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Joseph Bruchac is the author of more than thirty books of poetry, fiction, and Native American folktales and legends. Throughout his works, Bruchac explores such subjects as spirituality, the sacredness of the natural world, and Native American history, culture, and literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Native American Storyteller
Born in 1942 near upstate New York’s Adirondack mountains, Bruchac is of Slovak, English, and Abenaki heritage. He was raised by his grandparents, and while he was very close to his Abenaki grandfather, Bruchac notes that the older man would never speak of the Indian blood which showed so strongly in him.” It was during his teenage years that Bruchac began to meet other Native Americans and learn both about his Abenaki heritage and other Indian cultures.
Bruchac began writing at an early age, and even after being beaten up by another student after his second-grade teacher read one of his poems in class, he continued writing. He was also a voracious reader, particularly of children’s stories about animals. He would later write in this genre himself.
Becoming a Teacher
Bruchac earned his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1965 and, in order to pursue a career as an educator, he attended Syracuse University, where he earned a master of arts. From 1966 to 1969 he taught English and literature in Ghana, West Africa. of this experience, he says,
It showed me many things. How much we have as Americans and take for granted. How much our eyes refuse to see because they are blinded to everything in a man’s face except his color. And, most importantly, how human people are everywhere— which may be the one grace that can save us all.
When Bruchac returned to the United States, he began teaching African and black literature and creative writing at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. While teaching, he completed his PhD at Union Graduate School. During this time, he also taught creative writing in prisons around the U.S., where he established writing workshops to provide encouragement to prisoners who wanted to become writers.
Preserving Native Culture
In 1970, Bruchac and his wife Carol founded the Greenfield Review Press to provide an outlet for poetry and short fiction for writers from various cultures. Soon afterwards, he published his first volume of poetry, Indian Mountain and Other Poems (1971). In 1984, he compiled Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Poets, which won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.
Bruchac then returned to exploring his Native American heritage through stories he was telling to his young sons. He wrote down and compiled some of these stories to produce his first collection, Turkey Brother and Other Tales (1976). This was soon followed by another collection, Stone Giants and Flying Heads: Adventure Stories of the Iroquois (1978). He was soon in demand as a speaker at elementary schools, and he began weaving his Native American traditions into activity books for children, resulting in the best-selling books Keepers of the Earth (1988) and Keeper of the Animals (1991).
Bruchac also began writing his own stories that were similar to but not copies of Native American legends. Turtle Meat and Other Stories (1992) was his first collection of original stories, followed soon after by his first novel, Dawn Land (1993). He has since written, collaborated on, and edited several dozen books for various audiences.
Bruchac now lives with his wife in the house where he grew up. He and others in his family work on projects to preserve the Abenaki culture and language as well as traditional Native American skills.
Works in Literary Context
Bruchac is best known for his children’s books depicting Native American tales and legends, but his literary output also includes poetry, short story collections, and novels, and he has written for a diverse audience, from children to academics. Bruchac’s creative works are quite diverse within themselves as well, incorporating various styles, devices, and voices. For example, in Turtle Meat and Other Stories he includes such literary forms as adventure tales, childhood reminiscences, and adaptations of the traditional Native American trickster myth.
In addition to his creative works, Bruchac has also edited or co-edited numerous anthologies of Native American folklore and Asian American poetry. His Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Poets won an American Book Award in 1984. He is also the founding editor of the Greenfield Review Press, a respected publisher of Native American literature, and is on the editorial board of the journal Studies in American Indian Literatures. Through these literary and editorial activities, Bruchac works to preserve and transmit Native culture.
Writing Down an Oral Tradition
Many of Bruchac’s works exist in the potentially paradoxical position of recording in writing an essentially oral tradition. As Patricia Craig points out, ”Native American storytelling was a means of transmitting the history of the group from generation to generation. The storyteller formed the link between the traditions of the past and those of the present.” Bruchac is able to transmit this history success fully through the printed work. As a Publisher’s Weekly reviewer noted, ”Even on the printed page, Bruchac’s tales ring of the oral tradition he helps preserve.”
Reflecting Native Concerns
Much of Bruchac’s work is an attempt to preserve Abenaki culture and transmit Native American values. He has been very successful at doing this through his collections of stories for children, particularly his best-selling series of children’s books, Keepers of the Earth (1988) and Keeper of the Animals (1991). These are two of his many works that use authentic Native American tales translated by Bruchac himself. These particular books illustrate lessons in natural history and ecology that reflect the environmental concerns of Bruchac’s Native American heritage. The Keepers books are highly popular with schools, museums, and nature centers. Bruchac’s other works that translate or retell Native American tales are similarly oriented around reflecting the Native American respect for the natural world.
Works in Critical Context
Bruchac’s collections of Native American stories and folk tales in particular have been highly praised for their incorporation of numerous personas, viewpoints, narrative techniques, and dialects. Critics have also lavishly praised Bruchac’s diverse storytelling abilities. Carl L. Bankston III wrote,
Some writers have a single story they tell over and over again, in the same voice, renaming the characters and rearranging the events. … Others, the true storytellers, change constantly, adopting a new tone for each tale, submerging themselves in their characters, producing the unexpected in each new narrative. Joseph Bruchac is one of the true storytellers.
Turtle Meat and Other Stories
Bruchac’s first collection of stories, Turtle Meat and Other Stories (1992) was well received by reviewers, who noted his strong storytelling abilities. Publisher’s Weekly called it ”highly entertaining,” and Bankston compared Bruchac to ”a storyteller seated before a campfire.” Bruchac has also been commended for the quality of his writing. Bankston asserts that Bruchac ”can express himself in startling imagery.” A Kirkus Reviews critic noted, ”Much of the charm here is in the writing and in the slyly laconic, self-aware humor of Indian conversation. Style, humor, and grace enliven familiar themes; atypical for folkloric writing, most characters emerge three-dimensional and real.”
The Keepers Books
Bruchac is well known for Keepers of the Earth (1988) and Keeper of the Animals (1991), his best-selling collections of stories designed to inspire elementary-school children to understand their connections to the natural world. Reviewers have generally praised these books for providing an exciting and compelling introduction to ecology and environmental issues and for giving teachers and children interesting activities to help them learn about nature. However, some reviewers in the educational press have noted that they have a limited role in teaching young readers. Peter Croskery notes about Keepers of the Animals that the ”biological sections of the book are not well done” and that it needed ”better technical editing.” Anne Fuller writes in Science Books & Films, ”I recommend this book as spice for a science program, but it cannot stand alone as a complete ecology curriculum.”
- Alderdice, Kit. ”Joseph Bruchac: Sharing a Native-American Heritage.” Publishers Weekly (February 19, 1996): 191-192.
- Bankston, Carl L., III. ”Telling the Truth in Tales.” San Francisco Review of Books (May-June 1993): 8-9.
- —— ”Testimonies of Native American Life.” Bloomsbury Review (May-June 1993): 5.
- Bodin, Madeline. ”Keeping Tradition Alive.” Publishers Weekly (December 14, 1992): 23.
- Craig, Patricia. ”Sage Spirit: Abenaki Storyteller Joseph Bruchac Tells Tales.” Library of Congress Information Bulletin (November 28, 1994): 448.
- Di Spoldo, Nick. ”Writers in Prison.” America (January 22, 1983): 50-53.
- Frey, Yvonne. ”Review of Turtle Meat and Other Stories.” School Library Journal (December 1992): 137.
- ”A review of Turtle Meat and Other Stories. Kirkus Reviews (October 1, 1992): 1201.
- ”A review of Turtle Meat and Other Stories. Publishers Weekly, (October 19, 1992): 73.
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