Last Child

Last Child

5.0 1
by Michael Spooner

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A mixed-race girl must grow up quickly when danger threatens her world

Rosalie's biggest problem used to be her own divided feelings. The constant tug-of-war between her white half and her Native American half is hard. She even has two names: Rosalie when she's at the fort with her father and Last Child when she's in the village with her mother.


A mixed-race girl must grow up quickly when danger threatens her world

Rosalie's biggest problem used to be her own divided feelings. The constant tug-of-war between her white half and her Native American half is hard. She even has two names: Rosalie when she's at the fort with her father and Last Child when she's in the village with her mother.

But now a steamboat has carried smallpox into Rosalie's world—and the Mandans have no resistance to the disease. Suddenly the name Last Child is all too real.

Set during the smallpox epidemic of 1837, this is the powerful story of a mixed-race girl fighting her way into adulthood against all odds.

Editorial Reviews

Set in the upper Missouri valley during the smallpox epidemic of 1837, this fast-paced adventure takes readers into the mind and heart of pre-adolescent Rosalie, aka "Last Child," who splits her life between her mothers' Mandan village and her white father's Fort Clark. As the novel opens, bookkeeper McCullough, outraged at the arrival of a boatload of sick whites lying among soiled Indian blankets, orders the blankets burned and the sailors quarantined. But his orders are ignored. As disease spreads, McCullough, taking two men and daughter Rosalie as clerk, leaves the fort to rescue a trader and his load of buffalo robes lost upriver. There they are ambushed and Rosalie kidnapped. Against all odds, Rosalie escapes, survives a forest fire, builds a buffalo-hide boat, saves the trader, and returns to a devastated village. Now almost literally "Last Child," she spends precious weeks with her failing Mandan grandmother who teaches Rosalie to accept herself and to straddle two cultures. The novel ends with an 1845 epilogue as Rosalie, after years away in her father's care, returns home to chronicle the tragedy. Action-packed prose; sharp, witty dialogue; and strong characterization make this novel an entertaining read. Spooner, himself related to Native Americans, does his best to accurately portray the time and the people. This book is wonderfully suited to examining issues of cultural conflict and mixed-race youth. VOYA CODES: 4Q 4P M J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2005, Henry Holt, 256p., Ages 11 to 18.
—Laura Woodruff
Children's Literature
Rosalie moves between two worlds. She spends half of her time at the fort with her white father and the other half at the village with her mother and the rest of her family, where her name is "Last Child." She prefers to think of herself as white, even though it causes problems with the people in the village. When a steamboat captain brings smallpox to the village, though, Rosalie's world will be forever changed. Kidnapped by a crazy white man and one of her own people, Rosalie must use all her resources to escape. Once she returns home, though, she finds that her challenges are just beginning. No longer a child, Rosalie must decide what type of person she wants to be. Rosalie's story alternates with journal entries from her father—a rather interesting storytelling tool. This accurate portrayal of the effect that smallpox had on Native Americans is very powerful. Rosalie's inner conflict about her own race is a problem many modern children face, and makes the story particularly relevant in today's world. 2005, Henry Holt and Company, Ages 10 up.
—Amie Rose Rotruck
School Library Journal
Gr 6-9-It is 1837, and Rosalie (also known as Last Child) isn't sure who she is. Her father is a white bookkeeper inside Fort Clark (ND), while her mother lives in the nearby Mandan village. Rosalie calls both places home, yet belongs in neither. The Mandans war frequently with the Dakotas, making life uncertain. Then she is taken captive by a deranged steamboat captain whose boat brought smallpox to the area and must rely on her wits and Native skills to return home, where her father has turned to drink and her mother is dying. With the help of her grandmother, Muskat Woman, Rosalie must determine her identity and her future. Spooner has written a compelling story, historically accurate with a vivid setting, and yet colored with sparkling characters. Though the start is a little sluggish, and the ending is somewhat melodramatic and contrived, many readers will identify with Rosalie's struggle for acceptance and belonging.-Melissa Moore, Union University Library, Jackson, TN Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In the midst of wars and rumors of wars, pestilence and fire, young Rosalie must grow up quickly. The smallpox epidemic of 1837 has killed most of her Mandan village near Fort Clark, and if she survives at all, she fears it'll be as a society of one. Rosalie, the youngest in her family, has always been called Last Child, but now she may literally become that. Spooner uses alternating first-person voices-Rosalie's and her white father's-to vividly portray the lives of those caught in what seemed like the end of the world. Rosalie-part white, part Mandan-must navigate between both cultures, always feeling neither one nor the other, but she comes to realize she is the one who can document what has happened and appeal for aid for the survivors, only 150 of 2,000 villagers. The horrific effects of the "white man's disease" are effectively shown, and Rosalie's character and world are fully realized. A fine historical novel bringing an important chapter in American history to life for young readers. (timeline, notes on American history, bibliography, glossary, personal note) (Fiction. 11+)

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Last Child

By Michael Spooner

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2005 Michael Spooner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3709-2


"What do you mean, you think they're sick?" My father's voice cannonballed through the door of his tiny room.

I sat on the ground outside with Little Raven. He snapped at a fly twice, then circled on his three good legs and lay down with a grunt. His breath smelled like fish heads. A wind was coming up from the southeast, and I wondered if it would storm again like it did last night. A blessing for the corn from Old-Woman-Who-Never-Dies.

"Just keep your voice down, McCulloch," answered another man's voice. "All right, I know they're sick. It was a deckhand took fever and dry heaves somewhere after Westport. That don't mean nothin'. We didn't know for sure till he come out with the rash, but then it was Council Bluffs, and four other hands was fevered, too, plus an Arikara woman."

"I can't believe what you're saying, lad! A half dozen? And you brought that boat full of sickness to my landing!"

"Don't you talk down to me, bookkeeper. We done for them as good as any doctor — put 'em belowdecks and let 'em sweat it out. The first one feels fine now, and none of the others have died yet. So there's an end on it. I'm not a believer in quarantine, myself."

"Not a believer in ..." A heavy hand slapped the table. "I've never heard such a string of gold-medal idiocies."

"Don't press it, mister. I'm just here to get this boat up the Missouri, collect some pelts, and get back. If a few red-skins catch the smallpox in the process, that ain't my problem. Sickness thins the herd, I say."

"Damn you for a witless fool!" My father hardly ever swore. This was not going well.

"McCulloch" — the man's voice was threatening — "I've worked rivers and river towns since I was a pup. I been in more knife fights than I can count, and I've killed men for no more reason than calling me a fool like you just done."

"Yes, I imagine you hear that a good bit! And maybe you thought a dainty white uniform would make you a captain instead of an imbecile? Sorry, no, because a captain, sir, woulda quarantined the ship. Woulda dropped anchor and waited it out. A proper captain, me laddie, woulda known that our precious fur company can't do business of any kind up the Missouri if all our ruddy 'red-skins' die of smallpox!"

"McCull —" But the word ended with a loud grunt. Something slammed against the door. Something heavy.

"But, nay, not you! You lay the sick among the cargo — among the very trade blankets and the foodstuffs. Then you dock at my landing with not one but six live cases of smallpox! And you let the Indians run in and out the boat like children at a puppet show. Pray tell me, Captain — history will want to know — were you stone drunk the whole voyage, or does drooling, gibbering madness run in your family?"

Time for me and Little Raven to go. I stood up as the door opened and a wiry man in a dingy white suit stumbled out. He didn't look much like a captain, or like a dangerous man with a knife. His coat sleeves hung past his wrists. His trousers were cinched high around his middle and hung in rumpled bags around his knees. Three of his front teeth were gray and broken. Except for his coat, he looked like a typical Fort Clark man. But behind a greasy hank of yellow hair, his eyes fairly throbbed with anger.

"Bookkeeper!" he warned. "This ain't over. What Chardon does to you won't be the half of it. I never forget." He straightened his lapels roughly and squared his shoulders.

My father's voice answered pleasantly from within the small room. "I'll be here. And you'll find Mr. Chardon in the Little Village this evening with his 'redskin' wife and son. I hope you'll explain your plan to thin his herd, little captain. If you live to get out of my sight, that is."

Then my father, Angus McCulloch, filled the doorway beside me. In his thick right hand was a pistol. A ring of bright steel dangled from its base, and the walnut stock curved smoothly in his fist. The barrel and the shiny lock plate near his thumb were engraved in fancy cuts and swirls. I had never seen his face so calm. The captain, still brushing his coat, looked up and froze as my father pulled the hammer back with two loud clicks and slowly raised the gun.

I screamed. I scrambled past Little Raven but fell against my father's leg as the gunshot roared. The ball buried itself in the dirt, and we two crashed against the wall and over a bench. When I looked up, the captain was gone.

19 June 1837

Last night a severe storm of wind and rain. Mr. Chardon sent the hunters out to look for buffalo this morning, for we had word of a small band across the river. Steamboat St. Peter's hove into sight about 3 P.M. — the men and the Mandans all a-frolicking on the riverbank. Unloaded the merchandises directly into the storehouse, and afterward raised a glass with Mr. Chardon and the steamboat's officers, while the Mandan women prepared a fine dance for tonight.

Later, the idiot captain just happened to mention that a deckhand had taken the smallpox and had lain among the blankets and other merchandises meant for the fort. Now 5 others on board have the heaves and shakes.

I admit I lost my head.


My father pulled off his spectacles and blew at the lenses. His forearm was scraped from the fall, and crumbs of dirt hung in his beard. I shoved his leg off me and stood up. Little Raven was gone. He was very gun-shy, and he didn't like my father much, either.

"Rosie, lass," said my father, pulling himself up. "You just saved me a peck of trouble." His thick red hair stood out straight on one side.

"Well, you scared me to death!" I thumped him in the chest, but it was like punching a tree. "Have you been drinking? You can't just shoot people!"

"I know, girl. I know." He put his arms around me, but I pushed him off roughly. I righted the bench and sat down with my back to him.

Two men in boots crunched across the small parade ground to us. Other men of the fort were tumbling out of their rooms, some only half dressed, all with guns in their hands.

"Alors, McCulloch," said one of them with a laugh. "For killing this man, is no good to shoot the ground." It was Antoine Garreau, Mr. Chardon's interpreter. Garreau was half Arikara and half French, with a deep chest and arms as thick as his thighs. He loved nothing better than eating and fighting.

"That's the plain truth, Garreau," my father replied, wiping the pistol on his shirt. "And it's a fine thing for both him and me that I missed. That young fellow was the new Captain Pratte of the steamboat St. Peter's. Wouldn't do at all to shoot him."

"You tried to pot the steamboat captain?" hooted the other man, Bill Swaggerty. "Old Chardon's gonna horsewhip you for sure this time, perfessor."

"If he does, he does," said my father. "The main thing is, I want you to pass the word among the men to stay clear of that boat."

"For why?" asked Garreau. "I been already onto it."

My father bent down to dust his knees. "Well, you stay off it now, and keep the other men off it, too. Don't let the Mandans get their hands on any of that cargo or trade for anything that belonged to the passengers. That boat is full of smallpox."

"Perfesser, they been all over the boat. And you know there ain't no way to keep a Mandan from trading."

My father's voice rose. "This is not a debatable matter, Mr. Swaggerty. You work for this fort, and I'm giving you direct orders to keep the men and the Mandans clear of that boat and its cargo. If Mr. Chardon cares to reverse me, he will do so. But for now, you set a guard at the gangplank, and double the guard at the storehouse." He looked around. "Mr. Williams!"

"Here," came a voice from one of the doorways.

"Take two men and go through the cargo that's been off-loaded. Find anything that's been soiled by the humors of the sick and burn it. Do you understand me?"

"Ummm. Can't say I do, sir," said Mr. Williams, stepping into the light. He was a short man with stringy hair, and he was dressed in greasy canvas trousers and a buckskin shirt that was stained with food, blood, and dirt. "What's the 'humors of the sick' look like?"

"Right," my father said, more to himself than anyone. "Slipped into my schoolmaster talk, didn't I? Mr. Williams, what I want you to do is very carefully look over each blanket, box, and bag that has been moved from the St. Peter's to our storehouse."

"Yessir, that part I got."

"Very good. Now. You're to wear a cloth over your nose and mouth, and I want you to set aside anything — absolutely anything — that looks like a man bled on it, or heaved up on it, or spilled any other sort of bodily fluid on it."

"Like if he wet himself, you mean?"

"Like if he wet himself, yes. If it looks like he wrapped himself in it, or wiped himself with it. If he so much as drooled on it. Anything that looks like it had contact with the bodily humors of a sick man, you put it to one side and burn it. Now am I being more clear?"

"Yessir, that's clear." Williams scuffed the dirt with his toe. "Except why would we do that? We gonna need them blankets and such come winter." Some of the other men were murmuring about this, too. My father took a few deep breaths and began again.

"Gentlemen," he said loudly. He motioned for quiet and then he started speaking in the voice he always used when he was trying to teach me something just out of my grasp. "Gentlemen," he repeated with a little laugh, "some of you call me the professor, and that's a pretty good joke." The men grinned. "But this, right now, is one of those times when all my reading of books might just help the whole crew of us. So pay close attention here.

"Now, the Indians think sickness is caused by an angry spirit, and a lot of our white ideas are no more rational. Even the best English doctors don't know why one man might die of smallpox while the next might just feel puny for a week.

"But, gentlemen, here's something we do know. If you eat spoiled meat tonight, you'll be sick in the morning. Am I right? And, just like the blood in spoiled meat is spoiled, too, the humors of a sick man — his blood, his phlegm, his black and his green bile — those fluids carry the sickness all through his body. So it stands to reason — does it not? — that if those sickly humors soak his shirt and you wear his shirt, you can take the sickness from his shirt. D'you see? D'you follow me now, Mr. Williams?"

"I reckon so, sir."

"Very good. Now, I'll say again what I want you to do. There's smallpox on that steamboat, and the damn-fool captain laid the sick to sweat and bleed and vomit among the cargo. So I want you to take two men with you, cover your face with a kerchief, and search out which supplies show any sign of being tainted by the humors of the sick. Carry them out of the fort and set fire to them."

"Right. But, begging your pardon, perfesser, if Mr. Chardon was to come upon the fire, I sure couldn't explain it to him, like you just done, sir. About the humors and all?"

Another man spoke up now.

"McCulloch, I know you read books, but I never heard such like this here about getting sick just from somebody bleeding on you."

"Moi non plus," put in Garreau with a laugh. "I been covered in blood, and never sick a day in my life. Also, I been already on that boat, but I'm feel very fine. Not sick even one bit."

"That's enough," snapped my father. "This is not for discussion. Williams, you will do as I directed. Swaggerty, you will set the guard. Hawkins, I want you to take three men and round up any crew from that boat who might be ashore. Get them back aboard. If they resist, get them aboard at gunpoint. Whatever it takes. That's it, men. Step lively." The men moved off, muttering.

My father turned and almost knocked me over. "Rosalie. Are you still here?"

"Of course I am. You said I could help you count the inventory headed downstream. If you're done lecturing and shooting at people, let's get to work."

"Right," he said absently, looking down at the pistol in his other hand. "What was I thinking?"

I went through the door into his dim room. "What does smallpox look like?" I asked him. "Grandmother says people die from it." I stepped over an upturned stool and moved to the shelves against the wall. Father's ledger book lay beside his Bible, pipe, and whiskey jug. A wide smear of soot climbed the front of the fireplace.

"Rosie, there's nothing worse than smallpox," he answered. "It will make you puke up everything but the soles of your feet. It will rash and blister till the skin comes off your bones. Then it will kill you."

I shuddered. "But the people on the steamboat didn't die."

"I'm not talking about them," he said, setting the stool upright. "Out here, most whites will live through it, but Indians die by the thousands."

"I'm white, too."

"Ah, I wish you were," he sighed. "But you're only half white, Rosie girl, so that's only half the protection you need." I hated it when he said things like this.

"And which half is that?" I demanded. "Right or left? Exactly where am I so different from you?" Angus gathered me in his hairy arms and rocked me like he always did when I was angry at him.

"You are my own true love, lassie," he whispered in my ear. "Never doubt it. You're as brown as your mum, but I know you're my girl because ... you've got my temper!" He poked my ribs with a knuckle.

I laughed, but I twisted away. "You don't love me," I teased. "You just need my help with your numbers." I pulled the ledger book from its shelf and sat down at the table.

"Wait a minute," he said, suddenly serious. "You'll do no numbers today, my girl. You go straight back to your mothers, and you tell them I said that nobody in our lodge goes on the steamboat, or trades for anything from the boat, or even gets close to anyone from the boat. You hear me?"

"White Crane doesn't want to go to the boat anyway," I said. "Nor Goes to Next Timber, nor Muskrat Woman, nor the rest of them. Only the boys, and who can tell them anything? So there you are," I said with my back to him. "I might as well stay here and help you count the inventory going outbound. Nobody's been sick on those hides, have they?"

"Rosalie ..." he warned. I opened the book and flipped the pages, ignoring him like my mothers always did.

"Let's see. The St. Peter's will set out this afternoon on its way up to Fort Union, but it will leave its two Mackinaw boats here, and we need to load them with three hundred and twenty packs of buffalo robes and five packs of beaver for the trip back down to St. Louis."


"Angus, you promised me! You promised I could ledger this shipment and make Swaggerty load the Mac boats."

Father's face flushed red. "First, I promised no such thing," he said heatedly. "Second, you will order no man here to do anything. You take far too many liberties with the men. And, third, you will not talk so fresh to me, lass."

"Or what?" I challenged. "If you make me go back, I will march straight to Mr. Chardon and report that you shot the steamboat captain."

We held each other's eyes angrily, and then he turned away with a shrug. "You do what you must. Chardon will find out anyway. I'm not here to argue with a child." He splashed a little whiskey in his cup and stood sipping, staring out the open door. This wasn't working. I tried a different approach.

"Exactly," I said calmly. "Let's not argue. The way I see it, we're in this together. Not only do I need to inventory the outbound freight, but you need me to back up whatever story you decide to tell the mothers. About the incident with the captain."

"Oh, hell ..."

"Which this time will be ... hmm ... that you were showing him your brand-new gun and it just ... went off?"

"All right, girl. You win." He stood with his big hands in his hair, looking off into space. I smiled generously. I just loved winning.

"In fact, Father, as I recall, it was the captain holding the gun. Wasn't it?"

Father sat down, smiling. "Aye, that it was," he agreed. "I had to tear it from his hand ... hmm ... to keep him from shooting himself!"

"That should work," I said. "I mean: Aieeee! Don't tell me there's another crazy white man!" He laughed at my imitation of White Crane Woman.


Excerpted from Last Child by Michael Spooner. Copyright © 2005 Michael Spooner. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Spooner writes both poetry and prose for children, and is the director of the Utah State University Press. He lives with his family in Logan, Utah.

Michael Spooner writes both poetry and prose for children, and is the director of the Utah State University Press. He lives with his family in Logan, Utah.

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Last Child 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
wooooooh. history class project book thing. im stoked. this seems like a VERY good read.