-constructed plot of The White Oneida that renders it such a successful historical novel so much as the weaving together of the threads of political machinations surrounding the history of the Iroquois nations in Canada and the creation of the Six Nations Reserve in what is now Brant County. The objective history of negotiations and decisions is complex; through Broken Trail’s growing insight and ethical interpretations of what he learns, readers can begin to understand the motivations driving those decisions. More politically aware than Broken Trail, Margaret–Yellowbird tells him that she “doesn’t trust” the American tolerance of the Oneida rebuilding the villages destroyed in the Revolution: “Whenever they seem to be treating us better, they’re just softening us up so they can take more of our land. I think their plan is to push us into little reservations surrounded by white settlements, so each band will be cut off from the rest. That way, we’ll lose our power to act as a single nation” (43). This concern underlies Brant’s intent in sending Broken Trail to Sedgewick School. Broken Trail begins his educational journey believing that Brant’s vision is right, his motivations pure and just. As we leave him, we see that Broken Trail’s belief in the vision is just as strong, but he has a far more balanced and realistic view of the complexities of and contradictions in Brant’s—and others’—attitudes and actions. He has seen that too often “the bannock was buttered and spread with strawberry jam” (223), and he moves ever forward in his desire to negotiate the disparate yet entangled worlds he inhabits.

 

Sir Leslie Stephen, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, 1921–1922. Volumes 1–20, 22 (London, England: Oxford UP, 1921-1922) p. 939:

Baxter - William Johnson DNB

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A Country of Our Own: The Confederation Diary of Rosie Dunn, Ottawa, Province of Canada, 1866 (2013), Karleen Bradford

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.3.

Part of the Dear Canada series

Mack-CountryHaving read one or two volumes from girls’ pseudo-historical series such the Dear America series, or the British My Story series, I did not expect great things from Dear Canada; I didn’t want to see my own history similarly fictionalized beyond sufficient claims to historical authenticity. Then I looked at the authors contributing to the Dear Canada series. The list is extensive, and each author there is a familiar name to young Canadian readers; each author there is respected for his or her authorial integrity. Karleen Bradford’s Confederation Diary of Rosie Dunn is a welcome addition to the well-researched and well-written Dear Canada library.

It is 1866, and young Rosie Dunn has had to take her older sister’s place in service with a politician’s family destined to move to Ottawa, the capital of the new Dominion of Canada. Rosie’s father is keen on politics, so she is used to hearing the news, but not always understanding what it means. Her keen interest and intelligence, but lack of raw information, make Rosie the perfect vessel for bringing political knowledge to the young reader.

On 31 December 1857, Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the new capital of the Province of Canada; by 1866, when Rosie Dunn arrives, Ottawa is still little more than a back-woods community, with mud instead of sidewalks and small wood houses instead of the attractively designed and solidly constructed homes of Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, or Quebec City. The “hardships” Rosie’s employers have to endure make her an admirable servant: she is industrious, honest, clever, and used to working in less-than-luxurious conditions. Rosie’s story is a rich combination of life in 1860s Ottawa and a lay-person’s understanding of the political events that accompanied the birth of our nation. We learn much of what the common people might have thought about the politics of the time, of the relations between the British ruling class and the Irish and French Canadian working classes, and of the day-to-day activities of the working people in each community. The feeling Bradford creates in her story—the characters, the setting, the honest human emotions—remind me strongly of one of my favourite novels for young Canadian readers, Lyn Cook’s much earlier The Secret of Willow Castle (1966). Both books take a significant moment in Canadian history and bring it to life for young readers. What better way to engage with our history than through the eyes and ears and minds of well-constructed fictional counterparts?

The Journal (2015), by Lois Donovan

It isn’t so often any more that when I finish a book, my mind stays in the story, but Lois Donovan’s The Journal pulled me in completely and kept me there. The power of the story over me might be because I am so interested in the historical moment that young Kami Anderson slips into, but I think that Donovan’s attention to historical detail and balanced inclusion of social issues have more to do with it…

It is hard to describe this book without revealing the plot, which I usually avoid, so please bear with me; there are spoilers here, unfortunately.

Donovan - Journal

Japanese-Canadian Kami Anderson is holding up rather well to having her life turned upside-down. She hasn’t seen her father for over two years, but her mother—renowned urban designer, Keiko Kishida—is now moving her back to her father’s family home in Edmonton, where the whole family had lived when Kami was younger. When 13-year-old Kami finds a dusty journal at the bottom of one of her father’s boxes of papers, she is transported back to a New Year’s Eve party in 1929 Edmonton. Her experience seems a lucid dream: she sneaks down the staircase to watch the revellers, and overhears a comment about “diphtheria up north at the Little River Settlement” (26), and a man with the unlikely name of “Wop” who is going to fly serum up to the afflicted. Kami recognizes the unique name from a photo she found in her father’s box, but she—like most readers, I would guess—knows nothing about this fascinating character in Canadian history.

Returned abruptly to her present, Kami heads to the library, and finds the newspaper article that had been taped into young Helen Mitchell’s journal: the article that triggered her slipping through time. Naturally, she begins to read…

She finds herself again in the Mitchell house, but this time Helen is home: “Mom!” [she] yelled. “There’s a Chinese in our house!” (35). Kami immediately realizes that 1929 Edmonton is not only different in regards to clothing and cars. Her ethnicity, more than her jeans and hoodie and her ability to stand up for herself, mark her as alien. Not really knowing what to do with this strange creature, the relatively progressive Mrs. Mitchell sends Kami to school with Helen. Things do not go well. Kami ends up in front of the magistrate, and is shocked to find—in this obviously patriarchal society—that the magistrate is a woman: “The Emily Murphy” (66). Here is a name Kami recognizes from her schooling, and Magistrate Murphy is surprised and amazed when Kami rattles off details about her life. Kami find herself caught up in the political attitudes of the time, and is troubled by Emily Murphy’s complicated position as both a feminist and (by our standards) a racist.

For those who don’t know—including, I would hazard to guess, most middle-school readers—Emily Murphy was one of the “Famous Five,” a group of five Alberta female activists and authors who pushed through changes to the BNA Act pertaining to women. The political battle began when Emily Murphy became the first female magistrate in the British Empire in 1916; many of her rulings were challenged because only men were legally “persons” by Canadian law. On 18 October 1929, the battle was won; the legal definition of “persons” was amended to include women. But political equality was not extended to the Japanese. Or Chinese. Or South Asians. Or…

Kami’s story moves back and forth between these fascinating moments in Canada’s history and her own complicated life in 2004 Edmonton. In both periods, she contends with issues that readers will recognize: racism, patriarchy, school bullying, teen social insecurities, and complicated family dynamics. Donovan’s palimpsest of Kami’s modern life over the historical background of her society is beautifully constructed. Kami’s insecurities and strengths help readers to identify with her, and agree with her final understanding that “”No one is perfect. Not even the great Emily Murphy of the famous Keiko Kishida” (186).

But what of Wop May? The his story reminds readers of how dangerous the world could be in 1929, and of how many unassumingly heroic men and women helped to create our country’s ethos. The selflessness and bravery he exhibited are as much a part of who we are as Canadians as are the battles for equal rights that began with activists such as Emily Murphy. There is so much for our students to learn these days, that some of what is important slips out of the lessons. Emily Murphy and the monumental achievements of the Famous Five are likely to remain a part of our cultural story (the “Persons Case” is taught in high school), but we need to remember the Wop Mays as well: books like The Journal will go a long way to ensuring that the important stories are told.

Watched (2011), by Cindy Hogan

Hogan-WatchedAnother free YA book seemingly worth reading… but ultimately, unfortunately, somewhat disappointing. While part of a series (again: why do authors keep doing this?), it has a cohesive plot that ends when the book ends. So far so good. And it is not yet another teen-with-paranormal-abilities-saves-herself-and-the-world-while-falling-in-love-with-demon novel. Another point in its favour. So what is it about?

Fundamentally, naïve, bullied, insecure Christy earns a scholarship to a political educational field-trip to Washington, where she hopes she will be able to reinvent herself in a more powerful, attractive form. This she manages to do, but only with the help of the more socially and sartorially astute Marybeth. The transformation is sufficiently successful to garner Christy the amorous attention of two (2!) of the boys in her particular cohort. This subplot ultimately becomes almost annoying, as does the repeated references to Christy’s insecurities.

The more interesting—and more central—plot involves Christy and her friends witnessing the execution of the attaché of a State Senator. They manage to notify the FBI, who become involved in both protecting the students and attempting to apprehend the culprits. That the perpetrators of the murder are Middle Eastern terrorists feeds too strongly off of and into American post-9/11 fears, but the crime is fortunately not highlighted as a cultural conflict. The story is an effective balance of teenagers trying to have a good time in their nation’s capitol and young adults in a frightening and indeed life-threatening situation.

After a climactic scene with the FBI, a safe house, and a number of gunshots, Christy’s life returns almost to normal: she has chosen one of the two boys (the more compassionate, honorable Rick over the more intriguing but dangerous Alex), and she flies home to Montana… This would be a fitting ending, with a  small nudge toward a knowledge of Christy and Rick’s future. I really wanted to read the sequel, actually, as the first presented closure yet left the possibilities for future narratives of interest.

I therefore went out and found Protected (2012), and began to read. Then I stopped. Within the first chapter, the rich and overly self-confident Alex relocates himself to Christy’s school, and she is thrown back into the teen angst of being attracted to two boys. But she had made her (wise) decision! The last thing I wanted to read was more of the insecurities and trauma associated with Christy’s immaturity in lieu of a focus on the political intrigue that underlies the first novel in the series. Still, Watched stands alone as an interesting YA novel, in a “TV-drama” sort of way, not requiring a sequel at all…