"Who We Was": Creating Witnesses in Joseph Bruchac's Hidden Roots

By Couzelis, Mary J. | Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, May 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

"Who We Was": Creating Witnesses in Joseph Bruchac's Hidden Roots


Couzelis, Mary J., Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies


Through the exploration of Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac's Hidden Roots (2004), a young adult historical novel, the article examines the intersection of racial and disability ideologies in the eugenics movement in 1930s America. It discusses the text in light of critical disability theory, Native American literature, children's literature, and rhetorical analysis, concluding that the novel illustrates the intersection of oppressive ideologies, and by doing so creates more critical readers and the potential for activism. Readers can become witnesses to the testimony of historical trauma, and this has the potential for questioning, reacting to, and reflecting upon readers' relations to these histories as well as today's residual ideologies.

(ProQuest: Deletions shown by "strike-through" in the original text are omitted.)

Children's literature rarely depicts the American eugenics movement for fear of traumatizing young readers and exposing history that might undermine national myths about the "great melting pot nation" and "home of the free." Fortunately, Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac tackles the topic in Hidden Roots (2004), a historical novel for young adults. Hidden Roots depicts a family's history in relation to the Vermont eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s, which specifically targeted people of Abenaki descent as well as individuals with disabilities. Michelle Pagni Stewart states that, through the novel, "Bruchac becomes a critical witness" (163) to the eugenics movement. I would extend her argument to suggest that through fictional testimony based on historical events, records, oral narratives, and experiences, Hidden Roots turns readers into witnesses of how medical definitions and laws connected identities such as Native American and disabled, and how people "pass" into other identities in order to subvert those laws. Bearing rhetorical witness to cultural trauma has the potential to initiate activism. Martha Cutter studies the relationship between language and ethnic identity, and suggests that "the act of bearing witness, even on a small scale, can enact change" (5). Readers can become witnesses to the testimony of historical trauma that has been hidden or silenced, and witnessing spearheads the potential for questioning, reacting to, and reflecting upon these histories and to the ideologies that still reside today in popular discourse.

Bruchac's novel portrays the relationship between the Vermont eugenics program and the Abenaki people; however, the story takes place neither in the 1930s nor in Vermont. Rather, the Camp family's story is set in the aftermath of eugenics to show the long-reaching effects of historical trauma among Native Americans. Howard Camp, also known as Sonny, lives with his parents, and his father, Jake, abuses the family. Sonny's only reprieve from the tensionfilled home is his outings with Uncle Louis. Uncle Louis, a friend of Sonny's grandparents, takes Sonny to the mountains and teaches him about tracking, hunting, and life. These outings are often conducted when the father is not at home because Jake does not like Uncle Louis hanging around the family, for reasons unknown to Sonny. Sonny's home life changes when his father is injured during a paper-mill accident. Uncle Louis comes every day to provide food and to take care of Sonny while his mother works, and his father either waits at the mill office for the settlement check and disability money or walks along the river working through his emotions. Eventually Louis reveals his past: he and his wife Sophie were forcibly sterilized as part of the 1930s Better Vermonters eugenics program because they were Native American. In order to prevent having their daughter, Sonny's mother, forcibly taken from them and put up for adoption, Louis took her to the Henrys, an older couple who Louis knew from his time as a hunting guide. The Henrys agreed to raise Sonny's mother as their own while Louis stayed on the farm as a hired hand. …

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