Book Review of “Thieving Forest”

Conway, Martha. Thieving Forest.. San Francisco: Noontime, 2014. 407 pages. Print.

Black Slaves, Indian Masters cover

Reviewed by John Baken
Head Librarian, Willmar Public Library (Pioneerland Library System in MN)

I really like the conceit of Martha Conway’s novel Thieving Forest. The novel is historical fiction and details an incident from 1806, in which four sisters are kidnapped by a band of Potawatomi Indians while the fifth sister, 17-year old Suzanna Quiner, sets out to rescue them. The story takes place in Northwest Ohio, in the area of the Great Black Swamp near the village of Severne. The young women’s parents had recently succumbed to “swamp fever,” which, given the setting, was rather common of the area.

I thought the framework of the novel was good. I liked how it was set in the early nineteenth century, had a strong female protagonist, and the way it detailed such a daring but foolhardy rescue. But still, the book didn’t move me or strike me as very convincing.

For one, I was bothered by the author’s treatment of native people. It was obvious the author had done her research—detailing the Indians’ clothing, living quarters, and so on. Yet sometimes when the native characters spoke, the language seemed wooden or lifeless. Sure, English was not their first language so it would have been somewhat broken English, but this is where a fine line comes into play. Making a native character sound like Tonto on The Lone Ranger is clearly not the right approach. Also, Conway often quotes single Indian words in a language, Delaware, for example, that seemed misplaced in the narrative and awkward without an entire sentence or phrase being uttered. It may have been she felt those words would add a certain credibility to the scene when really it raised red flags to this reviewer.

Additionally, the sheer number of tribes and cultures the author included in the narrative—Shawnee, Wyandot, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Sauk, Delaware, Menomonie, Chippewa, Tawa, Miami—seemed like too many! Yet I wonder how a native reader would view the novel, as this reviewer is a non-native. Perhaps I am being overly critical because I have also attempted writing from an American Indian point-of-view and have failed. Indeed, it is a very difficult thing to do.

The unconvincing dialogue was not the only problem for me in Martha Conway’s novel. Even sections of the novel that did not deal directly with native culture needed revision to avoid over-writing, nonsense similes, and over-the-top symbolism. Consider the following line—

“He wipes the blade of his knife on his trousers and looks at her with what she takes to be sadness or maybe fatigue. She cannot understand why it makes her heart billow out like a muscle made out of impossibly thin fabric.” (369)

A muscle made out of impossibly thin fabric? Really? Is that what love feels like to the protagonist?

Still, it was fun reading Thieving Forest, a book about the forest with a telltale name that stole four sisters and changed their lives forever. The historical context drove the story for me—I love period pieces—and in the end I thought this a good genre novel, either Young Adult or Romance. I would not recommend it for inclusion in a tribal library or Native American collection.

About the Author

Martha Conway is the author of 12 Bliss Street, for which she was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Her short stories have been published in The Iowa Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Epoch, and other literary journals. She is a writing instructor for the Online Writer’s Studio at Stanford University.