Native American Heritage Month Kid Lit Review of “The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle by Gay Matthaei and Jewel Grutman

This book is absolutely stunning. It caught my eye right away because it has a blue cloth jacket and is laid out horizontally instead of vertically. And then I opened it and my jaw literally dropped. The book has marbled endpapers and lined pages like a journal. And the illustrations by Adam Cvijanovic are just spectacular!

The hand-calligraphed text purports to be a journal kept by Thomas Blue Eagle, a fictitious boy from the Sioux tribe who was sent to the Carlisle Indian School at the end of the 19th Century. In a 2012 exhibit (formerly but not currently online) called “Stories Outside the Lines” at the terrific Heard American Indian Museum (located in Phoenix, Arizona), we learn:

“This book was inspired by the magnificent ledger drawings made by Plains Indians in the late 19th century.

For centuries, representational images have formed a visual vocabulary to communicate information important to a community and to reinforce shared cultural values and identity. Plains Indian art conveys messages and also documents significant events using a representational or pictographic style. Imagery in pictographic style is seen on rock art, hide paintings and drawings on paper. The genre called ‘ledger art’ is the transition of the representational style of painting to paper, frequently pages from accounting ledger books. Made between 1865 and 1935, these drawings are rich in historic and ethnographic detail, and, more important, they are complex portraits of a transformational era.”

You can also learn more about the history of ledger book art here.

There is more to the book than the drawings of course, and I thought the quality of the story was a perfect match for the illustrations. Thomas Blue Eagle tells us a great deal about his life in the plains before he goes to school.

He tells a bit about his time at Carlisle – not too graphic but enough information for us to know that it was a culture-killing experience for the Native Americans who went there. He concludes:

“I have learned the white man’s ways, as my father wished. I have learned his numbers and tools. I have learned to tell my stories with the white man’s words. I have also learned that the white man does not see with the eyes in his heart and that he does not hear our Mother Earth crying.”

The book is dedicated to “all the brave young Native Americans who took that long, lonely journey into the white man’s world and studied at the Carlisle Indian School.”

Discussion: Carlisle was an Indian boarding school founded in 1879 for the purpose of “civilizing” young Native Americans so they would give up their own culture in favor of that of the majority culture. Founder and Superintendent Richard Henry Pratt believed that “the Native Americans should be uprooted from their tribal past to ‘achieve full participation.’” In practice, this meant erasing, as much as possible, any trace of Native American customs, culture, language and religion from the children at the school. Indoctrination was not easily accomplished. Hundreds of children died during Carlisle’s 39 years of operation, not only from infectious diseases, but from trying to escape. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuses were not uncommon. Students caught speaking their native languages were beaten, sentenced to hard labor or confinement, or they had their mouths washed out with lye soap.

Nevertheless, The Carlisle School was a model for 26 Indian boarding schools founded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) across the country. (You can watch an NPR 1-hour documentary on the schools – “a story of cultural genocide” – here.)

This book for children doesn’t show the worst of the negative aspects of the school, but readers can still get a sense of the culture clash that occurred. The drawings by Adam Cvijanovic are so exquisite and the story intriguing enough that one hopes readers will have enough interest to pursue the topic and find out more about what happened to Native Americans, especially those who went to the Carlisle School.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Charlesbridge Publishing, 1994

Product Details
Reading level: Ages 9 and up
Hardcover: 72 pages
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1565660633
ISBN-13: 978-1565660632

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9 Responses to Native American Heritage Month Kid Lit Review of “The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle by Gay Matthaei and Jewel Grutman

  1. Beth F says:

    Wow, wow, wow. I’ve always been fascinated with stories of the Carlisle school and the whole idea of trying to turn young Native Americans into white Christians. This looks like an amazing book with illustrations that remind me of authentic late-nineteenth-century Sioux artwork. I think I’m going to *have* to get this.

  2. Oh my gosh, I can see why your jaw dropped when you opened that book. This sounds like an important book even if it doesn’t show the worst of the schools.

  3. What a beautiful book. How sad and terrible that a people can force another to erase their culture, even their native language from their life as if it were something awful. It breaks my heart.

  4. Jenners says:

    The illustrations are amazing. My brother would love this book.

  5. I was immediately drawn into your post with the picture of the front of the book. The whole way it is presented is stunning and I must get my hands on a copy of this for my school library!

  6. bookingmama says:

    Just amazing! We actually live in Cumberland County not too far from Carlisle!

  7. Those illustrations are amazing! What a great way to show the culture and experiences of Native Americans at that time! I grew up learning a lot about Native American culture because it was rumored that one of my mom’s birth parents was Native American. We know now that her mother was of European descent, but still know nothing about her birth father. My mom always said when we were growing up that we couldn’t be prejudiced against any race because they might be our relatives. 🙂

  8. claire says:

    OMG the illustrations are gorgeous! I’m smitten. On to the wish list it goes.

  9. stacybuckeye says:

    Gorgeous! I want this one right now!

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