The traditional narrative of Indian captivity is updated with only middling success in this thin first novel by a Pennsylvania poet and storywriter.
Based on the personal history of historical figure Mary Jemison (or Jamison) as told to Dr. James Seaver, The White is a quickly paced account of the experiences of an Irish immigrant woman who is alone kept alive (as “replacement” for a slain warrior) when she and her family are captured by “a Shawnee raiding party” in the barely settled Pennsylvania territory in 1758. In brief paragraphs that juxtapose the events of Mary’s life with her (often bitter) observations on her fate, later “reveries,” and remembered snatches of biblical stories and sayings, Larsen marches us through her heroine’s gradual bonding with the Senecas (to whom she’s “given” by her captors), marriages to the gentle Delaware brave Sheninjee (who dies young) and older Seneca hero Hiokatoo (for whom she bears five children), and stoical old age, when, having lived to bury several of her children, she finally realizes her dream of owning land, and refuses to be “redeemed” (i.e., reclaimed by white society), instead choosing to die, in her 80s, among “her people” the Senecas. This is rich material, but Larsen’s treatment of it is skimpy. She repeatedly sets up promising situations (a game of lacrosse reflecting “the very texture of assault”; an “execution” of offending white settlers), only to end up presenting them in elliptical summary form. Characterization is perfunctory at best, as are sporadic attempts at layering in such historical incidents as the betrayal of the “Six Nations” by double-talking representatives of England’s King George III: the sequence is essentially only a means of getting Mary to the Genesee Valley, where she lives out most of the years 1763–1833.
There are some lovely moments (e.g., the poetry of grieving Seneca women’s laments for their dead); but, on the whole, The White is an inchoate tale, neither successfully fictionalized nor fully imagined.