Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Land Beyond the Setting Sun

Tracy M. Leininger's The Land Beyond the Setting Sun is the story of Sacagawea, and one of the better-written books in her "Beautiful Girlhood" collection of historic biographies. However, this book's greatest value may be a lesson in truth vs. myth in history.

There are several reasons to read biographies, whether entirely nonfiction or based on fact but fictionalized. To appreciate the trials and strengths of individuals of the past and to learn history from a more personal perspective are perhaps the two most important reasons. However, when biographies are riddled with myth, they're really just entertaining novels. This is the case with The Land Beyond the Setting Sun.

Leininger introduces us to Sacagawea when she's a young girl living happily with her mother, brother, and sister. Almost immediately, Leininger makes Sacagawea wonder who the god is who made everything. "We have a sun god, a moon god, a god of harvest, and a god of rain," Sacagwea thinks, "but who is the God over all?" She also tells us Sacagawea has long heard stories of the Pacific Ocean, and longs to see it someday.

Sacagawea is captured by a warring tribe of Indians and carried far away from her family. She becomes a slave, but remembers what her brother always taught her about the buffalo. They do not hide in the winter when the harsh, cold winds blow. They "stand firm and keep their faces to the wind, no matter how fierce it maybe be." Sacagawea vows to keep her face to the wind, too.

Sacagawea's first sight of a Caucasian is when a French fur trader named Charbonneau falls in love with her and pays her random in order to take her as his wife. Soon, Sacajawea is with child and her husband is an interpreter for some men named Lewis and Clark. They want Sacagawea, big with child, to lead them to her old tribe because they hope the tribe will give them horses for the rest of their journey. Sacagawea is excited, and agrees, carrying her newborn child Jean Baptist ("'We will give him this name,' declared his happy father, 'because, just like John the Baptist in the Bible, he will prepare a way in the wilderness.'") strapped to her back. By this time, Leininger tells us, Sacagawea is praying to the Christian God.

We learn a little about Sacagawea's aid to Lewis and Clark during their journey, and how she led them to her old tribe, where she was reunited with her brother and nephew. Then Leininger quickly sums up Sacagawea's life, telling us when the expedition finally saw the Pacific Ocean, how Sacajawea followed her husband to St. Louis, how their son's schooling was paid for by Clark, and how Jean later traveled to Europe, then came home to live with his mother's tribe.

In her conclusion, Leininger stresses how God worked perfectly in Sacagawea's life, and that even when her life was difficult, God was working through her.

What I Like: Leininger does a nice job of showing how God shaped Sacagawea's life, using her to help others, and ultimately reuniting her (albeit briefly) with her family.

What I Dislike: Most of this story confuses fact with fiction. Charbonneau is believed to have won Sacagawea in a game of Hands; he did marry her, but already had another wife. Far from being a loving husband (as depicted in this book), Charbonneau beat Sacajawea. Too, Sacagawea was not hired as a guide for Lewis and Clark; she was an interpreter, although she did a small amount of guiding.

One of her most important moments during the expedition was when a boat overturned and she saved important papers and maps from the river. Leininger includes this story in the book, but neglects to tell us what Sacajawea saved. Oddly, Leininger doesn't really touch upon Sacagawea's important contributions, like her knowledge of plants for food and medicine.

The most glaring use of myth, however, comes in the Christian thread Leininger weaves into the book. In reality, Sacajawea was almost certainly not a Christian. In fact, it was well over 100 years after Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific that idea was even mentioned. A 1916 pamphlet, encouraging citizens of North Dakota to raise a monument to Sacagawea, was the first time anyone tried to suggest Sacajawea became a Christian - and then, only shortly before she died.

The eight full page, full color illustrations in this book, created by Kelly Pulley and Lisa Reed, do help bring the story to life, but unfortunately the artists aren't skilled at drawing people.

Overall Rating: Because of all the historical inaccuracies, I have to give this book our lowest rating: Poor. However, as a piece of fiction, I'd rate it "Good." In fact, this book could prove an interesting project. I plan to read it with my daughter, then discuss myths and how we determine what is fact and what is not.

Age Appeal: According to the publisher 3 and up, but I believe few children under 4 will be able to sit through a book this long and little illustrated. The ideal age range for this book is probably more like 5 to 12.

Publisher Info: His Seasons, 2003; ISBN:1929241194; hardback, $16.00

Buy it Now at Vision Forum for $16.00

OR Buy it at for $15.79.

Special Info: Read our other reviews of Tracy M. Leininger's "Beautiful Girlhood" books.

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