by Jean Rae Baxter
For release September 2014
Born white but captured and adopted by the Oneida when a boy, seventeen-year-old Broken Trail is often referred to as the White Oneida. For this dual identity and his role in halting war with the Mississaugas, Broken Trail has been selected by a group of chiefs led by Mohawk chief Thayendanegea (a.k.a. Joseph Brant) for an important diplomatic role. So, in 1785, Broken Trail is sent to the Sedgewick School in Vermont as a first step in Thayendanegea’s plan to unite the tribes into a powerful federation.
Sedgewick School emphasizes the important skills of reading, writing and numeracy but expects most boys to become missionaries. Though not akin to later residential schools of abuse, the school’s mandates conflict with the tribal ways of Broken Trail and his Oneida, Mohawk, Mohican and Shawnee cabin mates. From names (Broken Trail becomes Moses Cobman), to clothing (“one less noble and less free”; pg. 21), rituals and even text being dictated, the message is that native people are savage and in need of being civilized. Fortunately, Broken Trail benefits from insight, careful observation, determination and sensitivity, attempting to amend the boys’ hostile lacrosse games and supportive when dealing with prejudice and physical harm.
Still focused on his mission to gain support for one federation of tribes, Broken Trail travels to Brant’s Ford and then onto the Ohio River, learning more about Brant’s plans and failings, about the hazy definition of good and bad in both native and white communities, and about the young Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, who has his own strategies for dealing with white men.
Historical fiction author Jean Rae Baxter, who first introduced Broken Trail in Broken Trail (Ronsdale, 2011), has become an astute storyteller of the past, avoiding the pitfall of focusing on history and expecting it to carry the story. That only works for textbooks. The White Oneida could have been the narrative of Thayendanegea and Tecumseh and their approaches to dealing with European settlers. Instead, it is the captivating story of Broken Trail’s education in the ways of both his peoples and ultimately in self-acceptance as he truly is, not as others see him or want him to be. The richness of the history, albeit a problematic one, only enhances Broken Trail’s story of self-discovery, never overtaking it.
A version of this review was originally written for and published in Quill & Quire, as noted in the citation below.
Kubiw, H. (2014, July/August). [Review of the book The White Oneida, by Jean Rae Baxter]. Quill & Quire, 80 (6): 44-45.