Archive for the ‘Joseph Bruchac’ Category

Bruchac, Joseph. Children of the Longhouse.  1996.  New York and London: Puffin, 1998.

It’s the late fifteenth century, pre-contact with Europeans, for a twin brother and sister who are members of the Mohawk branch of the Iroquois nation, and the novel alternately tells of what happens from his viewpoint and hers–in the long run, mostly, his, for the story is really mostly about him.  The novel is doggedly pedagogical.  Every step the characters take, every item of clothing they wear or object they use, is explained in detail in terms of its meaning and purpose in traditional aboriginal culture.  The bulk of the book is information of this sort, and the plot, as a result  is very slight.  Our hero, Ohkwa’ri, overhears some older boys planning a raid on a neighbouring nation–which would be against the will of the community, because these two nations have a peace treaty.  But the older boy is a thoughtless hothead out for personal glory, and he and his equally hopeless friends might cause a war.  So Ohkwa’ri does what is good for the community as a whole, and tells the leaders of the plan.  The older boys, now having been caused trouble, are out to get Ohkwa’ri.  Luckily, his sister Otsi:stia is a careful observer and focused on keeping her brother from harm, so she manages to keep the older boys from him when they plan to attack.  Later, the communal elders plan a ball game to brighten the spirits of an old man.  The old man asks that Ohkwa’ri be his delegate as a player for the Old Men (those married) against the Young Men (the team his enemies are on).   Ohkwa’ri scores a goal for the Old Men, then is nearly trapped by his enemies–until he is placed in the situation of saving their leader Grabber’s life, thus ending the rivalry and bringing the community back to order.

What’s most interesting here in terms of alternating narratives is that Grabber, Ohkwa’ri’s enemy, is not given one of the narratives–and perhaps even more so, that he is not the protagonist of the novel.  As a rebellious youth fretting under the strictures of a community that would repress him, he sounds more like a typical hero of fiction for young people than Ohkwa’ri does.  But he, the enemy of communal values, is the hero’s enemy here, and firmly in the background and unfocalized as what must be fought against rather than sympathized with (as, also, is the European enemy unfocalized and in the background of Smelcer’s The Trap).  The novel operates aggressively on the side of community–it’s not surprising that in the ball game Ohkwa’ri plays for the Old Men, because he’s clearly on their side, a youth wise enough not to entertain the typical passions of youth.   So here as in The Trap (and is this true of other novels about what happens inside aboriginal communities, as opposed to those about Aborginal/European conflicts?) the assumptions are all pro-communal, and against individual action that upsets communities and their traditional ways and values.

(Indeed, Children of the Longhouse is set up much like The Trap:  both novels offer two characters on the same side of a dispute and their differing points of view on that dispute because of their place in the culture–in one case, a generational split between old and young, and in the other, a gender split between male and female, important in terms of the traditional gender roles and duties of the culture.)  But here as in The Trap, the differences between the two alternating characters don’t seem all that significant–they share the same key values despite their apparent differences.)

That may be why Osti:stia tends to disappear from the novel for quite long stretches.  Bruchac doesn’t really seem to be all that interested in her, and when he is, it’s because she’s interested in her brother at that point, so that her narratives are actually mostly about him, too.  It’s a curiously non-alternating-narrative effect, for the novel is always about the one character even while announcing itself as being about two.

Osti:stia is not simply a representative of the duties of Iroquois women in traditional culture; she also seems to have exactly the character to pursue those duties without question–just as Ohkwa’ri has exactly the character to represent the best form of Iroquois manhood without question.   It’s this lack of questioning of what is good and true and right as their elders understand it that makes these characters appear rather like gender sterotypes–the good quiet female, the brave heroic male–and to me at least, less interesting as fictional protagonists than they might be.  I can see why Bruchac would have wanted to create role models for contempoary aboriginal children who succeed through their unquestioning cleavage to the old ways.  But wouldn’t a story line more like that of Ohkwa’ri’s enemy Grabber work better for young people in our time likely to know little and live little by the assumptions of the ancient past, and needing to see through the contemporary culture inevitably surrounding them to a new understanding and revival of old ways?  Wouldn’t that be less prone to seeming to support traditional gender biases?  And wouldn’t it at least be a little less, well, boring?