A longer post today, and even then if feels inadequate. Bruchac tackles a lot of history and cultural conversation in this slim novel set in a single year. I don’t often read books that are or are similar to biographies, and this felt like I was listening to an elder telling stories. It’s written for middle graders, but I’m going to recommend it to my dad who, like Cal’s dad, supplemented my Oklahoma History homework with our own oral histories.
Hardcover, 320 pages.
Historical Fiction. Ages 10-14.
Joseph Bruchac’s Two Roads will come across to many primarily as an educational novel. 1932 was a busier year in US history than many of us will remember from our classes and books.
Bruchac chose the setting on purpose. In an interview with fellow award-winning author, Cynthia Leitich Smith, he explains:
I wanted to have it take place in that time before the New Deal that parallels present day America where the divide between the rich and the majority of people is growing and homelessness is a huge issue…as well as what happens to veterans of our foreign wars.
1932 was a good time to talk about Indian boarding schools in the US, and while Bruchac has written about them in other work, in the same interview he reminds us that “there are so many stories that still need to be told—and not just stories of Indians as victims. I wanted to tell a story which shows how many Native kids managed to stay Native in those harsh environments, forge friendships, and resist assimilation.”
I think the use of 1932 was an excellent choice for a historical moment that will resonate, the code of ethics held by the hobo culture and the veteran’s petitioning the federal government in protests numbering in the thousands is inspiring. But the story of young Native people pursuing and protecting their culture and identity will resonate with a large swath of our young readers.
The novel is told by Calvin “Cal” Black|Blackbird and he injects the novel with a contemplative tone. He’s quick, quietly funny, observant and often takes a listening posture. I read one review that questioned how a 1930s boy could be as articulate as Cal, or some of the others. I question why any presentation of—call it “wokeness”—by any marginalized population before white characters (and people) of the same age became woke would be presumed historically inaccurate or dissonant. His pop, Will, is wise and articulate; and Cal is also that classic, well-read character.
Two Roads is not an action adventure. Its more biographical with moments of action and adventure; Bruchac suggests as much in his “Afterword.”
It’s my hope that this small novel—based not just on years of research but also on the countless stories of boarding school life I’ve heard over the last five decades from friends and elders who were kind enough to share them with me—will […] Entertain with a good story while also, though not in a preachy way, teaching something about parts of American and Native American history that should be better known. (320)
Cal has an unusual ability that a friend will later identify. He can move into the past when a story is being told, actually reside in the body of person present and experience the moment as them—which is terrifying when his veteran father slides into his memories of WWI. Cal can also envision scenes from the future—which helps move the character in a necessary direction late in the story. It’s intriguing and useful, but isn’t as utilized as often as I’d anticipated. For the most part, Cal is to remain in the present where he has more than enough on his mind.
Cal and his pop, Will, are “knights of the road,” hoboes. Using the rails and a strict code of ethics, they work in trade for food and mostly keep to themselves. It is a fascinating culture, but disturbing when you consider how for many, this lifestyle wasn’t a choice. Before he met his wife, built a farm, and had Cal, Will chose to be a ‘bo. But this past year on the rails, is courtesy of the passing of wife/mother who buried them in medical bills, and the banks failing. If only Will could either receive or borrow against his Compensation Certificate for surviving the Great War.
Will isn’t the only War Vet who thinks “evil Hoover” could do more to care for them. We meet many walking wounded, carrying shrapnel, suffering PTSD and/or the ill-effects of mustard gas. Veterans with reach begin to petition Hoover and the White House for consideration, and soon an occupation is organized: the Bonus Expeditionary Forces (BEF), or the “Bonus Army.” 45,000 veterans and their families set up camp in the capital. While Will would join them, he needs a safer place for his 12 year-old-son; and returning him to his education would benefit Cal as well.
Before the subject of sending Cal to a boarding school comes up and Cal begins to contemplate what being Indian might mean, we’ve already encountered the racism of the US as they travel along the rails in the South. Cal and his father are brown, and when they meet a white man on the road, Will casually reveals the paler skin at the opening of his shirt. Paired with the revelation that he is a vet, the man becomes incredibly hospitable. But it wasn’t just honoring a veteran’s service. We meet a heavily decorated black man further along. Corporal Dart had joined the French Army as a Harlem Hellfighter. The local police threaten a hobo camp to give up any black folk.
Cal has no idea, until his father tells him, that he is half-Creek. Will would sometimes claim they were Italian, but Will is full-blood Creek out of Muskogee, Oklahoma, and Cal’s mother was an Armenian immigrant (put on the orphan train as a child and raised by a Polish couple in Nebraska). There were benefits to passing. Besides not having to be identified alongside negative stereotypes and media representations, “the bank would be more likely to give [a mortgage] to a white couple who are a tanned war veteran and a nurse and not an Indian and a dirty immigrant” (69). Cal is intentionally raised white. The opportunity to place his son in an Indian School forces the revelation.
“Challagi’s how you say Cherokee in Choctaw. Sort of an insult—seeing as how it means cave dwellers. Folks without real houses. […] Naming a school for the way one tribe insults another? Just what you’d expect from Washington” (106).
Challagi Federal Agricultural Indian Boarding School or Plains View was where Will had gone before running away to join the Army. According to Bruchac’s author notes, the fictitious Challagi is patterned Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma. Will tells Cal of his experiences at Challagi, and then we watch as Cal confirms them during his own stay—with a few exceptions: The way discipline is handled changed with the new superintendent and the publication of the Meriam Report. And the population, which is whiter than it had been.
When you consider how the point of the school was to “civilize” aka whiten the Indian; how some students died at school; how Will suffered, and ran away three times; and how he cared for his son, we ask: why would Will board his son at an Indian School? It was a question Bruchac had for Jim Thorpe’s son Jack (see “Afterword”). Jim Thorpe sent his sons to Indian school and so did many other graduates.
–In a disturbing aside, Will admits that if Cal had been a girl, he would absolutely not have sent him. He goes on to tell of a teacher who abused the girls with impunity until one of the students finally (violently) intervened. Because the story is from Cal’s point of view, we only get glimpses of and speculation as to what life looks like for the girls. Cal does note repeatedly that he pities their lack of freedom—freedom boys have from the eyes of the matrons and administrators to go off on their own.—Too, Will finds reassurance in that Cal should pass as full-blood at Challagi, and Cal allows his classmates to assume he is fully Creek.
The explanations written into the narrative vary. Like Will, parents needed a place for their children to be educated, and the agricultural program and other trade skills proved valuable. One kid in the book was the lone Indian where he lived and was happier being with other Indians at the school. Will and the author quote K. Tsianina Lomawaima’s work and “countless stories over five decades” when they cite an unexpected outcome in the boarding schools.
Rather than being made “less Indian,” the Indian schools actually served to confirm their Indian identity not just as members of a particular tribal nation, but in a Pan-Indian sense. This identity was strengthened not in the classroom but in their interactions with other Native students. This was especially so by the 1930s when many Native students, like Cal came to the boarding schools already speaking English and knowing little or nothing about their original tribal communities. […] They made use of the boarding schools as places where they would not be assimilated or acculturated […] but given the tools to adapt, survive, and even thrive. (319-20)
In Two Roads, Cal falls in with a gang of other Creek boys. Cal expands culturally and linguistically. One of the members leads them in stomp dances in the woods, which provides an opportunity to indulge yet another conversation on what it means to be Indian or of a certain tribe. Is it skin color? Tommy Wilson’s father is full-blood Muskogee Creek like Cal’s dad, but his mother is Norwegian and Tommy has her white looks. Unlike Cal, he was raised in a Creek community and raised as Indian. It was only after Tommy persists and is able to offer new dances (cultural information), that the Creek boys would allow him access.
While Cal does struggle with questions of identity, with homesickness and worry for his pop, troubles at school are resolved pretty quickly. He’s a quick learner, he has amazing friends (the best of which he meets the first day), and he has access to things and information that he needs to not only survive but to thrive.
The narrative seems to gives Cal a fairly gentle time of it, but it isn’t willing to excuse what is wrong. For instance, the nicest white guy on campus is still inexcusable: The superintendent may not be into physical violence and theft like the last one, he is unapologetically racist and his words make impact.
In such a harsh landscape that is 1932 in the United States, there are good people doing good. Cal clings to his father and his father shows him how to not only survive, but find friendship, joy, and a sense of self-possession; Cal finds friends who can offer him that same kind of companionship at boarding school. And it feels all the more vital due to the threats of erasure, starvation, physical violence, and other countless indignities.
Bruchac writes a story of a boy who will find his way despite the best and worst intentions of those in positions of authority. Cal finds a community who looks out for one another, often advocating for one another and sharing their resources. I think young readers will appreciate the camaraderie and the determination the heroes in this novel demonstrate. Two Roads is timely and timeless.
Recommended for those interested in Native American History, US History: Depression Era or post-WWI. I think it will appeal to curious readers who like hearing people’s stories, particularly those non-fiction readers. Also, readers of classics, who are likely to catch or approve of the references. I’ll be recommending this one to my dad.