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Crooked River    by Shelley Pearsall order for
Crooked River
by Shelley Pearsall
Order:  USA  Can
Yearling, 2007 (2005)
Hardcover, Softcover
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Crooked River is written in the alternating voices of thirteen-year old Rebecca Carver (in prose) and an Ojibbeway (Chippewa) Indian (in verse). The latter begins: 'it is the time when the leaves / are small on the trees. / too small / for hiding. the gichi-mookomaanag - white men - hunt for us.' He laments his capture, leaving behind his wife and two children: 'for two days / the rain falls / in long drops / from the clouds. / for two days the gichi-mookomaanag / pull me / through the weeping woods / and across / the crooked running river.'

Major Lorenzo Carver led a group of men into the western side of the Crooked River to hunt three Indians who kilt white trapper Gibbs. One got away, one killed himself, only one was brought back. An Ojibwe youth nicknamed Indian John (his real name is Amik) is captured, shackled, and confined in the Carver cabin. Returning from tending to sick neighbors, thirteen-year old Rebecca and her seventeen-year old sister Laura are told that an Indian is in the loft. Their initial reaction is fear when ordered by overbearing Pa to take food to the captive. Awaiting the judge's arrival to conduct the trial, settlement citizens want the savage hanged, period!

Rebecca is treated harshly by Pa who tells others that 'she's slow in the head, and lazy, and don't do a quarter of the work'. She feels pity for Indian John but dares not voice it. A silent friendship is born as Amik leaves beads in the empty food plate. An exchange of little gifts begins, but Rebecca hides them from Pa in the trunk. Amik muses, 'each morning, / Bird Eyes and / Tall Girl Who Follows / bring me / a wooden bowl / filled with salty meat ... i eat slowly, / and i think of deer meat sweet with maple sugar'.

Many folk want to get a glimpse of the Indian. Red-haired young lawyer, Peter Kelley, arrives, explaining that he is a childhood friend of Amik, whose family saved Peter's ill mother. The sisters agree not to speak of the lawyer's visits to Pa or their brothers. Coming to the cabin only when male family members are away, Peter vows that 'Indians are as human as white men. Truthfully, in a great many respects, they are ... And in some ways, more so'.

Helping clear the fields, Rebecca finds an arrowhead and learns that 'This was once Indian land long before it was ours'. She overhears townsfolk plan that 'after the trial wash held, they were gonna hang the savage first and drag the Indian lawyer out of the state.' A stranger says he'd 'give that skinny lawyer a hatchet in the skull, same as that savage done to that poor white trapper ... throw his bones in the ground and let him go and defend all the miserable savages he wants in hell'. Rebecca's stomach turns as she blinks back tears and struggles with whether to warn Peter or not.

Thinking of the future, Amik predicts that the white spirits 'will someday / number like sands on the shore, / and they will sweep away / our people / from their sacred hunting grounds'. Amik places his faith in the Thunder Beings that he will go free.

In Crooked River, Shelley Pearsall delivers a tale of fear, ignorance, and bravery, superbly capturing the language of the time. She does a fine job of balancing the two-voice format with Rebecca's growing awareness of the notion of justice in her community, along with her changing perceptions and disillusionment with the people around her. Pearsall's idea for Crooked River came from a true story of a Chippewa Indian named John O'Mic who was tried and convicted of murder in Cleveland, Ohio in 1812. He was held captive in a cabin and shared it with a white man and his family, including a thirteen-year old daughter.

Included with a bibliography at the end of the book is a stirring Crooked River Reader's Theater, 'a special type of dramatic presentation in which specific scenes in books are adapted into short scripts'. The two scenes-into-script for read-aloud and/or acting-out are entitled Tomahawk Testimony and Footprints and Snowshoes, with assigned character names and roles. A former teacher and museum historian, Pearsall is now a full-time writer. Among her publications are All Shook Up and All Of The Above.

Pearsall calls herself a dedicated idea collector and tells us that 'Reading is so important ... No matter what is happening in your life, you can always escape into the pages of a book. Reading has taken me to places in time I could never 'travel' to ... It has enabled me to walk in the shoes of people who are different than I am ... Books have answered my questions, given me ideas, and inspired me'.

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