Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The White


"I was born a white at sea on the way to the New World . . . But I was taken by those whom we called Indians. Nearly speechless for a time, I was beset by terrors." This is the voice of Mary Jemison, who, in 1758, at the age of sixteen, was taken by a Shawnee raiding party from her home near what would become Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In this intimate reimagining of her life story, Mary endures the brutal scalpings of her parents and siblings and is given to two Seneca sisters who treat her as their own--a symbolic replacement for the brother they lost to the white colonists. Renamed Two-Falling-Voices, she gradually becomes integrated into her new family, learning to assist with the hunt and to cultivate corn. She marries a Delaware warrior, raises a family in her adoptive culture, becomes friends with two former slaves, and eventually, remarkably, fulfills her lifelong dream "to own land bordered by sky, as my mother and father had once purchased woods and fields which were dappled with changing light." A testament to the resilience of the human mind and spirit, The White is a cut-crystal narrative of Mary's life among the Seneca, lit by flashes of her own voice and revealing her curious, open heart. From the novel's bloody opening to its arresting conclusion--by her own choice Mary does not return to white society--Deborah Larsen never flinches from the violence and the splendor that marked the settling of the New World.

(From mfpl.org)


There have been a plethora of books written about the young colonial woman, Mary Jemison, who was violently ripped from her family and home near present day Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In The White, Deborah Larsen gives a raw and at times violently graphic account of the events leading up to and after her capture. Mary’s story is a tale so frightening, that one could easily assume that it holds no basis in truth, but that would be a rather large mistake. At the tender age of 16 and terrified beyond belief, Mary must witness the brutal slaying of her family and neighbors, only to be forced to live among the very people who committed these heinous acts. Rendered unable to speak due to the sheer terror of her circumstances, Mary is given to two grieving Seneca tribeswomen who use her as the physical replacement of a brother lost during a skirmish with the white colonists. They give her the name Two-Falling Voices. This seems to represent not only the fallen voice of the brother she is to replace, but also the lost “voice” of Mary herself. Over time, Mary becomes more than accustom to the native ways, marrying a Delaware tribesman, and raising a family within his native culture. Many years later, when given the chance to leave the tribe, Mary makes the unexpected choice to stay; finding her new way of life actually suited her in a more spiritual way than that of the white colonists.

I chose this book by happenstance. I was shelving books one day at the library and came across it quite by mistake. I saw a small, simple book with the bold title “The White” written very plainly along the spine. This immediately piqued my interest. Where was the flashy script writing with the fancy, artistic curlicues that so typically adorn the cover of fiction novels?  I grabbed it from the shelf, and decided to take a peek at it during my lunch break.  Boy was I pleasantly surprised! My initial reaction to the writing was one of admiration. Deborah Larsen wrote this novel with a subtle, yet lyrically expressive voice. Her descriptions of the colors that surround Mary in the natural settings that have become her home are mentally exhilarating.  I could easily visualize Mary and her warrior husband frolicking among the golden fields of corn and amber hues of the autumn leaves. Although at times her descriptiveness was unnecessary to the scene, and seemed like fluff, it was rather attractive fluff and exceptionally enjoyable to read and visualize.
  Once you wade through the cream of Larsen’s eloquent and elaborate writing style, Mary’s narrative takes on a life of its own that transcends her contemporary time period. It can be translated into various modern scenarios, which makes her tale endearing and relatable. To the modern day reader, Mary is remarkably strong-willed and free-thinking for a woman of her time. She comes across as a person who is dealt an undeserved hand, and finds a way to make the best of her situation. She shows tolerance and compassion in the face of complete and utter despondency, not only in her dealings with the native people, but also her treatment of the former slaves she befriends. Hers is a true life saga that expresses wholeheartedly the internal fortitude and grit necessary to overcome any obstacle, and shows that even in the direst situations, hope can spring eternal. I give this book three and a half stars. 

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