Hiawatha and the Peacemaker
Reviewed by Paul Buckley
By Robbie Robertson, illustrated by David Shannon. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015. 48 pages. $19.95/hardcover; $15.54/eBook. Recommended for ages 4–8.
On the first page, an unnamed narrator introduces us to “the evil Chief Tadodaho.” In a typical action-hero book or movie, the story to follow would focus on Tadodaho’s villainy and climax with his death. Good would triumph over evil, the might and weapons of the righteous would annihilate the wicked, and everyone would live happily ever after. This is not one of those books.
Robbie Robertson has stepped away from being a rock-and-roll icon and from the clichés of North American storytelling to reveal how violence can be met and vanquished by the power of forgiveness. Instead of bloody victory by a virtuous warrior, the reader sees a different story of good overcoming evil—an account of how the stone-hearted hunger for vengeance can be melted by harmless, innocent, unarmed compassion.
We soon discover the narrator is Hiawatha, a member of one of the warring tribes who lived around the lower Great Lakes about a century before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. In the opening pages, he has just lost his wife and three daughters to Tadodaho’s warriors and is nursing anger and vengeance.
Deganawida, the Peacemaker, arrives in an impossible way—by paddling a bright white stone canoe—and embarks on an impossible mission: to end the constant warfare among the tribes who will become the Iroquois Confederation. But the Peacemaker carries another impossible burden. His words stumble out of his mouth. He needs another’s voice to speak for him and the gifted orator he recruits is Hiawatha.
This is a story of forgiveness and reconciliation. The Peacemaker’s arguments will be familiar to every Quaker. The justifications for war are ancient and universal, as are the reasons we must put them aside and live as God’s beloved family. The climax is not the death but the healing of Tadodaho.
In a parallel to the story, Robertson’s simple words are re-spoken with astounding eloquence in David Shannon’s pictures. This is a perfect book to hold up while you read out loud to a class of young children. It is an engaging book for young readers, but in addition, the pictures open the story for even a solitary pre-reader.
This is a terrific book.