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Impression and Expression in “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea”

Impression and Expression in “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea”

  • Our review of Debra Magpie Earling's new novel, "The Lost Journals of Sacajewea."

Of all the people who ever lived, only a tiny proportion have their names remembered by history. And even when someone’s name is remembered, celebrated, taught in the history books, the knowledge of who that person actually was—not just a name we recognize—is elusive.

This is particularly true of women in history, and even more true of women of color, whose stories, if they were preserved at all, have been heavily filtered and shaped by the priorities of those in power. The most widely disseminated transcription of Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech was rendered in a folksy speaking style that historians now agree she didn’t use; the story of Pocahontas has been presented as the romantic tale of a “princess” who saved the life of an important white man, not the unfortunate story of a young woman captured and held captive by the colonists as a bargaining chip, then eventually presented in England as a “civilized savage” to solicit donations in support of the colonies, until illness cut her life short at the tender age of 21.

Because the historical record fails these women, if we want to tell their stories, fiction is often the only option. We can’t reconstruct exactly what their lives were like. But we can draw on records of other kinds, and synthesize, and imagine.

The woman whose untold story gets a fictional telling in The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling is, of course, the Shoshone woman who served as a translator and guide on Lewis and Clark’s expedition across America in 1804. She is arguably the most famous Native woman in American history, and hers is one of the most likely names for American children to learn in school. Yet even her name is not truly known. In history books It’s most often rendered Sacagawea; Lewis and Clark spell it eight different ways in their writings, including Sakakawea and Sacajewea. Some sources claim the name is a Shoshone name (Sacatzahweyah) that might mean “boat-pusher” or “burden”, others that it means “bird woman” in the language of the Hidatsa, an enemy tribe that took the young woman captive from her tribe of origin.

So, not even knowing what she was called or why, could we possibly know who she really was? Only through a fictional lens, which is where The Lost Journals of Sacajewea comes in. It’s an impressionistic, poetic account, one that vividly renders external hardships and internal thoughts, giving equal weight to each.

The novel isn’t likely to satisfy those looking for a traditional narrative. The way Earling unfolds the title character’s story is far more interesting and creative. Broken into short chapters with titles like “Days of Enemy ache” and “Night of too soon dark,” the story lingers on scenes of emotional impact without much connective tissue to tell the reader how much time has passed or where the action is taking place. This way of telling the story seems highly appropriate for centering a woman who surely thought about the world, and interacted with it, in a very different way than most of the book’s likely readers. An author’s note in the beginning explains Earling’s unconventional use of punctuation and capitalization in telling Sacajewea’s story. It doesn’t take long to get used to either. (“Sleep is a Badger snuffling outside the skin of our Lodge.”)

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Those seeking a day-by-day account of Sacajewea’s activities assisting Lewis and Clark won’t find it here. This, too, seems appropriate. The exploits that landed her name in the history books were only a small part of the life the real Sacajewea led, and they are only a small—though obviously important—part of this story. The book begins in her tribe of origin, the Shoshone, before her abduction by the Hidatsa. Because of Earling’s choice of writing style, it can be hard to tell if a capitalized proper noun refers to a living person, a dead person, a spirit, an animal, or some combination thereof. Some readers may struggle with this; others may use the opportunity to ask how much it matters what category a thing of a particular name occupies. What matters isn’t really who Pop Pank is, but who she is to Sacajewea, and how much her presence or absence means to Sacajewea’s mental state.

For a book that eschews traditional narrative and conventions of time, The Lost Journals of Sacajewea delivers a surprisingly powerful, satisfying ending. But overall, this isn’t a book about events. It doesn’t focus on what happened or when. Instead, it delivers a uniquely thorough perspective on the mind of a particular young woman, both ordinary and extraordinary. In this way, we come to understand Sacajewea more deeply—certainly more than we understand the men of famous names like Lewis and Clark. lt’s a book to enjoy like a river: you give yourself over to it and follow where it takes you.

The Lost Journals of Sacajewea
By Debra Magpie Earling
Milkweeds Editions
Published May 23, 2023

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  • Note: The true story of Pocahontas, as I understand it, is far from being as pitiful as you make it sound. You’re correct in noting that her father was an important Native chief who refused to pay ransom when the English captured his daughter in exchange for it. She cleverly used her time in a small colonial prison building to learn English, and must have managed to charm her captives greatly. She was very young when John Rolfe married her, giving her a bargaining chip indeed, and a voice in the bargain. Yes, she lost her life in England when her immune system encountered foreign germs, but as she said to her grieving husband, “It’s enough that our son will live.”

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