Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale. Ruth Chatlien.

Chatlien, Ruth. Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale. Amika, Northfield Illinois, 2017. F;6/17.

This is a lovely thing. It’s in the Endurance and Violence genre but it’s about good feminism. My idea of it, anyway. The main character is a strong truth-seeking self-critical woman, temperamental, maker of mistakes, but true to herself and a roaring mother-bear when her children need her. There is none of the feminism usually served up or fawning false apology for Europeans overrunning indigenous people. This author had bigger things in mind.

The scene is mid-19th century Minnesota. White settlers are gathered in small administrative villages as overseers of Sioux and other Indian tribes. Sarah (who existed and wrote a memoir on which the book is based) with a toddler girl and five-year-old boy is married to the local doctor John Wakefield. They live in a comfortable house that they have decorated, she is kind and friendly to the local Indians, and both of them work hard.  But John is at first just irritable and autocratic (forgivably we might think, a typical male of the era) but later:

Less of a man (thinks Sarah). That is what he cannot bring himself to say. My heart cracks with pity.… there are men who have far more honour, kindness, and dignity than John does, but what good will it do either of us for me to say that?

Literally starving and deprived by a coward administrator of gold which they are due by treaty, the Indians attack and kill many whites and burn their buildings. Sarah and John are separated by a foolish mistake and she and her children are taken prisoners by Indians. In captivity Sarah proves ten times the character in The Son by Philip Meyer (another American white-gone-to-Indian story). The detail of her fear and suffering is rich and horrifying. She is protected by an Indian brave, Chaska, as conflict, betrayal, loyalty, family, and misunderstanding storm across the dark mess of the war between his tribe and her people. Sarah follows her conscience even when other captive women wrongly accuse her of whoring with Indians and betraying her own people, a reputation that pursues her after the war.

She has a temper: as her husband hugs his children she sees “his manner is subdued, and just like that, anger surges within (her).” She hates herself for making wrong choices that at times threaten her and her kids lives.

Part of her honest humble femininity is having no time for male arrogance:

The words of the New Englander philosopher Henry David Thoreau come to me: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” That was easy enough for Thoreau to say. He was a cantankerous man, supported by influential friends and convinced of his own genius. I’m an ordinary weak-spirited woman trying to keep my children alive. I have no interest in nonconformity for its own sake.

No doubt putting myself in the way of accusation of chauvinism of some kind I have to love that humility, which is the same thing a good man would feel in a similar situation. Sarah understands the loving strength of manhood that stands equal to the power of her motherhood and finally both are valued:

Squatting before him I cupped his chin in my hand. “I know you want to protect me darling but you are still a little boy.”
He scowls. “I am not a baby.”
I let out my breath slowly. “No, you are not a baby. But you are no match for a grown Indian.”
Jimmy forms a fist. “I will be!”

This balance is what kept me pulling for Sarah Wakefield. She is an equal to the fine Indian Chaska. Even when she really wanted his strong body they both understood silently this couldn’t happen. Her power isn’t in opposition to a man’s but is a determined repetition of her honesty in the face of shame and her need to protect her sometimes sick, foolish, helpless children. Meeting that need threatened their lives every day. And although we know Chaska is a much better man than Sarah’s white professional husband, the whole abused noble-native idea isn’t the point of this story.

I’m no fan of historic blood and guts for its own sake (as I thought Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World was, for example) and although there is plenty of it, this story isn’t about that either. Ruth Chatlien is representing female strength, restraint, respect, judgment, and love. Great idea, great writing. 9.4 (the psychological side) 8.4 (the plot itself)/8.8.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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