The Reason for Crows

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

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 and allowed to build Saint Peter’s Mission, a small bark church. After Kateri again becomes ill, she encounters Father...

(The entire section is 1554 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

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.