is a historical novel by American author Shelley Pearsall. Set in 1812, in the midst of the Western Expansion, it follows thirteen-year-old Rebecca ‘Reb’ Carver who lives in a small village on the colonial frontier. Rebecca observes the unjust accusation and trial of a young Chippewa Indian man, Amik (tried under the name “Indian John”), for the alleged murder of a white hunter. Socialized outside of the nascent and imperfect American justice system, and lacking the privileges of whiteness, John struggles to build a compelling case. Reb tries to advocate for John while developing her own sense of right and wrong and coming to terms with the vast injustice of the world. The novel received positive criticism for its realistic
portrayal of John and Reb’s voices, showing how every life has dignity and deserves justice irrespective of the privileges afforded and denied by race.
The novel alternates between the perspectives of Reb and John. While Reb writes in ordinary prose, John writes in verse, emphasizing the poetic nature of Chippewa language and philosophy. John opens the novel, describing the coming of spring, which heralds the beginning of the white men’s perennial campaign to exterminate the Indian tribes. He announces that he has been captured, therefore, his wife and children will likely lose him soon. For the Indians, nature itself seems to weep for the destruction wrought by the white race.
Next, Reb describes the yearly hunt from her white settlement’s perspective. The settlement’s lead military official and Rebecca’s father, Major Lorenzo Carver, brings a party of armed men to the other side of the Crooked River, which marks the latest boundary between the white and Indian territories. The trip is a revenge mission to find the three Indian men who killed Gibbs, a trapper. After tracking down the suspects, one successfully escapes, the second is killed, and John is captured. The settlers imprison John in Major Carver’s cabin. Reb first sees John when she returns from helping to take care of sick settlers with her older sister, Laura. Major Carver tells his daughters that an Indian man is being held upstairs. At first, they are terrified to be in close quarters with someone they have only heard about in stories. However, when Major Carver orders them both to bring food to John, many of their imaginings are dispelled. Meanwhile, the settlers are calling for John’s immediate execution without a fair trial.
Reb pities Indian John but dares not tell her father or anyone else that she sympathizes with him. She recognizes that she and he are similar in that the world is determined to make them voiceless. Major Carver demeans Reb, calling her lazy and “slow in the head.” John and Reb connect one day when, after Reb gives him food, he leaves some beads for her in the empty plate. They start to trade trinkets via the plate; Rebecca hides all of them from her father. John’s verse describes the objects and their personal meaning, yearning always for a return to his tribe.
As the trial begins, a young lawyer Peter Kelley arrives at the Carver home. When Peter was a child, John’s family saved his mother from a sickness his settlement could not treat. Reb and Laura are ordered not to speak about Peter’s visits. Peter returns to their home several times, consulting with John and teaching Reb and Laura that Indians have the same inherent dignities as white people. Later, when Rebecca discovers an arrowhead in the fields next to the settlement, Peter teaches her that their land was once Indian land. She starts to overhear settlers murmuring about plans to expedite John’s trial and remove Peter from the settlement. This moment presents a crisis for Reb, who does not know whom to defend, her Indian friend or the community she has always known.
John’s trial, inevitably, is rigged against him: details from the crime scene are fabricated, and the witnesses present false statements. Knowing that the white world will not allow his voice to be heard, John prays to the Chippewa gods that he will be free. He is found guilty of murdering a white man and for the theft of his traps. On the morning of his hanging, it rains so hard that Reb momentarily hopes that the hanging will be delayed. It proceeds anyway, and the white settlers conduct a ritual of mourning, hypocrisy that Reb astutely observes. The mourning ritual works in John’s favor: his rope breaks, but no one notices it before he escapes. John escapes back to his wife and children. Reb feels grateful that her friendship with John opened her eyes to the validity of the Chippewa Indian experience.