History Mystery #7: Trouble at Fort La Pointe

Author: Kathleen Ernst

Illustrators: Jean-Paul Tibbles and Greg Dearth

Publishing Year: 1999

Setting:  La Pointe Island, Lake Superior, northern Wisconsin, 1732


Any day now, voyageurs--fur traders who bring pelts from the frontier to the cities--will be returning to Fort La Pointe from Montreal. They've been gone all winter. Suzette Choudoir is relieved that she didn't have worry whether her father, a Frenchman, would return or not this year. Sometimes the voyageurs elect to stay in Montreal, despite having Ojibwe family back at Fort La Pointe, and sometimes others die on the journey. But her father stayed in the Ojibwe village with Suzette's mother's family this winter, safe with his wife and daughters (Suzette's sister Charlotte is a baby). Suzette is hopeful that the return of the voyageurs will mean the end of a fur-trapping competition her father is participating in. By staying with his family, he's ended up in debt to the fur trading company, but winning the competition will allow him to pay his debt. As the family is crossing the lake to an island where Suzette's band of Ojibwe spends part of the year, the canoe starts taking on water, faster than Suzette can bail it out. Fearing he might need to throw some of the precious furs overboard, Suzette jumps in the cold water and holds on to the canoe, figuring she can swim while the furs can't. Since the water is so cold, it's hard for Suzette to swim and she nearly drowns, but her uncle and some other Ojibwe rescue her. Suzette's father and her uncle look over the canoe that they'd just inspected the night before, wondering why it was leaking so badly. Suzette's father suspects it was damaged on purpose.

But Suzette tries to put suspicion out of her mind. She's more focused on the fact that her family is safe, and the furs are safe. She's certain her father will win the competition. But when the voyageurs arrive the next day, the captain in charge of the fort reveals that furs were stolen out of the storeroom--including Suzette's father's--and  due to the theft, the competition is cancelled. There's no way to be sure that any furs turned in for the competition aren't the stolen ones. Without the prize money, Suzette's father will have to go to Montreal with the voyageurs next winter.

Suzette is determined to find out who stole the furs and get the competition re-opened. Her tutor works at the Fort La Pointe store, and part of Suzette's schooling is helping him record the furs and goods brought to his store, to help her learn math. She notices that only two people were even close to her father in the competition: an Ojibwe man name Niskigwun and a Frenchman named Big Nicholas. If one of them stole as many furs as are missing to claim as his own, he could surpass her father's total. But Suzette doesn't have any actual evidence. And what's worse is that the Captain questions Suzette's father!

When Suzette is helping record inventory at the store, she spies a slip of paper in a corner. It's the record of the stolen bale of furs! They hadn't yet been recorded in the ledger, so without this paper there would have been no way to know which furs were stolen. Even better, the paper notes that some of the beaver pelts in the bale have unusual markings. Working quickly--because her father wants to take his family back to the mainland away from whoever has it out for him (the damaged canoe, the stolen furs, and his mysteriously lost crucifix)--Suzette sneaks into the camp of a new trader, and overhears that he's hidden the stolen pelts on smaller island nearby. She rushes back to tell the Captain.

But when she arrives, her father is being arrested. One of the beaver pelts was found hidden with a stash of furs, and her father's distinctive crucifix was with it. He even confessed as he was being led away, saying that Suzette's uncle, also a suspect, had nothing to do with the theft. Suzette knows the truth, and visiting her best friend Gabrielle, learns that none of her father's friends suspect him either. But how can she prove his innocence? The Captain has promised to banish the thief. Suzette's mother and grandmother can blend in among the Ojibwe, but she looks too French for that. And her father could go back to Montreal to make a living, but she looks too Ojibwe to be accepted. And what about Charlotte? More importantly, she doesn't her family split up. She has to do something.

Suzette and Gabrielle row to the smaller island and find the furs, but a storm traps them there briefly. Before they get out, Suzette finds some purple beads--an unusual color for the area. After they get home, Suzette starts to put the clues together, drawing on what she's learned by being both French (such as the information in the ledger) and Ojibwe (such as being able to find her way to the small island). She concludes that a man named Baptiste is the real culprit, and after a scuffle, he confesses. He was angry at the Captain, thinking he was treated unfairly for being Métis. Even if he was right--which everyone denies--it was no excuse to steal and then frame an innocent man. The Captain releases Suzette's father and thanks her for correcting the injustice.

The competition is back on. Suzette is disappointed to learn that Niskigwun edged out her father. But then the Captain, perhaps still feeling bad about arresting Suzette's father, tells him that he'll pay off the debt himself, and that he needs a new interpreter (Baptiste's old job) and hires him. Now he can stay with his family all year!

A Peek into the Past

When French fur traders reached the Great Lakes in 1609, the Ojibwe ("Chippewa") tribe had already been living there for hundreds of years. The two groups quickly became trade partners, the Ojibwe providing the furs that Europe desired and the French bringing manufactured goods. The French had already been trading with tribes further east for a century, and were happy to find more partners. Some Ojibwe married the French traders, and their children, called Métis, where very helpful to both sides of the trading, having an understanding both peoples' cultures. The two cultures didn't always mix well; some were disappointed in how the other's culture took over parts of their own. As more European settlers arrived, mixed marriages fell out of favor, and some Métis people found themselves accepted by neither the settlers nor the natives, and had to chose to live as one or the other instead of embracing both cultures.


Dedicated to "the many people who helped me peek back to the fur-trade era, including Linda Albers, Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin; Robert Powless and Dana Jackson, Odanah, Wisconsin; Steve Brisson, Michilimackinac, Michigan; and the interpreters at Old For William, Thunder Bay, Ontario. Miigwech! Thank you!"

Suzette's mother is half French, making Suzette a quarter Ojibwe and three quarters French. She has blue eyes unlike Métis she knows, and catches a bit of flack for this from one disagreeable boy she knows. She "gets back" at him when she finds out he's half Dakota (an enemy tribe), but feels pretty guilty about it. She later apologizes to him, and he to her, and reveals he had scraped some pitch off her father's boat--only wanting to cause a bit of trouble, not actually put anyone in danger, and apologizes for that as well.

Suzette's father reasons that since Suzette is part Ojibwe and part French, she's protected by both the spirits her mother worships and the Christian God he worships. Although he doesn't always remember Ojibwe customs, he makes an honest effort to learn and respect them. He also teaches Suzette to read and write, and has her take French lessons (Charlotte will have the same education opportunities when she's older).

Suzette has an Ojibwe name as well as her French one, A'jawac. meaning "carried safely over the water." (Suzette means "graceful lily" or "lily of the valley")

Suzette's grandmother far prefers traditional Ojibwe ways to French customs, but still refers to Suzette's father as "my French son."

Like in some of Kaya's books, the Looking Back section strikes me as a bit "noble savage."

No comments: