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In the early 1700s, twelve-year-old Suzette, an Ojibwa-French girl, hopes that her father will win the fur-trapping contest so that he can quit being a voyageur and stay with his family year-round, but when he is accused of stealing, Suzette must use her knowledge of both French and Ojibwa ways to find the real thief.
To the Island
Maybe today, Suzette thought hopefully as she slipped on her moccasins. Maybe today our family can paddle to the island! After days of stormy weather, sweet new-morning sun sifted through the pine and birch trees surrounding the Ojibwe camp. She'd find Papa and ask him.
Leaving the wiigwams and cook fires behind, she hurried along a faint path that led through the woods to the lakeshore. At water's edge, she paused to look out over the sparkling lake. La Pointe Island beckoned in the distance. Fort La Pointe, the fur-trading post, seemed tiny as a child's toy, the French flag flying above it no more than a spot of color. Squinting, Suzette could almost make out the Ojibwe lodges that already dotted the field beside the fort.
The lake was so big that the French traders called it Lac Supérieur—Lake Superior. Different bands of the great Ojibwe tribe lived all around the lake, much farther than Suzette had ever traveled. In rough weather, waves could capsize even the largest birchbark canoe. But this morning, the lake looked welcoming, and the sky was a cloudless blue. "As blue as your beautiful eyes," Papa often said on such mornings. Suzette smiled. The echo of his voice reached inside like a ray of spring sunshine.
She took a deep breath, enjoying the damp smell of earth, the lapping of the waves, and the sun warming her shoulders like a trader's wool blanket. Still smiling, Suzette glanced back at the camp. Smoke from morning fires twisted toward the sky, and the first shouts of children at play mixed with the mournful yipping of hungry dogs. It was good to be among more wiigwams again!
Ojibwe people moved with the seasons. During the cold winter months, when food was scarce, they scattered into the deep forest in small family camps. At the end of the long winter, it felt wonderful to move on to the sugaring camp, where perhaps a dozen families gathered to tap maple trees for sap to boil into syrup and sugar. And then Ojibwe people all over the mainland began making their way to the great summer village on La Pointe Island, just like Suzette's family. Each day now, more families arrived at the campground along the lakeshore and pitched wiigwams among the trees, waiting for good weather so they could cross to the island. Every passing day brought happy reunions with friends and relatives Suzette hadn't seen since last summer.
And soon would come the greatest reunion of all! Suzette gazed across the dancing water to La Pointe Island again, almost bouncing with excitement. She had spent every summer of her life on the island that the Ojibwe called Moningwanekaaning. It had been the summer gathering place of the Ojibwe people for generations, long before the French arrived. Suzette loved the island more than any place she knew. During the busy summer months, La Pointe was home to many people: Ojibwe families and French traders, soldiers, and canoe men. Sometimes Ho Chunk or Menominee or Potawatomie trappers, who lived many days' travel from La Pointe, paddled their furs to the trading post. Once a trapper with skin black as night had spent two days on the island. It was a big, noisy mix of people. Suzette couldn't imagine passing through the seasons' circle without summering outside the walls of Fort La Pointe.
And this year, because of the trappers' competition, her family would have even more to celebrate. This year—
Suzette grinned and waved when she saw Gabrielle Broussard emerge from the trees, carrying a copper kettle. Gabrielle was her best friend. They had both been born in the moon of blooming flowers, twelve years earlier. And they both had French fathers.
"Aaniin," Gabrielle greeted her. "What are you doing?"
"I'm going to find Papa. He walked out to the point, to get the best view of the lake. Want to come with me?"
Gabrielle splashed into the water to fill the kettle. "Mama's waiting for me. What's your papa doing there?"
"Can't you guess? He's watching for the voyageurs!" Suzette's feet scuffed the earth in a little dance. Any day now, the songs of the French voyageurs would ring across the water from the east. They were paddling huge canoes filled with trade goods from a far-off place called Montréal. The trip took many weeks, down mighty rivers and across two great lakes. Their arrival on La Pointe Island would spark the wildly joyous gathering called rendez-vous by the French and maawanji'iwin by the Ojibwe. By the end of the short summer visit, the voyageurs' canoes would be loaded with the furs the Ojibwe trappers had been collecting all year. Then the voyageurs would say their good-byes and paddle back to Montréal before snowstorms and iced-over rivers made travel impossible.
"Papa can't wait to see his old friends again," Suzette added. Her own papa had been a voyageur for many years.
Gabrielle glanced to the east, her face wistful. "I'm waiting too."
Suzette stopped dancing. For a moment she had forgotten that Gabrielle's father would be among the paddlers. Gabrielle hadn't seen her father since the moon of shining leaves, when the woods blazed with red and yellow and the air held a promise of coming snow. Suzette chewed her lip. "I'm sure your papa will arrive soon, Gabrielle. I'm sure his journeys have been safe."
Gabrielle nodded, but she didn't smile.
What would cheer up her friend? "I'm hoping Papa will say we can cross to the island today!" she confided.
"Ooh, maybe we can cross today too!" Gabrielle said hopefully, then cocked her head toward the camp. "Mama's calling me. I have to go."
I'm glad I'm not waiting for Papa to arrive this year, Suzette thought as she walked down the path toward the rocky finger of land jutting into the lake. For most of Suzette's life, she too had anxiously waited for her papa to arrive with the voyageurs each spring. She knew what that felt like. Every year one or two of the voyageurs who had Ojibwe families left and didn't come back, sending word that they had no wish to leave Montréal again. Sometimes voyageurs drowned or got injured when canoes capsized in storms or hit rocks and broke up in river rapids. Suzette's own grandfather, Grandmother's first husband, had died along that journey while Mama was still a baby. A winter spent waiting and wondering was hard to endure. Suzette didn't ever want to feel that way again.
She hurried down the trail, enjoying the sparkle of water visible through the trees and the soft feel of pine needles blanketing the ground. She caught sight of Papa sitting on a rock, staring out over the water. His whittling knife and a sharpened stick lay beside him.
Suzette paused at the edge of the woods, looking at the familiar figure: red hair and beard, very broad shoulders, strong hands now oddly still. She glanced toward the eastern horizon. Two black cormorants skimmed above the lake. There was nothing else to see. No canoes.
She looked back at her father. It was strange to see Philippe Choudoir sitting quietly. "Papa!"
Papa turned, and a huge grin lit his face. "Suzette! Have you come to keep your papa company, mignonne?" He engulfed her in a big hug as she dropped onto the rock beside him.
"Oui," Suzette said in his native French. They spoke Ojibwe with the rest of the family, but she and Papa always spoke French when they were alone, so she could practice. "Any sign of the voyageurs yet?"
"Non, not yet. But any day now" Papa rummaged in his pocket for his old clay pipe and pouch of tobacco.
"You've missed your friends, haven't you." She'd known it during the long cold months of their first winter together. Around the fire at night, when the Ojibwe men told stories of bear hunts or falling through thin ice or other adventures, Papa told tales of his canoe days, with a faraway look in his eyes.
Papa lit his pipe and regarded her. "Oui. I miss my friends. But not as much as I missed my family, all those years I traveled with the canoe men. I am very happy I made the choice to stay here with you last fall."
His words made Suzette feel warm inside. "Well, soon you will see your friends again." She was as eager for the voyageurs' arrival as he was. "It will be a grand reunion, non?"
Papa grinned. "A grand reunion! A celebration!"
"And once the voyageurs arrive, Captain d'Amboise will end the competition! And surely you'll win the prize!" Captain d'Amboise was in charge of Fort La Pointe, on the island. The trappers' competition had been his idea.
"Shhh!" Papa warned, looking around.
"There's no one about to hear!"
"Only your Spirit of the Woods, perhaps," Papa said seriously. "Or the Spirit of the Waves."
Papa tried to be respectful of Ojibwe ways. The Ojibwe believed in Gizhe Manido, the Great Spirit, but they also knew that all things had a spirit. Papa had just one spirit, God, to protect him. He carried a small silver crucifix on a band of blue, red, and yellow that Mama had woven in a lightning pattern, and he had once given Suzette a little silver cross of her own. But he believed that Suzette, as a Métis girl of mixed blood, had both kinds of spirits to protect her.
She hoped he was right. She found the thought comforting. "We'll keep our secret," she whispered. "But, Papa, I know you're going to win. You have to! Surely no one trapped more beaver than you last winter! And mink, and otter, and—" She sputtered into silence, remembering how Papa had run his traps every day during the coldest months, ranging far from their winter lodge on snowshoes and returning with ice crusted in his beard. Papa hated trapping. But he had done it.
"We all worked hard," Papa agreed. "You and your mother and grandmother helped by cleaning so many furs. And the rabbits and foxes you caught in your snares will count too." His eyes danced. "I think it just may be enough. If I win the competition for having the most furs, you won't have to work so hard next winter, Suzette. I can use the prize money to pay my debt to the fur trade company."
Suzette nodded. Papa's debt was like a heavy load the family had been hauling on their sleds all winter. By choosing to stay with his family year-round, Papa had broken his contract with the fur-trade company that had hired him to work as a voyageur. Some voyageurs who liked Ojibwe life simply broke their contracts and stayed, far from the reach of French authorities. But Papa said he wouldn't be able to sleep at night if he did such a thing.
Instead, Captain d'Amboise had sent a letter to the company on Papa's behalf, asking that he be granted one year to pay his debt. If Papa won the competition and used the prize to pay his debt, he would be free to stay with his family forever. If he didn't win the competition, he would have to return to Montréal with the other voyageurs at the end of the summer trading season.
"I believe you're going to win," Suzette said again, hoping that saying it over and over would make it come true. Suddenly she caught her breath. "Papa! I almost forgot. Mama and Grandmother have fixed a kettle of wild rice and maple sugar. And Yellow Wing trapped some whitefish." Yellow Wing was Mama's brother.
"Well, I don't want to keep your mama waiting." Papa took one last look to the east, then pushed to his feet.
"Papa I can't wait to get to the island and set up our summer camp. Do you think we'll be crossing today? The water seems calm, doesn't it? I think it's safe enough." Suzette held her breath.
Papa laughed. "So you know more about this lake than your voyageur papa, eh?"
Suzette felt her face grow warm. It was surely her French blood that sometimes made her speak disrespectfully to her elders! "No, Papa, but—"
"No matter. You know I like you to speak your mind." He ruffled her hair with his hand. "I need to speak with Yellow Wing."
"And Grandmother," Suzette reminded him. In French families, men made most of the important decisions. It was different among Ojibwe people, and sometimes Papa still forgot to ask Grandmother's opinions. Grandmother's second husband, an Ojibwe man, had died two years earlier. But Grandmother was still strong.
They walked back to the camp together and threaded through the wiigwams scattered among the trees near the shore. Suzette smiled, enjoying the shrieks of children playing, the Ojibwe man who stopped Papa to tell him a runny story, the smell of beaver tail boiling over a neighbor's cook fire, the nods and greetings awaiting her at every turn.
They found the morning meal simmering over the cook fire in front of their lodge. Papa put his arm around Mama's waist. "Your daughter believes that today is a good day to cross to the island," he said in Ojibwe.
Suzette watched hopefully. They made a handsome couple. Although Mama was half French, she looked just like Grandmother. She was slender, and she wore her black hair neatly braided. With her deerskin dress and leggings, she wore huge silver earrings that Papa had given her, and many necklaces. Papa was shorter than his wife but strong as a black bear. He wore a striped cotton shirt, a red sash around his waist, and the tall top hat he'd worn during his voyageur days, but also Ojibwe moccasins and leather leggings.
Mama laughed, then turned to her own mother. "Grandmother? What do you think?"
Grandmother nodded. "I had already decided that this would be a good day to move to our summer camp."
"Yiyiyiyiyi!" Suzette yelped happily. They were going to La Pointe!
As soon as everyone had eaten, the family began to pack for the move. Mama put Suzette's baby sister Charlotte in her cradleboard and hung it from a tree, where she could watch and hear the family. Suzette helped her mother and grandmother take apart their two lodges. At this temporary campsite, the family had sheltered in quickly built cone-shaped lodges framed with spruce poles tied together at the top. Grandmother, Mama, and Suzette left the poles in place but carefully removed the coverings, made of large pieces of birch bark and woven reed mats, which they would need on the island.
Papa didn't like to see Mama and Grandmother haul heavy burdens, so he and Yellow Wing carried the family's belongings to the lakeshore. Suzette helped with the lighter baskets and bags but left the weighty bundles of furs for the men. During the past winter, Papa and Yellow Wing had made two trips across the frozen lake to take furs to the trading post on La Pointe. But they still had many more.
Surely enough furs to win the competition! Suzette thought happily, as she carried a basket filled with pouches of dried berries and herbs to the beach. Excited, she couldn't help swinging the basket in a big arc—
"Yeh!" someone grunted, just as Suzette felt the basket thump against something.
She turned to see a man on the path just behind her, heading toward the lakeshore with a canoe carefully balanced over his head. She had hit the bow of the canoe with her basket. "I'm sorry," she said humbly, taking a step backward.
Although his head was almost hidden beneath the canoe, Suzette recognized a man named Niskigwun. His son Two Fish was walking behind the canoe.
Suzette didn't know Niskigwun and Two Fish well, but during the moon of crusted snow, they had happened across her family's camp and taken lodging for the night. Niskigwun's wife was dead, and he and his son were traveling alone. Two Fish, who was about Suzette's age, was a disagreeable, stick-thin boy with a broken front tooth. Niskigwun had spent most of the evening bragging about the number of beaver pelts he had to trade at La Pointe.
"Careless girl," Niskigwun growled as he passed. "You'd be wise to pay more attention."
"I said pardonnez-moi," Suzette muttered.
She didn't think it was loud enough to be heard, but Two Fish stopped and glared. "What did you say?" he hissed. "Your fancy French talk isn't welcome here, Blue Eyes. Blue Eyes! You are an ugly girl. I'm glad you're not my sister. I'd be ashamed." Then he hurried after his father.
For a moment Suzette stared after him, her mouth open. She knew that all of the other Métis people she'd ever seen—Mama and Gabrielle and a handful of others—looked Ojibwe. None of the other Métis people had blue eyes. But no one had ever insulted her for her unusual appearance before.
What a rude boy! No wonder Two Fish didn't have many friends. Still, Suzette had to admit the exchange was partly her fault. If she'd been paying attention, and if she'd held her tongue—
"I didn't expect to see you daydreaming today!"
Suzette jumped. She hadn't noticed Papa approaching, heading back for another load.
Papa leaned close. "Maybe you're picturing your papa winning the competition, eh?"
"Oui." His enthusiasm made Suzette feel good. What did it matter what an annoying boy like Two Fish said? The air was fragrant with tobacco smoke and pine. At the campsite, her mother had been humming. Even Grandmother seemed to move lightly, as if the sun had driven winter's stiffness from her bones. They were going to La Pointe!
And the end of the trappers' competition was in sight!
Excerpted from Trouble at Fort La Pointe by Kathleen Ernst. Copyright © 2000 Kathleen Ernst. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 24, 2015
This is my favorite History Mystery ever! It has a good plot and thrilling suspense. The history mysteries are the only American Girl books that are not too young for me at 12 years old--I really wish the American Girl company was still publishing them. Trouble At Fort La Pointe is a wonderful work of historical fiction, and is well worth the time it takes to be read. An exciting book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 12, 2002
This book is good, but not as god as The Night Flyers, Voices at Whisper Bend, and Mystery of the Dark Tower. It starts ou a little boring but grows a little more exciting. Half the fun of a mystery is trying to figure it out. The author gives doesn't give you to many clues, except just before when you find out who stole the furs and framed her father. Still I would recomand it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 16, 2012
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Posted August 25, 2009
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