In Molly’s American History class, they are learning about the Wabanaki Indians. The teacher, Mr. Reed, explains that Maine is the only state that requires schools to teach Native American history. The Wabanakis often had to migrate across the water, so they had to carry only what they needed. The class is assigned a project on “portaging” for which they need to interview an older relative or neighbor about their “literal and metaphorical” journeys and what they chose to carry and “leave behind.” Molly can’t think of anyone else, so she plans to ask Vivian. She knows that Vivian was adopted and grew up with wealthy parents in the Midwest, and that she took on the family business. She believes Vivian has had a “happy, stable life” and worries that her story will be boring, but supposes, “even the rich have their problems.”
Studying the subject of local Native American history in class has the potential to bring Molly’s own cultural history and identity to the forefront. The concept of “portaging,” or carrying one’s belongings from one place to the next (specifically in a boat or canoe), symbolically describes both Molly and Vivian’s experiences as displaced orphans. Molly’s perception that Vivian has had a “happy, stable life” reveals how careful Vivian has been not to disclose the details of her childhood. Molly’s perception is completely contrary to the reality of Vivian’s life.
Molly recalls her own childhood. She remembers having to “forage” for food in the refrigerator, her mother taking her to church on Easter, and planting crocuses outside their trailer. At the Indian Island school, she learned about the history and culture of the Penobscot tribe [a part of the Wabanaki confederacy]. She was named for Molly Molasses, a Penobscot elder attributed with m’teoulin, a magic that helped her protect her people. This year in Mr. Reed’s class, Molly has discovered that Wabanaki women had more rights than European women, and has learned how quickly the population was reduced by disease. She had always imagined the Wabanakis as “guerilla” fighters, and so she is enraged to learn that they made multiple failed attempts at peaceful reconciliation. In her classroom, she looks at a framed portrait of Molly Molasses, “looking for answers to questions she doesn’t know how to ask.”
Molly’s memories of her childhood reflect both positive and negative experiences, suggesting that she has a realistic view of her past. The story of Molly’s name and namesake highlights her ongoing connection to her past and Native culture as part of her identity. Molly’s experience of learning the truth about the Wabanakis’ history reflects the difference between perception and reality—or at least how certain things are taught or assumed as reality. The questions Molly “doesn’t know how to ask” reflect her sense of confusion and indignation at the losses and injustices of her tribe’s and her own personal history.
On Molly’s eighth birthday, she and her mother celebrated with ice cream sandwiches and a Sara Lee cake from the mini-mart where Molly’s mother worked. Her mom called Molly’s father repeatedly, angry that he hadn’t remembered. After Molly went to bed, her father came home “swaying.” He woke her up gently and gave her three pewter charms. The bird, he explained, was a raven. The raven would help protect Molly from bad spells she “wasn’t even aware of.” The cute teddy bear was actually a Maine black bear, he said, because “appearances can be deceiving.” The bear would give Molly bravery. The fish, he explained, would help Molly ward off the “bad magic” of people who tried to influence her into wrongdoing. Molly’s father promised to buy her a chain for the charms. Two weeks later he died in a car accident, and it was only years later that Molly bought her own chain.
Despite her limited time and money, Molly’s mother did what she could to show her care for Molly. The word “swaying” suggests that Molly’s father was out drinking. This indicates that like Vivian’s father, he had trouble with alcohol abuse. The animal charms shows how Molly’s father values his cultural heritage and wants to share it with her. The charms—though they don’t seem to be “traditional” at all (a teddy bear, for example)—come to symbolize Molly’s cultural identity and her sense of connection and belonging to her family and the past. Unbeknownst to her father, the powers he attributes to each animal represent qualities Molly will need to survive after the loss of her parents.