Friday, July 5, 2013

Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell

In prose poetry and alternating voices, award-winning author Marlene Carvell weaves a heartbreakingly beautiful story based on the real-life experiences of Native American children.

Mattie and Sarah are two Mohawk sisters sent to an off-reservation school after the death of their mother. Subject to intimidation and corporal punishment, with little hope of contact with their father, the girls are taught menial tasks to prepare them for life as domestics. How Mattie and Sarah protect their culture, memories of their family life, and their love for each other under this forced assimilation makes for a powerful, unforgettable historical novel.

~Print copy (library), 243 pages
Published: 2005 by Dutton Children's Books

This book... definitely worth a read.

At first, I thought this would be a bit plot-slow, that this would be a fast read. But the characters are rather engaging -- Mattie, the rebellious elder sister, looking after her little sister Sarah, who in turn wanted to keep her older sister out of trouble; Ruthie and Gracie, their friends who might be more fearful but try to be loyal nonetheless; and, of course, the evil villain, Mrs. Dwyer, who runs the school.

It's set in a special school during the early 1900s (late 1890s?), meant for Native Americans to learn English and "White People" culture. Of course, this was before things like making girls work in a boiling hot laundry room all day was frowned upon. Mrs. Dwyer, the headmistress (or whatever her title is; I'm not really an expert on school titles from over a century ago) has the girls march every place, makes sure Mattie and Sarah -- who've never been apart -- don't have beds next to each other's, and when they don't follow rules, has them skip supper. At one point, Mattie writes a beautiful short story about her mother's basket weaving, and when the English teacher tries to have it published in their school newspaper, Mrs. Dwyer has it crushed for being too "Native American".

There is, of course, a plot, though it drags a bit in the first half of the novel. It's written quite beautifully, though, between the two sisters. The plot really picks up about halfway through, when the abuse suffered at the hands of Mrs. Dwyer gets worse, due to her thinking that rebellious little Mattie stole a brooch of hers.

The verse format makes this an easy read, but not a "dumb" or "inferior" read. It's just as complicated and real as a real novel. It's written almost directly how the characters think, and not along traditional styles of worldbuilding and scene-setting. It's more sparse, like poetry that insinuates the scenery in fewer words.

I also like the incorporation of Native American words into the novel, words like "Father" and "Mother" that really makes the whole family theme stick out without pushing it in your face. And how Carvell adds details of home, of their culture, into the current scene; things like a basket taken from home, how they remember the river outside their home, short myth stories (or really, summaries of those stories). It really makes this book stand out as not some "boring historical" but as a deep, cross-cultural novel.

Overall, this novel was pretty heart-rending. I didn't like the ending, though I appreciated the inevitability of it -- not that I'll spoil it for you. But it has a genuine, beautiful feel to it, and I recommend that everyone read it. Four stars.


No comments:

Post a Comment