A historical novel focusing on five families whose attempts at forging a life in the Pennsylvania wilderness are complicated by the dangers of the French and Indian War. 1981.
My reading schedule this week was interrupted by an intense bout of head pain. The pain is thankfully on the mend, and I am most thankful because when I was feeling unwell, reading was impossible. Juniata Valley sat on my bedside table all the while, those final 50 pages haunting me, calling to me, teasing me…
And finally I’m well enough to be able to finish. Whew! My suggestion for this book is that once you start reading it, do yourself a favor and don’t allow anything to interrupt the experience. It’s a powerful book, full of early American history, good characters, and some really solid, old-fashioned morals.
Juniata Valley is about, well the Juniata Valley, which was once the Pennsylvania frontier. The characters in this story are the tough kind, the kind who choose to leave the comforts of civilization and literally hack their way through the forest. When the novel opens in the mid 1750s, these tough folks have established their farms and gotten to know their far-flung neighbors. In addition to maintaining the precarious balance of man vs. nature, these settlers must contend with another serious threat: the local Indian tribes.
The novel open with John Graves, a settler, who’s returning from a trip to a nearby salt lick, accompanied by his neighbor. These two men are nervous and in a hurry to return home. They’ve left their families gathered together at one of the farms, with the hope that if the Indians do attack—which is a constant threat these days—the fortified farm will be able to defend itself.
But when they’re almost back home, John’s horses get spooked by a bear and take off through the woods. In time John gathers his horses and returns home, his neighbor having gone on ahead.
What John finds at the farm is complete destruction. There was a massacre only hours ago, right when his neighbor returned. John forces himself to check the corpses, but finds among them neither his wife nor daughter. It seems they’ve been taken captive. Delirious with despair, John makes his way to the nearest military fort, where he reports the massacre and loss of his family.
The opening chapter focuses on the Graves family, and subsequent chapters focus on other families. In total Juniata Valley focuses on five families, all of them attacked by Indians on the warpath. Many family members die in these attacks. But there are some who escape, such as the mother who grabs her two youngest children and, while the rest of her family is slaughtered, escapes into the woods. They survive the night, and in the morning, they leave the woods in search of food. In the process, the mother sets her infant down in a field and promptly forgets where she laid the child. When the militia arrives, they find the mother frantically searching the field, her adrenaline reserves drained and hysteria setting in.
Then there are those who are taken captive by the Indians and adopted into the village as either blood brothers or children, given to an Indian family as retribution for an Indian child that was killed by the British. The youngest paleface children become thoroughly integrated into the tribe. But for the older captives, such as the young mother who’s taken away from her husband and newborn, things are even more complicated. They realize they must learn the tribe’s language and show respect for its culture. In time, they might even find friends or marry. And yet, how can they love the Indians who killed and scalped their family, and who will torture the captives if they try to return to their own people?
In the first half of the book equal attention is paid to those taken captive and those who escape. I admit that I was particularly engrossed in the stories of the captives, which the author does a superb job of portraying. (For those curious, author Virginia Cassel has a professional background in Indian affairs. This is obvious when reading Juniata Valley, as it reflects a huge amount of historical and cultural understanding.) The second half of the book focuses more on the lives of the people living in the military forts, where all the settlers eventually congregate for protection. The final section is heavily militaristic, as it describes the events that broke down the Indian-French ties, and therefore meant a release of tension between the British and Indians.
I was a little disappointed I didn’t get to read more about those captives (and imagine Dances with Wolves-type scenes). But as a whole the book is still engaging, vivid, and highly educational. Again, why don’t teachers have their students read books like this, rather than reading (or pretending to read) those dry history textbooks? It’s novels like Juniata Valley that make history feel relevant and real.
It helps that Cassel’s writing is flawless, and the entwining of the various plot lines is practically seamless. I’d like to give you an excerpt here as proof, but I’m not sure such qualities can be represented by a few lines. Like Cimarron and Each Bright River, this is a book about people who venture into new territory to fashion a new kind of life for themselves. Unlike those other books, however, Juniata Valley is populated by humble people with very little “book learnin’”—the majority of them are totally illiterate. They don’t make speeches or philosophize on their purpose in life. No one is purely a saint, nor is anyone purely a sinner. They’re just people who want to farm, be good neighbors, and live to see their children grown.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction and Western or pioneer stories, then I’d say this one belongs right at the top of your list. Let’s get this deserving author and book some more attention! As they say in Juniata Valley, “Much obliged to ya.”