There are two very exciting things about these books – first, they are both fantastic, and from underrepresented voices. Secondly (okay, maybe more exciting for me than for you, dear reader) is that I got both of these books in paper from the library – I have missed my library books so, so much! I hope all of your libraries are finding safe ways to get you books, as well.
Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte. Scholastic, 2020. ISBN 978-1338255812. Read from library copy.
In the 1700s, Mary Lambert has grown up on Martha’s Vineyard, in a small town where she, like many of the residents, is Deaf. She’s proud to be descended from the first settlers who came to the island and founded a town where everybody, hearing and Deaf, signs.
Times have been hard lately. Her family is mourning the loss of her older brother, George, in a carriage accident. And the father of her best friend, Nancy, is fighting for the local Wampanoag people to give them more land. But Mary is also friendly with Sally, the Wampanoag daughter of the freedman who works for her father and , and that makes her distrustful of Nancy’s overbearing father. She’s learning that the Wampanoag think very differently about things than the Vineyarders on the island – that Sally is considered just Wampanoag, not half African, and the different ideas of land use and ownership.
Things get even worse when a young scientist comes from the mainland, determined to find out why so many people on the island are Deaf. He’s openly disdainful of the Deaf people on the island, looking at his interpreters rather than the person he’s talking to, and convinced that the residents are doing something wrong, both to wind up with so many Deaf people and by treating them as full participants in society, rather than servants and beggars. This is the first time that Mary has heard these horrible ideas, and she is reeling.
And then, as Mary warns in the beginning, there is “great wickedness.”
It’s a tricky thing to find the right blend of historical feel and modern appeal in everything from language to characterization and changing attitudes. LeZotte does amazingly well at this balance – Mary’s voice doesn’t sound like that of a modern girl, but her energy and imagination are instantly endearing, as well as wrestling with the attitudes of the day. (I appreciate that, on the cover, her lace collar looks hand- rather than machine-made.) I’ll note that the author is herself Deaf, and that she worked closely with several Native people, including an African-Wampanoag woman, to ensure accuracy in their representation. Although the time period is a good century earlier than the Little House books, I’d recommend it to fans of the series for a more nuanced but still setting- and character-rich examination of early American history – it would probably work for fans of The Witch of Blackbird Pond as well, if kids these days are still reading it.
Indian No More by Charlene Willing Mcmanis and Traci Sorell. Tu Books, 2019. 978-1620148396. Read from library copy.
Eight-year-old Regina Petit has grown up Umpqua on the Grand Ronde Reservation in Oregon. Though they don’t have a lot of money, they live in a tightly knit, supportive community, with lots of space for the children to play outdoors.
That all ends in 1954, when the government decides to terminate the Umpqua tribe and pay to relocate families and retrain their men to hold jobs in big cities. Regina’s father is excited and decides to move the family to Los Angeles, but her Chich – her grandmother – feels that they are now the walking dead. Regina herself is filled with doubt – is she still an Indian if the government says they aren’t anymore? And if she’s not an Indian, who is she? Particularly when her family discovers that whites in the city still treat them disrespectfully. Making friends with the kids in her new neighborhood is a mixed bag as well – she gets to know African-Americans, Cuban immigrants and more – but none of them think she’s a real Indian because she doesn’t shoot arrows or live in a tipi like Tonto.
This 1950s period of the government trying a new way to force Indians to give up their culture and assimilate is one that is rarely talked about, at least by whites – I don’t think I had ever heard of it until I read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People earlier this year. This book definitely illustrates the pain of these moves, the conflict between people wanting to hold on to their traditions and wanting to believe the government’s promise of a better life. But it’s far from a dry, preachy book. Regina and her family are all fully drawn characters. I appreciated Regina’s mother’s struggle with the run-down house in the city the government gives them, her reluctance to let the children see her kissing her husband; his confidence in his own good looks that’s undermined by the prejudice he faces; Chich, working so hard to keep the family together and their heritage alive, and Regina’s little sister, sweet Peewee, more concerned about making friends than the abstract issues of heritage that Regina wrestles with.
There is a lot of material to go along with this book, too – pronunciation guides and definitions for the Chinuk Wawa words used in the book, notes from the author (who died in 2018) telling her own story, on which this was based, with photographs of her family and the further history of the Umpqua after this book; as well as the co-author and editor, talking about how they worked to finish the story while keeping Charlene’s voice and intentions intact. Especially as the government is once again terminating tribes, this story is vitally important.