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Review of CROOKED RIVER by Shelley Pearsall

by Becky Laney

Pearsall, Shelley. 2005. CROOKED RIVER. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0375923896.

CROOKED RIVER is the second novel for author Shelley Pearsall, winner of the 2003 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Set in Ohio in 1812, CROOKED RIVER tells the dramatic story of an unjust trial of an Indian--nicknamed Indian John--who was captured and held prisoner by one of the white settlers. "Indian John" is accused of murdering a white fur trapper. The story is told from two perspectives: prose chapters narrated by Rebecca Carver, the 13 year old daughter of the white man who captured the Indian, and a series of poems narrated by the Indian--whose real name is Amik. As his formal trial draws closer--although the men in the settlement have already concluded his guilt--Rebecca becomes more and more convinced that "Indian John" is innocent. One other man, Peter Kelley, a lawyer, also believes in his innocence. Kelley tries his best to win the case and set his friend Amik free, but the judge and jury will not be swayed. The trial is a mockery. Evidence or no evidence, they want this man to be convicted and hung.

CROOKED RIVER is based loosely on the true story of an Indian named John O'Mic who was tried and convicted of murder in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1812. He was held captive in a cabin and shared it with the white man and his family--there was a thirteen year old daughter. Using this true story as a basis and framework, Pearsall fictionalized the account to show how these people might have felt. Her research was thorough and impressive as her author's note indicates. While CROOKED RIVER is based on a true story, fact and fiction have two different endings. In real life, John O'Mic was sentenced to death--by hanging. "Indian John" was also sentenced to die--however, thanks to his friends he faked his death and was able to escape further west along with the rest of his family.

I thought CROOKED RIVER was a wonderful book. Although Pearsall is not of Native American ancestry, I believe her research was so extensive that Amik's voice was authentic. The poems narrated by Amik are beautiful. To learn that some of these phrases were borrowed from authentic Ojibwe sources--poems, stories, songs, etc--was fascinating. It made the book even "more authentic" than I originally thought. The narration of Rebecca Carver was equally researched. Pearsall read primary sources--diaries, books, letters, etc--from the time period to capture authentic language patterns and phrases of the whites as well. One source in particular that Pearsall used was an unpublished diary of a young girl named Emily Nash.

CROOKED RIVER is an excellent novel, and I highly recommend it to all. I am impressed not only with the novel CROOKED RIVER but with the author's in-depth research into the time period and opposing cultures that provide the background and context for the novel. I am curious to find a copy of her first novel, TROUBLE DON'T LAST, and read it as well.

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Shelley Pearsall's Official Site

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