In Sweetgrass Basket, author Marlene Carvell weaves together the story of two Mohawk sisters, Mattie and Sarah, who have been sent to an off-reservation Native American Boarding School in the early 20th century. Written in prose-poetry and alternating voices between the two sisters, this heart wrenching novel follows the sisters’ emotional journey, as they work to protect their cultural heritage, their memories, and their love for each other. Marlene Carvell sat down for an interview with us at History Detectives this week, and we are so excited to meet her in person at our next Reading into History Book Club on November 24!
Warning: Marlene talks about some important plot details from the book. If you haven’t finished reading yet, come back later when you’re done.
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What was the initial inspiration for writing this novel?
Sweetgrass Basket is my second novel. In my first book, Who Will Tell My Brother?, one of the minor characters, the protagonist’s great-aunt Margaret, played an important role in his understanding of his Mohawk heritage. Aunt Margaret was a real person—my husband’s aunt, who attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School for four years before it closed in 1918; she then was transferred to another Indian school in Lawrence, Kansas.
She was sent away from home as a child and never returned until she was an adult. While many Indian children, specifically from western tribes, were literally stolen from their homes and taken to boarding schools, most tribes in the northeast were convinced to voluntarily send their children to the boarding schools, thinking that it would give them a better life. When my first novel won the International Reading Association Award for Intermediate Fiction, my agent encouraged me to continue my focus on Native American themes, as well as the emphasis on family. At that time, Aunt Margaret was my husband’s oldest living Mohawk relative; she became the ideal inspiration.
The way you write the book—prose-poetry and with alternating voices—allows the reader deep dive into the emotional lives of these two girls. Why did you choose to write your novel this way?
I have always loved poetry; it allows the writer to create images, focus on moments, and play with language in a way that is more difficult in conventional prose. The short, free verse scene was the style/structure I used in my first book, which began as a collection of free verse poems with the plot developing afterwards. I was so comfortable with that style that when I began Sweetgrass, I never even considered traditional prose. I split Aunt Margaret into two sisters to show both the passive and active reactions to the imposed lifestyle, and the short, free verse style entries made it easier to show many of the same scenes from the two different points of view.
As an educator, I also saw the free verse structure as a motivating tool for reluctant readers who are often overwhelmed by long, highly descriptive passages of prose and lengthy chapters. It works well with the classic advice to “show” rather than “tell.” One of my favorite reactions to my style was when a high school junior—who probably would have preferred to have been anywhere other than at the assembly where I was speaking—said, “I really liked this book.” When I asked why, he said, “It doesn’t have so many words on a page. I can do it.”
What sources did you use to research?
Family history (again, my husband’s family) provided the basic plot. Aunt Margaret and other family members had a wealth of stories about their individual experiences at boarding schools. Their stories gave me ideas for how to reflect the emotions of being away from home as well as the difficulties they experienced culturally. While not all experiences were traumatic, the common thread was that it was a sad and stressful time
Yet, to reflect the history accurately, I did have to do a lot research, which included visits to the Cumberland County Historical Society library where I could study records of the school as well as to the Carlisle School grounds, now home to the Army War College. The buildings were very much the same as they were when the school closed in 1918, and it helped me create the specific locations I focused on in the book. For example, the guardhouse was still intact—being able to visualize Mattie locked in it helped to ultimately create that very important scene. I also read many books on the Indian boarding schools throughout the United States as well those about the residential schools in Canada. A visit to the archives in Ottawa also helped to understand the historical significance of what was happening to indigenous cultures. A major primary source, however, were copies of the The Arrow, which was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School newspaper at the time when Aunt Margaret was there. They provided much insight into the day to day activities of the students as well as the overall structure of the school.
Did you find out anything surprising in your research that isn’t included in the novel?
“Distressing” might be a better word than surprising. I knew that life at the Indian Boarding schools was not easy, but I was unprepared to learn how many children died while there; and to learn that they were often buried on the school grounds, sometimes in unmarked graves, because parents could not afford to have the bodies sent home was even more distressing. However, since my target audience was as young as ages 10-12, I wanted to address the reality of the situation without overwhelming such young readers with the horrific nature of what often happened. Yes, Mattie dies, which in itself is tremendously sad, but her death allowed Sarah to develop as an individual, thus giving her death a purpose that, in reality, would probably not have been the case.
What did you find most difficult during the writing and research process?
History is generally episodic—one event leading to another and another, often on a parallel plane, sometimes resulting in a positive outcome, sometimes not. However, a good story needs a climactic moment, and historical fiction needs a resolution that is faithful to history but which, especially for the younger reader, shows some degree of hope for the protagonist. There were endless possibilities for showing life at the school, but finding the right climax and resolution was more difficult. It might seem simplistic, but I found myself “daydreaming” about how Sarah would avenge her sister’s death and how that would give hope to the reader that she was going to be okay.
Why historical fiction? How does writing relate to your career as an educator?
I love history. When we know where we’ve been, we have a better understanding of why we are the way we are today, both as individuals and as a society. Historical fiction allows the author to show the reality of a time period while playing with the dynamics of personality. Aunt Margaret was a very interesting person, but her story alone would have been a biography filled with interesting anecdotes. By letting her become both Sarah and Mattie, I was released from the required truth of biography and allowed to be more flexible with character development and plot, i.e. to embrace literary license, while still being faithful to the history.
Written by Ava Prince, Family Programs Educator