Monday, October 21, 2013

Beverly Slapin's review essay of Helen Frost's SALT

Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin submitted this review essay of Helen Frost's SALT, comparing it to Bruchac's ARROW OVER THE DOOR. It may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013. Slapin is currently the publisher/editor of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children.

A few years ago, a colleague and I facilitated a workshop in Albuquerque. The workshop dealt with evaluating children’s books about Indian peoples. It was a small group, about 20 or so participants, mostly teachers and librarians in the area. Of these, some were Diné (Navajo) and some were white. At one point, we brought out one of the worst historical fiction books in our collection, Scott O’Dell’s SING DOWN THE MOON.[1] We asked the participants to read sections of this book and, based on a series of evaluative questions, to review it. They did, and almost all of them agreed that this was not a book they’d use in their classrooms or libraries.

Except for one, a Diné elder, who worked specifically with Diné young people—“reluctant readers” at risk for dropping out of school. This elder said that each year, she purchases a new class set of SING DOWN THE MOON because it’s the first book her students actually get excited about. My colleague and I were astonished. We just looked at each other. We weren’t about to confront an elder, especially a Diné elder, especially about a book purporting to be about Navajo people. So we waited.

What seemed like an eternity was actually just a couple of minutes. This elder told us that she brings SING DOWN THE MOON into the classroom each year, opens it up and starts reading it aloud. The reaction, she said, is immediate. “They just can’t stop laughing,” she said, in disbelief that a book about their Diné people could be this bad. We’d never leave our sheep in a storm. This isn’t how our ceremonies go. We don’t talk like this. They reach for the books. They read the story, again and again. They laugh about it. They talk about it. They critique it. They write about it. The books get marked up, some pages get folded over and others get torn out. It doesn’t matter, the elder said, because her students have gotten excited about a book. Then, she said, she introduces them to BLACK MOUNTAIN BOY: A STORY OF THE BOYHOOD OF JOHN HONIE[2] and other books published by Rough Rock Press and the Navajo Curriculum Center, traditional stories they recognize and new stories they appreciate.

SING DOWN THE MOON received the Newbery Honor Award. It received rave reviews from all of the “mainstream” reviewers, including The New York Times. Not one of the reviewers saw any of what made the Diné students fall out of their chairs.

If there’s a moral to this story, it might be this: Some really terrible books can probably be used in good ways. (But I could not bring myself to purchase a class set of them.)

Here are some questions I’ve used and taught in evaluating historical fiction: Is this book based on true events or are the details rooted in actual history? Is this book based on the lives of real people or could these people really have lived? Does the author have an understanding of and respect for the era and the characters? Are the characters believable and does the author present the characters’ ways of seeing the world respectfully? Does the author explain cultural nuances that may be misunderstood? Are the language and the dialogue believable? And finally, does the book read well?

Which brings me to one of my favorite historical novels for young readers: Joseph Bruchac’s THE ARROW OVER THE DOOR.[3] Bruchac is a gifted writer, and one of the things he does well is breathe life into historical events.

Told in alternating voices of two young men—Stands Straight, an Abenaki, and Samuel Russell, a Quaker—the story is based on an actual incident that took place between the Abenaki and the Quakers during the summer of 1777.

As British troops near Saratoga, the young Quaker wrestles with his pacifism and the taunts of his neighbors, and Stands Straight—whose mother and brothers were killed by the Bostoniak—joins his uncle in a scouting party. Surrounding the meetinghouse, the party of Abenaki encounters a group of Quakers engaged in a “silent meeting.” As Stands Straight and Samuel Russell sign their friendship to each other, they place an arrow—its head broken off—over the door. There will be no war in this place this day.

In an interesting author’s note, Bruchac recounts the research that he and his sister, Marge Bruchac, conducted, notes how several accounts of this historical event differ, and further denotes the changes he made in his telling.

While SING DOWN THE MOON would not measure up to the standards of the questions listed a few paragraphs above, THE ARROW OVER THE DOOR would shine. 

Which brings me to a young adult novel currently being discussed,[4] Helen Frost's SALT: A STORY OF FRIENDSHIP IN A TIME OF WAR [5]. As with THE ARROW OVER THE DOOR, this story is also told in alternating voices of two young men—Anikwa, a Myaamia (Miami) living in Kekionga, and James, son of a trader family, living outside of Fort Wayne, inside the stockade. SALT takes place in 1812. “As the British and American armies prepare to meet at Fort Wayne for a crucial battle…James and Anikwa, like everyone around them, must decide where their deepest loyalties lie. Can their families—and their friendship—survive?”[6]

In reading SALT against ARROW, I don’t see Anikwa and James as believable as Stands Straight and Samuel, and I question some of the introductory description, such as

• “Kekionga is part of the Miami Nation, a Native American community made up of villages along the rivers…”  (In the year in which this story takes place, the Myaamia Nation was the seat of a huge political confederacy of nations. The terms “community” and “villages” diminishes the size and political structure—and, for young readers and their teachers, the importance—of the Myaamia. In an attempt to equalize Anikwa’s people with James’ people—who really were a small trading community—Frost diminishes one and emphasizes the other.)

• “Although there is sometimes distrust and fighting between the two communities, friendships and intermarriage are also common.” This was wartime; there was lots of killing going on. Although it’s possible that friendships between enemy peoples may have occurred, to describe the horrors of war as “sometimes distrust and fighting” minimizes the depredation of Native peoples and the wholesale theft of land. (And notice that, while the word “sometimes” is a descriptor for war, “common” is a descriptor for friendship. Here, in her “story of friendship,” she minimizes the larger and emphasizes the smaller.)

• In places, Anikwa seems to step out of the story to inform readers about how his family lives and how things are done. This is probably for the benefit of young readers and their teachers who may not be familiar with how the Myaamia people lived in 1812, but it disrupts the flow of the narrative.

• And, as Debbie Reese comments, “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.”[7] Reading the treaty of 1803[8] might help, as well as reading the material on the Myaamia Center website.[9] But are young students and their teachers going to dig as deeply as they need to, to get the real story?

Myaamia children who may read SALT will undoubtedly have the historical and cultural knowledge they’d need to deal with the inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies present in Frost’s book. For children and their teachers who are not Myaamia, not so much. Since historical fiction is often used in classrooms to supplement the teaching of history, accuracy is especially important in these books for young readers. When it comes down to it, it's the responsibility of an author—especially a children's book author—to get the history right.

—Beverly Slapin

[1] Scott O’Dell, Sing Down the Moon (Houghton Mifflin, 1970). See a critical review of this title in Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin, eds., A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children (AltaMira, 2005).

[2] Vada Carleson and Gary Witherspoon, Black Mountain Boy: A Story of the Boyhood of John Honie (Rough Rock Press, 1993).
[3] See a review of this title in Seale and Slapin, op. cit.

[4] See Debbie Reese’s discussion and comments in “American Indians in Children’s Literature” (

[5] Helen Frost, Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

[6] This text is from the publisher’s copy.

[7] Debbie Reese, op. cit., October 13, 2013.

[8] This treaty is between the US and Delawares, Shawanoes, Putawatimies, Miamies, Eel River, Weeas, Kickapoos, Piankashaws, and Kaskaskias nations of Indians. Article 3 can be found on Debbie Reese’s page, op. cit., and the entire treaty (entitled “Treaty with the Delawares, etc., 1803”) can be found at