By: Ellie Kirby
Reviewed by: Tony Crunk
Fox Creek Press, 2006
According to the Author’s Note at the end of this picture book, “On July 5, 1792, a five-year-old child named Caty Sage disappeared from a farm in Grayson County, Virginia. In 1848 her brother Charles found a white woman living with an Indian tribe in Kansas and became convinced that she was Caty. Since then her story has been told and retold until it has become a beloved legend in the mountains of Southwest Virginia.”
This is a rich, exciting source for a children’s book, and Kirby, in both text and illustrations, handles it with sensitivity and insight. To her great credit, she resists any temptation toward melodrama or toward the sort of unfortunate cultural comparisons between the white and Native worlds in which Caty’s life unfolded that would likely have dominated such a book in an earlier age.
Instead, the only villain here is the white horse thief who absconds with Caty and sells her to a Cherokee clan. She is not only treated well there, but eventually grows into a rich adult life as a Wyandot, among which tribe she ultimately settled, married, raised children, and died. The illustrations, especially, depict Caty’s original pioneer home and her later Wyandot life as equally bucolic, peaceful, and blessed.
In treating the full span of Caty’s life, though, the book lacks dramatic balance. For example, the first eight (of twenty-nine total) pages are devoted to the Sage family’s move to a new homestead, where the action of the “legend” actually begins, with Caty’s kidnapping. Other important events are severely compressed, and the story sometimes bogs down in summary treatments of long swaths of time.
Most unfortunately, this leaves little room to develop more fully such truly dramatic moments as Charles’ first encounter with, and growing certainty that he has found, his long-lost sister. As a result, children may find the story very interesting, but may not engage emotionally with the characters and their experiences to a significant depth.
The book’s illustrations, in watercolor, are its stronger suit. Kirby’s use of color can be both subtly nuanced and strikingly bold. Her technique at once captures vivid details of the story’s rich natural settings, while leaving distinguishing features of her human characters somewhat blurred. As much as the story itself, this very effectively draws readers into the world of “legend,” where people of a long-faded time lived out a remarkable story in the very real natural world we still occupy today.
Tony Crunk of Birmingham is a widely published children’s writer and poet.