Friday, May 5, 2017

Moccasin Trail, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

The book begins with our protagonist Jim Keath checking his traps and lamenting the state of trapping this season.  Jim is a wanderer, traveling only with his horse and dog, and occasionally a friend.  Over time his history is revealed to the reader: as a child he fled his strict upbringing to follow his uncle, also a trapper, into the forests.  But during a fight with a bear, he was gravely injured.  When he woke, he was in a teepee being cared for by an Indian woman.  She had lost a son and, since she was able to restore him to health, claimed Jim as her own.  He learned the language and culture and lived among the Crow Indians for six years before striking out on his own, not feeling like he truly belonged with them or with white men.

While Jim is tracking animals, he's also being tracked down by two Indians.  A paper letter has been making its way from hand to hand trying to reach him, and it had finally arrived.  Neither Jim nor his companion can read well enough to interpret it.  All he knows is that it may have come from his (biological) brother.  So he heads to the nearest fort to find some one who can read the letter for him, a trip that takes more than a week.

When Jim reaches The Dalles, he learns that his parents have died and his siblings, all youth, are on their own heading to Oregon to homestead.  But they need his help: the oldest, Johnnie, can't make a land claim because he isn't yet 18.  Jim is their last hope to establish a home, even if he only signs the paperwork before leaving again.  And coincidentally, the family is at the fort now.  Jim feels the pull of them, even though they haven't seen each other in ages.  He agrees to travel with them, but chafes under their rules and expectations.  His sister, Sally, doesn't care for his braids and medicine bundle.  Johnnie gets angry when he teaches the youngest, Dan'l, the ways of the woods instead of helping.  And once they complete the journey and find land in the Willamette Valley, it seems that everyone is angry with him: he's not a farmer or a carpenter.  He doesn't understand the need to plow and sow when the land is rich with game and natural crops.  He doesn't like feeling confined in a cabin when his teepee goes up much more quickly, is more snug, and is portable.  This lifestyle doesn't suit his inclinations, but he realizes that he has become lonely for his family and desperately wants Johnnie's approval.

This was a really well-written book that did a fantastic job of developing the main characters.  The reader really comes to sympathize with Jim's inner struggles and to hope he finds his place in the world.  I was admittedly disappointed in the ending (Jim settles down and goes "full white"), but it may seem a far more fitting conclusion to others.

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