On a long vacation, here housesitting in California, I peruse the shelves of libraries for "old books" (hardcovers), those our modern librarians haven't yet tossed.
And there was a whole row of books by Conrad Richter, a Pennsylvanian-born writer fascinated with early pioneer days, the difference in thinking between the native Indian tribes and the Europeans coming upon their land.
This small book was a jewel, the story of "Stone Girl", born Mary Staunton to a prosperous innkeeper in 1700's Delaware area. At the age of five, she was captured by the Lenni Lenape ('original people') tribe and raised to age 15 as one of their own, renamed "Stone Girl". She forgot English and became thoroughly Indian in ways, dress and thinking, married at 12 and had a small boy of 3 by 15. The name fit her hard and determined temperament, a type of self-control that her captors admired. Those children who cried along the trail, possibly betraying their position, were scalped. She learns quickly to be quiet, eat what's given her, follow commands to work, and become as an Indian woman must: subservient to their men, quiet, blank-faced, hard-working.
Is Stone Girl an unhappy captive? Conrad Richter makes it clear that she is content with her status as a young hunter's wife, a boy hunter's mother and her own small cabin. She is respected and completely Lenni Lenape in her thinking and stoicism. They are forest people, used to tough winters, like Finns.
In order for her tribal leaders to get back some of their land, they agree to return their white captives of ten years. Stone Girl is sent to a fortress town of French speakers, where she becomes a kitchen and serving maid, learning English and French. She insists constantly that she is an Indian, her child is an Indian, that she is married. Yet she has very vague memories of her blonde-haired mother and a "pink house", of living on a big, wide and very flat river. These clues slowly over a year's time reveal to a passing priest that she must be the missing Captain Staunton's daughter, Mary.
For a reader, the idea that her pioneer father could not even recognize his own daughter is astounding. When he sees her and the small half-breed grandson, he refuses to believe it's Mary. Furthermore, a blonde young woman is already there, claiming a year ago that she is the long-lost Mary, to get the Captain's help and wealth in finding a husband and starting her own household.
Stone Girl also has a small, spoiled, nasty and whiney sister, Nan. She becomes fascinated with the sight of her, although the small Nan treats her and her boy with the general contempt then held for all Indians.
The father has her become kitchen help, to pay off the French priest's expenses in bringing her so far along all these rivers, so that she may pay off her passage. As she has nowhere else to go, with a small son to boot, she accepts her status with steely resolve. She rejects the third-floor room of the inn assigned her, because the other guests are afraid an Indian on their floor may harm them. Especially that dark-eyed, black-haired boy frightens them and confirms that the mother must be an Indian, a traitor to the white race.
So she goes to live in the stable, feeling safer herself, especially from the wrath of her imposter new "sister".
There are many small shocking surprises along the way. This story turns bloody rapidly and keeps the pages flipping. Conrad Richter knows how to tell a true story, not one of the usual happy ends.
Richter is also masterful at telling the Indian view of life and its hard decision-making. He interweaves plentiful use of the Lenni Lenape words and stories, effectively showing how Stone Girl/Mary lives in two worlds. English she speaks as the inn's servant; to her son she speaks at night in Lenni Lenape.
Apparently there is a companion novel, a comparable story of a white boy captured and returned to his white father after being raised as "True Son". I will defiinitely find the book, "A light in the Forest", also made into a Walt Disney movie.
In one area he does not skimp: he shows that both the Indian and white males treated women as inferior and untrustworthy. Our heroine's life is made very complicated even amongst "her own people", the Indians, because their males cannot accept her word or wisdom of the whites. On p.36, it's stated than an Indian never begs, will never be a beggar. Later in the book, Stone Girl is accused of being weak, like a woman, and women beg for their lives. I am sure that Conrad Richter was very sure of every word he wrote; one senses his obsession with details. I do know that the Indians of the San francisco Bay Area, in July 1579, were stunned to see the arrival of Sir Francis Drake and his men on a redwood canoe, coming through the Golden Gate straits. As they stood on the shore, they started to pull their hair out, screaming, and throwing themselves into the bay, drowning themselves. Drake was very surprised and upset, but noted that their men did not do so. Were they convinced they'd be enslaved? Were their men determined to fight first?
Of course, every tribe in the world is different, but it was well known that Indian groups fought, killed and enslaved each other, and the only way out was through suicide if one were caught. In the Spanish colonization era of California, Indians would simply lie down and die of "melancholia", refusing to eat. Their men, as well! Enslavement was to them anathema, and death more honorable than to become one of another's tribe.
Scalping, tomahawks, and burning property with war cries - everything is here.
Conrad Richter may turn me on to the old stories of the USA's settlement in a way I'd never considered before.