Thursday, March 13, 2008

Review: The White

by Deborah Larsen. Knopf, 2002. In 1758 Mary Jemison was taken in a Shawnee raid of her home near Gettysburg, PA. Her family was scalped and killed and she alone survived. She was adopted by a Seneca family to replace their brother who had been killed by whites. Mary lived with the Seneca for the rest of her long life under the name of Two-Falling-Voices. In 1823 in New York State she told her story to a physician named James Seaver. He wrote a book called The Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison: The White Woman of the Genesee. Deborah Larson has done research into the life of Mary Jemison and written this fictional account based on her real life.

It's a relatively short book and a quick read. It is written very poetically, full of beautiful description and poignant details. In the beginning Mary is mourning the lives of her family and deeply depressed. She has witnessed their murders and is horrified to see their scalps in the possession of her Indian companions. Because Mary's new sisters love her and possess a rare wisdom she is nurtured beyond her grief. They are patient with her, they goad her into acknowledging the horror of what was done to her, and they challenge her to begin speaking again both in English and in Seneca. As she recovers from the initial shock of her lost family she mourns the loss of her knowledge of reading and writing in English. She hadn't been literate long enough to hold onto it when her world was torn apart. At last she comes to the point where she lets it go and looks for something else to replace it. She
"...loved the world. She loved the open air and the contrasts of its temperatures; earth dry and sodden, loamy and rock-like; fire and its warmth and scorch; water, cleansing and flooding. The closer she came to these things the more she realized that words were not the same as the real wild onion, the actual rabbit fur, the coiled fern frond, the lightening. It came to me that I could listen, could memorize, could speak, could tell stories, could sing, and that in two languages, to be sure. That was what I would do. I would not let one word escape me; I would speak new words aloud as I learned them so as not to forge them. I would pay attention to the human voice; I myself would speak carefully and expressively; I would never mumble. And I could give my children this gift: the words, the names, the arrangements of words, the pitches - rising notes, falling notes. I would teach them about the world using my ears, my throat and tongue. I would speak the things of the earth out loud, so loud that the moon itself would feel called upon and would incline to my signals."
Her life is a passionate mixture of joy and sadness. She marries twice and gives birth to seven children. She buries both husbands and five children. She builds houses and buys land. At several times she has the opportunity to return to white society and she feels deeply ambivalent about it. Each time she chooses to stay with her Indian people. At the end of her life she sells her ten thousand acres of land to move to the Buffalo Creek Reservation in order to stay with them.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and I plan to go back and read it again for the pure pleasure of it. It's a very romantic picture of what it could have been like to be whisked away from a dull, grueling life of drudgery as a stiff, strict Presbyterian pioneer's daughter into an idealized Native community. There is shocking violence and horrible treachery, to be sure, but the mellow, beautiful, satisfying eddies of her life more than balance that and make her life ultimately deeply attractive. I would call the whole thing a fairy tale from my childhood daydreams if it were not actually based on a real woman's life; a woman who did indeed marry twice, raise six children and own land as a white Seneca woman. In the preface Larson tells us that Mary is reported to comment on her telling of the story of her life to James Seaver "...but I did not tell them who wrote it down half of what it was." Larson's imaginative writing of what it might have been makes a fantastic story. Larson lives in Gettysburg now with her family and teaches at Gettysburg college.


Helium Reviews
Random House
The White at Amazon

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