The Reason for Crows

by Diane Glancy

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The Reason for Crows

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In The Reason for Crows, Diane Glancy, who is of Cherokee, German, and English descent, presents a first-person, fictionalized account of the life of Kateri Tekakwitha, the seventeenth century Mohawk-Algonquin maiden beatified by the Catholic Church. The language of the novel has been called poetic, but the book is also based on the historical writings and journals of Jesuit priests (the “crows” of the title), who sailed from France to convert Native Americans to Christianity. In her afterword, Glancy indicates that she prefers to examine a story from the past as it might be viewed from several conflicting perspectives, such as those of Kateri and the individual Jesuits, because “History takes place depending on who is speaking.The history of truth is these incoherent versionsthisassemblage of voices.”

The Reason for Crows is the third in Glancy’s series of four works of historical fiction. It is preceded by Pushing the Bear: A Novel of The Trail of Tears (1996) and Stone Heart: A Novel of Sacajawea (2003) and followed by Pushing the Bear: After the Trail of Tears (2009). In each text, Glancy retells American history from a Native American perspective. Inspired by a figure on the door of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Glancy does a remarkable job of capturing the voice and thoughts of a girl who has been dead for more than three hundred years and who lived in a time and culture that no longer exist.

Kateri’s story begins when she is about five, with a confused memorythe moans of her dying parents and infant brother in an epidemic of smallpox, presumably brought to the New World by Dutch traders. Her father was a Mohawk chief, and her mother was a Christianized Algonquin who was captured years before. Glancy uses a technique akin to stream of consciousness to present Kateri’s feverish thoughts: “Black birds gathered waiting for our death. I felt the birds peck my face.For a while, I was inside God. I floated like a crow.”

Kateri recovered from the illness slowly, often relapsing, but her face remains scarred and her eyesight is forever weak: “I can look into the woods and see snow that is not there.” Her Mohawk name, Tekakwitha, identifies her as “one-who-walks-groping-her-way.” Her other senses become crucial to her, and she functions largely by touch. Kateri can feel sun and shade. She hears the sounds of nature and speaks in natural metaphors, using short, simple sentences filled with physical sensation.

Kateri lives with her uncle Iowerano, the tribe’s new chief, but she is cared for by his wife Karitha and his sister Aronsen, who are both Christians. The girl is expected to contribute to the family by pounding corn and carrying water or firewood. She can bead by feel and weave belts that she trades for thimbles and more beads. Red-dyed eel-skin ribbons in her hair (her only vanity) give her pleasure, but she covers her head with a blanket to hide her pocked face.

As the smallpox epidemic continues, the tribe abandons the doomed village to move across the Mohawk River and establish a new village, Caughnawaga (Kahnawake). The Mohawks build longhouses and plant crops on uncontaminated ground, but soon everything is destroyed by marauding French soldiers, who set fire to the new village. Kateri can hear the sound of crops crying out as the French soldiers burn them. Afterward, the people must rebuild in winter, when food is already scarce.

Following the French attack, Kateri senses “a shift in the land.” The encroachment of the Europeans is changing everything. When French Jesuit priests arrive seeking converts, they are tolerated...

(This entire section contains 1554 words.)

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and allowed to build Saint Peter’s Mission, a small bark church. After Kateri again becomes ill, she encounters Father James de Lamberville, whom she identifies metaphorically with crows, which have power: “I remembered when the Jesuit entered the longhouse with his crow wings folded. His beak guideth me.” The priest talks to her of God, Christ, and the Holy Book from which he reads, quoting Ezekiel, his favorite. She tells him of her mother, who spoke to her of “a holy bath.” Kateri hopes to be baptized too. Even though her family tries to arrange a marriage for her, she wants to study with the priest: “How could I marry when I heard the prophets’ visions? How could I marry when I wanted the visions myself?”

Historically, the strongest tribal hostility toward the Jesuits and the French came from the Mohawks. Although Kateri’s uncle strongly opposes her wish, she receives instruction from Father de Lamberville, who, on Easter Sunday, 1676, gives her the baptismal name of Kateri (the Mohawk pronunciation), after Saint Catherine of Siena. Her remaining family is hostile to her conversion. Boys throw rocks at her; she is mocked, threatened, and seen as a traitor to the old ways. However, ongoing problems such as disease, whiskey, and tribal wars eventually cause many of the Mohawks to become indifferent to Christianity. Kateri’s friend Enit has already fled north to Saint Francis Xavier Mission in Canada, a Jesuit refuge for Native American converts, and Father de Lamberville realizes he must send Kateri away too for her own safety. Eventually, she leaves Saint Peter’s Mission at Caughnawaga, in what will become New York, for the northern settlement also named Caughnawaga, on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec.

Nearly blind, Kateri probes the world around her, trying to make sense of what she cannot see or comprehend. She is moving toward a strong religious faith, even though she understands it differently from the Europeans. She is committed to reaching the new mission. Even with her friends’ help, it takes her two months to get there. Once in Canada, Kateri offers herself to God as reparation for the sins of her people. Removing her beads and eel-skin ribbons, she does penance. She scourges herself, standing in the chill Saint Lawrence River up to her chest. She fasts, refuses blankets, and pierces herself with thorns. She burns herself in order to understand the torments of hell, so that she will better know how to pray; then, she believes, she will be able to teach others. Her friends beg her to stop.

Christmas Day, 1677, marks Kateri’s first communion at Saint Francis Xavier. She is enchanted when for an instant she can see clearly and recognizes that the moon is pockmarked. She notes surface irregularities in nature, especially on rocks. She believes that Christ has known smallpox too because he has holes in his hands and feet. These images comfort her.

The strict Father Claude Chauchetiere, who has endured a nightmarish sea journey from France, believes that the priests have brought God’s mercy to the mission and despairs that some of the Indians are turning away: “I came to help the Indians.I was prepared to be a Jesuit martyr.I was not prepared for indifference.” Alternately depressed and angry, he later is able to ask God for a gentler spirit. When he observes Kateri, he thinks he sees a light around her, and he notices that she continues to help others, even though she is often feverish and vomiting. He marvels at her suffering. She, in turn, is horrified by the cruelties that have been visited on the refugees who continue to arrive with flesh cut from their bodies or boiling water poured into their open wounds by other tribesor perhaps their own.

Another priest, gentle Father Pierre Cholenec, notes with shock how thin Kateri is becoming, although she continues to make Indian bread and participate in ceremonial planting. She still beads and dyes threads and porcupine quills, while she teaches these skills to the girls. Although she can be analytic and intuitive, at times her thoughts race and she seems almost irrational, but this incoherence may reveal her gradual transition to a more spiritual level.

Father Cholenec is present at Kateri’s deathbed on April 17, 1680, when she is twenty-four. In her biography, which he will later write, he will report that her last words were “Jesus, I love you” in Mohawk, and that shortly afterward, “We saw the scars on her face disappear. Her fingers uncurled. Her skin was smooth in death.” Father Chauchetiere, also present, notes that the Indians marvel at the change in her physical appearance. Awed by Kateri’s death, they do penance. Father Chauchetiere in turn waits for visions: “I was not disappointed. I saw her as I prayed at her grave. I saw her with the crucifix in her hand. I saw a church turned on its side.” He will paint an early portrait of Kateri.

The Reason for Crows is a short book but not easily read. Often, it seems more like a play, as alternating voices carry it along. Kateri’s natural world is different, and readers must adapt to it. Her world of faith is rife with biblical and native symbolism that may not be familiar. The whole book is filled with rambling fragmentsthoughts, dreams, images, and memoriesdominated by the recurring image of the crow, an ambiguous symbol of good and ill, of death and, finally, life. As Kateri, the nascent saint, says in a firm voice of faith, “The Lord will transform our life. We will not perish. We have everlasting life. It is the reason for crows.”


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Booklist 105, no. 12 (February 15, 2009): 32.

Christianity Today 53, no. 5 (May, 2009): 62.

World Literature Today 83, no. 6 (November/December, 2009): 67.