The Way I Was Taught
Reviewed by: Ed Bennett
Despite the cat fighting between science and religion, we have lived in a scientific world since the Industrial Revolution. We flip a switch and there is light, depend on machines for transportation and communication and generally expect to understand, at least basically, how things work.
Before this flowering of scientific thought humanity lived in a more spiritual world, not unlike the so-called primitive cultures found in remote regions of this planet. Native American cultures have been struggling with this problem almost since the landing at Plymouth Rock. The need for Christianity to “convert the heathens” has led to the suppression of their beliefs on both American Continents.
The Way I Was Taught centers on this struggle. What sets it apart from most other literature dealing with this theme is that it does not take place in the American West of two centuries ago. The plot is set in the 1950s in Bethlehem, NY, a small town near Albany.
Hunter is nine years old, the son of a Protestant minister and a mother from a wealthy Philadelphia Main Line family. This is the first of many divisive situations where Hunter finds himself. His father serves several congregations, one of which is the Onondowaga reservation, and is able to provide just the basics for his family. Unfortunately, his maternal grandparents have severed their relationship with their daughter in part for her poor choice for a husband and because of his dealings with the tribe. This is only one of many situations where Hunter is pulled between opposing forces.
An accident nearly kills Hunter’s mother, causing her to be hospitalized. Hunter’s father temporarily leaves him in the care of his uncle, a Catholic priest who runs a state orphanage. This is another area where the tug of war between opposing factions effects Hunter. The father, a Protestant and the uncle, a Catholic, do not have a good relationship. There is much bitterness over the religious differences but it is at this point that true undercurrents of the family’s differences begin to show. Somehow, Hunter’s father has estranged his Catholic side of the family with an unnamed affront having to do with the tribe.
Hunter’s time in the orphanage is difficult because of his uncle’s cruel taunts, something he reserves especially for Hunter and the Onodowaga children in the orphanage. When the difficulties come to a head between the two cousins, Minnie One Knife, a housekeeper at the orphanage, offers to take Hunter into her own home. She is a member of the Protestant congregation and a friend to Hunter’s father. It is at this point that the divisions tearing at Hunter lessen.
To the prim world of his mother’s family, Hunter is seen as a “dreamer” yet his father sees this as a creative side. Moving in with the One Knife family strengthens his creativity and soon he has visions of spirits who are revered and feared by the Onodowagas. This, of course, leads to additional strife between Hunter’s father and his mother’s family. By now, Hunter’s parents are divorced with his mother living with her parents in Pennsylvania. Hunter lives with his father but his in-laws intend to contest that, openly questioning the influence of the One Knife family on their grandchild.
The difference in the households becomes apparent in their treatment of Hunter. He is an outsider to his mother’s family, a child living in the semi poverty of a minister’s house and raised by the tribe. To some extent, he is also an outsider to the One Knife family but they allow him to take part in tribal rituals and teach him the secrets of the forest around them. Perhaps the biggest difference in the families are their response to tragedy. Hunter’s mother suffers her accident because of his disobedience, allowing a bull to get loose on their farm. The bull gores his mother, disfigures her and Hunter is constantly reminded of his transgression by everyone except his father and the Onodowagas. Years later, when an oversight on Hunter’s part leads to a tragic drowning of one of Minnie’s grandchildren, Hunter is again reminded of his mother’s accident and begins to back away from the One Knife family. In his depression, Minnie approaches him and explains that yes, it was a tragedy but it was ordained by the spirits in the forest and that her grandchild rests in a better place. The tragedy of the death is borne by the entire community and there is no individual who is singled out for blame.
The climax of this story is the attempt by his maternal grandfather, a powerful judge in Pennsylvania, to remove Hunter from his father’s custody. What was to be a friendly meeting quickly devolves into an assault on Hunter by his grandfather. When the situation clears, Hunter, newly emerged from the hospital, no longer needs to worry about being forced to live in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, he is of an age where young Onodowaga men are sent from their family to make their own way in the world. Despite the fact that the One Knife family is still there for him, he feels abandoned. It is then that he learns the identity of a “spirit” who sings to him during his explorations in the forest as well as the “secret” shared by his father and Minnie One Knife.
The Way I Was Taught looks at the relations between Native Americans and the rest of us through the eyes of a young boy. There is an innocence in Hunter with respect to his relationships with the Onodowaga children. He sees no real differences between them and his own family and does not understand the actions of his family, particularly his uncle, when they become abusive toward the tribe. The undercurrent of what it means to be an American runs through this book and it offers an interesting slant on the present issue of immigration. Who are the immigrants? Who owns this land? Hunter receives no answers from the Onodowagas, just a direction to live his life.
While the events portrayed in this book are three generations in the past, they are very much alive today. It was just a short time ago that I experienced racial slurs directed at Apache residents of Sedona, AZ. while at a bed and breakfast. Their problem was that Apaches seemed to spend all their time driving around in their trucks and herding sheep. I mentioned that where I came from that was called “ranching” and a pall descended at the breakfast table.
The Way I Was Taught is an interesting book. More so, it is an important book in that it discusses White-Native American divide and the damage it causes for children generation after generation.