The New Yorker
In 1758, sixteen-year-old Mary Jemison was seized by Shawnee warriors from her homestead in southwestern Pennsylvania; she witnessed the scalping of her family, and was then adopted by two Seneca sisters to take the place of their brother, who had been killed by whites. The crux of this starkly beautiful novel, based on an account of Mary's life published in 1823, is her ultimate decision not to be "redeemed" -- released from captivity. The author, a poet, channels the violence of Mary's life into spare, almost Biblical prose, and delivers a transfixing portrait of a woman who, no longer considered white and never wholly Seneca, refuses to be defined by tragedy: "I will not open these wounds again so as to satisfy anyone's idea of what it is to be human."
In her first novel, poet Larsen (Stitching Porcelain) mines historical territory, reinterpreting the life of Mary Jemison, a white woman who was captured in 1758 by a Shawnee raiding party at her home in Gettysburg, Pa., while the rest of her family was murdered and scalped. In Larsen's retelling, 16-year-old Mary will not speak to her captors at first, trying to keep her mind blank of all thoughts other than escape, concentrating solely on her mother's last words to her: "do not forget your English." Mary is eventually adopted by another tribe, the Seneca. Learning their language and culture, marrying and bearing six children, Mary ultimately finds herself at home with them and no longer feels the compulsion to escape or return to white society at all. Larsen's lyricism and imagery are haunting, and her poet's sensibility is omnipresent, especially in her descriptions of the natural world. Yet the first-person reflections that Larsen intersperses throughout somehow don't quite live up to the sensational story. Mary's voice is likable but not fully developed, and not nearly as compelling as Larsen's more straightforward descriptions of Seneca life and the encounters between Native American and white society. After the real-life Jemison told her story to a physician and local historian, James Seaver, she reportedly said, "I did not tell them who wrote it down half of what it was." Larsen's tale soars with poetic language, but does not quite succeed in filling in the missing half. Author tour. (July 19) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
This novel is unusual in format. It is sometimes told in first person and sometimes third and is written in short bursts that are not always clearly related. It is the story of Mary Jemison, who was captured by the Shawnees in 1758. Her entire family was scalped in front of her, but because she physically resembled a young warrior who was killed, his family adopted her. The story is of her adjustment to life with the Shawnee, her two husbands, six children and her gradual adaptation back to so-called civilization. There are none of the normal fillers between events, but just her thoughts as she changes from a traumatized white girl to a wife and mother adjusting to another culture, but never really part of either. The format is almost that of an epic poem, but written in prose, as Mary journeys through her life, never fully in command, but never enslaved either. This novel's original format draws the reader into an experience that is sometimes confusing and disorienting, just as the real experience was. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Vintage, 219p., Ages 15 to adult.
Based on historical events, this well-wrought, carefully researched novel depicts the life of Mary Jemison, "the White Woman of the Genesee." Mary, a member of the Seneca tribe for more than 70 years, was born and raised among Irish pioneers in the Pennsylvania wilderness. In 1758, the settlement near Gettysburg where 16-year-old Mary lived with her family was attacked by Shawnee warriors and their French allies. Those who are not killed outright are taken captive. After a brutal forced march to Fort Duquesne (during which some of Mary's family are scalped), the girl is chosen for adoption by two young Seneca women. Although at first she begs for death, Mary adjusts to her new life with the help of her Seneca family's kindness and care, eventually marrying and becoming a major landowner. During a long life marked by both joy and tragedy, she has opportunities to leave but chooses not to rejoin white society. The author of Stitching Porcelain, a book of poems, Larsen tells Mary's story in elegant, poetic language that evokes time, place, and character with feeling and conviction and brings to life a historical period unfamiliar to many. For most fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/02.] Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
The traditional narrative of Indian captivity is updated with only middling success in this thin first novel by a Pennsylvania poet and storywriter. Based on the personal history of historical figure Mary Jemison (or Jamison) as told to Dr. James Seaver, The White is a quickly paced account of the experiences of an Irish immigrant woman who is alone kept alive (as "replacement" for a slain warrior) when she and her family are captured by "a Shawnee raiding party" in the barely settled Pennsylvania territory in 1758. In brief paragraphs that juxtapose the events of Mary's life with her (often bitter) observations on her fate, later "reveries," and remembered snatches of biblical stories and sayings, Larsen marches us through her heroine's gradual bonding with the Senecas (to whom she's "given" by her captors), marriages to the gentle Delaware brave Sheninjee (who dies young) and older Seneca hero Hiokatoo (for whom she bears five children), and stoical old age, when, having lived to bury several of her children, she finally realizes her dream of owning land, and refuses to be "redeemed" (i.e., reclaimed by white society), instead choosing to die, in her 80s, among "her people" the Senecas. This is rich material, but Larsen's treatment of it is skimpy. She repeatedly sets up promising situations (a game of lacrosse reflecting "the very texture of assault"; an "execution" of offending white settlers), only to end up presenting them in elliptical summary form. Characterization is perfunctory at best, as are sporadic attempts at layering in such historical incidents as the betrayal of the "Six Nations" by double-talking representatives of England's King George III: the sequence is essentiallyonly a means of getting Mary to the Genesee Valley, where she lives out most of the years 1763-1833. There are some lovely moments (e.g., the poetry of grieving Seneca women's laments for their dead); but, on the whole, The White is an inchoate tale, neither successfully fictionalized nor fully imagined.
From the Publisher
“[R]iveting . . .lyrical. . . . [A]n indelible portrait of a remarkable woman. . . . [A] brutal and beautiful novel.” –New York Times
“[B] oth a stirring adventure tale. . .and a lyrical meditation on one woman’s coming of age. . . .Larsen’s perfect prose captures both the brutality and unexpected beauty of Mary’s life. . . . For all its frontier romance . . . a stubbornly unvarnished tale.”— Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Hypnotic . . . rich and rewarding. . . . Other writers have tried this before, but [none] so gracefully and at the same time so forcefully. Here is the old world of the New World, both a dream and our shared history, for our reading pleasure and our thoughtful consideration of what we all have lost and gained.” — San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] lyrical excursion on a deep historical sea....Beneath the smooth beauty of its descriptive language, there is...terrific concision and lightness.” –The New York Times Book Review
“[C]urious and fascinating . . . a saga of hardship and casual tragedy with brilliant moments of joy.”The Washington Post Book World
“Illuminated by a wonderful sense of detail and natural rhythm, of landscape, body, and the shifts and changes of time.”–Minneapolis Star Tribune
“There is a wealth of life in this spare novel. At times the short sentences and spare language can feel light and ephemeral, but the weight of the writing is hidden in such brevity. The shards of images sink in to wash to the surface long after the last page is read.”–The Oregonian
“An accomplished first novel. . .Larsen handles. . .complex emotions and her dueling desires with sublety, and her elegant prose vividly brings Mary’s world and thoughts to life.”–Booklist
“A brave. . .stark, snowdeep novel.”–Austin-American Statesman
“Being American is to wear a coat of many colors. . .Larsen’s novel is an instructive, winning reminder that the coat was once woven from broadcloth and buckskin, feathers and silk, in a fabric as hard to unravel as it is to deny.”–Daily News
Read an Excerpt
Mary had loved the family axe as a glittering extension of her own arm. Her father had sharpened it the morning they were taken, and she had been splitting wood, cutting the thick white oak with ease, cleaving filamented piece from piece for the sake of chilly evenings and for cooking. She imagined the flames tentative at first and then thrusting up, spending themselves in the foreign air for the comfort of her family.
And then for what seemed like no reason at all (because her father had said they could make it on their own until late spring, when the closest fort would send a militia to fend off Indian raiding parties), she saw feet in moccasins not far from the woodpile at the base of a shagbark hickory. She lifted her eyes to the impassive eyes and sculpted planes of what she would later learn was not an "Indian's" face but that of a Shawnee.
She spoke no word at this time, though a rage started up within her. So. Feet in moccasins.
So, feet in moccasins were now pressing into the very ground that belonged to her family, and she wondered how Father would explain them away.
How could he, how could he have left them as prey to what after all had hurtled across the horizon, to what with sureness had crept through their fields? No, he had actually led his family. How could he? How could he have led them, as it is written in Scripture, like "sheep to the slaughter"?
Was it for this that she had been conceived?
And born Mary, for so she had been born and named in the yellow air below-decks of the ship Mary William, out of Ireland, bound for Philadelphia. Thomas Jemison and the pregnant Jane Erwin Jemison had sailedout onto the loose, flecked fields of the Atlantic, preferring the clear American wilderness to the Irish civilization of the day. Away from Ireland, they would feel free to want something that was actually obtainable. They wanted a farm.
They landed; they moved straight on out of Philadelphia to a tract of land not far from what would become the town of Gettysburg. What they marked out as their farm lay on the tangled banks of a creek named Marsh. Later they moved to larger fields, on one of which stood a good house and a log barn, and it was here now where Thomas had let them all fall into the hands of six Shawnee and four Frenchmen and where his mouth had been suddenly stopped of his stories, of his resonant Irish jests.
This is how in April of 1758 a Shawnee came to be wearing her mother's indigo shawl; this is why Mary found herself watching a Frenchman pocket the family coins; why another Shawnee packed with great precision yesterday's corn cakes into a sling-like bag which he hoisted to his shoulder as they all took off across her beloved fields.
They just left, then, for somewhere that must have been north and west.
Mary was in the grip of a Shawnee. She was not dead yet, but she knew that if she didn't move fast enough he could simply cut her down and away. His companions would understand what he meant them to know by means of a mere flashing of his eyes in her direction: too much trouble, those eyes would signal; too much trouble, the white girl, too slow.
She closed her own eyes then and stumbled along, deciding to give her captor that trouble. He felt it; he jerked her and then jerked her hard again, as if she were a snag on his fishing line. She didn't care.
Let him jerk her, let him jerk her arm until it hung loose at her shoulder, and then dressed as he was in her mother's shawl he could shoot her or split her skull with his hatchet.
She heard her father's voice: "Mary."
"Mary," he said. "Open your eyes. Watch where you are being led."
Then the young Irishwoman opened her eyes and saw them all–her parents; her brothers, Robert and Matthew; her sister, Betsey; the neighbor and her three children. Then it was not so easy for her to be stubborn, to ask for death; to see them moving far off ahead of her now into the woods she had named for her cow: Boss's Wood.
Besides, if she was to die she didn't want Father's back to her, she wanted him to see her die, to see: let him see and behold where all his good cheer, where his cracked optimism had got them.
Captured by the Shawnee raiding party and headed out across her family's fields.
The fields stood in the mild April sun looking just as they did before her capture.
Mary stared: how could they look as they did? And she answered her own thought: because, the fields are just themselves.
At the time of the French and Indian War the south-central Pennsylvania fields sometimes curved halfway up hillsides. With the unseen roots of a thousand things–Queen Anne's lace, wild garlic, common grass, the corn and flaxseed her father had sown–the soil was held close to the gray shale that made up the sweepings of land. From beneath the rock, the earth's pull kept the heavy red clay from flying up into a sky marked by scuddings of clouds.
Before her capture, Mary had begun to think that although some things of fields–lilies, vines, choking patches of weeds–are mentioned in Scripture, yet they are not Scripture. The things of the fields are themselves. As Scripture is itself and holds only a partial account of the murderous, of good will, and of their frequent twinings.
God, she had ventured to think, may have given her the New World fields to balance the Scriptures and as a perfect refuge from the Presbyterian catechism.
"Consider the lilies how they grow": the Scripture said, "they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." And the lily lives just as it did in Israel, even though it has never brushed up against so much as one page of Scripture. That alone could keep her from going mad.
The lily in a field was a fact. For, she had thought, not even Scripture–in all its glory–was arrayed as one of those.