When I was a kid, historical fiction was my favorite genre for quite a few years. The more danger the characters were in, the more I liked the book. My favorites were books on frontier and pioneer life…the kids in those books seemed to be more self-sufficient and danger-prone than they were at any other time in history! Plus there was the whole survival thing added on to the danger. As I read, shivering in anticipation, I thought how I would manage to deal with being in the same situation… Of course, being in the safety of my own house, it was easy to second-guess or plan better.
My own frontier survival skills were honed by reading William O. Steele’s books–The Buffalo Knife, Winter Danger, The Lone Hunt, Trail Though Danger. My real favorites were Tomahawks and Trouble and The Year of the Bloody Sevens, but Minuteman Library Network doesn’t own a copy of either. So this week’s Old Favorite is my third favorite of Mr. Steele’s titles: Flaming Arrows.
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It’s 1785, and Chad Radburn and his family live in one of the Tennessee Cumberland wilderness settlements. Pappy is a fine hunter and farmer, and Mammy an excellent homemaker. The family’s little cabin is secure and homey for Chad, his sister Sarah and his brother Amos. All the kids help with chores, but as the oldest, Chad has extra responsibilities. He even has a musket now, to hunt with and to help his father protect his mother and the younger ones from the Chickamauga raiding parties that sometimes attack the settlements.
Chad’s family learns that all the settlers are in danger when one of their neighbors comes to tell them the Chickamaugas are raiding. Mr. and Mrs. Radburn and Chad load up everything they can carry, and take themselves, the younger children and their livestock to the fort. The fort is small and crowded, but it’s safe and welcoming. Or is it?
When the Logan family tries to enter, most of the men in the fort want to turn away the mother and her three young sons. Her husband is Traitor Logan, who sometimes trades with the Indian tribes and is known to have lived with them. Though the family is skinny and weary-looking and they’re sure to be killed if they’re left outside, the frightened settlers don’t want anything to do with a traitor, even if he’s not with them. But Chad’s father convinces the rest of the families in the fort to bring the Logan family inside. He promises to take responsibility for them.
When the siege continues for days with no signs of stopping, Chad starts to feel the weight of his father’s responsibility on his own shoulders. It seems like the Indians know right where to go, and rumblings start about the Logan family. Is all the danger outside the fort, or is someone from inside helping the enemy? If peace is to be kept and the settlers are to survive, Chad has to take action.
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William O. Steele was born in 1917. When he died in 1979, he had written 39 books for children and young adults. He won several awards for his titles, including a Newbery Honor for The Perilous Road. Almost all his books take place along the frontier and feature young pioneers (real and fictional) dealing with the conflicts of making their way in the wilderness.
Flaming Arrows was originally published 1n 1957, when awareness of cultural differences between the native tribes and the settlers wasn’t often acknowledged, let alone recognized. Indians are portrayed as the “bad guys” with no explanation about why they might be unhappy about being invaded by strangers taking over their land. We know now that there are better explanations for the violence that erupted on the frontier, but people living in those times didn’t have the benefit of our current knowledge and sensitivity.
There is a very good foreword by Jean Fritz in the modern editions, republished in the 1990s. She mentions that the history reflects the feelings, the worries and the dangers of the time. Jean Fritz is a well-known author of historical fiction and non-fiction who was also a contemporary of William Steele. Anyone reading these titles should definitely read the foreword. It would be a good jumping-off point for a discussion on historical fiction and the way points of view and “known” history change over the years.
Flaming Arrows, like most of Mr. Steele’s books, is most appropriate for fourth and fifth graders, or for readers interested in or studying frontier life. They are adventures and survival stories, and can be a little violent, like the times which they reflect. They’re definitely good for historical fiction book reports!
So pick up any one of William O. Steele’s books if you’re interested in a good adventure story. And let us know what you think!