The book was fascinating. Written in diary form, it falls under the genre of the “captive narratives” of the mid 1600s. Several men and women reported on being captured by Native Americans during that time, and, as the writer says in the back material, their stories “provided valuable insight into the Indians’ way of life and their treatment of captives.”
Catharine is a Quaker. She believes “There is a still, small voice in each of us that speaks for God.” In her diary, she wonders, “Have I heard this voice? I truly do not know which voice is God’s, which is mine, or which is Papa’s or Mother’s inside me. Or, for that matter, Lucy’s or Molly’s or Master Collins’s!”
With these words, Catharine pins the heart of prejudice to the wall. The still, small voice in each of us knows that human beings are equal. But often, the roar of society or family drowns out this voice, and we judge. The Delaware Indians are stirring up trouble near Catharine’s village. They believe their treaty has been broken. Catharine is terrified of them and the stories she hears about them. In her nightmares, they are mindless savages and beasts. Her father attempts to remind the Quakers of what they stand for:
At Meeting today, Papa broke the silence. He told the Friends that the Indians have trusted the white men and we have forsaken them. He reminded them of William Penn and his great friendship with the Delaware. Papa recalled that a Delaware chief once said: Whenever Quakers are nearby, the Indians sleep in peace. . . But now, the backwoodsmen are destroying the red men with liquor and small pox and murder. There are many who believe the Indian has no more soul than a buffalo.
Catharine is captured along with her little brother. She is captured to replace a dead daughter of the Lenape tribe, and she is called the name of that daughter–Chilila. Osborne’s portrayal of the Lenape Indians does not fall into the trap of making them noble savages. They are not all gentleness and kindness and good. Indeed, on the first night of her capture, Catharine vomits when she watches the tribesman cleaning new scalps. The still, small voice does not tell her that a bullet ripping through a human body is just as brutal.
The Lenape are kind to Catharine even as she rants and raves and fumes. She shouts curses like a madwoman, yet they take care of her during a fever, they feed her, and clothe her. She is a well-loved captive–but a captive all the same. When her ink runs out (they regard her writing as something magical, and like to watch her as she writes in her diary), she struggles to communicate her need. The next day, fresh ink is delivered, and she learns that there is another English captive in the tribe. His name is Snow Hunter. He was captured as a boy and now lives with the tribe as a young man. After delivering the ink, he refuses to speak to her. When she asks him why, he says:
I scorn you because you do not think of the Lenape as your fellow creatures. You do not know the names of the women who care for you. You do not try to learn our ways because you say we are animals. Like all the Christians, you lie. You preach love while all the time you think you are better than all people…
Eventually, Catharine’s old life begins to fade away. She has come to love many of the Lenape tribe. In her diary, she writes,
Papa, remember the question in the Gospel of Luke: “Who is my neighbor?” I think of that question as I sit near Thomas, who sleeps on our bed of deerskins. I hear an owl call in the night air, and Little One coo from his cradleboard. I think of thee and Mother, Eliza, and Baby Will, and I think how strange to be here. What for, Papa? To learn about those who are different from us? To learn something that few English people know–a quick and lively knowledge of those some would call “savage?” Papa, the Lenape are my neighbors. Sitting here peacefully, I feel a current of God’s love running through this life, though He is known here by a different name.
The story of Catharine and the Lenape Indians is a highly nuanced and complex tale. The book’s triumph is to show how one girl in a time long past discovered her still, small voice. This book is a lot like that small voice. There is a tragic hope about Catharine’s story, despite the fact that we know the roar of American history will not be kind to the Native American tribes. Like any good work of historical fiction, this book reminds us that writing is more than the sum of its parts. Our genre is more than spunky heroines adventuring before a historical backdrop. Historical fiction is about embracing nuance and complexity and listening for the truth. I am happy to say that Osborne has presented us with a shining piece of truth here.
I also read an article in the Horn Book about the dangers of historical fiction that is too easy to get down the gullet. Though I don’t agree with it in full, I have linked to it here. The article is called Writing Backward: Modern Models in Historical Fiction. I’d be interested to know what you think!
Are any of your daughters reading the Dear America books? Are they carried by your library or school?
Remember, those who leave comments get a mental hug from me, and my ten fairies will sing their name for an hour. (The fairies live on my desk. I feed them sugar-water, and they love to sing and make a mess out of my papers!)