Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Marlene Carvell's Sweetgrass Basket

[This review is by Beverly Slapin and used with her permission. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]


Carvell, Marlene, Sweetgrass Basket. Dutton, 2005. 243 pages; grades 5-up (Mohawk)

Sweetgrass Basket is a young adult novel, told in the alternating voices of two young Mohawk sisters attending the now-notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the early 1900s. Unlike most young adult novels by cultural outsiders, Sweetgrass Basket contains no self-conscious “anthropological asides” to explain to readers what the writer assumes to be important details of an “other” culture. Rather, it’s a wrenchingly beautiful story of two sisters trying to keep themselves together in an atmosphere that fosters only hate and shame. But amidst all the abuse, the children resist the value system being foisted on them, sometimes with great good humor. “I must say,” the older sister Mattie says to Sarah about the hated Mrs. Dwyer, “‘that I hope she steps in a hole and is swallowed by the earth.’ Suddenly Sarah’s eyes brighten and a smile spreads across her face. ‘Mattie, how dreadful,’ she says in mock horror. ‘What a terrible thing to do to Mother Earth.’” The ending is a surprise that’s not really a surprise. Children died at Carlisle, in front of cold, hard white people who didn’t give a damn.

Carvell’s husband’s great-aunt Margaret, who attended Carlisle, was the inspiration for Sweetgrass Basket. Ordinarily, information like this would be enough for me to roll my eyes and close the book, at least for a while. But, as in Carvell’s earlier novel, who will tell my brother?, she really did her homework, and she’s a wonderful writer. I imagine Aunt Margaret is pleased as well.

—Beverly Slapin

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