Rae’s Rantings on Books, Films, and Popular Culture
By Mary Tweedy
In a Nutshell: Closely observed tale of tribal life among Native American tribes in French Canada in the late 1600’s. Contains scenes of bloodshed and ritual torture among warring Indian nations and towards European missionaries. Appropriate for middle-school children to adults.
The Story:White Corn is a Native American girl born into the village of Kandoucho, part of a North American Indian confederacy known as the Neutrals, so named (by the French) because they remained neutral in the wars between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Huron. Neutral economy was based on agriculture supplemented by game, which was plentiful in what is now southern Ontario, Canada, and western New York. White Corn’s mother is Hole-in-the-Night, a Neutral woman whose extraordinary beauty and cool remoteness marks her as an object of awe and even fear. White Corn’s father is a Neutral brave who succumbs to an infectious disease brought by the French Jesuits (or “Blackrobes”) that kills half the population of White Corn’s village when she is four years old. Shortly afterwards, a French fur trader named Jean Aregnac arrives in the village. He ingratiates himself with Hole-in-the-Night’s clan until she accepts him as her husband.
When Jean enters White Corn’s life, he treats her with an affection that augments the stern care she has received from her undemonstrative mother. Jean teaches White Corn to read and gives her a book of fairy tales in French, which will later be supplemented by a sheaf of Catholic prayers copied out by hand by a French Jesuit at a fort. Jean brings White Corn, Hole-in-the-Night, and their new son Papillon to this fort for safety, after the aggressive Iroquois destroy Kandoucho in a harrowing ordeal which they barely survive.
But despite finding temporary peace with a People living in the shelter of the European fort, White Corn and her family suffer more losses when they are again attacked by Iroquois on a fishing trip. White Corn, her mother and her brother are taken captive and brought to the Iroquois village where custom dictates that any prisoners who survive the ritual torture of the males and the initial enslavement of the females be adopted into the tribe to take the place of clan members who have died in war or sickness. White Corn’s captors face the challenges of assimilating (or killing) first the Neutral enemies and, later, two Jesuit enemies who come into tribal life by means of capture. White Corn and her family, meanwhile, must use every skill they have to survive in this enemy environment.
1) Entertaining, painless gateway to early American history. Although not specifically classified as a Young Adult novel, this historical adventure novel would make a terrific introduction to the culture of the Native Americans of northeastern North American at the time of the French colonization in the New World. In particular, it would be an ideal text for a home school setting.
Did you ever want to know how Indians handled the diapering of infants and the safe care of babies around fire, sharp knives etc. – how did they baby-proof their longhouses? Did you wonder how sexual relations were carried out between spouses when several couples, their children, and their single elders all lived together in one longhouse? What did the Iroquois-speaking Native Americans think of the “Fur-Faces” – their name for the bearded Europeans who came into their villages for purposes of trade or evangelization? What games did the children play? How about the adults? What did they do on long winter nights without television? How did they construct their homes, make their clothing, and obtain their food?
I used to love reading the Little House on the Prairie books for their fascinating details on pioneer life – learning how the white settlers built their homes, planted crops, hunted game, cooked food, and weathered the extremes of both winter and summer in a harsh environment. Captive Daughter, Enemy Wife comes at the same topics from the viewpoint of the Native Americans of the Iroquois-speaking societies (the Neutral tribes spoke a language similar to Iroquois) of the seventeenth century.
2) Realistic, sympathetic treatment of the clash of cultures during the time that Native American peoples faced the extraordinary onslaught of European colonization of the U.S. and Canada. The French fur trade, the Dutch settlements, and the Jesuit missionary activity brought a tremendous change to the balance of power and way of life of the Native American tribes among whom they settled. Ultimately, the colonization of the New World meant the effective end of tribal life as The Peoples of North American had known it. They became a conquered people. Captive Daughter, Enemy Wife looks at the beginning of that process from the point of view of the Indian. We see how the introduction of foreign staples like guns and alcohol brought changes and challenges to the Native American tribes. We look at the impact of the Christian missionaries on tribal life, for good and for ill.
3) An appealing heroine surrounded by compelling characters. White Corn does not convert to the Christian religion, but her natural compassion and sense of justice gives her a connection to and sympathy for the Blackrobes that her fellow tribesmen for the most part do not share. White Corn experiences the rhythm of tribal life in a society where women hold positions of influence; the author relates story after story showing the humor and wisdom of the women elders whose common sense helps to hold the tribes together. The warriors too are given their due, and the reader experiences first-hand how war is conducted with an eye always towards honor.
4) Beautiful, assured writing style. This is Mary Tweedy’s first novel. She was educated in Art History, Classical Archaeology, Classical Languages and Anthropology, and her rich narrative style no doubt owes something to her study in each of these fields.
Slow pace. White Corn’s story unfolds at a leisurely pace. If your preferred reading fare is thrillers, mysteries and other genre novels then you may become impatient with the slow unfolding of White Corn’s story. This is not a problem for those who savor a measured pace. In the last seventy-five pages of the book the plot heats up and the novel takes on more of the aspect of a thriller. I did not find the slow pace a bad thing, although in consequence I did not speed through the book as I do with more page-turning fare. The book works as a slow immersion into White Corn’s world of dramatically changing tribal life. By the time the plot takes on an urgent pace, the reader is completely absorbed by White Corn’s gentle yet sturdy personality and longs to see the resolution of her story.
Final Assessment: Remarkable rendition of a fascinating time in U.S. and Native American history from a point of view sympathetic to both Native American and European culture and experience.