Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw
originally published 1952
Puffin Newberry Library, 2nd printing, 1988
Genre: Young adult, children’s lit, juvenalia, Oregon history, adventure story
Synopsis & Review: Jim Keath has lived for six years as a Crow Indian when he learns that his two younger brothers and a sister are journeying west to take up land. Although Jim finds it difficult to fit in with the family he hasn’t seen since childhood, and though they are wary and distrustful of him, Jim feels his duty is at their side. But slowly, as they survive the dangerous trek west, the perils of frontier life, and the kidnapping of their younger brother, Jim and his family realize that the only way to survive is to accept each other and truly reunite the family.
At the age of ten, Jim Keath had run away from his Missouri home to follow his Uncle Adam Russell into the mountains of the West. A bear’s attack separated Jim from his uncle, and though he killed the bear, it nearly killed him, too. Only the compassion of the Crow who found him and adopted him into their tribe saved Jim’s life. He spent the next six years with the Crow, before a vague sense of dissatisfaction sent him out into the mountains on his own. Trapping beaver with a friend, mountain man Tom Rivers, Jim wanders through the Rockies, unsure of what he seeks. Shortly before winter, a letter finds its way to Jim, from his younger brother Jonnie, who he hasn’t seen or heard from since he left home all those years before.
From the time I was three till I was thirteen, I spent every summer save one with my dad on the Mainland. He lived with my stepmother and my little sister in Portland, Oregon; Gina owned Beaverton Books, and then later worked for the Oregon Historical Society (don’t worry, this is relevant). My dad liked to think of himself as the Wild Man of the Western Wilderness, or at least, that was my perception; he had a lot of his identity and self-image tied up in the manly arts of fishing, backpacking, and camping (curiously, not hunting), and as a consequence, we took many camping trips on those summer visits.
We camped all over the West—at least, in what he considered the West (California was never a part of the equation, nor was the Southwes) exploring the Pacific Coast Ranges and the Rockies, both American and Canadian. Sometimes I hated it, the drudgery of campsite chores and the inconveniences of reading by flashlight, or cleaning dishes and going potty in the wilderness. But most of the time, I loved it. I loved seeing places utterly unlike Hawai’i (though I would invariably get irate when he’d disparage Hawaii’s mountain ranges; they’re DIFFERENT is all, Dad! Jeez!). I loved being so far from the civilized or developed world, miles and miles from the next human being. I loved the quiet, the sounds of the trees or the wind or a nearby crick, of animals moving through the brush (Is that Sasquatch?! RUN!).
The books I read had a lot to do with how much I enjoyed these trips. I liked to imagine stories for myself, and would get a running narrative going as I wandered down some forest trail behind the rest of the family: I was a trailblazer on the Oregon Trail, leading tenderfeet to the promised land, or I might be the hoyden daughter of a mountain man, riding my trusty palomino to the nearest trading post. Sometimes I played with Maiya, and we’d play Barbies, creating Barbie houses out of mossy stumps and fern-lined hollows. And we also played counting coup.
As explained in Moccasin Trail, you count coup with acts of audacity, like stealing something right under someone’s nose (or in warfare, touching the enemy and escaping unscathed). Like Daniel under Jim’s tutelage, we played the Crow war games, and counted coup in camp. Whether in the pines and brush of Hell’s Canyon, or the wet rainforest of the Cascades, we’d sneak though the campsite, stealing a hatchet or cooking implement, maybe a canteen or plant identification book, and be off, running through the bracken to meet up and gleefully gloat over our coup. That’s what Moccasin Trail is to me, counting coup with my little sister on family camping trips, trying to live the stories in my books.
For my final paragraph, I shall skim over the most troublesome aspect of Moccasin Trail, the reason I avoided actually writing this for over a fortnight (and because I can also discuss it in the next book report): It’s a novel for young people portraying American Indians, by a non-American Indian writer. This almost automatically spells trouble—though there are some great novels like it out there—especially since it dates from 1952. Indians themselves are few and far between in the novel, largely represented in Jim’s memories of them and by troublesome groups, like the cattle-stealing Cayuse (these tensions have historical precedent in the area; see the “Whitman massacre”) and the slave-owning Umpqua. This is a little worrisome, as it could be read to marginalize Indians, robbing them of their own voices. But the novel addresses identity and change, and especially acceptance and tolerance. Though Jim’s family initially view his time spent with the Crow with distaste and fear, they are eventually reconciled to it, coming to understand that the Crow not only saved his life, but made him a good man, a man to respect and be proud of. Jim struggles with himself, looking for a sense of belonging. He doesn’t share this problem with his closest peer, Tom Rivers, who is portrayed—along with the area Indians (Tom is even married to a Nez Perce)—as part of a vanishing way of life. The bourgeways (I presume this is a bastardization of “bourgeois”) are a tide swamping the Willamette Valley in miniature, and the West overall, and Jim must figure out how to reconcile himself to this.
Now, I didn’t care about any of that when I was ten and stealing tent pegs. All I knew was that the book was fascinating, and Jim an impossibly romantic figure, and the Crow and Tom Rivers and old Jake were marvelous and interesting. It was like reading the end of the Oregon Trail game, treacherous Dalles and all, but you got to see what it was like afterwards, when they got to Oregon. It even features a historical personage, mountain man Joe Meek, who also represents a man who has come to terms with the settlers and his own identity, providing a template for Jim. (I also suspect that Meek and his brother were inspirations for both Jim and Tom’s characters.) McGraw’s depictions of Indians and their ways of life is largely sympathetic, and her lovely descriptions of the Cascades and Willamette Valley have a poignancy that stems from the reader’s knowledge that those beauties are passing, soon to be erased or altered by the settlers. The end of the novel has an elegiac subtext that conflicts with the initial perception of a celebration of Manifest Destiny. It’s not simplistic but is instead troubling–young readers will puzzle over the white settlers’ intolerance, and romanticize the Indians’ fate–and that is one of the highest accolades I can offer a work of children’s literature.
Enthralling and romantic, suitable for boys and girls, and an excellent supplement to Oregon Trail studies. Also approved by the Oregon Historical Society for it the historical background and its sensitive depiction of American Indians, which is how I got my grubby little hands on it in the first place. (See, I said it would be relevant.) Due to both her own longtime interest in books and children’s literature, and her work for OHS and its now defunct children’s imprint Eager Beaver Books, Gina had a vested interest in our reading habits, and encouraged us to read quality books. And due to her own Chickasaw heritage, I also trust Gina to exercise wisdom in selecting novels depicting American Indians. And it’s a really damn good book–did I mention that? It might have gotten lost in my PC angst. (And did I mention that I ended up living in Tualatin, where the Keaths settle, when I moved ot the Mainland? How neat is that?)
Read also: Naya Nuki: The Girl Who Ran by Kenneth Thomasma, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, Tree Wagon by Evelyn Sibley Lampman (an Oregon author who also wrote a book I’ve got in store with a special surprise), Winners by Mary-Ellen Lang Collura,Julie of the Wolves by Elizabeth George Speare. (The latter’s Sign of the Beaver is a far inferior work on somewhat similar topics.)
Cover: Jim is so pretty. And so is his beautiful pretty pony, Buckskin. I think I was half in pre-teen love with Jim due to this cover.
“Say, listen, hoss. I was strollin’ in and out of double-guarded Blackfoot camps afore you’d cut yer teeth. I’ll git old when I git ready, and not afore, you hear? What’s in the pot?”
He leaned over to sniff the stea, grunted appreciatively, then settled to the business of drying his soaked legs. He was a tall man, gray at the temples, slow smiling an easy, but dangerous as a rattlesnake, as plenty of Blackfeet and Sioux had found out, and as quick moving as any man needed to be. Even aimed to kill, that knife would never have hit him. Jim liked him better than any white man he knew. You could trap and ride and hunt alongside Tom Rivers and never say a word from sunup to dark if you didn’t want to, and still you never felt alone. The fact that Tom was in his fifties and Jim barely nineteen had mattered to neither of them these months they’d traveled together, though the amiable bickering about it was anightly ritual. The camp would be might lonesome soon, Jim though, with the night closing down like this and the fire brightening and the pot bubbling, and no Tom standing there angling his long legs one way and another while his leggings dried from wet dark red to faded scarlet.
4 November – 6 November