Brief Description: A Native American Powhatan boy, who has trouble seeing, learns to hone his other senses. After his coming-of-age naming ceremony, he sets out on journey with a tribal elder.
Historical Era: 16th Century
Date Range: 1500s
Original Publication: 1996
Suitable for Grades: 3-7th
Target Audience: Middle Grade
This coming-of-age story of a Native American boy is compelling from the very first paragraph. Walnut’s mother tries to teach him to hit a target with a bow and arrow in preparation for his manhood test. But something is wrong. Walnut cannot see the target. He does not know that something is amiss; he assumes everyone else has the same sight ability. When his uncle realizes that Walnut is extremely nearsighted, his mother teaches him a new skill: to “see” by listening. Later, during his manhood test, he is able to identify a tribal elder approaching from the edge of the village before anyone else can see him. He passes the test and earns the new adult name “Sees Behind Trees.”
When the elder Gray Fire asks Sees Behind Trees to accompany him on a journey to a beautiful watery place that haunts his dreams, the two venture off during a snowstorm. The lame elder and the blind youngster encounter a couple with a baby who speak a different language. This is Sees Behind Tree’s first knowledge of “strangers.” The friendly group shares their food and campfire and communicates through gestures that they are fleeing northward, pursued by “bad strangers.” On Sees Behind Tree’s return trip, which he must make alone, he finds the campsite rudely destroyed, the couple gone, the baby abandoned. He carries the helpless baby back to his own village.
The short novel serves as a pre-contact or early-contact depiction of Native American life. The lack of specificity in the text as to timeframe or location is appropriate considering that the Native Americans would not have measured time or named places in the modern European way. The description of the strangers does not give many clues to their identity, whether they were of European descent or from a different indigenous nation. Only the word used for the tribal leader offers a clue: it is the Algonquin word weroance. This word was used among the Powhatan in Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay area, which happens to be the location of the earliest British settlement in America. This single word gives chilling significance to the menace of “bad strangers.”