Hidden Roots by Joseph Bruchac. Bowman Books, 2010 (originally published by Scholastic in 2004). 152 pages. Kirkus recommends for ages 9-12. ISBN: 9780557711680.
Hidden Roots is the story of the the coming of identity of Howard Camp, called Sonny by his parents and his uncle. Howard is 11 years old, living in New York State near the Hudson River and the Vermont border in the mid-1950s. Howard knows he is white, just like his parents and his uncle. He knows that Indians live in teepees and fight with bows and arrows.
Howard’s father is physically abusive to his mother and to him. He works at the local mill, which dumps beautifully colored toxic waste into the Hudson. Howard knows he doesn’t want to be like his father. He doesn’t want to be as angry as his father and he doesn’t want to work at the mill.
A more positive influence comes from Uncle Louis. Louis takes Howard and his mother to see a herd of deer on the side of a mountain in Vermont. He shows Howard how to walk among the deer. He takes him to a mountain just before sunrise and they welcome the sun. Howard’s father doesn’t like Louis and doesn’t like Howard spending time with him. After Howard’s father loses a couple of fingers in an accident at the mill, he accepts Louis’s presence and assistance more willingly.
One day, when Howard’s parents are both out, Louis tells Howard the truth about his identity. Louis is an Abenaki Indian from Vermont. His wife was forcibly sterilized as part of a eugenics project in Vermont. She died of sadness and illness not long after she was sterilized. Louis ran away with his daughter, Howard’s mother, to live in New York. He never told anyone he was an Indian. Howard’s mother never told anyone she was an Indian, and Howard’s father never told anyone he was an Indian. They felt it was safer to hide their identities.
The details of the eugenics project in Vermont are chilling. Joseph Bruchac goes into some detail about the program in an author’s note at the end of the book. In a way, it’s presenting all Americans with new knowledge about our identity. We live in a country in which a state could try to wipe out an entire Indian tribe by preventing them from reproducing.
Bruchac has a calm style of writing that makes reading this book a pleasure even though the facts it exposes are so difficult.