Bruchac, Joseph. The Heart of a Chief. 1998. New York: Puffin Books-Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 2001. Print.
The year Chris Nicola, a Penacook Indian boy, begins sixth grade at Rangerville Junior High School, it seems that almost everyone in his life is growing apart. His father is fighting an addiction and doesn’t live with him, the people on his reservation are divided over the possible construction of a casino on their sacred island, one of his best friends stops talking with him and joins the football team, and other kids at school are upset about the challenge to their mascot, the Chiefs—a debate that Chris seems to have initiated through a group project he is working on for Language Arts. Chris is worried, but has no choice but to step up in leadership and look out for his family, friends and community. He even gets invited to join the wrestling team. The group presentation goes so well that the community takes note and begins the process to vote on a new mascot. Chris is disappointed that his father is not around to share in the excitement, but later his dad comes through with an idea that solves the casino problem too.
Contemporary time period. Set in a fictional Penacook reservation and a nearby town in New Hampshire.
Point of View:
1st person (Chris)
Cultural insensitivity, coming of age, maintaining tradition and identity, standing up for yourself
Bruchac uses powerful metaphors and similes as well as humor in his descriptions throughout the book. The author created a believable and likeable young protagonist in Chris. For example, Chris behaves with trepidation (as many sixth-graders would) when faced with entering an upperclassmen restroom by accident, finding one of the biggest guys in school there and fully expecting to be pounded. Likewise, when he smarts off to a teacher or burns all the surveyors’ stakes, he expects trouble. He does not realize when he overhears his aunt talking about Chris’ growing leadership on the phone with his father that she is talking about him. He sees himself as just a kid that doesn’t have much control. Though the author makes allusions to the “bigger picture” for the reader, the narrator doesn’t pick up on them the same way, in keeping with his status as a sixth-grader coming into his own.
Though Joseph Bruchac is not completely of Native American descent (only 1/8 Abenaki), he has professional and personal experience with Native kids. He seems to have drawn upon the realities he witnessed and as described to him by other cultural insiders when creating this novel. He chose to set the story on a fictional reservation, so as not to damage anyone directly, but still tackles many sensitive issues present among these groups. The Native American group that Bruchac featured for his imaginary reservation, the Penacook are actually a Western Abenaki tribe, though not officially recognized as a sovereign nation by the government. Bruchac includes Penacook vocabulary throughout the book and acknowledges common Native American stereotypes as part of the story, which further establishes a neutral bias.
With a 6th grade protagonist, the probable audience for this book is upper elementary or middle school. However, many of the characters’ experiences are not completely unique to tweens, so older readers/high schoolers would likely enjoy this book too, since the conflict and issues in the book are generally not very juvenile (mascot controversy, land use and development for a casino, the health aging guardians).
I truly delighted in this story, even though it seemed predictable that our young hero would probably find a way to save the day by the end. I liked that the novel had a contemporary setting and the kids attended a public school, because non-Native American children could have an easier time identifying with the culture and story, instead of dismissing it as “the other” or as historical and passé. I did feel like Bruchac may have confronted too many Native American issues for the context of one novel, but ultimately they served as evidence for Chris’ maturation and growing leadership.