Our Neighbors: The Story of Sacketts Brook

Saturday January 26, 2013

I wish I knew the language of the land. Some know it so well. They can look at a clearing ringed by stonewalls, or the pattern of ferns along a mountain stream, and they understand the soil, the animal life and the human history all written there.

If I could, as Tom Wessels puts it, read the forested landscape, this place would feel even more like home, I think. What if I could grieve the loss of the white pines, seeing the scrub brush in its place? What if I knew when to be quiet and still, to better hear pied-billed grebe? What if I could picture a long ago Abenaki morning, catching salmon in the roaring Great Falls?

I caught a piece of this knowledge talking with Stuart Strothman about his new book, "Sackett." The novel imagines the life of the man after whom Sacketts Brook in Putney might be named, and it offers up a close reading of the historical landscape and the people who lived, loved, and fought on there.

"The book began in 2003," Stuart says, taking a moment to chat before heading to the Guilford Middle School, where he has been a Language Arts teacher for nine years. "I have been involved with the Putney Historical Society for a long time, and we were in the process of writing the town history for our 250th anniversary."

In the course of painstaking research, Stuart began seeing references to a man named Sackett, an Abenaki who was responsible for a number of raids on colonial settlements in the area. Stuart was intrigued by this figure, as fleet in the historical record as he was reputed to be in life.

"I was especially interested because I live on the Sacketts Brook, and there is no record of it, really no history around it at all," he says. "That's quite unusual for this area. But it looked like this man could be part of the story."

Strothman had long been entranced by the natural world and the history and culture of its indigenous people. As a child in upstate New York, he spent a lot of time in the woods, touching on the wildness that remained. Later, he became a sailor on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, helping both rehabilitate the river and teach others about its ecology and history.

"I became very interested in fish," he says with a smile. "I was fascinated with the different species, how they survive, how they live -- especially salmon. I have to say, the damming of the Connecticut River, and the destruction of the salmon migratory routes there, was a cataclysmic event in the river's history. I do wish I could have seen the river when the salmon ran."

As an undergrad at SUNY New Paltz, Stuart studied Native American history, and later received his master's in education at SUNY Albany. Moving to Putney in the mid-1990s, he immersed himself in the rich and complicated history of his new home.

The tantalizing mentions of Sackett and Sacketts Brook stayed with him after the Putney town history was complete, particularly the slip of a story of a young girl, Elizabeth Sackett, whom Indians abducted from her home in Westfield, Mass., during a raid in 1682.

"'Indians' is the word used in the historical record, and often among Native Americans today, so that's the word I use," Stuart explains. "Anyway, these raids and abductions, which we know about from account by survivors who returned to their colonial families, were very common."

He dug through online records, through old town histories and old family histories, and traveled to historical sites from Westfield to Lake Champlain, to piece together a possible sequence of events for Elizabeth, in which she became part of a Pocumtuck clan family, married a Pocumtuck man, and bore two children. Pocumtucks were a Western Massachusetts clan, and among their most famous leader was Wawanolewat, also known as Greylock.

His research encompassed King Phillip's War, the French and Indian War, daily life in pre-Revolutionary War Puritan villages, and daily life in the many different Indian villages, refugee camps, and settlements along the Kwanitewkt, or Connecticut River.

"From there, I created this story, starting with Elizabeth's abduction. In my telling, she is taken by Greylock and becomes part of his family, though of course there's no absolute proof of this. But her family's land in Westfield, called ‘Woronoco' by the Indians, was originally his family's home, so it's not impossible," he says.

Inspired by an ambitious Language Arts students to begin writing the novel, he labored to bring the history to life, imagining Elizabeth's journey from Puritanical house to Woronoke-style wigwam, from a cold, severe culture to one rich in family, geographical, and spiritual relationships. He imagined the reality of the raids and the experience of young Sackett growing up with ties to two cultures. He imagines the devastation wrought upon Abenaki life by disease and war.

Most of all, Strothman explores the land as it might have been then. Plants, animals, bodies of water, the glorious salmon define and enrich the day-to-day experiences of his characters.

"I am extremely interested in how natives cultures interacted with and shaped the land," he says. "And in the book, I wanted to use Abenaki names for plants and animals and places, especially as Elizabeth left her colonial childhood behind."

Through his extensive research and imaginative powers, Strothman created a possible history for the brook that has flowed through Putney for centuries, in the process reading the landscape of the past, and bringing to lovingly described life.

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at reformer.ourneighbors@gmail.com.


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