The story of Mary Jemison created a sensation when it became public nearly two centuries ago. She was still a teenager when she lost her Irish immigrant family in a Native American raid, and was taken to live among the Seneca Indians. She chose to stay with the Seneca for the rest of her life. Now poet and short story writer Deborah Larsen has brought that story back to life in her first novel, called The White.
Two statues commemorate the life of Mary Jemison. One stands in a park in New York state, where she's buried. The other stands near Gettysburg, Pennysylvania, where she spent her childhood. It was that memorial that inspired Deborah Larsen's new novel, The White. "I came to Gettysburg in 1989 and was told by a friend that there was a lovely valley near my home and that there was a statue there of a young woman who had been taken by a Native American raiding party in 1758," said Deborah Larsen. "And I went out to the valley and saw the statue of Mary Jemison. The statue shows a teenager with braids, with a pack on her back and with a very serene face. And then this same friend told me there was an account of her life in the Gettysburg College Library, so I went and read it. And I was flabbergasted. She had given her story when she was in her 80s to a medical doctor and amateur historian. She could not at that point herself have written it. She had forgotten how to read and write. And this is the main source that we have. And I thought this would make a wonderful novel."
Beardsley: Could you tell me about the real Mary Jemison and how much we actually know about her?
Larsen: We know a great deal about her if we feel the account the physician gave, having interviewed her, was accurate. Some people feel that Dr. Seaver who wrote this account embroidered it a bit with some of his own views. We do know she was taken from Buchanan Valley in 1758, that she was given actually to two Seneca sisters in exchange for the death of their brother at the hands of the white colonists. She went down the Ohio River Valley with the two Seneca sisters. She was adopted into the tribe, and married a Delaware [Indian] while she was there. And then eventually went with some of her family to live in New York state among other Seneca relatives. She had several children. Her first husband died. Then she married a Seneca and in fact ended up owning land, amazingly for any woman of that time, thousands and thousands and thousands of acres of land. She actually rented it out, some of it to white tenants, and altogether had an extraordinary life, was extraordinarily resilient.
Drawing on historical documents, Native American legends and her own imagination, Deborah Larsen tells the story of that life. Mary Jemison came to live among the Seneca still in a state of shock. A raiding party made up of Shawnee Indians and French soldiers had killed and scalped most of her family. But over time she came to love her new home, thanks to the kindness of tribe members, the happiness she found with her Delaware Indian husband, and the joy she discovered living so close to nature.
"She wanted now always to live in these fields or fields like them where living creatures breathed, moved, changed, died; but where curves, hollows, projections thick as bluffs or slender as tree stalks remained largely stable," Deborah Larsen reads from her novel. "A field of spaces she thought, beset by form, color, and texture, spaces beset by odd or ecstatic or violent movements: scuttlings, fallings, startled flights, crawlings, hesitations. A thought seized her. She wanted to own land."
Beardsley: She's widowed at a very young age and she does have opportunities to return to the white community. What makes her stay?
Larsen: In the Dr. Seaver account she's very concerned about what would happen to her children if she left. And I thread that concern into my work. I also think, however, that she became content in her life. And the question I think I had was what would it mean at that point to go back to the whites. The mid-Atlantic at this particular point in history and especially in New York state was a real melting pot. We think of that happening in our country later on. But I noticed when I read the account that she came into contact with the Dutch, the French, other Native Americans such as the Nanticoke. She came into contact with the British, with the white revolutionaries. I just felt she had her land, she had contact with all kinds of people, and that she became happy.
Beardsley: To what extent does she always remain a white person and to what extent does she become Seneca?
Larsen: I think she retains her whiteness, and I think she retains her sense of faith, even though I have her faith change quite radically. And into her faith is integrated the Native American sense of the Great Spirit. In fact that's one of her struggles. Although she can't read and write anymore, her sense of Scripture is deeply engrained in her, and this is a theme throughout the book. And so she carries those roots with her and she also becomes I believe fully Seneca.
Mary Jemison declared after telling her life story that she hadn't revealed half of what really happened. Deborah Larsen says she wasn't trying to fill in that other half with fictitious events. Instead, she wanted to bring to life what's already known about Mary Jemison, imagining how she must have thought and felt as she learned to bridge two cultures.