Tuesday, July 18, 2017

First look at PURITAN GIRL, MOHAWK GIRL by John Demos

John Demos has a book coming out in October of 2017 from Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams). Some of you who read history books may recognize his name because of his book, Entertaining Satan, or because of his Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America. Demos is a history professor at Yale, but I don't know if he's teaching there or not on a regular basis.

In doing the background work for my review of his Puritan Girl, Mohawk Girl, I see that he did another book for young readers, back in 1995. That one is The Tried and the True: Native American Women Confronting Colonization. I'll see if I can find a copy of it.

The story Demos tells in this book is about Eunice Williams. Its audience is children who are 8 to 12 years old. Here's the description at Amazon:

In this riveting historical fiction narrative, National Book Award Finalist John Demos shares the story of a young Puritan girl and her life-changing experience with the Mohawk people.
Inspired by Demos’s award-winning novel The Unredeemed CaptivePuritan Girl, Mohawk Girl will captivate a young audience, providing a Native American perspective rather than the Western one typically taught in the classroom.
As the armed conflicts between the English colonies in North America and the French settlements raged in the 1700s, a young Puritan girl, Eunice Williams, is kidnapped by Mohawk people and taken to Canada. She is adopted into a new family, a new culture, and a new set of traditions that will define her life. As Eunice spends her days learning the Mohawk language and the roles of women and girls in the community, she gains a deeper understanding of her Mohawk family.  Although her father and brother try to persuade Eunice to return to Massachusetts, she ultimately chooses to remain with her Mohawk family and settlement. 
Puritan Girl, Mohawk Girl offers a compelling and rich lesson that is sure to enchant young readers and those who want to deepen their understanding of Native American history.

Eunice Williams was a real person, born in September of 1696. As a child, she was captured in a raid. The story Demos tells in Puritan Girl, Mohawk Girl is described (on the back cover of the ARC) as a historical novel inspired by The Unredeemed Captive. His Unredeemed Captive is cataloged as biography.

Todays "First Look" is the first in a series of blog posts I'll do on Puritan Girl, Mohawk Girl.

The Cover 

The words "PURITAN GIRL" are in black font. They're easy to see. The words "MOHAWK GIRL" are in a tan font. They're harder to read. I don't know what the cover designer was going for with the two different colors but I find the tan one less prominent. Visually, that makes Puritan more visible than Mohawk.

Look, too, at the 'R' in the first use of Girl and the R in the second use. See the difference? This reflects a design element in which font style is used to signal "other." You may have seen this on some book covers--where the shape and design of letters are used to visually signal "other." The R in the Puritan girl is what most would recognize as the way R's look, but the R in the Mohawk girl is angular. Visually, this different treatment of the R signals difference in how we're to think of these two peoples. Some would see the difference as good; others would not.

What are your thoughts on these visual ways of setting Puritan apart from Mohawk?


The first line in the preface is
When Christopher Columbus and other explorers got to America from Europe, they found millions of people already living there. 
Right off the bat, I see problems there.

First,"explorers" is the default word for Columbus and other "explorers." That idea--of exploration--is generally seen as a good, or, something positive. The word 'explore' means to investigate, study, analyze, become familiar with.  The word "explorer" means one who explores. But, I think we all know there is more to Columbus's voyage than "explore." He was looking for something that would make him, those who sponsored his voyages, and others, too, wealthy (and wealthier).

Second, Demos used "America" to describe a place that wasn't--at that time--called America. The millions of people who were living there when Columbus arrived had their own words for it. The word "America" -- according to the Oxford dictionary -- dates back to the early 16th century and is believed to be a derivation of the name of Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed along the west coast of South Africa in 1501.

In the 2nd paragraph, Demos writes
They saw America as a "new world." They settled on the land and claimed it for themselves. They started farms, villages, and towns. They organized "colonies" that belonged to their home countries in Europe. They didn't ask permission from the Indians; they just went ahead with their plans. They viewed Indians as inferior to themselves--as "savages" living in a primitive way. 
Demos is following a well-trod way of depicting this "new world." By that, I mean he fails to note that Native peoples had farms, villages, and towns before Europeans got here. In the next paragraph he says that the two groups had certain advantages over the other, which is accurate, but what he says pretty much affirms the "primitive" and inaccurate imagery so many people have. More about that, later.

I'm also curious about using the idea of "asking for permission" to characterize what happened. It doesn't work, right? Let's bring it to something of the present day. Say you have some acreage that someone thinks you're not using. Let's say someone from Spain comes over, sees it, and thinks they'll build something there. They knock on your door and say "with your permission, I'd like to build my house on that spot over there." See why the idea of "permission" doesn't work?

I gotta dash off for now to do some other work. I welcome your comments on what I've said so far about this book.


Heather Munn said...

I have to admit this book intrigues me.

I'm interested in cover design, so I'll bite.

I see the font colors as a purely practical choice. Because the lower half of the cover image is darker than the top half, if "Mohawk Girl" was printed in black it would be very hard to see, and if "Puritan" (at least) was printed in gray/tan it would also be very hard to see. It's a bit awkward (especially at the bottom edges) but I can see why they wanted to make that cover image work--it's a very good image that feels like a real girl a reader could quickly identify with.

The "R" is more interesting. It definitely looks "other." With the angular and barbed aspect to it it also looks "tough," and the fact that it's the R in "girl" that is communicating that message gives off a bit of a "grrl power" vibe. It makes me expect to find the author developing a theme that this girl at least partly chooses to stay with the Mohawks because the Puritan culture is more repressive to her as a woman.

Yvonne Dennis said...

Good catch as always. I also have a problem with the title. In historic times, to be Mohawk, Hopi, Creek, etc defined one's ethnicity, culture, religion, language......Not as much today. But Europeans had many different religions. Of course Puritans came from England, but they came because they were persecuted by other English for their religious beliefs. Something seems off with the title for these reasons, but I have no suggestions and maybe I'm just nitpicking.

Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens said...

I'd like to respond to Heather's comment on the second R. I agree that it looks "other," but I think it looks more antiquated/out-of-date than it does "tough," which would indicate a more modern vision of Puritans than Mohawks.

Anonymous said...

That cover art is just perfect. The girl is born with the ascribed status of white. That is what is "imprinted" on her, and socialized into her from birth. It makes sense that would be darker, because of the darker imprint. The Mohawk status is attained. It is less embedded. It makes sense that it would be lighter. The "R" design seems to be inspired, but not copied from, the markings on the sides of certain pierces of Mohawk pottery.

Wonderful artwork, not at all problematic. Good work, artist!

Beverly Slapin said...

Thank you, Debbie, for your “First Looks,” which will be invaluable in modeling the important process of deep analysis in evaluating children’s books.

A couple of comments:

(1) The description from Amazon that you quoted came from the publisher’s website. I’m particularly concerned about this sentence: “As the armed conflicts between the English colonies in North America and the French settlements raged in the 1700s, a young Puritan girl, Eunice Williams, is KIDNAPPED by Mohawk people and taken to Canada.” (emphasis mine)

“Kidnap” means to abduct or confine forcibly, usually in order to extract ransom. Eunice Williams was not kidnapped. She was captured, she was taken, she was adopted into her new family and nation. This is an important historical and cultural point. I wonder if the author wrote it or if it was done by a publicist.

(2) A graphic designer friend looked at the cover to try to ascertain why the top of the last “R” in the title had been squared off. His guess was that it was a clumsy attempt to communicate to the reader something about Eunice’s “transition” from Puritan to Mohawk. But it doesn’t add anything, he said, it just creates a distraction and it looks like a mistake.

Unknown said...

Beverly, could you please elaborate on the difference between "kidnap" and "capture"? I'm not getting it. Thanks!


Beverly Slapin said...

Good question, Veronica. In my mind, "kidnapping" involves nefarious motives, such as ransom; while "capturing" is simply “taking.” From what I’ve been told, children captured in raids were usually taken into adoption, given to a family that had recently lost a child. By colonialist standards, these children were “spoiled,” but by Indian standards, they were cherished and loved, which is why few chose to leave when they had the opportunity.

When I saw the term, "kidnapping" used in the context of a child's being taken into adoption, I wondered how much the author knew or understood about this history in general, and Eunice's story in particular. And I wondered if "kidnapping" was the term the author used or if it had been written by a publicist.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Beverly!

That's interesting...my connotations with "kidnap" are simply meaning taking someone without the consent of the person being taken, and I think of "capture" as something that one does either to animals or, interestingly, now that I come to think of it, to enemy combatants, be they soldiers or spies. Now, certainly the case could be made that all settlers were enemy combatants...Anyway, I know so little of the situation of children captured in raids and taken into adoption that I wouldn't venture an opinion on which is more appropriate, and it's good to have your knowledge on the matter!


Anonymous said...

Just to add a note here: There was a large market in ransoming captives as Demos himself explains in "The Unredeemed Captive." Indeed, Demos describes how the Native Americans involved in raids explicitly stated that they intended to sell certain captives. There is a vivid account, for example, of a woman giving birth on a forced march from an English village, which provokes her captors to delight that they have doubled their profit. I would be careful about forcing a distinction between "kidnapping" and "adoption" based on the intent to ransom captives. Demos himself describes in his earlier book the large market in ransoms that both the French and Native Americans were complicit in. The lesson here, I think, is that the past is violent, messy, and difficult to romanticize.


Debbie, have you or anyone else here done a "second look," as in having read the book rather than judge it solely by cover art and Amazon publisher description? I have a copy for my library and I am coming here for critique on the story in addition to the mainstream library reviews.