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:
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