Tidewater Review - January 2009



Anne Stinson

   Sacajawea, by Joseph Bruchac. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 208 pp. $5.95.
    This paperback book scores so high it’s off the chart. First off, the cover illustration by Allan Burch, a painting of the legendary but true heroine of the Lewis and Clark journey across the continent to the Pacific, is so captivating that it compels readership. The format of the book is wonderful, with alternating narratives by Sacajawea and Captain Clark, each introduced by traditional stories from various tribes in her chapters and authentic entries from members of the exploring party in his. A fine two-page map makes the journey easy to follow.
    Look again at the price of this treasure. That’s not a misprint - $5.95 is the actual tag. A product of the Children’s Division of HMH and marketed for “ages 12 and up,” it should be in every school library, every child’s personal book shelf and on the bedside table of anyone who can read, regardless of age.
    The tie that knits the narratives together is the introductory voice of Sacajawea’s son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who was born to his 16-year-old mother during that epic journey. In the prologue that explains his role in the story, he purports to repeat what he was told by his mother and his “uncle,” Capt. Clark, on a visit to the latter some years later.
    A single-page preface inside the front cover relates the Shoshone Indian girl’s account of her capture by a raiding party of Hidatsa Indians. No attempt to rescue her from her captors was ever launched. The Hidatsas had rifles. The Shoshones did not. She did women’s work for her captors until she was sold as a wife to the French fur trader, Charbonneau.
    The prelude to the Clark narrative tells of his delight at being tapped by President Thomas Jefferson for the historic Corps of Discovery to assess just what was in the huge land acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase. It was not terra incognito, of course. Fur traders and mountain men had for more than a century established contacts and buying sites with native peoples. Jefferson was familiar with the great river systems that ran east from the big mountains and topography of the west coast and its Spanish settlements.
    What his scientific curiosity wanted to know was everything else. He wanted accurate maps with latitude and longitude, he wanted specimens of plants, birds, animals and information from everyplace they went. He wanted his emissaries to make contact with as many Indian tribes as possible, to civilize them and make peace treaties with them.
    Jefferson’s grand scheme was developed with the help of his personal secretary, Capt. Meriwether Lewis, an old friend and colleague of Capt. William Clark. They would share the command of the adventure of their lives.
The co-captains and their 26 men left St. Louis at the end of May, 1804 after preparing to be self-sufficient for 18 months to two years. Author Bruchac is adroit in emphasizing the enormity of that task and the impatience to be off and moving. The Mississippi in spring flood was daunting. The Missouri River was worse, clogged with flood-loosened trees, sandbars and crumbling high banks. Rowers in the keelboat fought the current or tugged it with ropes from their little pirogues or pulled it ahead from the banks.
    All the while, the voyagers were on the lookout for Indians. They exchanged news with the parade of fur traders making their way down river, reporting the tempers of the tribes they had just left. The trappers warned about the Teton Sioux who ruled the river farther north and the Blackfeet farther upriver who jealously guarded their beaver trapping grounds.
    Capt. Clark’s personal slave, York, was an asset to the party, not only because he was a tireless worker, but due to his dark skin. Some tribes’ customs called for the most fierce warriors to paint their whole bodies black before battle. The sight of York discouraged Indian hostility.
    Both Lewis and Clark realized that the more remote stretches of their quest would require a reliable interpreter to gain cooperation, particularly when they reached the headwaters of the Missouri and would need to buy horses to cross the mountains and reach the Columbia River, the downslide to the Pacific.
    It was late October when the party reached a trading post and encampment at Fort Mandan and the land of the Dakotas. Soon there would be ice on the river and this would be winter quarters for the company. During the layover, Clark and Lewis learned that Charbonneau and his Shoshone wife, Sacajawea, were also there, and both were fluent in several tribal languages.
    That fateful coincidence made a 16-year-old girl part of a glorious chapter in American history. She and her husband and soon-to-be-born baby went every step of the tortuous road to the Pacific and back.
    Resuming the voyage in April, 1805, the party approached the mountains. Painful portages were needed to lift their boats toward rocky mountains. They were now in grizzly bear country with peril to hunting forays onshore. A flash flood nearly trapped several of them, including Sacajawea and her infant, under a rock ledge. A charging bull buffalo came at their tent and only Capt. Clark’s dog “Seaman” diverted the beast.
    History has recorded the great reunion when Sacajawea led the party to her home tribe. Her parents had been killed in a raid from the same tribe that captured her, but she recognized the chief among the survivors. It was her brother.
    With horses bought from her tribe, the arduous passage across the Bitterroot Mountains began. The company expected to see the west-flowing Columbia River over every precipitous ridge, only to see another ridge. It was September, perilously late to risk making it safely before heavy snows, but Clark was determined to spend the winter on the Pacific Coast so they pushed on.
    By mid-October, they were on water again, daring to ride huge rapids for miles on the plunge from the mountains to the Columbia River and the Pacific, a wild, month-long ride. The whole party was wet, cold and near starvation during a wretched winter with clothes literally rotting on their backs.
    They had hoped to see ships off the coast and return by sea, but there was nothing but cold rain and fog. The awful decision was made to return by retracting their steps. Once through the mountains and back on the Missouri, it was a downhill ride all the way with a tumultuous welcome at the end.
    Sacajawea and Charbonneau brought their son to be raised by Clark. They insisted on going back into the territory to resume the life they had left to contribute to the amazing expedition, the Corps of Discovery.
You’ll want to go outside and raise the flag when the saga ends.

   Names My Sisters Call Me, by Megan Crane. 5Spot, Hachette Book Group USA, publisher. 318 pp. $13.99.
    If you have sisters, choose column B - B for Bicker, B for (eventually) Best friends, B for (sometimes) Boring, Brash, Bossy...
    That’s how it is in families, especially families with more than one girl. I should know whereof I speak. I’m smack dab in the middle of five daughters. As different as we all are, we’re not a patch on the Cassell sisters, Norah, Raine and Courtney.
    Megan Crane has drawn portraits of three distinct personalities so diverse that they seem to belong to separate tribes. Courtney, the youngest, is engaged to be married and thinks it’s time to reunite the family to celebrate her wedding. It’s not going to be easy. Norah hasn’t spoken to Raine for six years, ever since Raine caused a scandalous scene at Norah’s wedding before skipping out for the hippie life in California. Not only did she abscond, she took Courtney’s boyfriend with her.
    This, then, is Courtney’s story. Always the shy, quiet child in the group, she mourns, gets over the loss, and retreats to her second loves, her fiancé Lucas and her cello. She practices faithfully, rising to first cello chair in the “second” orchestra, a training ground for the Philadelphia Symphony. Lucas kneels to propose to her in the slush of a snowy day, right in front of Norah’s house and the command performance at every Sunday dinner.
    The reader’s introduction to Norah is her response at the news of the engagement. “It’s about time,” she snorts, “if you ask me.”
    Norah is the rigid know-it-all in the family. She follows up with criticism. “Your hands are going to be the focus of a lot of attention and the last thing you need are scraggly, dirty nails.”
That’s Norah all over. She’s a Ph.D., a professor of English at the university and always knows best. She is, in fact, a bossy control freak. The weekly dinner at her house is a series of her barbs. After the flurry of excitement over the news of the engagement, their mother, usually a quiet peacemaker, babbles on about plans for an engagement party, meeting Lucas’s family, shopping for a wedding dress with Courtney. All hell breaks loose when Courtney announces that she wants to have middle sister Raine back east for the ceremony.
    Norah is unstrung by the suggestion. Have you forgotten that she ruined my wedding? she rails. None of us has even spoken to her in six years, to which Mother quietly says, “I call her on the phone and talk to her every week.” Norah explodes.
    That’s how it is at these nice family dinners. Lucas squeezes Courtney’s hand as if to say, “Ignore her. Let’s get out of here.” And they split. That’s only a synopsis of chapter one.
    Flip the calendar. It’s now late spring and the orchestra touring season is over. Courtney’s free until fall. She gets Raine’s San Francisco address from her mother and goes with Lucas to California for a weekend where he has a business meeting. She wants to spend time with artsy Raine and invite her to come east for the party and the wedding.
    Big shock! Courtney’s former boyfriend is still with Raine. He’s a bouncer and she’s the bartender at the same grungy place, a hangout for Raine’s tattooed and pierced friends. The ex-beau is still a pang and an itch for Courtney and Raine is still gorgeous and the center of attention, a diva and a drama queen. She’s also thrilled to be included in the wedding plans.
    Courtney adores San Francisco and walks and walks up and down its hills alone while Raine sleeps away the days. Lucas goes with her to the dingy bar, unflappable as usual and kind and tender as Courtney flirts with the idea of living on the West Coast. Raine hasn’t changed a bit, dressing in outlandish clothes and decorating the bar with enlarged photos of her private parts. No, Courtney decides. Her future is back east with Lucas and her music.
    There’s plenty of drama waiting for them in Philadelphia. Mother is all aglow planning the July engagement party, Norah is still aghast at the prospect of Raine’s arrival and Courtney is obsessing over her old boyfriend’s behavior when he accompanies Raine home. He came on to Courtney and she barely avoided his kiss.
    What’s really bugging Courtney is trying to find her place in this family of misfits. Her father took his own life before she was born - at the news of her mother’s third pregnancy, he bolted and, like Raine, took off for California and shortly thereafter committed suicide. Courtney thinks Mother and her sisters blame her for his death. Her mother went into a deep depression that lasted for several years, and Norah, the oldest sister, took over the reins of the family. Mother finally went back to work and became rather distant.
    Not to everyone, it turns out. For years, Mother has been having a quiet affair with a coworker. When Norah and Raine accused her of disloyalty to their late father, she simply went underground.
    This novel is great at building suspense. What’s going to happen at the lavish party Mother has arranged? Will Raine pull an encore of her bad behavior at Norah’s wedding? Will the two of them get into a cat fight and mortify Courtney in front of Lucas’s parents and guests? Read it and find out. Learn who’s been jealous of Courtney her whole life.
    Can this dysfunctional family get its act together? Can life turn out as sweetly satisfying as a cello solo? You bet, if you throw in a touch of melancholy.
    I knew it was all fluff, but I loved this book.