Feb 20, 2013

The Loon Feather

by Iola Fuller

This is a novel depicting the life of a woman who bridged two worlds. Oneta was born into the Ojibway tribe in the early 1800's. When she was a young girl her mother became ill at the time her tribe traveled to another location to harvest wild rice, and they were left behind in a trading village on Mackinac Island. Growing up on the island, Oneta finds her life rich with both native heritage and exposure to French and American culture. She doesn't realize her family's poverty until she moves into the home of a well-to-do white family when her mother marries a local Frenchman who does accounts for the fur trade company. She gets sent away to boarding school in Ontario but doesn't speak much of her life there, instead focusing on changes that occur when she returns to the island twelve years later. Having been well-educated Oneta now sees life on the island in a different light, and finds that she doesn't quite fit in anywhere.

Through the personal story of her life and those close to her- her brother and adopted French family- are woven greater events. Things change as the fur trade begins to fall off when trappers deplete the natural resources. The native tribes find life more difficult as game becomes scarce and the intruding white men fell trees in greater numbers. As the fur trade diminishes focus shifts to fishing, it was quite interesting how that came about. Unrest grows when the government fails to hold up their side of treaties with the native tribes. Although Oneta is a father self-effacing character, standing quietly in the background to most events, it turns out she has a large part to play in the end.

This was a rich, satisfying read. There are a wide variety of complex, interesting characters and all their different interactions with Oneta in the village reflect not only how they perceive her as a native and a woman but also how they see themselves. I loved the rich descriptions and subtle symbolism- not only that of the loon, a wilderness bird, but other little things, like for example salt. In the beginning of the novel, Oneta finds food in her stepfamily's home unpalatable, because she's not used to eating salt. And at the end the government switches from paying the natives in gold for land they've appropriated, to giving them goods. The natives are insulted at being given large quantities of salt, a thing they never use, and pile it up scornfully in a heap on the beach to be wasted. Images like that which speak so strongly of people's attitudes and perceptions of each other...

This is the kind of book that leaves you reflecting long after you've turned the final page. I'm definitely keeping this one on my shelf to read again.
Rating: 4/5 ........ 456 pages, 1940 ........   

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8 comments:

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like the kind of book I love!

Jenny said...

How fascinating! A shame she doesn't talk about the boarding school as well -- I imagine that was quite a culture shock too, and I'd be interested to hear how she adapted to it.

Jeane said...

Well, she did mention some of the boarding-school aspect, but mostly in how the education opened her eyes, and how she managed by just following the rules and rituals (it was a religious school) to avoid notice, without much of the dogma affecting her. That was interesting, too.

Susan said...

I'm going to have to look at this novel. The boarding schools are still a big issue up here, with the government recently making an apology and paying out money to survivors, but the legacy continues in the aboriginal lives. It's so sad, and terrible. Thanks so much for writing about this book. Is it a new one?

I like the cultural differences, too, though what's so horrible is that the natives weren't offered things of real value in the end, and it's something I think our culture has to admit and heal from.

Susan said...

I just looked it up on Amazon :-) our library doesn't have it. I didn't realize it was an older book, and the heroine's father is Tecumseh. I'm very interested now! thanks, Jeanne :-)

Jeane said...

I hope you can find a copy, Susan. It's really a wonderful book. So quiet, yet so strong. I picked mine up at a used bookstore.

Grace Harbor said...

Did Oneta and her husband remain on the island or move? Thanks

Jeane said...

I don't remember. You could read the book and find out. It's worth it!