Readergirlz Roundtable: Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell
Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: The Corpse Bride score music
Lorie Ann Grover: I'm very proud that rgz is celebrating Native American Heritage Month! Many thanks to Cynthia Leitich Smith for drawing our attention to this wonderful celebration. I recently had a delightful time meeting with the staff of the American Indian Library Association at the Summer ALA Conference. And rgz is currently working hand in hand with If I Can Read I Can Do Anything, a national reading club for Native American children. They are our partners for TBD 2010! More about that soon. Now, we give our thanks to Marlene Carvell for this beautiful literary contribution, Sweetgrass Basket!
Little Willow: Ladies, welcome to the roundtable for Sweetgrass Basket, the story of two sisters who, despite their different personalities and perceptions, share a very strong bond. I'm here with fellow postergirl Shelf Elf and readergirlz co-founders Dia Calhoun and Lorie Ann Grover. Are you ladies similar to either of the main characters, Mattie or Sarah?
Dia Calhoun: I certainly have elements of both sisters, the shy Sarah and the more bold Mattie. When I was Mattie's age I was more like Mattie--wanted to confront the whole world, couldn't bear injustice. Once, when a teacher of mine was picking on another girl, I raised my hand and said, "why do you always pick on Renee?" The teacher was furious--she had always liked me. She said, "You'd better be careful or you'll be in the same boat!" Can you believe that? There are people like Mrs. Dwyer in this world.
Shelf Elf: Brave little Dia! Wow. That took guts. As you say, it's hard to believe that the world has real Mrs. Dwyers.
Little Willow: Go Dia! I too have always spoken up when I feel as if something is wrong, or someone is being treated unjustly. I'm very outgoing and outspoken, like Mattie.
Lorie Ann: As a child, I was shy like Sarah, but I had my Mattie moments, too! I can't go into the details (EEK!) but I stood up to two adults and told them exactly what I thought and what they should do. Chaos resulted! Oh, and there was the time my teacher put up a poster that I thought was risque. So I made paper clothes to cover the model and reported the teacher to the principal. The poster came down. Maybe I'm more Mattie than I realize...
Shelf Elf: As a child, I was more like Sarah, I think. I might have perceived wrong doing, but I would have been frightened to speak my mind. The grown-up Shelf Elf is a lot more like Mattie. I won't keep my opinions to myself in a situation where something unjust is taking place.
Little Willow: I just realized that nearly all of today's roundtable participants have sisters. My sister and I were very close growing up, even though eleven years separate us. I'm the younger - and louder! - of the two. Is your relationship with any of your siblings similar to Mattie and Sarah's relationship?
Dia: My sister and I have a different sort of relationship than Mattie and Sarah had. We were never so close growing up. We are close now, though, as adults.
Shelf Elf: Both my sister and I were quiet kids, especially in the face of someone overbearing or mean. Today, we're both way more opinionated. I think that has brought us closer as adults. I like to think that even though we weren't especially close as children, if we had been forced into a situation like Mattie and Sarah, I think we would have drawn together for comfort.
Lorie Ann: I'm the one without sisters! Of course I have my rgz. They snug up around me with support constantly. I love how Marlene portrayed Mattie and Sarah's relationship. So much was really internal. They stood next to each other, but they communicated verbally in a limited way. We were just privy to their thoughts, so we know what they were truly feeling. And of course their actions were telling. Like how Sarah brought the basket for Mattie. My brothers have stood beside me in the same way. Sometimes a multitude of words aren't necessary.
Little Willow: I am by no means a world traveler, but each of you has gone abroad to study, work, travel, or live for an extended time. Have any of you lived in a place where the dominant language and culture were not your own? How did you feel when you first arrived?
Dia: I did travel to Europe right out of college--what a shock that was. Nothing had prepared me for the cultural differences, the language differences, the inability to communicate, the uncertainty of never knowing where I was going to sleep at night in a strange country. I can say that I loathed it. I couldn't wait to get home. I simply wasn't properly prepared for the experience. Now, I would love to go back, but I would have a very careful itinerary planned out so that I wasn't running through dark city parks in London at midnight only to find the hostel closed for the season. Yikes!
Shelf Elf: I've traveled to places where the language was not my own. At first, I feel this general sense of anxiety, constantly aware that I'm different and in a way, vulnerable. It usually has to do with the fact that I can't ask for what I want or need (I'm always worried about the next meal!) After a while, once I've experienced a little generosity from residents, I feel a bit better, but still very dependent on the kindness and patience of others.
Lorie Ann: Oh, yes! My first year of marriage was in Korea. However, there I could find an English speaking community. Whenever I ventured out though, I felt extremely isolated. Puerto Rico was the same. There the church I attended was conducted in Spanish. I felt so lost when everyone else was connected in such a vital way. All the children in Sweetgrass Basket had my heart.
Little Willow: How did your worldview change while you were there? What realizations did you have when you came back home?
Shelf Elf: When I come back home from my travels, I often have a sense of being pretty small, in the grand scheme. I don't find that a bad thing. In a way, it's sort of reassuring, the idea that there's so much out there other than me, that matters. It makes me less self-absorbed and takes me out of myself. I like that.
Dia: My greatest cultural shock came during a visit to Hong Kong. There, unlike Europe, I actually LOOKED different from everyone else. And I was taller, too. It gave me empathy for what minorities experience in this country.
Lorie Ann: I came back appreciative, more communicative, and more understanding of others making their new home here.
Little Willow: The title, Sweetgrass Basket, refers to a beautiful basket woven by the girls' mother. Do you have any precious handcrafted mementos from your parents or siblings?
Shelf Elf: My husband designed a necklace for me soon after we had just met. It was meant to show a harp string, and the way that it vibrates. At the time I was studying the harp and it was a huge part of my life. It meant a lot to have something completely unique from him.
Little Willow: Oh, how lovely!
Dia: I have a beautiful bit of tatted lace from my grandmother that I treasure. In fact this lace, and its origin, was an inspiration for the current book I am writing.
Lorie Ann: My house is full of possessions of my relatives. But I suppose it would be the quilts. Those have pieces of my great grandparent's and grandparent's clothes stitched into them.
Little Willow: While reading this book, what other books came to mind?
Dia: I thought of Jane Eyre in her early days at the boarding school, with the cruel teachers.
Shelf Elf: I thought of Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf, about the Lebensborn centers in Nazi Germany. The main character in that novel is a girl who is forced to assimilate into a culture different from her own.
Lorie Ann: I thought of Charles Dickens' Oliver. But the movie that came to mind was Rabbit-Proof Fence from 2002. Oh, everyone must see it! Like Sweetgrass Basket, it's based on truth and rings with warning and the resilience of the human spirit! Go watch it!
Little Willow: What did you learn from Sweetgrass Basket?
Dia: I learned, on a deep gut level, how horrible it is to be uprooted as a child from one's home and culture, and thrown into the midst of a group of unkind people who hold very great power over you. And yet, there is always, somewhere, a speck of kindness. Even in Mattie and Sarah's story.
Shelf Elf: It's not exactly something I learned solely through the book, more that it was reinforced by this story: a child's courage and risk-taking in a desperate situation is all the more amazing because a child is nearly always vulnerable.
Lorie Ann: I had never read a novel which unveiled the practice of assimilating Native Americans into boarding schools where their culture was stripped away. It was painful and saddening.
Dia: Did you think Sarah's final act of destroying Mrs. Dwyer's brooch a heroic act? Sarah was so timid that for her to do this was huge in her character arc. At first I was disappointed that she didn't have the others witness her destroying the brooch. But after I thought about it awhile, I saw that was more something that Mattie would have done. For Sarah, it was enough of a triumph and change that she simply destroyed the brooch on her own. She broke out of her mold and fear of being good.
Shelf Elf: Absolutely. I thought it was also very true to her character that she did it without anyone knowing about it. The act was for her and her sister, and so she didn't need to show the world her choice.
Lorie Ann: Yes, Shelf Elf! It reminds of the scene in Titanic, when Rose drops the necklace into the sea. And no one knows...
Dia: I wondered how Mr. Davis knew the sweetgrass basket belonged to Mattie. Maybe I missed that part?
Little Willow: Ooh, I wonder . . .
Lorie Ann: I think Mr. Davis knew everything going on. Thankfully. A sweet soul in the midst of trial: let's be thankful for those souls!
Little Willow: Yes, indeed.
Lorie Ann: Thanks again, Marlene, for such a beautiful composition of truth and beauty. Now, let's chat together through Native American Heritage Month!
Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell is the readergirlz book pick for November 2009. To learn more about the book and the author, visit www.readergirlz.com starting November 1st, when the new issue goes online!
To discuss the book with other readers, drop by readergirlz.blogspot.com daily throughout November.
Read my review of Sweetgrass Basket.