This is one of the most tragic stories I have ever read. And I loved it. I felt like it was cathartic for me. Maybe the Greeks were on to something with that whole catharsis thing… I guess they did a few things right.
What struck me so strongly about this book was just how much the protagonist endures. How she manages to go on. (As she narrates herself: “Piling pain on top of pain. I feel as if I were truly dying. Dear God, I cannot go on. / But I do…”)
Regina is a 10-year-old girl on a Pennsylvania farm who gets kidnapped by Ohio Indians – after seeing her brother and father murdered and scalped in front of her. Then she is force-marched through the wilderness on very little food, carrying a toddler on her back in a sling that cuts into her shoulders. Regina is separated from her sister, the only member of her family she knows is still alive.
When she arrives at her new Indian “home,” she finds it to be a tiny village of only a few families, and she belongs to the meanest of them. The mother beats her if she speaks her white man’s tongue, or if she takes too long doing chores, or if she doesn’t do the chores right. The warrior who brought her is a violent young man who tries to rape her at one point.
There is one young Indian woman who befriends her, Nonschetto, and Regina (Tskinnak now, by her Indian name) and she become good friends. Then Nonschetto is killed in a trade-gone-bad with some white men. Fever wipes out most of the Indian camp, and Quetit (the white girl Regina/Tskinnak carried to this place, and her only friend now) nearly dies. Then, just when Tskinnak and Quetit feel some love for the old woman, white men come and take them away, forcibly “rescuing” them from what is now the only family they know.
When the girls make it back, they’ve been gone almost nine years. They don’t speak German anymore; they only speak their Indian language. They don’t even remember their “white man” names. Regina is reunited with her mother only by the song her mother used to sing to her. Regina sang it in her captivity, and it’s the only connection she had to the life she left behind.
And that’s her story. And it’s true. (Well, mostly. You know how historical fiction is. Regina Leininger was really an Indian captive 1755-1763.)
Here are some of my favorite quotes:
- “[Mother] is small and quick and always moving. Unlike Father, who has a stillness inside him; who often rests his arms on the barnyard fence and watches in silence as the sun goes down.” I love this description of her father.
- “Nonschetto is gone and with her is buried all memories of my white man’s home. It was not something that I wanted to happen. It just did, the way new skin covers wounds.” Beautiful, beautiful description.
- When Regina/Tskinnak’s Indian mother tries to force her to marry: “I will not marry… In my dreams, I walk through an endless forest and I walk alone.”
- “…feeling the sudden pull between a life I know and one I remember in my dreams.” Painful. Also, this kind of touches on it, but the pain of not belonging of either group of people she’s lived with: she doesn’t belong to the Indians, because she’s white. But she doesn’t belong to the white people, because she doesn’t know how to speak their language anymore.
- When Quetit is sick: “Perhaps I can bargain with God. Tell Him, ‘Lord, if you would spare Quetit, I will devote my life to you.’ But I find it difficult to bargain with a presence I cannot feel. This must be what Hell is like.” Devastating.
- This was a really fascinating and moving part of the end of the story, to me. All Regina remembers of her first language, aside from the song her mother sang her, is how to read the Bible: “The Revered Muhlenberg gave her a Bible. And he watched in wonder as Regina, who spoke only Indian in everyday matters, read whole passages of the Bible aloud in German.”
So, yes. Pain. Such heartbreaking pain. And catharsis. I love this book so much.