Sunday, December 4, 2011
Some little books are gems; where the author packs a bright, dense world between its pages. One book like that is "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress." Another book like that is "The White" by Deborah Larsen. Wholly American, with prose as spare as a Shaker rocking chair, this recounting of a true story brought me effortlessly back to 1758 Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Sixteen-year-old Mary Jemison was captured with her family by a Shawnee-and-French raiding party during the French and Indian War. When Mary was 81 years old, she told her life story to a white minister, James Seaver, and so there is a detailed record of her long life with the Seneca Nation. Deborah Larsen extrapolates from this in The White, allowing us to step into Mary Jemison's moccasins and see how it might have been. Larsen took Seaver's flowery pre-Victorian language and broke it down to a more-real essence. She tells this story in a new way, imbuing it with feeling and depth despite her bare-bones language. Professor Larsen also did a lot of research for this book and so even the crops and trees and plants ring true, as do the Seneca traditions Mary must have embraced. Mary's Native-American name was De-he-wa-mis, which can mean pretty, handsome, pleasant and good. It can also mean "two falling voices" and this is the apt translation Larsen chose. I didn't want this book to end. The author, Professor Deborah Larsen, is also a poet, and this shows in her gorgeous interpretation of this fascinating story. For younger readers, there is also another fictionalized account of Mary Jemison's life; "Indian Captive" by Lois Lenski (but I have not read this one). Deborah Larsen also wrote a book of poetry; Stitching Porcelain, and a memoir; The Tulip and the Pope: A Nun's Story. Deborah Larsen-Cowan has also been published in The Nation, The Yale Review, The Quarterly, Oxford Magazine, and The New Yorker, and has been reviewed by NPR, and interviewed on the Diane Rehm show.