The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow Discussion Guide
A book summary, discussion questions, and student activities related to the story of Navajo survival by author Ann Turner
- Grades: 3–5
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
Readers of The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita won't soon forget what it was like to be a twelve-year-old Navajo girl separated from her parents and forced to endure what has become known as the Long Walk. Sarah Nita's story recounts American soldiers burning Navajo homes; stealing their food and horses; and systematically starving her people.
General James Carleton was placed in charge of "taming" the "wild" Navajos. To do this, he decided to move these Native Americans from their homeland some 300-400 miles away to become prisoners at Fort Sumner in New Mexico. In 1864, the Long Walk began. Navajos, weakened from the soldiers' attacks, were forced to make the walk to the fort where they would be taught the white man's ways. Sarah Nita's march takes place in winter. She and her people battle the winter elements, starvation, and disease as they are made to cross rivers and keep up a grueling pace while they tried to survive on the little food their captors provided. Through the ordeal, Sarah Nita protects her little sister, worries about and pines for her missing parents, and watches as pregnant women and the elderly are shot or abandoned when they can't keep up with the daily trek.
Ann Turner, author of The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow, says "This was a sad book to write. But in spite of oppression, disease, and a forcible removal from their land, Sarah Nita and her people survived and returned to their wild and rugged land given to them by the Holy People." This book shines a light on a tragic episode in American history. Sarah Nita's story is about the dual nature of human beings — cowardice and evil, but also courage, faith, and the spirit to survive.
I — Sarah Nita — am twelve years old. At dawn, my younger sister Kaibah and I drive the family goats and sheep to a low mesa near our home. Suddenly, worry settles over me like a cloud as I hear Mother's farewell, "I will see you at sunset, my daughters." I rush back for another hug, fearing — sensing but never imagining — that within a few short hours my home will be in flames and my mother, father, aunt, uncle, and cousins will be captured by the Bilagáana — the white men.
Knowing that she must protect her sister, Sarah Nita sets out to find Tseyi, the sacred canyon where her father's family lives. As the girls trudge, day after day, Sarah Nita recalls her mother's words, "Remember, the Diné are strong. A Diné girl does not complain." After eight days, Kaibah discovers a stream that leads them to tseyi and their people.
The girls' respite is brief because the men in blue, the Bilagáana, invade the sacred canyon and drive the Diné from their ancestral home. The Long Walk has begun. The Navajo are forced to march through freezing rain and winter snows without proper food or clothing. "I have a small talk with my father inside as we march through the snow, cold seeping through the soles of my moccasins. How can I be in harmony with white people?" Sarah Nita's diary records the deaths, despair, and indignities her people experience throughout the Long Walk.
When they finally reach Fort Sumner, Sarah Nita and Kaibah hardly recognize their mother. But even worse, their father's health has been ruined and he seems close to death. With the help of her recently discovered canyon relatives, Sarah Nita nurses him back to health. Her people have survived the Long Walk and somehow will survive the next four years imprisonment at Fort Sumner. Maybe it is their belief that "someday, once again, we will put down roots in our soil and grow strong and tall the way we were meant to be."
Thinking About the Book
- Sarah Nita survived the Long Walk in 1864, but, as author Ann Turner writes, "There was no written Navajo language then; there would have been no paper and no pens to write down what happened." How does Sarah's experience get written down?
- Why is Sarah Nita called "The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow?"
- What was the Long Walk? Why were the Navajo people forced to endure this terrible oredeal?
- Sarah Nita tells many stories including the ones about Smallest One, Scootnugh, and the Ant People. What do all of Sarah Nita's stories have in common? How are they each different? How do these stories help us understand the Navajo people better?
- It may be hard to read about the soldiers' cruelty and indifference toward the sick and dying Navajos. One of the most appalling incidents was when Hot Face killed the pregnant woman and her unborn child. Do you think it was important for the author, Ann Turner, to write about the bad things the soldiers did? Why?
- Sarah Nita recalls that her mother often told her, "Only a foolish person borrows trouble from the days to come." What does this mean?
- "I am so angry now that I want to call down evil on these blue soldiers for what they are doing to us." However, a few minutes later, Sarah Nita tells herself that "those dark thoughts make me feel sick inside." What does she mean? How can thoughts make a person sick inside?
- The soldiers announce that they will civilize the Native Americans and teach them how to farm. In response, Grandfather mutters, "the Diné were here long before white people. It is the white man who needs to be civilized." Elaborate and explain each of these viewpoints.
- Ann Turner uses many similes and metaphors to make her writing sensory - we can clearly see, feel, smell, and hear the scenes she paints. Skim Sarah Nita's diary to find your favorite similes. Some good ones include: "a voice that lashes like a whip" and "my words fall like pebbles into the water hole." Make a list of the ones you like best and explain why.
- Use one word to describe each of these characters in Sarah Nita's diary. Compare your words with others chosen by members of your discussion group. Explain why you chose the words you did.
- Ann Turner includes Navajo words throughout the novel. Looking back at the diary, decide what each of these words means:
- Listening to the elders tell their stories was an important part of Sarah Nita's life. Ask one of your oldest relatives to share his or her story about a hard experience they lived through. Take notes and write down that story in your own words. Share the story with members of your discussion group.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.