Flight of the Sparrow, A Novel of Early America by Amy Belding Brown
As this book begins, Mary is the wife of the minister of a Massachusetts frontier settlement community in colonial America. She is the devout mother of four children, three living. Her community feels that the risk of Indian attack is high, and they begin building fortifications around many of the homes, Mary's included. One day, her husband has to go to Boston on business, leaving Mary, her sisters, and their families at their home without his protection. It is during his leave that the Indians attack.
In a raid brutal and swift, most of the members of Mary's community are killed before her very eyes by the savage warriors. Mary witnesses the deaths of her sister, her nieces and nephews, and even of babies, killed violently and often scalped. She is attempting to shield her own youngest child, Sarah, when Sarah is sliced across the abdomen by an Indian warrior. Mary, carrying Sarah, and her two older children, aged 10 and 12, are taken captive, along with another of Mary's sisters, and other members of their community.
They are marched for two days to the Indian settlement, where they are divided up, some of them taken to other settlements, where they are enslaved. Mary is given to Weetamoo, the chieftess of the tribe. At first Weetamoo allows her to tend to Sarah, who is on death's door, but when Sarah dies a week later, Mary is forced into servitude. At first the work is very hard for Mary, grieving the death of her daughter and the loss of her other two children to other settlements, but soon she begins to see Weetamoo as a fair master. She notices that she is treated better than she has ever seen a slave treated in a white settlement. She is given as much to eat as anyone else and is free to wander the encampment as she likes once her work is done. As her clothing wears out, she is given Indian deerskin clothing to wear, and is a bit appalled at how much she enjoys its comfort. Over the next few months, she becomes close with James, an English speaking Indian, and even develops romantic feelings for him.
As a harsh winter draws to a close, many of the tribe are dying of starvation, and the Indians decide to ransom Mary back to the colony. Mary finds that she doesn't want to go. As she thinks upon the many ways she felt more enslaved in her former life by her clothing, her role, and her rights as a woman in the community, she does her best to stay with the Indian tribe, but ultimately is sent back to her people. A few months later her older children are returned to her, although none of the three of them come away unscathed, and all find reassimilation to be a difficult transition to make.
As the colonists grow in number and military might, they fight against the Indians, and the time comes when Mary makes a great sacrifice, and requires James to make one too, to save his life as the Indians are culled. She learns Weetamoo and most of the other Indians she knew are dead at the hands of her people. It is a time of great trial for her. A prominent member of the community requests Mary write an accounting of her time with the Indians, which she is hesitant to do because she knows that people don't want to hear of the good that she found amongst the natives.
In the end, Mary finds happiness, but never forgets her time amongst the Indians, and it changes who she is and who she wants to be. This book is one of the most moving novels I have ever read. It is often brutal and I skimmed some of it because it was too difficult for my sensitive heart to read, and because of the cruelty and the injustice detailed, sometimes I hated it. I really hated it, But then I would love it passionately as well. I loved Mary's realization that there was good amongst the Indian way of life. I loved watching her learn about herself and that she was stronger than she thought she was. You yearn with her that there is some way that she can stay amongst the Indians and marry James, but you realize too that it cannot be. This is not a relaxing read- there is much passion and injustice and hoping and too many dilemmas for this to be an easy read. However, it is a simply amazing book because of the way it makes you think. It makes you ponder stereotypes and fears, injustices and cultures, and it makes you realize that life happens not in black and white but so often in the gray. I love books that make me think, really think, and this one will stay with me for a long time.