by Emy Farley
First came the colonizers, then came the priests. With each new wave of settlers to the New World arrived both opportunity and destruction; both harm and hope stepped ashore. The men who journeyed from Europe to North America believed they were doing God’s work by claiming this new land, by saving the souls of the barbarians they’d found in camps and huts, worshipping Nature, by readying the path for a glorious new empire. The priests brought food, clothing, and Everlasting Life to Native Americans, but along with this salvation came deceit, disease, death, and separation.
Diane Glancy seeks to flesh out this complicated relationship between the saviors and the saved in her latest work of historical fiction, The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha. In this slim yet fulfilling novel, Glancy tells a story of a young Mohawk girl, Kateri Tekakwitha, after the arrival of smallpox to her camp. Her parents and brother die in the 17th-century outbreak, leaving Kateri orphaned, badly scarred, and nearly blind. She is isolated, lonely, and in need of a guiding hand. When the Jesuit priests arrive, she quickly embraces their message and follows them in pursuit of Christianity. Torn between the legacies of her mother’s Christianity and her father’s traditional Mohawk beliefs, Kateri makes the decision to convert and leaves for the Jesuit mission to begin her new life as a Christian.
The Reason for Crows is structured in short, journal-like entries written by Kateri and the Jesuit priests. Glancy’s skillful renderings question not only the “rightness” or “wrongness” of faith, but also the true motives of the priests who brought Christianity to the New World. Did they truly come to save the “savages” they found? Or did they come to scavenge off the sins of others? “I was to smooth the way for colonization,” laments one priest. Instead, he finds himself frustrated by overwhelming failure.
Once she arrives at the Jesuit mission, Kateri studies Christianity intensely, and eventually begins a journey of self-mortification in an effort to assuage the sins of her tribe. Though the priests call her Katherine, she still refers to herself as Kateri, and openly practices many of the traditional Mohawk rituals she grew up performing; “the priests tolerated some of our old ways.” Kateri still does her beading, still toils in ceremonial planting while singing the song of the digging sticks and burning tobacco so the smoke “takes our words to God.”
Glancy utilizes the image of the crow throughout, on the first page describing the bird as a scavenger. “Black birds gathered waiting for our death. I felt the birds peck my face.” Just a page later, the crow becomes an image of holiness: “He sent his son, Jesus, to become a crow on the cross.” And throughout the rest of the book, the priests are repeatedly identified as the crows, their words becoming “their cawings.” Thus, the crows go from scavenger to savior, from menace to monk.
Many readers may find this image uncomfortable, even blasphemous, but Glancy’s skillful manipulation of the comparison is thought provoking. “What if they knew they could approach God on their own?” asks Father Chauchetiere. Tired of reaping the rewards of failure, the priests take to scavenging for success.
The Reason for Crows, though short, is a complex and deceptively heavy novel. Glancy uses striking imagery in overlapping and contradicting ways to ask engaging and still-relevant questions of her reader. No two people who have witnessed the same event will tell the exact same story, and Glancy handles the different perspectives, tones, and experiences of each narrator very carefully, constructing a version of history that is believable and intelligent. While certainly not the first book to address colonial religious oppression and its long-reaching consequences—Louise Erdrich’s artful Tracks comes readily to mind—The Reason for Crows is a compelling, engaging, and well-written addition to the genre.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009