Middle School (9 - 14) Books

THE BASKET MAKER AND THE SPINNER, Beatrice Siegel, illustrated by William Sauts Bock, Walker and Company, New York; Canada: John Wiley and Sons Ltd, Rexdale, Ont.; 1987, 63 pages, hardcover, index, bibliography, Appendix Wampanoag Calendar; $10.95, 0--8027-6694-3

In this book, Siegel contrasts and finds some similarities in the lives of 2 young married women of the early 17th century: Yawata, a Wampanoag New England Woodland tribal member, and Mary Allen, an English colonist who is teaching her cloth-making skills to an 8-year-old daughter. No phoney meeting between the two occurs. "In many ways, it was a pity, for Yawata could hav passed on to Mary valuable information about the riches and dangers of woodland life. Mary could have given Yawata and her people the option of absorbing what they wanted from another way of life." This is a sort of feminist-optimist theory of history -- that if women, with their concerns for life presevation, survival, and the technologies of daily life, had been in direct cross-cultural contact, everything would have been different. Well, maybe if women had had any political power or controlled military power or if the colonial women didn't go along with militant Christianity. This bit of hopeless historical romanticism aside the book is interesting and will be engaging to girls (boys may not care for it).

Siegel is a careful researcher, who consults Native people -- possibly here some Mohawk Adirodack-style splint basket makers -- as well as doing a lot of reading. Her work shows respect for the lifestyle and the traditional skills. Besides Yawata's work on baskets and woven mats, there is a chapter on inter-tribal basketry, with styles and methods illustrated, showing several of the principal techniques, coiling, twining, preparation of materials. A similar emphasis on the techniques Mary Allen uses and teaches: breaking down flax, carding wool, spinning are explained.

Sigel is the author of several other children's books on early technology (The Steam Engine; The Sewing Machine), and is a clear and interesting expository writer. At the end of the compare-and-contrast, Siegel is reports the effects of the colonists' Manifest Destiny doctrines, and introduction of diseases: "Not only did Yawata and Mary have different ways of looking at things, but Mary arrived with the conviction that Europeans were superior to the native people, that she and Yawata were in no way equal. Such thinking made it easy for the colonists to push the native people around, to take over their land, to enforce European ideas by violence. Yawata and most of her people were wiped out. At first disease took its toll, then came wars and murder....But they did not vanish. Survivors held on to their long arduous history and culture. They tenaciously regarded the earth as theirs. They struggled and demanded their rights. Today there are Indian scholars, writers, painters, and sculptors portraying thir side of history....There are also Indian women basket makers ....There are also a few spinners. Today the basket maker and the spinner respect each other's craft and talnt and ach others's right to enjoy a different cultural heritage. They also recognize how much they have in common as women."

These passages are typical of Siegel's native historical materials for children. She typically emphasizes that despite the destructions, Indian people are not gone. Siegel also wrote Indians of the Northeast Woodlands (reviewed here), A New Look at the Pilgrims, Fur Trappers and Traders; Sam Ellis's Island, (19th century immigration) and an acclaimed YA biography about a young immigrant woman's 19th-century survival struggles in city life and the early labor movement, Lillian Wald of Henry Street, as well as several children's books explaining simple technologies. Whatever her subject, she respects it, and does careful research. Ability to write nonfiction for children that is neither oversimplified nor condescending (often by a sort of misplaced cuteness) in tone is rare; Siegel has it. Recommended. Reviewed by Paula Giese

File: mi232

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Thursday, April 11, 1996 - 3:53:11 AM