With “Two Roads,” Joseph Bruchac again demonstrates his brilliance with a novel that inspires as much as it teaches readers about a neglected part of US history, the treatment of veterans after the first World War. The compelling story also shares very much more — including ideas about morality among the hoboes of that time, prejudicial treatment of Native Americans and prejudicial treatment by Native Americans, government wrongdoing, and the importance of family and friends.
The main character is twelve-year-old Cal Black, who, with his father, has been riding the rails since they lost their farm to the bank after Cal’s mother died. Cal had been a good student in the primary grades, but when enrollment dropped, the school closed. And as is pointed out in the story, if one didn’t have a home or an address, it was impossible to attend school in those days. In 1932, Cal’s father, a WWI veteran, decides to join the “army” of veterans converging to march on Washington, DC, to demand early payment of the promised bonus each veteran was to receive from the government.
To keep Cal safe while he is in DC, Cal’s father takes Cal to the Challagi Indian School, and he tells Cal a family secret. Cal’s dad is a Creek Indian. This explains a lot about his father’s response every time Cal learned about the “savages” in America in school, and Cal’s whole world seems tilted as his identity is changed. He’s upset at being separated from his dad, but Cal trusts his dad implicitly and agrees to attend school there.
What Cal finds at the school surprises him. He finds a sense of belonging and true friends. What the reader will find by reading the novel is not surprising, but it is definitely eye-opening. Bruchac educates the reader about historical events, including how terrible the schools for Native Americans were; but the story is also a commentary on prejudice and how since that time, almost a century ago, there are important issues that have not changed in our country.
Cal’s father explains to him why he kept his Indian heritage a secret:
“Son, a man needs the chance to make choices. I thought my making the choice for you of being white would be the best. But that was before this whole country went to hell in a handbasket. There are no opportunities now unless you were born a rich man. Doesn’t matter now whether you are white or red. When you are without a job and you have no food and no idea about where to go, you are not better or worse than an Indian.”
Once Cal gets to the Indian School, he finds that there are ranks of inclusion among the students. Because Cal, like his Armenian mother and his Creek father, is dark haired, he is included in the group of Creek Indians, but another student whose father was Creek but whose mother was Norwegian is excluded and called “white.” Ironically, the students of darker color are shunned as well and form their own group. So this historical fiction novel has implications about life and prejudice today that are important for young readers to think about. Without naming it, Bruchac virtually defines the reality of white privilege.
“Some of those white-looking Indian kids grew up thinking of themselves as Indians, maybe even speaking some of the language. Me, I grew up just thinking of myself as a person. Being white means you have the luxury to do that. It means not worrying about who you are. You know your identity, even if you’re a hobo.”
This book would be a fabulous choice for a read aloud, sparking discussions about heritage, family, friends, skin color, and identity. From a historical perspective, the almost century-old march on Washington echoes the current marches on Washington, and the indifference of Hoover might seem to some to echo the indifference of government to the pleas of those marching in current times.
This book is so filled with literary riches, it should be required reading for middle grade readers in a setting where they can discuss the themes and messages that permeate the story. It’s historical fiction at its best.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Dial Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.