Holding Our World Together by Brenda Child (thoughts)
When I saw the subtitle of Brenda Child’s Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community, I couldn’t resist requesting it from Netgalley (also, contrary to what you might expect, it’s published by Penguin rather than a university press). I love history that looks at marginalised people, as well as historians who share the day-to-day details of life in the past. Child does both, and I’m happy to say I had a very enjoyable reading experience. The book is arranged chronologically, which is an easy-to-follow format, and I never felt confused or lost or bogged down in details.
My favourite bits were the early chapters, when Child describes the traditional life of Ojibwe women, from the vision quest rite of passage they went through when they began menstruating to their communal making of maple sugar and harvesting of wild rice. I felt as if I was right there with them, and Child skillfully interwove first-hand accounts with her own writing. Later, as the fur-traders arrived, I was quite intrigued by how the cultures began mixing; Ojibwe women were usually the ‘link,’ often in the form of wives, and several of them went on with their French husbands to create extensive trading businesses. Of course, as the chapters went on, the story became darker; as the US government, with its patriarchal culture, began to interfere more and more, Child traces how this led to Ojibwe women losing many of their traditional roles. For instance, during the Great Depression, the government was so keen to get men working that it set them up as wild rice harvesters, completely oblivious to the women who had always done that work. And of course, as more white Americans invaded Ojibwe land, their traditional way of life and natural food sources began to be thrown off balance; between this and some truly chilling decisions by US government ‘indian agents’ (white men hired to work with the Native Americans), the Ojibwe began to experience hunger and even starvation. She also looks at the effect of the US government sending as many children as possible to boarding school; for girls, these schools existed to teach them how to be domestic servants, and many of their ‘lessons’ involved doing chores around the school. In telling this more recent history, Child continues to use a variety of sources in a skillful manner; I always found the stories compelling. That being said, my favourite aspect of the early chapters, the description of day-to-day life, falls a bit by the wayside, which I think is a shame.
Still, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys what might be called ‘people’s history’: it’s engaging, slim, and lets the reader peek into the lives of Ojibwe women, both past and present. I’ll definitely be looking for Child’s earlier book, Boarding School Seasons. And I’ll also be investigating the Penguin Library of American Indian History, which is the series for which Holding Our World Together was published.
Suggested Companion Reads
- The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (If you’re interested in day-to-day activities of women in the past, this book is an excellent account of historic New England and the women who lived there. It’s primarily focused on Europeans, but Ulrich also includes a bit about the Native American and African American women.)
- Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich (A fascinating travelogue by a modern Ojibwe author travelling around their historic territory.)
- Death at Rainy Mountain by Mardi Oakley Medawar (I debated whether or not to include this, since Medawar is of Cherokee descent and this book is about the Kiowa of north Texas; I don’t want anyone to think I lump all Native Americans together. But, one of the things what I love about Medawar’s mystery series (this is the first one) is how vividly she describes everyday life for nineteenth century Kiowa. So I can’t leave it off!)