An Interview with Patricia Clark Smith about Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: In your collected biography As Long as the Rivers Flow, you profile nine Native Americans including Weetamoo. Was this profile of the Pocasset sachem the inspiration for the Royal Diary?
Patricia Clark Smith: In a way. I have long been fascinated with Weetamoo. My co-author and I had to fuss a bit to get Weetamoo in our book As Long as the Rivers Flow — there is so much already written about Pocahontas and Sacagawea, but those are the women non-Indians keep wanting to hear about! We won our case and our wonderful Scholastic editor, Ann Reit, really liked that chapter. Ann suggested I propose Weetamoo as a subject for the Royal Diaries series. I jumped at Ann's suggestion, even though I knew doing a Royal Diary about Weetamoo would present me with big-time problems, as you'll see below.
RFA & EST: Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets is unlike any of the other books you have written and, in fact, unlike any of the other Royal Diaries. What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Were there special problems you faced in writing this novel?
PCS: In some ways this book is unlike others I've written. But I see it very much as a piece of the other work that I have done. My two books of poetry tend to be pretty narrative — that is, the poems often relate stories. They are often about childhood and growing up in the natural world of rural New England. What I enjoyed most about the writing was the pleasure of reliving the progress of New England seasons from August through April.
The great challenge of this book was presenting a subject who didn't write or keep a diary in the ordinary sense of the Royal Diaries. This got me thinking about all kinds of "literacy"-oral history, pictographs, wampum belts, prayer, "reading" animal tracks, as well as the Wampanoag youngsters' curiosity about English writing. Another problem — or perhaps freedom — was that there is almost nothing known about Weetamoo's life prior to her marriage to Wamsutta so I could (had to) invent a great deal.
RFA & EST: You mention that you are of Micmac descent on both sides of your family. Would you tell us a bit about the Micmacs?
PCS: The Micmac are an Algonquin-speaking group who live mostly in Maine, New Hampshire, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec (where my own Micmac ancestors come from). Though lots of Micmac live here in the United States, there is no reservation on this side of the border. They have a long-standing reputation as splendid woodsmen, hunters, fishermen, and sailors. Henry David Thoreau's guides in The Maine Woods are Penobscot and Micmac Indians. There are stories of Micmacs capturing European sailing vessels and sailing them up and down the coast, jeering at the displaced crews. Right now there is a good deal of controversy in the United States and Canada about Micmac fishing and lobstering rights.
RFA & EST: How did reading your own girlhood diaries help you in writing Weetamoo's diary?
PCS: I was a much less focused 14-year-old than Weetamoo! It was surprising to look back and see how boy-crazy I was. In one entry I give equal weight to the Soviet Union launching Sputnik, the first space satellite, and this one boy smiling at me. But there are other entries where I catalog all the wildflowers I spotted on one August day, or relate everything I saw on a ten-mile bike ride to a weedy lake where my girlfriends and I went skinny-dipping. Mostly what I took from reading my own diaries was what I think of as a grown-up voice starting to emerge from the chaotic and narcissistic jumble of a young girl trying to keep track of herself.
RFA & EST: What was the most interesting or unusual thing you learned from the research you did for this book?
PCS: I guess you could say I've been doing research for this book all my life. This may sound prosaic, but the main thing I learned was how hard people worked to live, just from day to day. Even when times were peaceful, it wasn't easy. It was fun to figure out what the tribe/family would be doing at any given season.
RFA & EST: In your dedication you tell of going to your son's home in Seattle where you finished Weetamoo's birchbark drawings? Did you actually make drawings on birchbark?
PCS: I didn't do the drawings on birchbark, nor did I try to, though I know in theory how it is done. I just drew in pen and ink, and imitated old pictures I've seen of birchbark drawings, such as in Charles G. Leland's Algonquin Legends, reprinted from the 1884 book by Dover in 1992. I had a biology minor in college, and my favorite course was Animal Taxonomy and Ecology where we went on many field trips and learned to identify animal skulls, scat, and tracks, so my favorite drawing is on page 90…the one of the tracks the kids "read."
RFA & EST: There are many Native American words used in Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets. Tell us how you learned this language.
PCS: I'm flattered that you asked this question, but I do not know Wampanoag. I picked up words I needed from various publications from Plimoth Plantation and from Roger Williams' A Key Into the Languages of America. Our Wampanoag consultant, Edith Andrews, was a great help with Wampanoag words when I got them wrong. Many more words than people generally realize have come into the English language from the incredibly varied native languages of North and South America. A great book readers might want to consult is Charles Cutler's O Brave New Words (Oklahoma University Press, 1994). My favorite loan-word from Micmac, my own native language, is "moose," from téh'a móo seh ("he strips trees"). Micmac people called the moose téh-am for short, but Europeans heard the móo-seh part of it and used that.
RFA & EST: Storytelling is an integral part of Weetamoo's family. Who were the storytellers during your growing up years? What was your favorite story?
PCS: With Irish, French Canadian, and Micmac ancestry, ours is a very talky family. No one in my family was a storyteller in the traditional sense, but family stories, stories of immigration, the Depression, working in the Canadian woods, World War I and II, the McCarthy era — all were told. My mom said my favorite story when I was little was, maddeningly, The Three Billy Goats Gruff with its endless triplet repetitions. Our parents read to my brothers and me every single night. While we weren't well off, we had the library and books were a usual present at Christmas and holidays. As a child I loved poetry even more than fiction, and I memorized it and wrote it from the time I was four. I knew one or two Micmac stories, but I didn't come into my full Native American heritage that way until I was an adult.
RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of Weetamoo's diary one question after they finished the book, what would that question be?
PCS: Two questions, perhaps? First, how do you see Weetamoo changing and growing over the nine months of this story? Secondly, I'd ask has this book made you think any differently about Native Americans who lived during colonial times in New England?
RFA & EST: What would you like your readers to remember most about Weetamoo?
PCS: Like any writer, I wanted to bring to life a person, a time, a place. I hoped to show the full life and rich consciousness of a girl who would grow up to be a despised enemy of the New England colonists. I'd like my readers to remember Weetamoo's humanity, her feistiness, her loyalty to her family and her people, her curiosity, and her intelligence. If I had to choose one, I guess it would be her humanity.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.