While the book's physical setting is southern Alberta and perhaps parts of northern Montana, its time period, the 1830s, is much more important to the plot and the book's themes. Because of the introduction of the horse and the gun, coupled with the increasing incursion of Europeans who not only put stress on the land but also caused the indigenous peoples to change their hunting/ food/clothing/shelter relationship with the animals around them, Blackfoot life was altered drastically. In her conversation with Jenkinson, Hudson explained some of these changes, the first being that there were fewer men. When a man was astride a horse and carrying a rifle, warfare suddenly became a much more mortal game. Horse-raiding, a major sport for the young men, also became more dangerous and potentially fatal. As a consequence, most young men were not living long enough to become middle-aged, and it was the surviving middle-aged men who then took multiple wives. As well, the relatively few men of marriage age possessed much of the "currency" in terms of trade goods. Furthermore, there was pressure on the Blackfoot to engage in hunting for more animals than were actually needed for food because the animals' skins and hides were translatable into white trade goods which, in turn, meant wealth and prestige.
Hudson uses Sweetgrass's grandmother to explain the effects of these changes on Blackfoot women: "before men had guns they lived much longer. Most of our warriors didn't die young. Men had fewer things to trade for, so women didn't have to marry young to tan buffalo hides for trading." Grandmother also explains how marriage has changed, "In the dog days. . . most men took only one wife . . . and no more, because they were happy together . . . the price of a wife was lower, too. It was just a gift then, like a girl's gift is to the man's family now."
Sweetgrass has sometimes been criticized for being too slowly paced, a charge that Hudson addressed in the Jenkinson interview. She candidly acknowledged that some readers do find the book boring, and she attributes their response to the fact that, in writing the book, she was trying to recreate the annual domestic cycle of work for Blackfoot women. Hudson admitted to struggling with the challenge of how to make domestic chores, like berry picking and hide scraping, exciting. However, Hudson argues that, while Sweetgrass may lack the quick-paced action of some other books, what attracts and holds her many female readers is the whole question of marriage and especially that of "Who will become Sweetgrass's husband?" Since the criticism came principally from adult reviewers, Hudson also questioned their ability to identify with young girls who, not burdened by adult concerns like jobs, mortgages, and children, can still find suspense in romantic love.
Hudson is very strong in her use of conversation and in the development of character, particularly that of Sweetgrass and her paternal grandmother, She Fought Them Woman. The following exchange reveals the dismissive impatience of the young, romantically idealistic Sweetgrass who does not choose to hear the experienced-based wisdom imbedded in her grandmother's words.
"Have my parents talked to you about my marriage?"
Her old eyes kept smiling. "It will happen soon enough. Don't worry."
"But what's a woman without a husband?"
"You ask me, a widow?" She rocked back and forth and laughed out loud. "A young woman should enjoy her time for dreaming, Sweetgrass. The time for a husband comes all too soon."
"But, Grandmother, I'm fifteen."
"Most of a lifetime is time enough for men. You will find all they think about is buffalo and war. And they soon die as did each of my husbands. Aiii, those were great warriors!"
Grandmother paused to choose another berry. "A Blackfoot woman only lives for her work and children. Enjoy yourself while you're young."
"Old women are so boring!"
As well, Hudson unobtrusively includes in Sweetgrass many small details about and descriptions of...
(The entire section is 1,847 words.)