Thursday, September 28, 2006

Joseph Bruchac's HIDDEN ROOTS



[Note: This review is by Beverly Slapin of Oyate. I am grateful to her for sending me her reviews. Early in my graduate work, I read Through Indian Eyes: The Native Perspective in Books for Children, edited by Slapin and Seale. It marked an important moment in my work. In the field of children's literature, it is a touchstone, and its sequel A Broken Flute: The Native Perspective in Books for Children is equally important. As is clear to regular readers of my blog, I link to Oyate often, suggesting you order books like Hidden Roots from there. I would not do that if Oyate was a for-profit bookseller. Oyate is a not-for-profit organization that is doing very important and necessary work on a shoestring. ---Debbie]

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Bruchac, Joseph (Abenaki), Hidden Roots. Scholastic Press, 2004. 136 pages, grades 5-up

Living with his family in a tiny town in upstate New York, 11-year-old Sonny is surrounded by secrets. His parents live in solitude, and so does he. Questions are forbidden, and silence is enforced by his father, who explodes into violence without warning. His only friend is Uncle Louis, who comes around mostly after Sonny’s father has left for work. The old man is tied to the land in ways that Sonny is just beginning to know. As they walk in the woods together, make camp and do a lot of listening, Uncle Louis shows Sonny the relationship among all things. “Is it all right, us praying like Indians that way?” Sonny asks. “Long as no one sees us,” Louis answers.

Taking place in the early 1960s, Hidden Roots is rooted in the Vermont Eugenics Program that began some thirty years before and left the Abenaki people, for generations, “hiding in plain sight.”

Slowly, Sonny begins to understand how a Jewish librarian’s parents’ secret saved her life and how Indians had to pretend they weren’t Indian: “Sometimes people jes have to do the hardest things for their children,” Louis says. The hardest things, such as giving your children away so they can survive.

When Louis can no longer contribute to the silence and shame, Sonny begins to understand the “whys” of having to leave your home in the middle of the night, having secrets hanging heavily in the air, having to keep your head down and not bring attention to yourself, having to watch your father’s self-hatred turn to violence, having been told your grandfather is your “uncle” because he still lives in the Indian way. And Sonny begins to come to know that roots—even hidden roots—run deep.

Hidden Roots is for all those Indian families whose lives were interrupted by the eugenicists and for all the elderly mothers who still whisper to their adult daughters, “You better get your hair cut, or everybody’ll know you’re an Indian.” For all those who see their lives in this story, and for all those who never knew and now bear the responsibility to bring about change.

In a poem called “Rez Kid” (in Above the Line, West End Press, 2003), Joe Bruchac writes,

…hidden roots still give you strength.

There will always be another day.

The wind will always remember our name.

No matter how many roads they build,

the earth under our feet is our mother.

Joe Bruchac has written an honest, truth-telling story that may well be the most important book this prolific writer has ever produced. Thank you, Joe. You have done a good thing.

—Beverly Slapin

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