During the course of my reading life, historical fiction has continually provided the impetus for me to dig deeper into the truths presented in those titles. In December of 2013 a book, a novel in verse, appeared on the nominations list for the 2013 Nerdy Award Finalists. Recently I completed my reading of this book, Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War (Frances Foster Books, Farrar Straus Giroux) written by Helen Frost. Presented through the voices of two twelve-year-old boys, we are given a possible, personal perspective of two life-changing months in the autumn of 1812.
A shallow sea
moves over the earth,
leaving a thin coat
of salt on the ground.
Anikwa lives with Old Raccoon, his father's younger brother who he calls Father, Mink, his wife, Wiinicia, Old Raccoon's mother who Anikwa calls Grandma, fourteen-year-old Rain Bird and six-year-old Toontwa, children of Old Raccoon and Mink. They make their home in the community of Kekionga at the juncture of three rivers. James Gray lives with his parents and younger sister, Molly, within the stockade surrounding the fort in a house next to the trading post run by his father.
There is a bond, generations' old, between the two families; James' great-grandfather traded with the Miami (Myaamia). For the first six one-page chapters we become acquainted with the relationship between Anikwa and James, the sharing of adventures in the surrounding woods and fields, food and fun between the two young men. They each know a few words of the other's language. It is in the seventh chapter speaking in James' voice, the conflict, the tragedy to come, is introduced.
Isaac, an eleven-year-old boy, the son of soldier lives at the fort. Unfortunately, he joins James one morning as he walks to catch some fish at the river. Isaac's conversation is constant describing the conflict predicted to come and his distrust of the Native Americans. An incident at the river highlights the disparity in beliefs of people like Isaac and James and Anikwa.
In another series of chapters we are given a picture of the daily lives of both families. We realize the ethical standards which guide the actions of both groups. Woven among the conversations and thoughts of Anikwa and James are several additional incidents portraying the increasing tensions in the area.
Adult discussions are overheard and decisions are made, some confusing to the boys. Due to restrictions placed on their lives by the upcoming arrival of the American and British soldiers, the confidence and trust grown over their shared lifetimes is threatened. Literal and figurative fires are set destroying decades of growth. Will those things which brought them together before be strong enough to do so again?
During the moments it took me to read the opening quote by Mihsihkinaahkwa, Miami Chief (Little Turtle) to William H. Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory, look over the Miami Homeland map, study the two page introduction by Helen Frost and the explanation of character names, I knew I was going to be taken back in time by an author who had done extensive research in support of her passion for this project. This was further confirmed on my completion of the story by the author notes, glossary of Miami (Myaamia) words and acknowledgments. The opening poem I included above is the first of ten depicting the area containing the salt deposits necessary to the lives of many. Frost uses them to delineate certain aspects of her story.
Within the confines of her poetic prose Helen Frost breathes beautiful life into the two boys' voices. Anikwa's pages are in the shape of traditional Miami ribbon work. James's pages began in the shape of stripes on the American flag. Frost says:
As I discovered the two voices, the pulse-like shape of Anikwa's poems wove through the horizontal lines of James's poems, and the two voices created something new that held the story as it opened out.
Readers cannot help but be drawn into the circumstances surrounding the lives of both. I remarked to a colleague as I was nearing the end of the story, how I was afraid to finish. I could feel the tension increasing as I was filled with an overwhelming sadness. Here are a couple passages of many I marked as exemplary.
Two fish arc out of the water near
the eddy, showing us exactly where they are.
Then, over by that sycamore that fell last year, a big
bullfrog starts up talking like a drum. I answer, and he
answers back. And then we hear something else---
James's quiet voice, Isaac's scratchy loud one.
It sounds like they're arguing. Everything
except the river and the frog stops
talking. The bluebirds fly
away, the ducks dive
Anikwa plays a tune on a willow whistle. Could I make one? I point to the whistle
and take out my knife. We go find a willow tree, and Anikwa shows me how
to cut a stick at an angle, make a notch through the bark, and tap the stick all over
so the bark comes loose and slips right off. After I slice off a piece of wood
to make a mouthpiece, he helps me cut another notch and slide the bark back on.
I put the whistle to my mouth and blow---it works! The sound it makes is lower
than Anikwa's. He plays fast, and I play slow; soft, loud, then soft again.
We sound so good, two yellow birds stop to listen and sing along with us.
I believe Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War written by Helen Frost is a significant work of historical fiction for the audience in which it is intended. It is not only valuable for the story it tells but for the discussions I know it will generate. What each individual takes away from the reading of this book depends on what they bring to it originally. Personally, I am deeply moved by the accounting created by the impressive research and lovely writing of Helen Frost.
For more information about the title with multiple resources please follow the link embedded in Helen Frost's name to her website. Anita Silvey author of the print and online Anita Silvey's Children's Book-A-Day Almanac wrote a review linked here. For a review of the book from a Native American perspective along with the continuing conversation in the comments, please follow this link to Debbie Reese's blog, American Indians In Children's Literature. Please follow this link to the publisher's website to read further excerpts from the book.