Friday, January 18, 2019

Not Recommended: Two Roads, by Joseph Bruchac


Two Roads: A Creek Boy in Search of His Place in the World by Joseph Bruchac (Penguin Random House, 2018)

Several months ago, Debbie (and others) wrote about problems that can arise when Native people write as outsiders about other Native peoples. Like white writers, they may be participating in cultural appropriation. They may perpetuate misinformation or disclose matters that should be kept "behind the curtain" (see page 390-391). Since then, I've been working on a detailed post about portrayals of Mvskoke Creek people in recent children's literature -- including stories by Native authors who aren't Creek. Today's post uses part of that larger project.

My husband and children are Mvskoke Creek and I am white. I'm always on the lookout for books about Creek people to share with them and our grandkids. When Bruchac's Two Roads: A Creek Boy in Search of His Place in the World came out in 2018, I looked forward to seeing how he represented Creek lives. Bruchac is not a citizen of the Muscogee nation; he's from the northeastern US and has written about his Abenaki heritage.

The story structure of Two Roads is such that the main character, Cal (age 12), has no idea that he's Creek until several chapters in. As far as he's concerned, he and his dad (a veteran who was wounded in WWI) are just "knights of the road," hoboes cut loose from their everyday lives by the death of Cal's mother and the loss of their farm to the Great Depression. They live by a code of ethical conduct; they watch out for each other and for those who might be victimized by thieves, racists, and other bad folk. Then Cal's father decides to get involved in a movement to force the government to pay WWI veterans some money they were promised. He can't take Cal with him. He decides to place Cal in the Indian boarding school where he spent many years himself, giving the protagonist a lot to deal with. Cal's going to be separated from his dad. He's going to live at a boarding school. He's "Indian," not white as he always assumed. And what is that supposed to mean, he wonders.

Two Roads has been getting a mostly favorable reception. But reading it raised some questions.

It appears that the author did his research into hobo life during the Depression, Indian boarding schools before and after World War I, and the “Bonus Army” that Cal's father joins. Bruchac also addresses some important issues like passing for white, surviving assimilationist policies, and discovering relatively late that your (racial/ethnic) identity isn't what you thought.

But amid that valuable food for thought were some things that were hard to swallow. I'll focus on two.

First: language issues. Both the Abenaki's language and English differ a lot from Maskoke, the Creek language. That might not have been a problem if the author had prepared adequately.  But several times when Bruchac's characters spoke Maskoke, my "I-know-10-Creek-words" self thought, "That doesn't seem right!" I took my questions to two relatives who have studied, spoken, (and in one case, taught) Maskoke for a long time. I also consulted our Creek dictionary and listened to the Muscogee Nation language app. (Download it for free!)

I found that Bruchac gets one word right:  stahitkey refers to a white person (that’s more or less a phonetic spelling). But he gets several others wrong. A word that means black person is pronounced, approximately, staluhstey, not "staluskey," as Bruchac has it multiple times. A typical Maskoke greeting is generally pronounced something like hens-chay or hess-chee -- not "hers-key," as Bruchac has it. A word for thanks is pronounced muhDOH, not mu-to, as in the book. And when Cal's friend shouts to begin a stomp dance, let's just say that Cal doesn't hear those words quite right, either.

The author mentions that he knew the Mvskoke poet Louis Oliver (Little Coon) and modeled/named a character in Two Roads after him. Maybe Mr. Oliver taught Bruchac some Creek words years ago? But Bruchac could easily have double-checked his memory of those words with a quick visit to the Muskogee Nation language program Web site, or that free language app.

Second concern: Bruchac’s description of the Creek boys' stomp dance leaves out some key information. He correctly has Cal distinguish the Creek ceremonial dance tradition from what he calls the more "dramatic" dances of some western Native nations. Stomp dance involves singing and stepping to a rhythm maintained by women wearing rattles on their ankles made of pebble-filled turtle shells (or more recently, empty evaporated milk cans). The women's role in the dances is essential.

Granted, Creek girls would have had a hard time getting out of their boarding school dorm to join the boys for secret night-time stomp dances, especially carrying shell-shaker ankle bracelets. The eyes of the staff were trained much more on them than on the boys, evidently. Still, the Creek boys who befriend Cal never say a word about missing the shell shakers. Yes, they're doing their best to keep up traditions under difficult circumstances. But some of Bruchac's Creek characters grew up knowing about stomp dance, and the absence of the women and their rattles would be significant enough that surely somebody would mention it to Cal -- something as simple as "At home, we'd have the shell-shakers." But in Two Roads, they don't acknowledge the absence. 

The inaccurate language and inadequate perspective on stomp dance give a sense that the author's understanding of the specifically Creek content is ... thinner than it would be if he were Mvskoke Creek. Thinner than it should be for a book about Creeks.

Also noted: some glaring inconsistencies in the storytelling, and some plot points that called for too much suspension of disbelief. But the central concerns about Creek language and ceremony are what really pulled me out of the story Bruchac seeks to tell in Two Roads. It probably wouldn't pass muster with readers on the Creek side of our family.

When our two younger sons were kids, we shared several of Bruchac's books with them. I had high hopes that this would be one I could recommend to the next generation. But no. And that’s a major disappointment.

-- Jean Mendoza

NOTE: An earlier version of this blog disappeared due to technical difficulties.

3 comments:

G Ford said...

I would love for the publisher and Bruchac to go in and fix the inconsistencies and flesh it out with some of your editing assistance (maybe even those plot holes). Wouldn't that be terrific!

Jean Mendoza said...

G Ford, it makes me wonder why Dial's editorial staff didn't help Bruchac catch the problems with continuity and accuracy before publication. Surely they would know that, these days, somebody from a Native nation -- in this case, maybe somebody who actually knows the Creek language -- is likely to read the book and notice that kind of problem. Wasn't the Mvskoke content important enough to get right the first time?

Erika said...

Sadly, having lived in the Northeast for 10 years, I would definitely not assume it would occur to anyone at Dial to ask if the Mvskoke content was correct. That said, is it possible there's a dialect difference at play? I've been caught by surprise before by the variations between Ojibwe speakers, even from the same band. Or is there more of an agreed-upon "Standard" Creek?