Saturday, July 12, 2008


Update on Sep 30 2023: I (Debbie Reese) no longer recommend Bruchac's work. For details see Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki?

[Note: This review may not be published elsewhere without written permission from its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2008 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.]

Bruchac, Joseph (Abenaki), March Toward the Thunder. Dial (2008), grades 5-up.

Between 1861 and 1865, during what has been labeled the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history, more than one million young men, foot soldiers who had enlisted or been drafted into the infantries of the Northern and Southern armies, were maimed or killed as they marched toward the thunder of each other’s artillery.

It’s the summer of 1864, and 15-year-old Louis Nolette, an Abenaki from Canada, is living in New York with his mother. Lured by the promise of good wages and a “fine, clean uniform,” and the North’s stated commitment to end slavery, Louis signs up with the 69th New York Volunteers: the “Fighting 69th,” the “Irish Brigade”—known for its courage and ferocity—marching from New York to Virginia.

An “eager boy going into battle,” what Louis finds out during this long summer is that war is not about heroes and villains: it’s about scared kids on both sides of the trenches, killing and dying for a “cause” that becomes further and further removed from their realities. “Aye,” Sergeant Flynn tells Louis, “war’s a dirty business and never ye forget that.”

A dirty business in more ways than one. Constant attacks by lice and fleas. The unavailability of water for bathing. And the slaughters on both sides that result from incompetent officers and generals whose political careers dictate their military judgments. “God save us from all generals,” Sergeant Flynn says.

March Toward the Thunder is not a blow-by-blow description of some of the major battles of the Civil War, though they are here: Cold Harbor, the Crater, the Bloody Angle, the Wilderness, Petersburg. It is not a roster of the famous names, though some make an appearance, too: Abe Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, and Seneca General Ely Parker. Rather, it is about the exhausted, homesick young people who do the fighting and whom readers will get to know and like—before almost all of them are killed.

Here are “Bad Luck” Bill O’Day and Kevin “Shaky” Wilson, the first to die:

O’Day’s head had been broken open like a melon by a spinning piece of shell. Nor was it likely that Shaky Wilson was still breathing. The last [Louis had] seen Wilson, he was leaning on a fallen tree and trying to hold in a red writhing mass spilling like snakes out of his belly.

Of the others who become friends—amidst “the confusion of gunshot and smoke, shots and screams and the sounds of men calling for water or their mothers”—few are left alive. And many of those others who might survive find parts of themselves left at the hospital tent, with the doctors’ sawbones-approach to medicine:

A grisly pile of arms and legs of men [who] would never shoulder a musket or march again to battle lay stacked four feet high behind the operating area. If and when there was a lull in the action, those lost limbs would be buried in the same earth where men were digging trenches.

In some places, compassion emerges from the bloody chaos. There are informal truces between Blue and Gray young men, who share the little they have. There’s a hushed, nighttime break together, where Louis is wished luck by a young Cherokee Reb whose cousin Louis has pulled to safety (“I do hope you don’t get kilt tomorrow,” he says). There’s the deep friendship that develops between Louis and a young Mohawk named Artis, who, in another war in another time and place, might have become deadly enemies. And there’s this: As Louis’ companions settle into their trenches for the night, they hear a familiar song floating from the enemy camp, “as sweet a version of ‘Amazing Grace’ as he’d ever heard… Then, up and down the line of trenches, Union men began to join in until at least a thousand voices and hearts of men in both blue and gray were lifted above the earthly battlefield by a song.”

Louis Nolette is based on Bruchac’s great-grandfather Louis Bowman, who served in the Irish Brigade in 1864-1865. He was gravely wounded and left for dead, surviving because Thunder came and he was able to drink from the rain pools. Here, Louis, his mother, his comrades,—and his “enemies”—are real people. Through them, middle readers will find no “good guys” or “bad guys,” no simplistic declaration of “mission accomplished.” Rather, with the assistance of a skilled teacher, they will be able to relate to the historical and contemporary issues of military recruitment and war.

Bruchac, who has recently become a grandfather, dedicates this book to “our grandchildren; may they live to see a world in which there is no war.” Through the eyes of a 15-year-old Indian boy become a man, he has crafted a profound statement against warfare. March Toward the Thunder should be required reading for every fifth- and six-grader in this country, for every youngster who is addicted to violent video games, and for every 18-year-old who is contemplating serving in this country’s armed forces.

—Beverly Slapin


Note from Debbie: March Toward the Thunder is available from Oyate, a Native non-profit organization. You can always get a book cheaper at places like Amazon, but supporting Oyate means support of the work Oyate does for children. If you have a choice, order March Toward the Thunder from Oyate.


Update, July 13, 6:45 AM---Here's Joseph Bruchac, singing a song he wrote, "Dare to Hope."


Book trailers! Most people know that a "movie trailer" is a preview of an upcoming movie. As I understand it, a book trailer is a video of a book. They are becoming increasingly popular. Click here to see a book trailer for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Rain Is Not My Indian Name.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Cynthia Leitich Smith's JINGLE DANCER going into reprint

Something to celebrate on this sunny (but humid) day! The trade and library editions of Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer are going into reprint. Books only stay in print if people buy them. If you bought a copy, cool. If you haven't gotten one yet, do it today! If you're a teacher in early elementary school, read this book aloud early in the year. With this book, your students will learn a lot about a present-day Native child named Jenna.

Jenna is Muscogee (Creek) and also Ojibway. She lives in Oklahoma. She wants to dance at the upcoming powwow. With the help of her grandma, her auntie, a neighbor, and her cousin, she'll be ready.

My experience reading Cyn's book today was different than all the other times I've read it. Usually, I think of my daughter as Jenna. Reading the book reminds me of the times when my family helped Liz get ready to dance at Nambe. This time, though, I paused when I got to the page where Jenna visits her cousin, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is a lawyer.

My own Liz is in Santa Fe, at this very moment, working for the lawyer who works with Nambe. My Liz is considering law school. For the first time, in the many times that I've read this wonderful book, I see Liz as Elizabeth, not Jenna. And while Liz is at Nambe, she's been busy, sewing traditional dresses. She's making one for her three-year-old cousin who has not yet danced at Nambe.

Cyn's book gives new meaning to me today, and that makes me especially happy to know others can buy it and share it.

Visit Cyn's site for a curriculum guide for Jingle Dancer.

Jingle Dancer is available from Oyate.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Today, Elizabeth Bird (a blogger at School Library Journal), posted her review of Louise Erdrich's The Porcupine Year. It is Erdrich's third book in a series that began with The Birchbark House.

Bird clearly loves the book. I don't know if she posts a live countdown for every book she reviews, but there is one there for the moment when The Porcupine Year hits the shelves on September 2nd.

Earlier this year I listened to Erdrich read from her new novel, The Plague of Doves. It came out in April and is in its third printing. The story she tells is based on the lynching of three American Indians in 1897 in North Dakota. At the 2006 New Yorker Festival she read aloud the story "The Plague of Doves" that would become the novel. If you want to hear that reading, click here.

I bring up her reading here because today, months after I heard her read, those voices are still with me. A gifted writer, she is also an outstanding reader. I'd love to hear her read aloud The Porcupine Year! Like Elizabeth, I was taken with the dialog.

And, as with her first book, Erdrich gives us an honest portrayal of peoples in conflict. In her books, there is none of the savage melodrama that Wilder uses in her series. The world might be a better place if we replaced every copy of Wilder's Little House on the Prairie with Erdrich's series. In Erdrich, children see human and humane, fully developed Native characters whose culture is in conflict with those who want what they have. Thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Betty Reid and Ben Winton's KEEPING PROMISES

Teachers and librarians looking for books to add to their reference and non-fiction shelf will find Keeping Promises: What is Sovereignty and other Questions about Indian Country especially useful.

The cover itself is worth the cost of the book. Each photo on the cover poses and answers a question about American Indians. In the center is a photograph of Native cheerleaders. On the right are two boys; one in street clothes, the other in traditional clothes. [Note: traditional clothes are not costumes. Think of it this way: the clothes you put on for special occasions are not costumes.] Bottom left is a photo of Jim Northrup and his grandson. Northrup writes a monthly newspaper column called Fond Du Lac Follies. He's also a veteran of the United States Marine Corp.

Inside are answers to the following questions:

  • Who is an Indian?
  • How many Indians live in the United States?
  • What is a tribe?
  • What is sovereignty?
  • How many reservations are there?
  • Can anyone buy and sell reservation land?
  • Who lives on reservation land?
  • What is the relationship between state governments and tribal governments?
  • Why can reservations have gambling if the states they are in don't allow it?
  • How do tribal governments work?
  • How do tribes work together?

There is a section called Between Nations that includes the following subsections:

  • How the idea of treaties developed
  • When Indians became wards of the government
  • Winning back sovereignty
  • The evolution of Indian political activism

Most Americans think American Indians were primitive and not very smart. That is not true! Books like Keeping Promises can help you and the children you work with understand who American Indians were (and are). With that information, you (and students) are better able to discern stereotypical and biased presentations of American Indians in children's books.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

It was suggested I make use of Blogger's 'label' option as a means to organize material on the site. Once I enabled it, I realize how sporadically (and even haphazardly) I've been using labels! Given that I've been running this site for two years, it'll take some time to clean up the labels on old posts, but I'm working on it... You can see the LABEL category if you scroll way down, bottom right.

Your suggestions welcome!

Monday, July 07, 2008


Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Impact on American Culture, by Anita Clair Fellman is getting some exposure today on the webpage for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Via correspondence some years ago, I knew Fellman was working on this book, and I'm glad to see it is out. Here's an excerpt from the article:

She found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Wilder's own staunch individualism had informed the tenor of the novels. "Distraught by New Deal policies that created an expanded role for government," Wilder had, in her books, expressly depicted government as "nothing but rules and bureaucracies destructive to the enterprising individual," sometimes manipulating the facts of her youth — on which the books are based — to achieve this effect. The Little House books instead champion the self-reliance, isolationism, and "buoyancy of spirit" Wilder felt had made America great.

Fellman carefully notes, "Looking at the Little House books in this way would be only a case study for my starting proposition that sources other than overtly political thinking and rhetoric might have contributed to a continued appreciation for individualist ideas." Yet, she continues, "there are not many people who are aware of the formative influence of what they read in childhood on their core political views."

Fellman and I are on the same page with regard to the formative influence of children's books. I've ordered her book and look forward to reading it. Given that so many Americans revere Wilder and her books, Fellman is likely getting some angry email. A sample of that anger can be seen in the 'Customer Reviews' portion of the Amazon website.

Little House and books like it that inaccurately portray American Indians as savages are formative in another way... They teach that there is such a thing as a savage other who is less than human, who must be dealt with for the security and safety of America. That ideology, well nurtured throughout the formative years, is what makes it possible for Americans to believe that there are savage others elsewhere, like in Iraq.

Recall the capture of the Army's 507th Maintenance Company in March of 2003. One of the soldiers said "We were like Custer. We were surrounded." (see Former POW: 'We were like Custer.')

And consider the words of Paul Strand, a reporter for the Christian Broadcast Network, who said to Pat Robertson (see the Indian Country Today editorial that includes this excerpt):

"Everywhere we've gone we have seen artillery ahead of us and then artillery behind and we're getting reports that there's fighting in all of the cities that we've already been through. So I guess if this were the Old West I'd say there are Injuns ahead of us, Injuns behind us, and Injuns on both sides too, so we really don't want to give the enemy any hints about where we are."

These are two examples of the 'savage other' ideology at work. I encourage you to read Michael Yellow Bird's article "Cowboys and Indians: Toys of Genocide, Icons of American Colonialism" (published in Wicazo Sa Review, Fall, 2004). He suggests that "select members of the Arab world now seem to have become the "new Indians" (p. 44).

Toys and books.

Some people argue that we put too much stock into the effects of toys and books. But it seems to me people make that argument when their (perhaps) unexamined values and decisions based on those values are challenged. These critiques are decried as "PC run amok." They don't (or won't) see their own views as the other side of that "PC" coin...

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Laura Ingalls Wilder: "All I have told is true..."

In 2005, James Frey's "memoir" A Million Little Pieces was exposed as fraudulent. This was a big story, especially when Oprah challenged him about it. In 2008, Margaret B. Jones "memoir" called Love and Consequences was exposed as untrue. She presented it as her personal story, but the things she described did not happen to her. She made it up.

In 2006, Random House (publisher of A Million Little Pieces) offered a refund to readers who felt they had been defrauded. To qualify for the refund, the consumer had to sign a sworn statement saying they had bought the book because they believed it was a memoir.

A few days ago, I posted "Selective Omissions, or What Laura Ingalls Wilder left out of LITTLE HOUSE." If you've read the comments, you know that there are questions about why Wilder included the story about the Benders in her speech. The Ingalls family was no longer in their little house when the Benders came under suspicion and then disappeared. As noted elsewhere on this site, Laura was a toddler when her Pa took the family to that little house. Yet, the Laura in the book is not a toddler, she's a girl.

Calling attention again to what Wilder said in her speech:

Every story in this novel, all the circumstances, each incident are true. All I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth. There were some stories I wanted to tell but would not be responsible for putting in a book for children, even though I knew them as a child.

All those stories Wilder tells about Laura... How much of that 'memoir' is similar to Frey and Jones and their "memoirs"? Given how dearly-loved Wilder and her books are, I think some of you (most of you?) who are reading this are furious that I'd even suggest that Wilder did the same thing Frey did... Course, he did tell some whoppers on page after page, so her memoir isn't quite like his, yet, she certainly misrepresents American Indians in her book.

What does it mean to be defrauded? Must a reader be an adult before being defrauded matters? Is it the case that courts are willing to say "adults can get a refund for being defrauded" but that kids who believe Wilder's stories to be true do not merit a refund? Obviously I don't mean for any child to be issued a refund...

But! If you're a teacher or librarian, I hope you'll give this some thought, even if the suggestion infuriates you. As an educator, your responsibility is to the children in your school, not to Laura Ingalls Wilder or her books. Rather than read her books as literature, perhaps it is time to use them with older children, as items in critical media or critical literacy lessons.