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Past Imperfect 

Book Review: The Darkness Under the Water and Champlain and the Silent One

Published October 15, 2008 at 5:43 a.m.

In a mild autumn like this one, it’s easy to forget — for a moment, at least — the affronts that other seasons deliver. Spring’s muddy slop and stubborn chill. Winter’s icy grip. Summer’s meager sunshine. In this sense, autumn’s gentle embrace is a comforting fiction — an ephemeral diversion, like a story, to buoy the spirit while we subconsciously brace for the inevitable.

Two recent novels set in Vermont, written by Vermont authors, are notable for confronting grim seasonal realities head-on. Against these harsh backdrops, each novel also illuminates a decidedly dark chapter in the state’s history — with mixed literary results, but with equal courage to broach a sore subject. Even more notably, they’re children’s books.

In Beth Kanell’s The Darkness Under the Water, aimed at readers age 12 and up, the dark chapter is a statewide eugenics program under which, in the 1920s and ’30s, Vermonters of Native American and French-Canadian descent were targeted for abuses ranging from discrimination to forced sterilization. Kate Messner’s Champlain and the Silent One, for middle-grade readers (ages 8 to 12, generally speaking), revisits the bloody tribal rivalry between regional bands of Innu and Iroquois 400 years ago, when French explorer Samuel de Champlain made his journey from Québec to what is now Lake Champlain.

While both novels are concerned with history, to their credit they focus more closely on the smaller stories of their protagonists’ lives. In this way, they serve the dual purposes of teaching young readers something they didn’t already know — presumably something worth knowing — and creating characters with whom readers can identify.

Of the two, Kanell’s The Darkness Under the Water is more substantial, in part because the grim agenda of the Vermont eugenics project looms over the main narrative rather than dominating it. The book’s narrator, a half-Abenaki–half-French-Canadian teenager named Margaret “Molly” Ballou, is certainly curious about the “Vermont for Real Yankees” headline she’s seen in the newspaper. But a more pressing concern, at least early in the novel, is how she’ll manage to survive another dreary April. “There is nothing I like about April,” she laments. “It rains for days here, hard enough to wash the soiled banks of snow away from the muddy roads. Everything smells like rain.”

Molly also associates April with the mysterious drowning death of her sister, Gratia, in the river near their Waterford home — hence the novel’s title. This preoccupation commingles in Molly’s mind with various vexing questions: what she will do with her life after finishing high school; whether her father will soon return from the lumber camp to help with chores; and whether she should follow her heart and befriend the quiet Abenaki boy, Henry Laporte, who takes her for walks in the woods.

Having saddled Molly with these familiar adolescent worries, Kanell treats the historical aspect of the novel as a mysterious element rather than the occasion for the story, and readers are compelled to wonder along with Molly how her personal fortunes will become entangled in the social forces gathering like spring rain clouds.

This is not to say that Molly is a passive victim of circumstance. Kanell has drawn her as a strong character whose coming-of-age experience involves reconciling her identity with those of the family members in her household: her Abenaki grandmother, Me-Mere, who practices the “old ways”; her French-Canadian-Abenaki parents; and Gratia’s ghost.

But if Molly’s challenge were simply to figure out who she is, her story would be much simpler. As the tale unfolds, new complications arise: the imminent damming of the river, which will flood the Ballous out of their home; her mother’s pregnancy-induced illness; and the nosy state nurses who have begun to appear at the schoolhouse and around town, seemingly interested in more than the locals’ general health. Add a love interest, and these tensions imbue The Darkness Under the Water with rich, relentless drama. Its resolution entails high action that’s perhaps just a degree over the top in this thickly plotted narrative.

Although Messner’s Champlain and the Silent One is populated by warriors, its conflict is more muted than those of Kanell’s novel — literally. One of the title characters, an Innu boy, goes by the name “Silent One” because he has refused to speak since the abduction and murder of his uncle Singing Bear by rival Iroquois. Throughout the novel, Silent One returns periodically to Singing Bear’s burial hut to channel the elder’s spirit.

By the time French explorer Samuel de Champlain’s expedition reaches the Innu encampment in the winter of 1609, Silent One and his tribe are on the verge of starvation. Messner evokes the harshness of a North Country winter, for us an inconvenience, but for Silent One’s tribe perhaps a killing blow: “Those who are strong enough pull themselves up to lean on frozen trees along the shore. Others crawl toward their canoes on hands and feet, like the raccoon. Some drag themselves over the frozen ground on their bellies, like the snake.”

Champlain not only saves the natives’ lives by sharing his food, but also offers to help them settle the score with their enemy. Because Silent One is valued for his ability to foresee future events and practice healing techniques taught to him by Singing Bear, he travels with Champlain and his crew to engage the Iroquois. Along the way, he faces his coming-of-age trial. He resolves a moral choice in a way that goes against the insistences of his belligerent peer Steps Too Soon — so named for having ventured onto a beaver pond one winter before it was fully frozen. Silent One is a gentle soul, and by the end of the novel, the vision he shares with his people is the product not of his clairvoyance but of his yearning for peace.

At roughly half the length of Kanell’s book, Champlain and the Silent One comes across more as an extended historical footnote than a fully realized novel. In fact, each chapter begins with an actual excerpt from the journals of Champlain. The central question is compelling — will Silent One speak up in time to say what his tribe desperately needs to hear? But the characters are described in insufficient detail to conjure vivid images or foster strong connections with readers. Messner’s younger readers may be satisfied with this thinner story, particularly as a complement to their study of regional history — and it’s certainly timely, given the impending quadricentennial of Champlain’s arrival. But with its lean prose, Silent One relies too heavily on character names — Brave One, Wise Elk, Crying Wren — and Martha Gulley’s illustrations to fill in its character portraits.

Kanell’s longer novel spares fewer details, particularly in evoking Molly’s sensory experience, and the result is a deeper immersion in the world of her story. Molly’s olfactory sense alone rivals Silent One’s visions for its sensitivity. Take her description of Henry: “Walking so close, I could smell the woods on him as well as around us: a sweet hint of sawdust mixed with balsam fir and the dampness of wet bark and stone.” Her nostrils are equally alert at home, as this passage about the birth of her brother illustrates: “I bent my face toward him and smelled the mix of scents, skin smell and blood and something else I couldn’t place, something as heavy and dark as the insides of a heart. And laundry smell, soap and fresh air, from the towel.”

Although these two novels chronicle periods several centuries apart in Vermont history, they share one striking element: narrators who commune with the spirits of the deceased. As storytelling gambits go, this one accomplishes little in either book beyond, perhaps, dramatizing the quintessentially adolescent suspicion that few living adults are worth seeking out for counsel or understanding.

On one key thematic point, however, these two gritty novels rooted in the past may offer young readers assurance about the future. Finding one’s voice has never been easy, they suggest, but ultimately nothing can prevent it.

Kate Messner speaks on Saturday, October 18, at the Flying Pig Bookstore, Shelburne, at 11 a.m. Info, 985-3999.

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About The Author

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Eskilsen is a freelance writer and Champlain College instructor. He lives in Burlington with his wife and twin daughters, and their dog.


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