Wigwam in the City (alternate title: “Susan”), by Barbara C. Smucker, illustrated by Gil Miret


I’m not really sure how to begin this book review.

The bare bones of the story are simple: girl and her family leave home for the city.  Things are strange and frightening at first, but eventually they make friends and adjust.  The promise of a bright future lies ahead.

The language is simple, too.  Not dumbed-down, but easily accessible for someone from 8-10 years old, maybe as old as 12, even.

And yet, the details are not so simple.  A Chippewa family leaves their reservation to move to Chicago even though young Susan Bearskin does not want to go.  Chicago is full of strange things and prejudiced people, and the Bearskin family are isolated and lonely at first, but eventually they make friends with their caseworker, “Running Tongue”, with Mary Cloud, the Native woman who works at the American Indian Center, and with the boy who lives downstairs, “Straw Hair”.  Jim, Susan’s teenage brother, decides he wants to be known as White, rather than Chippewa.  Susan, inspired by Mary Cloud (who is educated, beautiful, proud, good, and whose lovely apartment is the “wigwam in the city”) decides she will always be proud to be Chippewa.  The future lies ahead (but what lies within?).

The title is also not simple.  I have no idea why, but this book is now published as Susan, rather than the original Wigwam in the City.

Barbara Smucker is also the author of Underground to Canada, a book about the underground railroad that I’ve never read but for some reason recall seeing on a lot of library shelves at one point (part of the school curriculum?).  So she knows how to “do” historical fiction and at least one of her books has passed the accurate-enough-for-school-boards test (although how accurate that is, is anyone’s guess).  Did she do her research about the Chippewa?  Well, according to the book jacket, Barbara Smucker worked at the American Indian Center in Chicago, so she could not have been completely uninformed or unsympathetic.

But, whether or not Barbara Smucker’s motivations were good (and I suspect they were), this book is dated.

According to the Centre for Social Justice, the most significant problems facing the urban Aboriginal population are barriers in education and employment, poverty, poor health, inadequate/low-quality housing, and ongoing oppression and inequality (to name but a few).  According to Barbara Smucker, the Bearskin family is escaping poverty, but finding racism, loneliness, educational opportunities (for Susan), jobs (for Mr. Bearskin), inspiration (in the form of Mary Cloud), and decent (although unbeautiful) housing.

As reported by Jonathan Kay of the National Post, Natives moving from rural areas to urban centres may find the complete disconnection from their communities “crippling” and maneuvering public transit or renting an apartment bewildering.  They will likely also face prejudice and may have to deal with addictions, violence, gangs, homelessness, and the other countless things that come up and smack you in the face when you are poor and living in a city.  As told by Barbara Smucker, everything – including a lease, a job, and school enrollment – is taken care of for the Native families who move to the city.  And although the disconnection from their original community is there, all one has to do is to connect with the American Indian Center to be made welcome, to make friends, and to adjust.  Fear not – a violent life and/or death does not lie in wait for Susan Bearskin, no matter what Amnesty International may suggest.

Sigh.  Wigwam in the City originally published in the 1960s, doesn’t seem to have aged well.  If you (or your kids) want to read it as historical fiction, it might fit the bill…but don’t look to it as a current portrayal of the troubles that face a Native family moving to the Big Smoke.

Reading Ages: 8-12, I would think.

Rating: B, if you explain clearly to your child that this book is no longer accurate, is somewhat simplistic, but that it contains some themes that still persist.  C if your kid stumbles across it and imagines it to be an accurate portrayal of the troubles facing the urban Native population.

Note on the Illustrations: The book is illustrated with woodcuts by Gil Miret.  I have had a really hard time finding anything on the interwebs about him, but I can say two things: (1) I don’t generally like woodcuts, I find them too choppy and blocky; (2) I like these ones.  There are only a handful – this is no picture book – but the more I look at them, the more I like them.


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