This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1987 winner, Streams to the River, River to the Sea by O’Dell.
Although O’Dell helped set up the award, he did not give it to himself. The winner was and continues to be named by a committee. In addition, O’Dell did not accept the cash prize. He donated it to the Children’s Book Council.
Incidentally, only two people have won the award twice–O’Dell and Louise Erdrich.
Streams to the River, River to the Sea is the story of Sacagawea, the very young Shoshone woman and mother, who was a guide and interpreter for the Corps of Discovery, led by Meriweather Lewis and William Clark, across the Upper Midwest and Northwest to the Pacific Ocean in the early 1800s.
1. Be as accurate as possible. Sacagawea’s real life was documented mostly in Lewis and Clark’s writings. So her story was told from their point of view. We don’t really know what she thought. We aren’t sure what the correct spelling or pronunciation is of her name. (I’m using the spelling used in the novel.) And what many people thought they knew about her later life probably isn’t true.
O’Dell wrote in his author’s note that Sacagawea lived to an old age and was buried in what’s now Wyoming. But by the mid-20th Century, research had shown she had likely died at Ft. Manuel (which is now part of the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota) in 1812 or 1813.
O’Dell did a good job showing how important Sacagawea was to the success of the Corps’ mission. Yet he did not show the Corps’ choosing of their winter camp site (Ft. Clatsop). Each member of the corps, including York (Clark’s black slave) and Sacagawea (female and Shoshone), had an equal vote!
2. Provide back matter. This should include bibliographical information, additional pertinent historical information, and explanations of what is factual versus what is fictional. O’Dell did use an author’s note which explained Lewis and Clark’s mission, and he named his sources. However, I would have appreciated more info. I think back matter is more common than it was nearly 30 years ago. I’m glad.
Since historical fiction is often used in school, it is an opportunity to give students resources for finding out more information and thinking critically. As a writer, I also like it when authors explain where and why they took artistic license for the sake of the story.
1. Tell a story. Historical fiction is not a biography. It’s a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and it usually has a main character who grows emotionally. Real life might be stranger than fiction, but it often doesn’t seem to make sense. A story must make sense.
O’Dell told an engaging story. The fictional Sacagawea starts as a strong girl, with little control over her life, who does what she can to make the best of her situation. The novel ends with a young woman who chooses to change her situation.
But to tell this story, O’Dell compressed time, created a romance between her and Clark, and gave Sacagawea a happy ending.
2. Focus on the protagonist. Even though the novel includes most of the Lewis and Clark’s trip, the novel begins with the day Sacagawea is taken from her home in the mountains by men from another tribe to their home territory next to the Missouri River, in what’s now North Dakota. Lewis and Clark don’t show up until the book is about half over. For the first half, Sacagawea is working on staying alive and trying to make the best of her slavery and forced marriage.
Then during the famous trek, we don’t see every day. We see days that are important to Sacagawea (except the Ft. Clatsop vote), how she contributes to the success of the trip, how she stands up for herself, and how she feels about the people around her.
3. Choose protagonist carefully. By telling Sacagawea’s story, O’Dell chose a well-known historical figure that already interested many people. This means a large readership. Plus, most of Sacagawea’s life was not documented, so there is room for fictionalization in parts of her life.
However, she was also such a well-known figure that readers notice and care if the story is inaccurate.
Novelists have a responsibility to make their characters as factual and authentic, for the characters’ time and place, as possible.
It’s a difficult balancing act to fictionalize someone famous. I think that’s why many historical fiction protagonists are fictional people who interact with the real people. There’s more freedom to tell the protagonists’ stories.
For more info about Sacagawea and my 3-year reading challenge, see:
Join me Jan. 27 for my next challenge book, the 2008 winner, Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis.
There are many books about Sacagawea. What are your favorite ones?