Thursday, August 25, 2016

Writing Outside Your Culture: Reading Research, Part II

Desert Jewels was easy to research. Not only was I able to interview one couple who had been in the camps when they were about my protagonist’s age, but there were a myriad of memoirs written by people who took the same path. That’s because the events occurred in a short time frame and many of the people who took that path were students or professors at the University of California at Berkeley—including writers and artists who recorded their experiences.

Researching my second middle-grade historical was much harder. As mentioned in my last post, Creating Esther is about an Ojibwe girl who goes to an Indian boarding school at the end of the 19th Century. There are plenty of memoirs about the Native American boarding school experience, but few come from the right perspective. Most took place several decades later, when the students knew what to expect. Others came from the male perspective or that of a white teacher.

The three most helpful memoirs are (1) three essays by Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin), which can be found in her American Indian Stories; (2) No Turning Back: A Hopi Woman’s Struggle to Live in Two Worlds by Polingaysi Qoyawayma (Elizabeth Q. White); and (3) Red World and White: Memories of a Chippewa Boyhood by John Rogers (Chief Snow Cloud). The Zitkala-Sa essays tell about her experiences as a Native American student and teacher shortly before the time of my story, but they are short on details. No Turning Back begins at about the right time and provides a few more details, but it spans a number of years and is written by a woman from a different tribe than my protagonist. Red World and White provides a more detailed look at Ojibwe (Chippewa) reservation life around the right time but gives little information about the male author’s boarding school experience.

I also read a number of academic books about the Native American boarding school experience or the Ojibwe tribe. Putting all this information together with what I learned from location research, I believe I have portrayed an accurate picture for my readers. But it wasn’t easy.

Picking the right pieces was hard, but cultural respect requires it.

Next month I’ll talk about the location research that helped me understand the broader picture.


The photo at the head of this post shows one of the abandoned buildings from the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School. I took the picture on my research trip last year. And before you ask, I wasn’t intentionally trying to make it look old. Somehow I set my camera to grayscale and didn’t notice it until later.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. Desert Jewels is searching for a home, and Creating Esther has just begun circulating to publishers. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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