Monday, August 1, 2011

Hidden Roots by Joseph Bruchac

I read this book in the late winter/early spring but I'm just now posting a review of it for a reason.  I work with a group called the Baltimore Dakota Learning Camps, more specifically with the Hau Kola Teen Camp in Oglala. This was my third consecutive year to work with the Teen Camp, and my 7th year overall.  My role is two fold: to lead a book discussion with all the teens and to help those teens who decide to work with the leadership group to design a puppet show/play for subsequent elementary and/or preschool camps.  For this year's camp I chose this book for discussion.  Because we only have 4 days with the group and we are never sure who all is going to come until they actually arrive at the building, the teens don't get the books ahead of time to read.  My charge is to select sections that can be read aloud in the time allotted and come up with discussion & journaling questions that are challenging, culturally sensitive, and age-appropriate.  As a non-Native person, this is something I take very seriously.

Obviously, I would not have chosen this book if I didn't think it wasn't appropriate or a "good" book.  While the book is set in rural, upstate New York in the 1950s and the protagonist is a young teen, the issues that the book addresses are still relevant today, particularly with the teens that the camp works with: prejudice, personal identity, cultural identity, physical abuse, and the importance of family.  I'll admit, when it came time to create a book discussion guide I tried the easiest way first - looking up other ones online and culling questions from those.  Unfortunately, the only two I could find were obviously aimed at non-Native adults.  So I forged ahead and wrote my own.

The good news is that the feedback I received from the other staff members was overwhelmingly positive - the read aloud selections were spot on, the discussion questions were great, and the journaling questions resulted in some deep sharing from the teens.  As this was the first book discussion guide I have ever written all on my own from scratch, this made me feel very accomplished both professionally and personally.  I've posted the discussion guide here.  It's going to make the post really long but I can't attach it as its own document.  It is free to all and anyone can adjust it to meet their own needs.  However, if you do use it, I would like to know about it so I can report this professionally.     

*Note: Because this book is frequently out-of-print, the copy that I obtained might not be the same copy you have.  Thus, the page numbers may not align completely. 

Hau Kola Teen Camp 2011
Book Discussion Read Aloud Sections & Possible Discussion Questions

Three main themes to focus on:
·       the respect & reverence shown to nature & the environment
·       domestic violence/child abuse
·       the power of family & forgiveness

Read aloud p. 3-8 (top half)
Q: On page 4 Howard says “I’d been taught that it was not good to sleep too heavily. Otherwise you might get crept up on.”  What do you think this means for Howard?

Follow-up or other prompts:
Do you think Howard is afraid of something and that’s why he sleeps light?  If yes, then what?    
What other things in this section tell you that there’s something wrong?

Q: A boy at school tries to start a fight with Howard.  Why did that boy do that?

Q: Howard knows that the other kids want to see a fight but decides he doesn’t want to “give them that satisfaction.” (pg.6)  Why do you think Howard didn’t want to fight – what does he mean by not wanting to give them that satisfaction?  

Journaling questions:
·        Have you ever gotten in a fight or have you ever walked away from one?  Why or why not?
·        Is it wrong to fight?  Why or why not?
·        Howard knows his mother, Martha, is different from the other mothers at school.  His mother tells him (pg.8) that other mothers may not have lived through “the no-matter-what” like she has.  What does “no-matter-what” mean to you? 

Read aloud p. 12 – 14
Q: Howard’s father, Jake, tries to make him scared of the big paper mill machines so he’ll learn something.  What do you think Jake is trying to teach him?

Journaling questions:
On page 14 Howard makes himself three promises, “I will never as long as I live work in the mill.  I won’t be one of those turning what’s wild and free into napkins and toilet paper.  I will never be as angry as my father.”
·        What kind of promises like this have you made to yourself – to not be like somebody else or do what someone else has done?
·        These are kind of like small goals for your life – what goals do you have for your life?

Read aloud p. 19-25
Q: Howard’s father feels that people look at him “funny” because he didn’t serve in the war like he was supposed to.  What do you think “funny” means?

Q: Would you say Jake is bitter? 

Journaling questions:
·        Why is Howard’s father angry and sometimes abusive? 
·        Does he have a good reason to be angry and sometimes abusive?
·        “The mind that was twisted by anger or grief or shame, can be made straight again.”  Do you think people that are as bitter as Jake can change?

Read aloud p. 31-35, 55-59
Q: Both of these sections, particularly the second one, relate some very heavy prejudice.  This was a common way of thinking in the 1950s & 60s.  Do you think this prejudice still exists today?  If so, what can any of us do to get rid of this way of thinking?

Read aloud p. 61-66
Q: Who do you think Uncle Louis really is, not what his relationship to Howard is, but his heritage?  (He’s Native – Abenaki) Why do you think Uncle Louis asks Howard to come along to greet the morning? 

Q: On page 66 Howard asks if it’s okay to be “acting like Indians” and Uncle Louis says yes, as long as no one sees them.  Why do you think they have to do this in secret?

Journaling questions: When Howard goes back to school in the fall he decides it’s better if he goes unnoticed.  He doesn’t think he’s good looking, smart, or good at sports like other people in his class.  He says on p. 67, “I didn’t try that hard and hung back as much as I could.  It would have been worse to try real hard and make yourself noticed and then fail rather than just doing things halfheartedly or staying the background.” 

·        Have you ever felt this way?  If so, why?
·        What makes you want to try hard and do your best?
·        What things are you good at?  What things feel like they come naturally to you – sports, reading, writing, drawing, computers?

Summarize from page 66-109:
·        Howard starts to grow physically and turns out to be pretty good naturally in basketball.  He’s able to make some friends with the boys at school. 
·        Howard discovers the school library, which has a new librarian.  She helps Howard find some books that he really enjoys.
·        Winter comes and brings a chance for Howard to make some money with a friend by shoveling driveways and sidewalks for people in town.
·        Howard’s father finally becomes a hero by saving a new guy at the paper mill from getting pulled into one of the big machines, but he loses a couple fingers in the process.
·        Since Jake can’t work for a while, Uncle Louis continues to help out the family by Jake’s deer tags and doing occasional chores around their house. 
·        Mrs. Rosen, the school librarian tells Howard a little bit about her family history – that her parents were Jewish and sent her to the U.S. to escape Nazi Germany.

Have a staff member read p. 109 – 112, camper(s) pick up, read aloud p. 112- 119
Uncle Louis turns out to really be Howard’s grandfather, and relates the importance of family when he says (on p. 116), “Roots is what helps a tree to stand up against the wind. Your family is always your family.” 
Q: Who are your “root” family members?  Who helps you stay strong when times are tough? 

Summarize: Louis and his wife Sophie lived in Vermont when a law was passed granting doctors the ability to make decisions about who should not be allowed to have children any more.  Often the doctors would have free clinic visits to where Abenaki people lived, using this as a disguised opportunity to select people for operations.  Realizing that something was wrong with Sophie after one of these visits, Louis broke into a clinic and stole the medical records.  They figured out what had been done to Sophie but it was too late and there was a law. Sophie never recovered from the surgery and eventually died. 

Read aloud p. 126-129
Q: What words stand out to you in this final passage?  Why? 

Brief discussion on eugenics if time allows?    

Journaling questions:
·        What would you like to do to learn more about your roots?
·        What can you do to celebrate your heritage and culture?
·        Looking back at everything that Howard learns about himself – he’s good at basketball, he like to read, he’s a hard worker, he’s Abenaki – WHO ARE YOU?

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