Sunday, October 13, 2013

Initial Thoughts about Helen Frost's SALT: A STORY OF FRIENDSHIP IN A TIME OF WAR

Helen Frost's newest book, Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War is getting a lot of good press, but I'm having trouble articulating what it is that doesn't work for me as a reader.

The novel is set in 1812.

In the introductory pages, Frost tells us that there is "sometimes distrust and fighting between the two communities" but that friendships and intermarriage are common (p. xiii).

The two communities live in two places. One is in Kekionga, a village that Frost tells us is part of the Miami nation. The other community is Fort Wayne, where 80 soldiers, their wives, and children live. The fort is inside of a stockade. Outside of the fort (but inside the stockade), are a few more families, some fields, and a trading post where a trader and his family live.

Kekionga was actually more than that. It was the seat of a confederacy of Indian tribes. Frost's characterization of it as a village seems a small point, but I think my problem with her novel is that there's lot of small points like that. In isolation, they seem inconsequential. In total, they are what is--for me--the novel's undoing.

The story focuses on two twelve year old boys. It is presented in two voices, each alternating with the other (by chapter) as they view the same events from their distinct vantage points. One of the boys is Miami. His name is Anikwa. On the pages where he is speaking, Frost arranges the text in geometric patterns that were inspired by Miami ribbon work. The other boy is James. He's the trader's son. The text on the pages where he is speaking is arranged in lines that Frost says are like the lines of the American flag. If we step away from that presentation, we have Native people represented as art, and, American people represented as nation. (Sentence in italics added on March 3, 2014.)

The text is sparse, and that, I think is another reason the novel doesn't work. We don't know enough about that period of history, or about the Miami Nation and its resistance to encroachment, to be able to read the sparse text within a context that this story needs.

Anikwa lives with his extended family. His mother died of smallpox when he was two, and his father was killed a year later in "a skirmish" (p. 7).  Given that the novel is set in 1812, we can do some math and see that his father died in 1803. What skirmish, I wondered, would that have been? I wondered, too, about Frost's introductory note about how there was (emphasis mine) "sometimes distrust and fighting."

I started digging and came across a treaty in 1803. It was a treaty between the United States and Delawares, Shawanoes, Putawatimies, Miamies, Eel River, Weeas, Kickapoos, Piankashaws, and Kaskaskias nations of Indians. The treaty was made at Fort Wayne. It is fairly short. You can read it in its entirety at the Digital Library at Oklahoma State. Of particular interest--given the title of Frost's book--is Article 3. It is all about salt! Here's what it says:
As a mark of their regard and attachment to the United States, whom they acknowledge for their only friends and protectors, and for the consideration herein after mentioned, the said tribes do hereby relinquish and cede to the United States the great salt spring upon the Saline creek which falls into the Ohio below the mouth of the Wabash, with a quantity of land surrounding it, not exceeding four miles square, and which may be laid off in a square or oblong as the one or the other may be found most convenient to the United States: And the said United States being desirous that the Indian tribes should participate in the benefits to be derived from the said spring, hereby engage to deliver yearly and every year for the use of the said Indians, a quantity of salt not exceeding one hundred and fifty bushels, and which shall be divided among the several tribes in such manner as the general council of the chiefs may determine.

The treaty says that the U.S. will "delivery yearly and every year for the use of the said Indians, a quantity of salt not exceeding one hundred and fifty bushels, and which shall be divided among the several tribes in such manner as the general council of the chiefs may determine."

We have a treaty in 1803 that says salt will be delivered. I assume that means Indians won't have to buy salt. But in Frost's novel, Anikwa's family has to buy salt from James's family. How do we go from a treaty that says the government will deliver salt to the Miami Indians, to the Miami Indians having to buy salt? See? That's one of the gaps that I struggle with in terms of the text being sparse. On page 51, Anikwa's family is planning a trip to the trading post. Mink (Anikwa's aunt, who is raising him because, remember, his mother died when he was two and his father was killed when he was three) says they need salt. Old Raccoon (he's Anikwa's uncle/Mink's husband) scowls and says:
"They take it (salt) from our land, then sell it back to us."
When they get to the trading post, Old Raccoon says "We need salt" but James's father says "No more salt" even though the salt barrel, which is visible to all, is half-full.

More digging got at my unease with Frost's characterization of relationships between the Indians and Americans. Remember, she said "sometimes" there was "distrust and fighting" between them. Throughout the first part of the book, there are discussions of an impending siege in which the Americans are afraid that British soldiers and Indians will lay siege on the fort before the American soldiers can arrive. On page 59, James's parents are talking about the siege. James tells his Pa that he thought the Indians are on the side of the Americans. Pa says that there are Indians from all over are coming and its hard to say who among them are friends of the Americans. Ma says "we'll continue to treat the Miami as the friends they've always been."

Does Ma mean that Anikwa's family has always been a friend to her own family? Or does she mean that the Miami have always been friends to the Americans? If it is the latter, she's wrong.

In the 1780s and 1790s, there was a great deal of killing going on. Americans were killing Indians and Indians were killing Americans. This was over the land and who it belonged to. It was over who had the right to enter into a treaty, and with what other nation. The Indians had formed a confederacy and were aligned with the British.

In April of 1790, Miami's attacked a flotilla of military supply boats, killing five soldiers and taking eight prisoners. In 1794, General Anthony Wayne and his troops defeated the Indian confederacy, and in 1795 the Treaty of Greenville was signed. There's more--a lot more--about the fighting that took place in those years that, I think, casts "sometimes" into question.

But let's get back to the story itself for a moment.

There's some inconsistencies, I think, in how the characters act.

One moment, Old Raccoon is talking about needing to save his bullets for something bigger than a duck. He laments treaty violations. A few days later, he's volunteering to guide American women and children in the fort to safety.

James seems to think well of Anikwa and he also seems to disapprove of his father's actions. But on page 70, he sees Anikwa carrying a rabbit from one of his snares, and he thinks that Anikwa isn't his friend after all. That seems abrupt. They struggle and James runs home with the rabbit. Anikwa thinks that "we don't need any of them" (p. 73). That seems a bit abrupt, too.

A few pages later, the trading post is burned and the soldiers and James's family have no meat. Anikwa takes some to them, hiding it in a tree. James retrieves it, and later, James and his dad put some salt into that same tree for Anikwa.

Those friendships shift from friendly to not-friendly and back again a bit too fast. Maybe, in a time of war, that sort of thing happened, but I go back to the overall history and context. The distrust and fighting that had been going on for a long long time was over the land. American settlers kept coming into land that belonged to the Indians. On page 121, James's mother is writing to her sister in Philadelphia, telling her there is good land to be had. Rupert (a person in the fort) tells her "this part of the territory isn't open for settlement yet" and that treaty details still need to be worked out. The way his remarks are presented suggests that the Americans are law-abiding people who wouldn't be squatters. But--that doesn't jibe with the history!

By the end of the story, the homes of both boys have been burned. Soldiers burn Kekionga, its cornfields, and the surrounding forest, too. Anikwa and his family are safe, having steadily moved on until the burning stopped but they decide to return to Kekionga and rebuild. Once there, James and his family bring them items that James's father took from Anikwa's home before it was burned. Anikwa and his family offer food to James and his family. They eat together and then play music together. The story ends.

What do we, the reader, come away with?

Friendships that persevere, no matter what?

Frost's book reminds me of the much-loved Thanksgiving story. Sitting together for meals in the midst of turmoil and war is possible, but I'm not sure how plausible it is. As Frost tells us, there are friendships between the Indians and the Americans. But overwhelmingly, the history is one of loss of Indian life and land. Overwhelmingly. That is the history.

Nonetheless, these two families eat together. In light of what preceded that moment, and what happened after it, the story doesn't work for me. It ends up being somewhat of a feel-good story that suggests optimism and hope for relationships between peoples in conflict, but for me, it masks the truth.

And so, I can't recommend Frost's Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War. 

On the back of the book, Daryl Baldwin, Director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University, says that Frost "dives below the simple narrative of natives versus settlers to give us a refreshing look at the human side of events in the War of 1812." I'd like Daryl to read it more carefully. I met him some years ago and will send my review to him. I'll share whatever I get back from him, and I'll keep thinking about Salt. 


Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War 
Author: Helen Frost
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published in July 2013


Laura Nagy, Myaamia, citizen of Miami Tribe of Oklahoma said...

Personally, I thought SALT was just what it was intended as - a book about friendship between two cultures. Friendship always has it's ups and downs but in the end it is friendship that is celebrated in our lives. These ups and downs are the mechanisms that allow society, culture, interpersonal growth and understandings to develop and germinate the changes that the future brings.

I found that sentiment at the crux and main point of the story. It is written poetically as a youthful, hopeful,questioning, cautious tale of personal growth that projects a glimmer of what each character will become as an adult. I see this as a hopeful and joyous story of young people learning to be friends in a time of hatred, war and destruction. The story hints at the ugliness of the times and rightly so. This is a story for young readers and this story will no doubt make younger readers want to know more about that era's history. The reviewer is correct that the end of the story makes you want to know more about what happens to James and Anikwa.

Perhaps the reveiwer wanted more detailed history covered in the tale. Perhaps the story of James and Anikwa is not over yet - sequel?

Helen Frost said...

Debbie, as you know, I respect you and the work you do. Thank you for thinking about SALT: A STORY OF FRIENDSHIP IN A TIME OF WAR.
You seem to be holding a key in your hand and trying it in the wrong lock. Try the other one: that James' mother means "that Anikwa's family has always been a friend to her own family." That reading might cast a light that would help with some of the other points that are troubling you. I appreciate knowing that you are still thinking about this. Thank you.

Rosanne Parry said...

Debbie I'm so glad you put a link to the whole treaty in you post. I love getting resources for fuller context and often authors are limited in the space they have for back matter. I'm grateful to have a nudge in the direction of materials that will expand my understanding of a book.

I think one of the benefits of a spare text is the very questions it raises. It's an invitation to dig deeper and look up what happened to the promised salt, for example, a perfect extension on the reading of the book.

And I think some of your concerns can be answered in looking at the book's audience. Middle grade books tend to take a smaller slice of the darkest moments in history and focus on the more immediate and intimate experiences of children and families. Number the Stars and The Cats in Kazinski Square, for example, skate pretty lightly over the realities of the Holocaust. But are they a denial of the extent to which Jews suffered? I think they invite the reader to look further when they are ready. Just as graphic sex and extremely vulgar language is left out of middle grade books, I think torture and massacre is also better left to books for older readers.

Debbie Reese said...

Laura and Helen,

I understand that its a book about friendship between the two families in the book. Friendship is a good thing. Especially cross-cultural friendships that help people understand cultures different from ones own.

However, there's too much we (society) don't know about the Miami people and what they did, what they lost, etc., for me to hail a book about the friendship between the two families.

I'm reading myaamiaki aancihsaaciki: A Cultural Exploration of the Myaamia Removal Route, published by the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. Here's the opening paragraph:

"For many Myaamia people, we often say that time is like a pond and events are like stones dropped in water. Emotionally powerful events create big ripples that combine with the smaller ripples of less powerful events in unpredictable ways. In our Myaamia pond, the forced removal of 1846 was more like a boulder, which, once dropped into our lives, created a series of waves that changed everything. The political, economic, and cultural impacts of this forced relocation were immense, and the emotional toll of this experience has trickled downstream in the memories and stories of many Myaamia families. Removal remains an event that is painful for us to remember and discuss, but to choose to forget has never been an option. We know we must continue to remember in order to honor the sacrifices endured b our ancestors who made this terrible journey."

Here's another paragraph:

"Following the arrival of Europeans, the Myaamiaki were disrupted by successive waves of disease, war, and dislocation. Beginning in 1795, the Myaamiaki were forced to sign treaties relinquishing ever-increasing amounts of their precious homeland to the government of the United States. By the 1930s, the collective shared land base of the Myaamiaki had diminished to 500,000 acres, which was completely surrounded by land controlled by the State of Indiana. But land speculators and settlers desired to own even this diminished homeland."

There are letters, too, at the end of the book. Read them, too. The one on page 29 is about treaty violations. Especially troubling are the parts about boarding school. And the document on page 33 that lists Daily Receipts on the Miami Canal... Amongst the flour and wool, it says "Miami Indians 225 over and 78 under 8 years old."

It is a powerful document. I encourage others to read it. You can download it here:

Amanda said...

I'm disappointed that you feel that you cannot recommend SALT. We read it as part of our Mock Newbery discussion and I was so impressed by the research that Helen Frost has done, particularly regarding her work on the character names. Shouldn't a book that is so thoughtful about its portrayal of Miami characters be commended for that, instead of criticized because the friendship is fictional? SALT isn't trying to be nonfiction, and for historical fiction I thought it was one of the best of the year.

Debbie Reese said...

I had a long and thoughtful email from Daryl about SALT. In it he affirms what Helen and Roseanne said.

Like Helen said in her comment above, keeping a focus on the families rather than the two peoples and their history is important. With that as the focus, the story is plausible.

And, like Roseanne said, age of intended audience matters.

Daryl says he would recommend the book to children of their nation, and that when done well, with teacher and parent guidance, children can grow in their understanding of the historical complexities that the Myaamia people experienced.

The question is, does what Daryl said change my mind about the book? I'm thinking about that. What if it isn't well done? I guess it goes back to my initial concern. Most people don't know enough about the Myaamia people to do it well. Most people don't know enough about the tribes in Indian Territory to recognize/teach that Wilder's depictions of Native people in her LHOP are incorrect. I don't mean to suggest that the images in LHOP and the images in SALT are similar because they aren't.

The intended audience that Roseanne brings up is also a sticking point for me. I'm thinking that the knowledge that Myaamia kids bring to the book is different than what not-Myaamia kids bring to it. I'm wondering if the former already have a lot of the context necessary to read the book.

In her comment, Laura asks about a sequel. I'd love to see a curriculum for the book. I wonder if there are any plans for that?

Helen Frost said...

Thanks, Debbie, and others who have contributed to this conversation.

Yes, we are talking of doing a teacher's guide. George Ironstrack, educator and historian (one of the authors of the passages you quote in your comment above) is willing to work on that, so I know the quality will be outstanding. Such a curriculum could include:

*historical background of the years before, during, and after the time of the story
*the story of the Myaamia language--a moving and powerful ongoing story
*resources about ribbon work and other elements of Myaamia culture
*resources for children in other parts of the country to explore the history of the places they live
*ways to think and learn about the use of poetry in telling a story
*suggestions of other books that portray Native history (and present day life) in a respectful and authentic way

If anyone reading this thinks of other things you'd like to see included in such a guide, we welcome your suggestions.

As for a sequel, there are many stories to be told, and many talented Myaamia writers who may wish to tell them. I am supportive of them, and open to the possibility of further exploration of the lives of the families I have introduced in SALT.

Becky said...

Dear Debbie,

I just got done reading Helen Frost's SALT. I am a fifth grade teacher from northern Virginia. I try to look at what a book is teaching my students. What I see when I read SALT is the message of ambiguity and perspective. I think Frost does a wonderful job opening up a child's mind to the fact that there might be more than one side of a story (especially an historical story) and that the American military is not always right. I think that these themes are essential for children of mainstream US culture to be exposed to before they face the realities if the history you would like them to know. My experience is that kids tend to not absorb information presented to them that is very contrary to what they have learned before.

I also think that it is interesting that you never state that the Daryl that you refer to in the comment above seems to be Daryl Baldwin, Director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University. I would love to see his comments as presented by him.

Helen - I would love to see the teacher's guide as presented above. After reading Debbie's comments, I tried to do a little research using both the resources given at the back of your book and a general Google search. They are very confusing.

Helen Frost said...

Becky, the curriculum guide may take a little while, but I've put some resources on my website, which you can find by clicking on my name here. Hope you'll find them helpful. I do feel, and I am finding, that the book is accessible and appropriate for the age of readers it's meant for, both Myaamia children and those for whom this is all new. It may be hardest for people who know the history somewhat, but not in all it's complexity. Just when you think you know something, you learn more and have to readjust the whole picture. This was a long process for me. I'm pleased that people seem to be diving in to learn more after reading SALT.
Thanks, Becky, and you too, Debbie, for initiating this conversation.