Few books pace themselves with the resonance of truth telling. These rare books can be fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, but within the story being told is a heart beating in time with constant universal rhythms. Thomas D. Peacock, a resident of Red Cliff, Wisconsin, and a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, is the author of one such book.
A writer of award-winning books about Indian education and Ojibwe history and culture, Peacock is one of the country’s most important American Indian educators. In his first novel, Beginnings: The Homeward Journey of Donovan Manypenny, Peacock steps out of his comfort zone to compose an honest exploration of the meaning of Native cultures in contemporary American society. In a country wracked with racial tensions and deep cultural divides, the need for such an exploration from a powerful American Indian voice is perhaps obvious.
In the novel’s early pages we meet Donovan Manypenny, a young Red Cliff boy living with his traditionalist grandparents. His mother has run off to Minneapolis, yet he is not alone: Donovan is immersed in his grandfather’s wisdom, steeped in his grandmother’s love, and surrounded by the stories and spirituality of his ancestors. When his mother, grandmother, and grandfather all die, leaving him without close relatives, he loses everyone and everything he has known. Indeed, loss—of family, tribe, and culture—is one of the major themes of the novel.
After a period during which young Donovan is bounced like a pinball through social service and foster home systems, he is adopted by a white couple, Tom and Mary Pederson. The Pedersons are wonderful parents and human beings. Manypenny is raised white, as he later says, and becomes a special education teacher who helps student after student find his or her way in life. When Donovan marries a white woman, Jennifer, and they have a daughter, Genevieve Mary, he finds the same joy he saw in his foster parents’ marriage.
Still, the losses Donovan has experienced never fully disappear, and, in some ways, they are passed down to his daughter. After Genevieve has grown and graduated from college, she begins to learn more about her Native heritage. While living in New York City, Genevieve convinces her father to attend a teaching by two Red Cliff elders in Washington DC. Donovan has almost forgotten he is a Red Cliff Indian, a people with a long and powerful history. But, after a conversation with the elders, he starts a journey that lets him experience the historic route, known as “the wolf trail,” that his ancestors took when they migrated from the east coast down the St. Lawrence Seaway to Lake Superior and eventually to the place where the earth began—Madeline Island.
The sweep of history within Donovan’s journey of self-discovery is part of what gives the reader the feeling that this is a story revealing important truths about those removed from their cultures and traditions. However, that is only part of what Peacock’s tale has to offer: there are also spiritual explorations, revelations about our contemporary society and its clang and clatter, and an examination of the interrelationship between contemporary and ancient cultures—both American Indian and European American. In the end, Beginnings: The Homeward Journey of Donovan Manypenny is a story about human beings, our relationships with each other, and the poetic song of our journeys through history and into the truth of ourselves.