Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Reading Through History: Salt by Helen Frost (2013)

Twelve-year-old Anikwa, a member of the Miami tribe, and twelve-year-old James, the son of white traders, are friends who spend much of their time together in the Indiana territory where they live. When the War of 1812 breaks out, however, they find their families on opposites sides. James's family can suddenly no longer provide salt to the Miami, and many of the other white families are suspicious of the Indians, wondering if they are out to harm their American neighbors. Despite the political firestorm, destruction and violence surrounding them, the two boys remain friends, showing their affection for each other in whatever small ways they can.

This novel in verse is well-written, but slow-moving. The narration alternates between Anikwa's poems, written in a format meant to mimic Miami weaving patterns, and James's poems, which echo the arrangement of the stripes on the U.S. flag.  Though the poetry is quick and easy to read, the characters come across as very flat. Because all narration is stripped down to spare lines of poetry, there is hardly any personality or sense of humor in either boy's words. It feels odd to read about 12 year old boys who are so serious and introspective, and it makes it hard to connect with the book. There are also poems about salt interspersed throughout the text which don't really add much at all to the story. The reader could essentially skip these and still not lose the thread of the story.

There is also a sense of false political correctness about the book's "can't we all just get along" philosophy, which comes across as hokey rather than emotionally meaningful. When kids ask for war stories, this is generally not what they have in mind. Kids would rather read about the excitement of battle than the sincerity of two boys who want to stay friends despite their differences, however important adults find that message to be.

As a story, and as a teaching tool, this book is just okay. Kids would have a hard time learning much about the War of 1812 in general from such a narrowly focused story, and the reduction of the war to a relationship between two boys seems like too much of a simplification. I don't have another War of 1812 title on my list for this project, but I will be seeking out others when it comes time to homeschool on the subject.

For more on a Helen Frost book I did like, see my Goodreads review of Crossing Stones.

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