Review: Arrow Over the Door

“Samuel tried to remember what his father had told him about Indians. The Light of God was in them too. He struggled to keep that in his mind, but it did not ease his fear.” page 66

The Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by James Watling.
Puffin, Penguin Random House, New York, 1998.
Historical fiction, 104 pages (including excerpts).
Lexile: 810L .
AR Level: 5.2 (worth 2.0 points) .

Set in 1777 and told in alternating views from the perspectives of Quaker boy Samuel Russell and Abenaki teen Stands Straight, this novel is based on real events during the American Revolution.

Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by James Watling.

Joseph Bruchac, although not without error, is one of the handful of Native authors consistently writing historical fiction for children. (Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series is another notable example; Eric Gansworth and Tim Tingle have also written more than one book each. At the time of this writing, any others I know of only have one.) Also, I have so far been able to find only one work of children’s historical fiction by another Native author set before 1800. I hope others exist and are published set in all time frames, especially given the promising new Heartdrum imprint.

I can see why individual authors might not wish to set fiction in the distant past, and why emphasizing the continued, modern experiences of indigenous peoples is a higher priority. But from a consumer standpoint, I wish more options existed. Also, to be transparent about review selection here, there’s been a pandemic, I was without my usual access to libraries and bookstores and curriculum exchanges, and I once got a tidy stack of Bruchac titles at the used bookstore that have been sitting on the shelf a few years waiting for this zeitgeist. (One is Two Roads, a book I so happily found used shortly before this not recommended AICL review came out.) This rather long intro is to explain that within this specific context, I approach some books differently than I might otherwise.

The title page and frontispiece of Arrow Over the Door show the Quaker family featured in the book.

I originally read this book back when teaching and managed to forget many details. I’d somehow reimagined the setting as the War of 1812, a full 35 years later! As mentioned above, few children’s books follow non-white characters before the 1800s.

I’ve only ever read about Quaker abolitionists, so it was refreshing to see a more nuanced portrait of a Quaker family. Although Bruchac is best known for his Abenaki heritage, he is also white, so I suppose he could be writing about two of his own ancestors. The Abenaki also interact with a Catholic priest, so two of the more esoteric denominations of Christianity are represented here.

Although both boys alternate chapters, since the book begins and ends with Samuel’s perspective, it feels almost biased towards him. If the author was not Abenaki himself, I would possibly have taken a dimmer view of this choice. At points prejudice against indigenous people, and stereotypes the townspeople believe, come up – but are always patiently rejected by Samuel’s family. An example of how authors can show historical racism without endorsing it!

I’ve tagged this with both elementary and middle grade, because it could work for either although definitely written for younger audiences. Only the pesky “Ages 7-10” recommendation on the back of the book will deter older hi-lo readers. It also could work well for family read aloud, if the younger listeners can handle a slow pace.

Page 70 of Arrow Over the Door illustrates an encounter between the Abenaki and the white settlers.

James Watling’s illustrations are worth mentioning as they definitely add to the appeal of this rather low-action book. Every chapter has an illustration (Elder Brother’s Path has two) and there’s also a frontispiece. He did the cover as well. The illustrations complement the text perfectly and give important context.

An extensive nine page author’s note gives detailed further information on the history that inspired this book, as well as the process of researching and revising it for accuracy. That adds value for teachers or young readers interested in learning how historical fiction is written.

At under a hundred pages with excellent portrayals of nontoxic masculinity, featuring both a less commonly known tribe and a frequently misunderstood Christian denomination, not blatantly problematic but still with enough excitement and tension to keep a class’s interest, it’s not surprising that this is a popular choice for teachers.

Stands Straight speaks with his cousin on page 17 of Arrow Over the Door.

However, the entire premise can be pretty easily summed up in a paragraph. The book is more about filling out the historical details and the lives and thoughts of the two boys and their families. Regular readers will recall I dislike novels in two voices, and this particular story didn’t win me over to the convention, but also this didn’t suffer from the imbalance in some of Bruchac’s other fiction – the pacing here was much more even. Granted, the original story alone is pretty compelling, but Bruchac does a good job of building some tension without actually having too much action or plot to work with.

AICL has not done a full review, but it was mentioned favorably as a comparison in this 2013 post. So while it’s not listed as recommended, I assume it is at least passable. Bruchac has made errors in writing about other tribes, but here he’s writing about his own indigenous culture. Recommended, assuming no major flaws found by #ownvoice reviewers.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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