Vol. V, Issue 2, December 15, 2006
December Book Reviews | 1 - 2
Otten, Charlotte. Home in a Wilderness Fort: Copper Harbor, 1844. Traverse City, MI: Arbutus Press, 2006. ISBN 0976610450.
In 1844, the US Army built Fort Wilkins about a mile inland from Copper Harbor, Michigan, the north-most place on the Keweenaw Peninsula. The fort’s purpose was to defend the copper miners from potential hostile Indians.
Having survived a stormy voyage from Detroit in late June, Josette, a 10 year old orphan, arrives at Copper Harbor with her pregnant sister Edith and brother-in-law, Lieutenant Edmund Elliot, who will be second in command at the new fort. The main story is Josette’s chance meeting with Maria, an Ojibwe girl, that grows into a friendship between Josette’s family and the Fort Wilkins community and Maria’s family. The novel ends as Josette and her family leave Copper Harbor because the Army, having found no Indian danger, closes Fort Wilkins and sends Lt. Elliot and the soldiers to the impending war with Mexico.
Josette’s many adventures with a drifting canoe, bears, wolves, storms, a befriended seagull, and a favorite sheep keep the story moving. The initial distrust among the adults dissipates quickly after the girls make friends, and the Ojibwe family repeatedly helps the white family. Maria rescues Josette from the bears, Maria’s father guides Edmund and the fort doctor to L’Anse, and Maria’s mother delivers Edith’s baby. Other interesting bits are provided by the copper mining operation, a shipwreck, a visit from Father Baraga, and a French chef. It is full of Ojibwe Indian lore: pictographs, spearheads, a dreamcatcher. It is also full of Ojibwe realities: mutual distrust between the white people and the Native Americans, hunger and starvation in bad winters, and Father Baraga in L’Anse.
Readers will find none of the New Realism. All the adults are good and nurturing. Things turn out well, no matter how much coincidence is required, such as Josette happening upon Ojibwe natives who know English and who go to L’Anse in the winter to be helped by Father Baraga.
Otten carefully researched the Ojibwe and Fort Wilkins, and provides a 16-item list of sources at the back, as well as 18 pages of Ojibwe pictographs. She has also published a book of poetry for children, January Rides the Wind, 1997.
Home in the Wilderness is a pleasing historical novel that should be in all Michigan public libraries and school libraries, K-8. Unlike much historical fiction, it is perfectly readable and enjoyable for children as young as 9 and could be read aloud to younger children.
Reviewed by Margaret Best, University Library, Eastern Michigan University