By: Angie Haddock
Niizh Eshkanag is a member of the first generation of Anishinaabe children required to attend a U.S. government boarding school—schools infamously intended to “kill the Indian and save the man,” or forcibly assimilate Native students into white culture. Though Roger is frightened of his Indian classmates at first, Niizh Eshkanag befriends him, and they come to appreciate and respect one another’s differences.
Let’s start with the name: wiijiwaaganag means companions or partners (plural).
The author, Peter Razor, published his own memoir in 2002. It looks like his family is posthumously publishing more books written by him, including this one. I am not sure how long ago he wrote this fiction novel, or if it is at all similar to his other works. I’d seen some other reviews that did not like the writing style – the book is all in third person, and told in a straight, linear manner. It’s not exactly the most exciting style, especially if you only read modern novels, but I don’t think it really detracts from the story.
As stated above, our main characters are the Anishinaabe-born Niizh Eshkanag and a white boy of the same age, Roger Poznanski. They befriend each other at a boarding school where Roger is only attending because his uncle is the headmaster.
Roger is suspicious of his Native classmates at first, but is quick to help when any of them get into trouble. This earns him their respect and friendship, but also infuriates his aunt, who doesn’t want him hanging out with the Native kids.
When summer break comes, Roger wants to visit Niizh’s village. After fighting with his family about it, he decides to head out on his own – basically, he runs away. He only intends to stay for a short visit, then make his way to Milwaukee, where he has other family.
But when his family offers a monetary reward for Roger’s return, the boys find themselves spending much of their summer in the woods, hiding out from white trappers and agents who are trying to find them. They get into several scrapes, some resulting in injury. Most of their troubles come from the white agents, but even some other Anishinaabe teens from Niizh’s village decide to go after that reward.
There is a lot of action in this book, and of course an exchange of ideas between the two cultures represented. While we do see some of the life of the boarding school, the story moves past that at around 35% of the way in. If you read classics, and don’t mind the writing style being a little dry, it’s an interesting look at a different time in our (American) history.