By Elizabeth Wroten
Easy Reader Review: The White Feather
On 13, Oct 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: A Quaker family living in Ohio in the early 1800’s makes peace with a Shawnee Indian tribe during a very troubled time.
This is actually a book that is on our easy reader shelf. On seeing it I immediately pulled it, worried that it contained stereotypes and racist content. Judging by the cover and style it looks like a book from the 1960s. It’s not. It was written in 1987. I will say upfront this book is not perfect, but I am leaving it on our shelf. Here’s why.
I was reminded of Joseph Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door so I turned to that book’s author’s note for good historical context and research into the actual events these books are based on. Bruchac did extensive research into both white and native perspectives on dealings between native tribes and the Friends (Quakers). There was an actual event similar to the one featured here and most similar to Bruchac’s story. The biggest differences being that The White Feather takes place in Ohio and Arrow takes place in New York and in Arrow the Native Americans come to a meeting of Quakers, not an individual homestead. The use of the broken arrow is also more accurate than the use of a feather.
I found some evidence that the book was written by a Quaker couple who were probably familiar with the story Bruchac researched. It has, over the years, become changed and exaggerated (as you might expect). Problems with The White Feather include the lack of acknowledgement that the Quakers were still taking land from the native tribes. And being kind didn’t exonerate them from this injustice. This is not a true story so the way it’s fleshed out is not as accurate as it could be. The historical context provided in the back is short and not overly informative. The natives all look the same, but I kind of think the white people do too. I think it’s the style? It’s pretty simplistic and not great art.
The story is, however, tribe specific (Shawnee) and accurate to the tribes living in the area of the story. Their clothing is close to what was worn (although maybe not totally true to the times they would have worn it (feathers I’m looking at you). Bruchac’s is also tribe-specific, but because of the setting it is a different tribe.
One of the first scenes in the book has the little boy making a war cry and scaring his mother and sister and their neighbors. He is very quickly reprimanded and corrected by his mother who angrily shames him “Abe, never, never do such a thing again! You know the Indians have always been our friends!” She later tells him they are worried because the Shawnee are angry over settlers taking what is not theirs and cheating them. She is nervous they will be targeted, and this is why she was frightened, but she is also makes the point that what the white settlers are doing is not okay and the Shawnee are justified in their anger.
In the next chapter Abe accompanies his father on a trip to visit the Shawnee tribe. There the father speaks with them “in their own language”. We are also told this is not his first trip to visit them. He has a relationship with the tribe. When the men of the tribe return the visit a few days or weeks later, they are not violent (although they do make a mess eating the biscuits and molasses the mother provides) nor are they unreasonable. They are a bit abrupt, but I think that has more to do with the fact that Abe, the boy telling the story, doesn’t speak their language the way their father does. The father provides some context for the children as the events unfold.
This would make a decent book to have a discussion around. It’s a little grey-er in the open collection. It makes me a bit uncomfortable, but I also spent the summer weeding our Native American resources and know that is a strong collection. Kids picking up this book will also be having conversations in their classrooms and will be exposed to all kinds of good resources and #ownvoices. The cover is unfortunate in that it makes the Shawnee look war-like and the white settlers look peaceable. If you read the story though, it’s considerably more nuanced. Like I said, it isn’t perfect and Bruchac’s book is much better and longer, but Bruchac also takes some liberties with the story. I think in the context of our collection it works. I do like that it provides an entree into Bruchac’s book and I would eventually point children interested in this book to that one. I would not recommend going out of your way to purchase this (but do go out of your way to purchase The Arrow Over the Door), but if it’s on your shelf take a look at the collection as a whole.