28/03/2008

Drums of Change (by Janette Oke)

I first came across Janette Oke when we lived in the USA for a couple of years, back in the early 1990s. she is actually Canadian rather than American, but is a popular Christian fiction writer in America. Her stories tend to be fairly light, suitable for teenagers as well as adults, with a low-key Christian message that isn't too pushy or preachy.

'Drums of Change' is one of her books which I hadn't previously read. It's set in the province of Alberta in Canada, in the late 1880s, when white people were starting to settle, and life became more difficult for the Native 'Indian' tribes.

Running Fawn is the main character in this book; we meet her when she is just six years old. Already she is a quiet, thoughtful girl who longs to sit and dream rather than fetching water for her mother all day. She loves her tribe's winter hideout, in the shelter of the mountains, and would love to stay there all year. But when Spring comes, they move to the plains, to hunt buffalo and to meet with other tribes for feasting and religious ceremonies.

Meanwhile a young and enthusiastic Christian called Martin Forbes has a strong calling to reach out to these people with the gospel message. He joins Running Fawn's tribe, learns the language, and adopts most of their customs; he also talks about God, and tries to help them understand that the Bible is not just for white men, but for everyone, whatever their skin colour or culture. And he starts a school for some of the children, to help them learn English, and to read, and to learn some of the things going on in the world, outside their locality and awareness.

Running Fawn is one of the children chosen for the school, and so is Silver Fox, the son of their chief. They both learn fast, and are then selected to go to a mission school many miles away. Silver Fox is delighted - he knows that it's important to understand white people, and their ways, if he is to lead the tribe in the future. But Running Fawn is devastated to be taken away from her family. Through her struggles to adjust over the next few years, she never forgets her home and loved ones, nor will she accept the God of the Bible.

That's just part of the story - it covers a ten-year span, ending when Running Fawn is sixteen. I thought it well-done - it didn't feel 'researched', but helped me know a little more about what life would have been like for the Native Canadians in those days of change. Running Fawn is a likeable character, full of questions and worries, yet obedient to the wishes of her parents and the tribal chief, as a young girl would have been.

The writing is crisp and the plot moves forward without undue description. The Christian message is clear, but without being preachy or pushy - or even spelled out clearly until a scene towards the end. There's no judgement either, of the sometimes stubborn and violent early tribes, or of the white people who tried both to help and to control. Martin and the people from the mission were sometimes ignorant, and made somewhat unreasonable assumptions, but their hearts were in the right cases, and they cared deeply about Running Fawn and her family.

Not the most thrilling of books - but I read it in a few hours, and enjoyed it on the whole. Recommended for anyone wondering what life might have been like in that period, or who wants a pleasant, undemanding light read for a wet weekend.

First published in 1996, but still in print in both UK and USA.

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