by Iola Fuller
This is a novel depicting the life of a woman who bridged two worlds. Oneta was born into the Ojibway tribe in the early 1800\’s. When she was a young girl her mother became ill at the time her tribe traveled to another location to harvest wild rice, and they were left behind in a trading village on Mackinac Island. Growing up on the island, Oneta finds her life rich with both native heritage and exposure to French and American culture. She doesn\’t realize her family\’s poverty until she moves into the home of a well-to-do white family when her mother marries a local Frenchman who does accounts for the fur trade company. She gets sent away to boarding school in Ontario but doesn\’t speak much of her life there, instead focusing on changes that occur when she returns to the island twelve years later. Having been well-educated Oneta now sees life on the island in a different light, and finds that she doesn\’t quite fit in anywhere.
Through the personal story of her life and those close to her- her brother and adopted French family- are woven greater events. Things change as the fur trade begins to fall off when trappers deplete the natural resources. The native tribes find life more difficult as game becomes scarce and the intruding white men fell trees in greater numbers. As the fur trade diminishes focus shifts to fishing, it was quite interesting how that came about. Unrest grows when the government fails to hold up their side of treaties with the native tribes. Although Oneta is a father self-effacing character, standing quietly in the background to most events, it turns out she has a large part to play in the end.
This was a rich, satisfying read. There are a wide variety of complex, interesting characters and all their different interactions with Oneta in the village reflect not only how they perceive her as a native and a woman but also how they see themselves. I loved the rich descriptions and subtle symbolism- not only that of the loon, a wilderness bird, but other little things, like for example salt. In the beginning of the novel, Oneta finds food in her stepfamily\’s home unpalatable, because she\’s not used to eating salt. And at the end the government switches from paying the natives in gold for land they\’ve appropriated, to giving them goods. The natives are insulted at being given large quantities of salt, a thing they never use, and pile it up scornfully in a heap on the beach to be wasted. Images like that which speak so strongly of people\’s attitudes and perceptions of each other…