The White

The White

by Deborah Larsen
The White

The White

by Deborah Larsen


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In 1758, when Mary Jemison is about sixteen, a Shawnee raiding party captures her Irish family near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Mary is the only one not killed and scalped. She is instead given to two Seneca sisters to replace their brother who was killed by whites. Emerging slowly from shock, Mary—now named Two-Falling-Voices—begins to make her home in Seneca culture and the wild landscape. She goes on to marry a Delaware, then a Seneca, and, though she contemplates it several times, never rejoins white society. Larsen alludes beautifully to the way Mary apprehends the brutality of both the white colonists and the native tribes; and how, open-eyed and independent, she thrives as a genuine American.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375712890
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/09/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 635,234
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.62(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Deborah Larsen grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and currently lives with her husband in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Her collection of poetry, Stitching Porcelain, was published in 1991, and her poems and short stories have appeared in The Nation, The Yale Review, The Quarterly, Oxford Magazine, and The New Yorker, among other publications. She has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Yale. She teaches creative writing at Gettysburg College, where she holds the Merle S. Boyer Chair.

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 sailed out 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.

Reading Group Guide

“Riveting…lyrical…. An indelible portrait of a remarkable woman…. A brutal and beautiful novel.” —The New York Times

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s experience of Deborah Larsen’s The White, a novel based on a historical event from the French and Indian war.

1. What is revealed about Mary’s character in the first few pages of the book? Why does Larsen have her think about the fields as she and her family are led away as captives, “the fields are just themselves” [p. 8]? What is Mary’s approach to her family’s Bible-centered Protestantism? How does her objectivity work in her favor as she enters this new phase of her life?

2. Why do the Shawnee decide to keep Mary as a captive, and to kill the rest of her family? Why, in the midst of all this, does she resent her father so much? Does Mary show more maturity of judgment than her father does? Does Mary’s wish to die, soon after her family is killed, differ from the passivity she so scorned in her father?

3. Reading The White is a very different experience from reading James Seaver’s The Life of Mary Jemison. Because Mary could no longer write English at the time she met Seaver, her story is relayed in his words, and in his book, Mary’s mother’s farewell speech reads as follows: “My dear little Mary, I fear that the time has arrived when we must be parted forever…. O! How can I part with you my darling? What will become of my sweet little Mary?… O that death had snatched you from my embraces in your infancy; the pain of parting then would have been pleasing to what it now is; and I should have seen the end of your troubles! —Alas, my dear! My heart bleeds at the thoughts of what awaits you; but, if you leave us, remember my child your own name, and the name of your father and mother. Be careful and do not forget your English tongue. If you shall have an opportunity to get away from the Indians, don’t try to escape; for if you do they will find and destroy you. Don’t forget, my little daughter, the prayers that I have learned you—say them often; be a good child, and God will bless you.” [James E. Seaver, The Life of Mary Jemison, 1824 (NY: American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, 1942), pp. 27–28.] Compare this, in terms of tone, drama, word choice, and psychology, with how Larsen tells this part of the story [see pp. 13-14]. Which conveys a greater sense of realism? Seaver adopted the sentimental rhetoric of nineteenth century fiction; how would you characterize Larsen’s prose?

4. Why do the Indians insist upon displaying the scalps of Mary’s family in front of her, particularly commenting upon her mother’s auburn hair [pp. 17-18]? Mary later says, “According to custom, I stood in a brother’s place, though I may just as easily have been scalped since satisfaction and justice came either through the taking of life or by means of adoption” [p. 48]. Does Mary suffer from a form of survivor’s guilt? Is she right to think with bitter irony of the “extravagant concern” of the God who according to Christian scripture had said, “the very hairs of your head are all numbered” [p. 17]?

5. For a time Mary enters a period that can be interpreted as a state of severe depression: “she had succeeded in installing the great, pale blankness of non-thought into her head. It was an actual thing, that blankness: it hung there like a great pearly fish in water untouched by a sky the color of purple. By dint of the slow-motion lashings of its massive tail this fish confused, unhinged, and scattered both certain idea and clear feeling” [p. 26]. How does this passage demonstrate Larsen’s approach to psychology as a critical element in her reconstruction of the character of Mary Jemison? How does the author use imagery and lyricism to convey these ideas?

6. Mary, her Indian sisters say, was sent to them “through earthly and just trading practices” by their dead brother. What does the adoption ceremony [ see pages 30–33] reveal about the idea of justice and the value of the individual in the Senecas’ religion? In another ceremony, Mary is purged by the Society of False Faces [see pages 42–45]. How do these two ceremonies demonstrate the Indians’ ideas about human emotion, and the necessity of keeping destructive spirits at bay?

7. According to Seaver, Mary was given the name “Dickewamis; which being interpreted, signifies a pretty girl, a handsome girl, or a pleasant, good thing.” [Seaver, The Life of Mary Jemison, p. 38.] Larsen gives Mary a different name: “Two-Falling-Voices. Two voices, two pitches, two slopes” [p. 32]. We are told that when Sheninjee looked at Mary “he saw twins and that she was aptly named: the white woman and also the Seneca woman. Two-Falling-Voices. Like an earth-hill under the sky that had two downward slopes” [p. 52]. Why is Mary’s new name so important to the novel as a whole? What is the relationship between Mary’s name and the book’s title, The White?

8. What is the significance of Mary’s encounter with the Englishwoman at Fort Pitt and her thoughts about the woman’s family as Mary’s Indian sisters rush her back towards their village [pp. 37–39]? Mary quotes lines from the Scriptures to herself for days afterwards; are these quotations the truth of her experience? Are they necessary for her as she mourns for herself and her family?

9. How do Mary’s Indian sisters respond to her state of despondency? How does the episode in which Mary cuts her hand and speaks the word “blood” change things for her, and change her relationship with Slight Wind? Is there a necessary movement from self-absorption to objectivity in this episode? [See pages 45–46.]

10. What qualities make Sheninjee attractive to Mary? How do his bearing and his words during the betrothal ceremony demonstrate what sort of man he is? Mary says, “I saw in the Delaware something that must be the very opposite of sentimentality and wondered what would happen should I try to add that man’s way of knowing to my own” [p. 56]. At what points in the story does Mary attempt to rid herself of the “sentimentality” of her own culture?

11. Mary imagines that the child in her womb is speaking to her. Both before its birth and after its death, the child admonishes her for betraying her white family. How does this episode illustrate the painful division of Mary’s mind and identity? [See pages 68 and 75.]

12. After Sheninjee’s death, Mary thinks that it might be a good time to return to white society. Yet she refuses to allow herself to be redeemed by the Dutchman John Van Sice [see pages 110–111]. Do Mary’s actions indicate that she feels more comfortable in Indian society than in the company of whites, or is she merely unwilling to undergo yet another wrenching change? What are the reasons that she stays with the Seneca?

13. What kind of a person is Bending Tree, Mary’s Indian mother? What are the similarities between their characters? What qualities of character does Mary display in reprimanding her Indian brother, Black Coals [pp. 113–114]?

14. Connecting Jesus with the Indians’ religion, Mary says to herself, “For my part, I remembered how Jesus in the Scriptures had always directed attention to his Father in heaven and away from himself…. I thought then that he knew he was part of the Good Spirit and that he had some things to say to the Hebrews and to the Romans and that he took care of people who suffered and that these were the important things. Share the spirit of his ways, I told myself, and the spirit of the ways of others who are like him—persons like Tree. Then leave the rest to the Great Spirit. Jesus, I thought, would understand this” [p. 123]. Why does this apparently healing conversation with herself seem so jarring in comparison with the dream Mary goes on to relate, in which her white mother treats her scornfully for becoming an Indian [pp. 123-124]? Has Mary on some level been disloyal to her parents and to the life they intended for her right? Or is she right to try to make peace with her fate, and to create bridges between her own upbringing and Indian ways? What spiritual qualities does the novel bring to our attention?

15. How, in The White, does Larsen distinguish between the differing attitudes of Indians and whites toward nature and the land, to shared work and ideas of community? Does the novel demonstrate a surprising degree of tolerance in early-nineteenth society, with Mary befriending ex-slaves, and with Indians living side by side with whites?

16. To what degree does the novel suggest that the white colonists are responsible for the disintegration of Indian tribal life and traditions? Who, for instance, is to blame for the deaths of Mary’s sons? How satisfying is the novel’s ending, with Mary owning her own land, living a peaceful life surrounded by the remaining members of her Indian family?

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