4 out of 4 stars
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Strong Heart, by Charlie Sheldon, is a richly told story of family ties and heritage set in Washington State. It is early May, Tom Olsen and his friends are preparing for a backpacking trip into the wilderness of Olympic National Park. This is not a typical camping trip, the objective is to tend to the gravesite of Tom’s grandfather. Just before the trip sets out, an unannounced visitor arrives. It’s Tom’s ex-wife, she introduces Sarah Cooley as his granddaughter and leaves. Sarah’s unexpected arrival on that stormy night sends Tom reeling but his friends convince him to bring Sarah along on the trip despite her lack of experience. Tom reluctantly agrees and Sarah reluctantly joins them. While they are hiking to their destination Sarah shows that she is more than a moody self-absorbed teenager. Tom and Sarah begin to open up about their pasts around the campfire, additionally, native and natural history stories are also shared by Tom’s friends. It becomes clear that there is more to this trip than just tending to Tom’s grandfather’s burial place. As they are traveling off the main trail, Tom and Sarah have a heated argument and Sarah storms off. Unable to find her back at the campsite, they continue searching for more than a week before they find her. Traumatized by her harrowing experience, she is clearly a changed person. When she finally tells her story of what happened it leaves them bewildered. They try to make sense of Sarah’s mystical story but they also face additional challenges on their way out of the park.
The summary above does no justice to how well Sheldon melds his characters into the natural history and world they are set in. His research and storytelling to combine these figures in the story so cohesively is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. The focal point on Tom and Sarah’s familial ties and drama, which broadens to that of humanity’s ties with ancestral land, offer a uniquely satisfying juxtaposition of the historical and the modern contexts. In the book there is a secondary storyline, centering on a company, Buckhorn, which hopes to mine in the national park. The company shows support for the local and scientific community by constructing a conference center dedicated to the ancient Clovis people while systematically disregarding the Haida tribe that currently resides in the area. Buckhorn employees go so far as to actively destroy relics of native heritage in order to further their company’s agenda. Sheldon shows the conflict with native identity and how, in many ways, that identity is challenged scientifically and politically. He also shows the scientific community grappling with what little evidence has been left behind by ancient peoples and how it often conflicts with the ancestral history of the modern descendants. This story gives hope that, in time, enough evidence will be uncovered to correlate with ancestral stories rather than serve as a tool to undermine modern native communities.
Sheldon also brilliantly portrays the personal struggle with native identity among his main characters. William and Myra serve as a good example: they are connected to their culture and exhibit physical features of their tribe. William retained his native identity against all odds, he was taken away from his home as a child and forced into a boarding school designed to make native children forget their language and culture. He escaped as a teen and made it back to his tribe. Tom’s tale was not the same; it was interesting to see the differences between the two back-stories. Tom has native ancestry but his connection to the culture ended in his grandfather’s time. Tom’s parents probably knew little of their ancestral culture and chose not to share it with their children, it was more important for them to blend with the settlers than to embrace their native roots. However, we see this reconnection to native culture in the most unexpected of ways: Tom’s granddaughter while she travels with this group, finds her own connection; by extension connecting her to the past and to Tom. It’s clear the impact this has had; especially when she recounts her story of being lost for eight days in the wilderness.
Sheldon addresses these topics in such a way that it does not overshadow the motives and personalities of his characters, instead, it enables the reader to understand how much the issues matter to them. In many books, topics on these subjects are clumsily written into plots or overtake the individuality of the characters but this is not the case with Strong Heart. There are many messages to be taken from this book: all of which blend wonderfully together to make a rich and captivating story. The true insights are not lost on this reader in favor of a semi-transparent, easy-to-digest storyline.
I give the book Strong Heart a 4 out of 4 stars. Even though I admit the book ended somewhat abruptly, I realize that Sheldon intends to make this book a series. I’m looking forward to seeing the many loose ends tied up and the overarching plot addressed a bit more at length. It may take at least a second book to cover such deep and important topics. I’ve heard that some people found issue with his prose, especially in scenarios where multiple characters are speaking, but I did not have much trouble following it. The breadth of the underlying subject matter made the slight choppiness of the character interactions much more real to me.
I recommend this book to anyone who would like to read a fictional story about finding family and personal identity. If those were the only plot lines it would be worth it. But Charlie Sheldon has deftly woven Native American folklore and politics, the environment, and social justice into a book about strengthening family ties and finding oneself in one’s history and personal experiences. A much more satisfying journey.
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