Malian’s Song

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(HOST) Commentator Tom Slayton has been looking over the latest children’s book from the Vermont Folklife Center. He says it takes a different point of view on the French and Indian War.

(SLAYTON) As a boy, I regarded Rogers’ Rangers and their leader, the English Major Robert Rogers, as heroes. It’s not really surprising; that was the general impression in Vermont then. Rogers and his men were generally thought of as Indian fighters, heroes of the French and Indian War. And so on.

But there are two sides to every story, and Rogers is not a hero to everyone. Recent research has cast his exploits in a different light.

Now, a new children’s book, just published by the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, tells the other side of the story. The book, entitled “Malian’s Song,” tells the story of the raid in 1759 on the Abenaki village of Odanak from the point of view of the people Rogers and his men attacked – the Abenaki.

“Malian’s Song,” written by Marge Bruchac and illustrated by William Maughan, is poignant, moving – and amazing. It is history told from the point of view of the dispossessed, a reaffirmation of the power of memory and the storyteller’s art.

The crux of the tale is simple. Malian Obomsawin is a little Abenaki girl living in the ancient way of her people in Odanak, a village north of Montreal. One night, with no explanation, her father bundles her up and carries her to a secret hiding place. He then leaves her and slips away through the forest, carring his rifle. Others explain to Malian that the village had received a sudden warning that they were about to be attacked by the English.

Most of the Abenaki were able to walk quietly away from their village into the safety of the forest. From a hidden vantage point, they watched in dismay and horror as their village and all the food they had stored for the coming winter was put to the torch by Rogers and his Rangers.

Mailian’s father, killed in the fighting, never returns. Malian and the other surviving Abenaki suffer through a winter of sorrow and starvation, and she writes a “lonesome song” about the loss of her village, her father, and her friends.

Little Malian’s sad song and sad tale were passed down, person-to-person, through generations of Abenakis. They were eventualy shared with the Vermont Folklife Center by Jeanne Brink, a contemporary descendant of Malian who lives in Vermont.

The little known Abenaki version of the attack stands in sharp contrast with the “official” version promoted by Robert Rogers after his disastrous retreat back through the wilds of Vermont. Instead of the two hundred Indian deaths claimed by Rogers, the Abenaki account says that only thirty-two Abenaki were killed, while Rogers ultimately lost forty-three men – more than half his force.

But regardless of the conflicting claims and body counts, the poignancy and drama of Malian’s story remains. It is a touching reminder of the Abenaki people’s strength and courage – and the value of a story, remembered and well-told.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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