Walking Two Worlds introduces young people to the inspiring true story of Ely Parker, A Native American who gained greatness in both the world of whites and the world of his Seneca people. This fictionalized biography by Joseph Bruchac successfully provided me with an understanding of a great American whom I hadn’t previously known. Perhaps due to it being at hi-lo readers, Walking Two Worlds also left me with a desire to know more of what it means to be torn between two cultures.
Fictionalized biographies are a subgenre of biographies. Materials can apparently be freely invented, scenes and conversations are imagined. Indeed, while the majority of the events in Walking Two Worlds are validated in biographical accounts, Bruchac clearly takes advantage of elements allowed in this subgenre. Foremost, he often relies on dialog to create interest in Ely’s story. In addition, feelings are accredited to characters that probably can’t be substantiated with primary or even secondary sources. Then there’s the accuracy of the events themselves. While biographies do talk about an incident in which Ely was ridiculed by British officers because of his poor grasp of English, one that hardened his resolve to learn the foreign language, I couldn’t find any which detail the controversial romance between him and Clara Williams. Students may find it an interesting activity to determine which events are factual, which are more loosely based in history, and which may have been imagined.
Hi-lo novels are intended for struggling readers. They’re written at a lower reading level, but intended to have high appeal through intense action and somewhat complex themes. In telling Ely Parker’s story of how he came to draft the terms of surrender that led to the end of the Civil War, Bruchac found the perfect hook for hi-low readers by revolving all actions around a dream his mother had about her son, one that stated he’d “become a white man as well as an Indian, with great learning; he’ll be a warrior for the palefaces; he will be a wise white man, but will never desert his Indian people….” What young person doesn’t like stories with prophecy and warriors? Moreover, the majority of youth will relate to the feeling of walking between two worlds, in that they spend their teens being torn between childhood and adulthood.
This dream his mom had remained with the family, forever impacting their decisions. After his initial schooling, Ely went to live with relatives in an Iroquois settlement in Ontario where he learned how to hunt, fish, and trap in the old ways. When satisfied with his learning, he returned home and within a short time received admission to Yates Academy, where he quickly mastered the English language and became noted for his oratorical abilities. While at Yates, Ely was often called upon by his tribal elders to represent the reservation in Washington regarding treaty disputes with the United States government. With each one of these decisions, Ely gradually learned to walk between two worlds, as he’d continue to do for the rest of his life.
While I appreciated learning about a great American whom I hadn’t previously known, I did find Walking Two Worlds of limited appeal to me. The characters seemed one-dimensional, rarely struggling with their choices, or making mistakes. In addition, I finished the fictionalized biography wishing Bruchac had spent more time exploring what the emotional side of what it means to walk two worlds. Yet I also realized that hi-lo novels are aimed at a different audience than myself, and so don’t want to get too hung up on what turned me off about Walking Two Worlds. The bottom line is that as an hi-lo fictionalized biography, Walking Two Worlds should have an appeal to its intended audience.