Re-examining Children’s Literature: Are “Captive Narratives” Relevant or Appropriate?

This is part of a series that examines books as a “window and a mirror” (I quote Lamar Giles, one of the founding members of “We Need Diverse Books“) After listening to his interview with Anne Bogel, the host of What Should I read Next? podcast (episode 238: “Windows Mirrors and why We Need Diverse Books), I decided to I reread the following books: Moccasin Trail, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, which won the Newberry Prize in 1953; The Light in the Forest,written in 1953 by Condrad Richtor, and Indian Captive, by Lois Lenski in 1941, which was also a Newberry Honor Nominee. These books are historical fiction set in and around the pioneer experience. They are pare of a sub-genre which I call “captive narratives”. Are they still relevant and appropriate?

Here are my reviews of these books. Hopefully it will inspire teachers everywhere to consider this fact- though we might have good intentions about our teaching, we may be hurting our students by committing curriculum violence. A great article was written recently by Stephanie P. Jones entitled “Ending Curriculum Violence” ,published in the Spring 2020 edition of the ‘Teaching Tolerance’ Magazine.

Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jonathan ran away from his abusive father to trap with his uncle. After being attacked by a bear, he was rescued by the Crow Indians. He lived among them for years, then left to live the life of a trapper once again. Living off the land in semi- solitude, he does not know how to relate to what he calls the “bourgessy” white people. He also feels estranged by the natives after one of his tribe displayed a white woman’s scalp after a raid on a settlement.

He eventually returns to his family but has difficulty fitting in. He longs for a life in the wild, free of constraints of the pioneers and their traditions, clothing and culture. He tries to teach his younger brother the ways of the natives, but also desperately wants the approval of his sister and other older brother.
While I found the writing engaging, I found the content unacceptable for children in the 21st century.
While the book does try to teach respect and understanding of native culture, I felt it did so in a condescending way. It also had some inherent racism. Women were looked down on, especially the “squaws”. The author uses terms that seem obviously racist to me. If the author decided to do this to create a more realistic portrayal of the relationship between whites and natives, it still is not appropriate for our times.
Intentionality is not a prerequisite for harmful teaching.

Intentionality is not a prerequisite for harmful teaching. Intentionality is also not a prerequisite for racism. “

Stephanie P. Jones, “Ending Curriculum Violence“. Teaching Tolerance, Spring 2020.

The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third time I read this book. This time around, I read it looking for the messages, images and words that the author uses in order to determine whether it is appropriate to use in the 21st century.
I found it to be a book which would best be used as a teaching tool for middle school students. In the book, both the white settlers and natives air their prejudices about the others.

They talked of the foolish ways of the white people….The reason they act so queer is because they’re not an original people…They are young and heedless like children.”

27- 28

The long barns and sheds on the land had an air of the white man’s industry and their houses of peace.”

p. 45

In the middle of both societies is True Son/John Butler.
Taken as a young boy, he grows up loving his native families and their life in the wilderness. Once taken back to his white family, he cannot reconnect with them or their lifestyle.

The boy stared at the pans and the jacket They were symbols of all the lies, thefts, and murders by the white man. Now he was asked to wear them. “

p. 156

The only one he feels any warmth for is his younger brother, Gordie.
The ending was profoundly moving.

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison by Lois Lenski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of all the “Indian Captive” novel, such as “Mocassin Trail” and “The Light in the Forest”, I found this to be the most thoroughly researched and most respectfully written. Originally published in 1941, it is based on the true-life story of Mary “Molly Jemison”, who was captured and adopted by the Genesee in the 1750s. When given the opportunity to return to the white community, Molly chose to stay with her native family. At the age of 80, “she told her memories of her experiences in detail to James Everett Seaver, M.D. and the book was first published at Canandagua, NY in 1824.” (p. xi)
My edition, published in 1995, includes an introduction by Arthur C. Parker, Director of the Rochester Museum of Arts. He explains that

not only did Miss Lenski make a study of the literature (regarding Molly’s life), but visited the Indians, many of whom are descendants of the subject of her book. The book includes beautiful drawings done by the author, all based on her studies “in the various museums containing Iroquois and especially Seneca objects”

Seneca Moccasins

As Seaver explains, many writers have ignored the necessity of having accurate knowledge of how the native people lived, and instead have

“written purely from imagination, filling gaps with pre-conceived knowledge or basing it upon modern adaptions of European practices”.

(p. vii).
Molly is adopted by the Seneca

The result is a sensitive story which explores the divide between the two worlds at the time of the French and Indian War. Molly first feels extreme despair when separated from her family, only to learn to care fore the kind and loyal native family to whom she now belongs.
For teachers, this would be a good supplement on a unit about Native Americans. The author not only included sketches of artifacts used by the natives, but explains their uses, as Molly is taught skills for living as a productive member of the tribe, but also the traditions and beliefs of the native people. The author also shows the way that contact with Europeans began to change life for the natives, in both good and bad ways. Of all the books mentioned in this post, it is the only one that includes a list of sources that the author used to write the book.

View all my reviews

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