It’s hard to imagine in today’s technology infused world of recording and oversharing every little thing, that history, even up to a few generations ago, is subjective. “History is written by the winners”, people say. Which is true. History is written by the survivors. This is also true. Author Joseph Bruchac plays with these certainties with his book of historical fiction, Pocahontas.
Pocahontas features alternating chapters telling the first person points of view of Pocahontas, then eleven years old, and Captain John Smith, leading up to the seminal moment of the famous story. From Pocahontas, we learn about her family, her town and her father, Mamanatowic, “the Great Chief of all the Powhatan towns” and her endless curiosity, especially about the “swan canoes,” and the “Coatmen.” John Smith, in 17th century English, tells his story of a man unjustly accused of treason, imprisoned and distrusted in the New World. These two stories intersect and eventually come to a head, with Pocahontas’ hopeful words, “We shall live together in peace” (emphasis by the author).
History, as I said, is subjective. Both Pocahontas and John Smith have different versions of their stories, and each reveals his or her own prejudices as they tell it. Smith speaks with the wounded, puffed up pride of someone who finds themselves constantly harassed by others. He admits to telling baldface lies. Pocahontas, for her part, is young, and in her youth is the forgiveness for little exaggerations and stretches of the truth. By her own admission, she is her father’s favorite child, and this status affords her great freedom and leeway. By allowing both his protagonists to be relatable, but unreliable narrators, Bruchac allows for historical wiggle room, so to speak. Virtually every version of the Pocahontas/John Smith story you will find asserts that the young girl throws herself on John Smith, the prisoner, in order to save his life. In Pocahontas’ version of events, this is not the case. Smith’s life is never in danger, and in fact, Pocahontas’ father is welcoming him, and Pocahontas is greeting his as a new brother. Which is the truth? Likely, we will never know (until such time as time travel is invented). The value of the Pocahontas myth, however, is in the girl’s desire for peace and understanding, something that Bruchac maintains in his afterword, writring, “[t]hrough it all Pocahontas appears to have remained an influential voice for peace.”
In his notes, Bruchac admits that “seeing things from the Native American side” of the story came mostly from “the last four decades I have spent deepening my knowledge of my own American Indian heritage by listening to and spending time with the many friends, fellow storytellers, and elders in the Native American community” who have helped him along the way. Under Bruchac’s careful eye, the Powhatan nation is well represented. Each of Pocahontas’ chapters begins with snippets of por quio folklore, telling stories of creation, nature and the people. “Great Hare lives in his home in the sunrise. There he made the first women and men. He kept them at first in a great bag,” begins one portion of the story which precedes a chapter in which Pocahontas is full of questions about the nature of things, and the origin of man. Pocahontas is also peppered with words in both the Powhatan language and 17th century English, for which Bruchac provides two glossaries in the backmatter.
Pocahontas received mixed reviews upon publication. Kirkus Reviews writes that “[b]oth characters come to life instantly, and the daily accounts are rich with details of everyday life” and “[h]is writing is masterfully stylized to suit all characters in their time and culture, and makes for dense but satisfying reading.” Publishers Weekly, on the other hand, calls Pocahontas “uneven” and says “Smith's words, meant to echo the cadences of the actual diaries and records that introduce each of his chapters, sound stiff and passive” and “readers may be frustrated” with the style and the resolution of the story.
As I have said, the story of Pocahontas is as varied as it is plentiful. Standout editions include Kathleen Krull’s Pocahontas: Princess of the New World, featuring beautiful illustrations by David Diaz and Jean Fritz’s The Double Life of Pocahontas. For readers of Bruchac’s book interested in further reading, Bruchac offers a selected bibliography in his backmatter. Also, many of the works quoted in the beginnings of John Smiths’ chapters are still available for modern readers, electronically preserved, including The Generall Historie written by John Smith himself. The Scholastic paperback edition of Pocahontas features a variety of discussion questions, and the book lends itself to interpretation and debate. Classrooms or reading groups could easily start a conversation about the variations in the story, and what they might represent, or reveal.
The story of Pocahontas is one of the most oft told tales of American history, and one that seems different with every telling. Whether Bruchac’s story holds more truth than others may never be known (ok, we know it’s better than the Disney version), but Pocahontas is an interesting book nonetheless. It gives a valuable glimpse into the daily lives the Powhatan people, and yes, flies a flag of peace, understanding and tolerance, one that could, and should, be heeded still today.
Bruchac, Joseph. Pocahontas. Orlando: Silver Whistle Books, 2003. ISBN: 9780152167370