This is one of those times when I picked up a book and judged it solely based on its cover. While browsing through the library stacks, this cover and title stuck out at me. The stark title covering that unreadable face of that little girl… it just caught me. So I grabbed it and that cover kept staring at me from my pile of library books.
The story behind this cover is just as haunting. I knew going in that this was the story of Mary Jemison, a young girl who was captured by Shawnee Indians and was eventually adopted by Seneca women to replace their brother who was killed in the French-Indian War. I often find fault with historical fiction, either for what it did or did not include. I was worried that such a slim volume would do the same injustice to Mary’s story that I felt Malinche by Laura Esquivel did to La Malinche: in an effort to be spare and literary, the essence of the story is lost. I found that I believed Larsen’s narrative more than I did Esquivel’s, perhaps because The White only employed the first person sometimes, not the entire time.
Though there are details about the Seneca and Shawnee ways of life in this novel, and as far as I can tell they are fairly accurate, the strength of this story is the prose. This is a novel meant to be enjoyed for its language, which makes sense since language was originally the only way that Mary really had to connect herself to her previous life. There are a lot of touchy subjects addressed here, like scalping and all the retribution that went on between Indians and white settlers, but there are no villains here. No side is evil, no murder is worse than another. Yes, what happened to Mary’s family was awful. But what happened to the young man Mary replaced? That was also horrifying.
Mary is conflicted, as she should be. There is nothing glossed over, Mary hates her father for not protecting her and she hates her captors for not being her family, but she also grows to forgive her father and love her new family, because they love her. Larsen expertly weaves historical fact with the imagined, drawing much of Mary’s narrative from her actual account of what happened to her, as told to Dr. Seaver in the last years of her life.
The White is not perfect and at times I was confused as to how much time had passed or where we were geographically, but these are small complaints. The prose is nothing short of gorgeous. Not only that, but beyond making me interested in Mary Jemison’s story, I’m also more interested in Native American/Indian culture now than I ever was before. I want to read some non-fiction, both about Mary’s story and about the French-Indian War and, in general, the treatment of American Indians. Any suggestions?
This is another book that you could probably find a quote on every single page, but here are is my favorite:
I had never known moss as I learned to know it among the Seneca. From my new family I learned to diaper my babies with it. Moss was soft and did not irritate the skin. It held much of the wettings and dried out quickly. I had known the word for moss first in English and then in Seneca and I had seen moss and had touched it, but only now, dressing my baby with it, did I know it. And the word “moss” was but richer in my sight.
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 forget 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 my 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.” (129)
This is the only novel that Deborah Larsen has written and I want to read more. The White was such a pleasant surprise, because I honestly didn’t expect much. Historical novels, especially ones so closely based on one primary text, don’t often do the main figure justice, but Larsen certainly does. I’m going to be jumping to read Larsen’s memoir just to find more of that gorgeous prose.
So go read this!: now| tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR