Twelve-year-old Cal Blackbird trades the freedom of hobo living with his father, a World War I vet, for the regimented world of Challagi Indian Boarding School.
Set in spring and summer of 1932 Depression-era America, Bruchac’s (Abenaki) historical novel sees narrator Cal and his father riding the rails, eking out a meager and honest life as inseparable “knights of the road.” But when Pop reads news about fellow veterans gathering in Washington, D.C., to demand payment of promised bonuses, he decides to “join [his] brother soldiers.” To keep Cal safe while away, Pop tells him about their Creek heritage and enrolls him at Challagi. Even though he’s only “half Creek” and has been raised white, Cal easily makes friends there with a gang of Creek boys and learns more about his language and culture in the process. Though the book is largely educational, Creek readers may notice the language discrepancy when their word for “African-American” is twice used to label a light-skinned Creek boy. Additionally, Cal’s articulation of whiteness sounds more like a 21st-century adult’s then a Depression-era boy’s. More broadly, readers accustomed to encountering characters who struggle along their journeys may find many of the story’s conflicts resolved without significant tension and absent the resonant moments that the subject matter rightly deserves.
A lesser-known aspect of Native American history that promises the excitement of riding the rails yet delivers a handcar version of the boarding school experience. (list of characters, afterword) (Historical fiction. 10-14)