First Second goes to Mohawk Country — By Kate Culkin
First Second, Henry Holt/Roaring Brook's graphic novel imprint, continues to push the boundaries of graphic literature with George O'Connor's Journey into Mohawk Country, a book-length comics adaptation of a 16th-century Dutch trader's diary. Journey will debut in September with an initial print run of about 15,000 copies, and First Second editorial director Mark Siegel sees it as a groundbreaking effort that will earn praise as an unusual comics work and as a work of history. "It is an important historical journal, with wonderful art by O'Connor," he says.
Journey tells the story of Harmen Meyndertsz von den Bogaert, who in 1634 traveled from Fort Orange (present-day Albany) with two companions deep into Mohawk Indian territory to forge a new trade agreement for beaver pelts on behalf of the Dutch West India Company. Their efforts helped ensure the survival of New Netherlands, which included what is now Manhattan, thus shaping the history of New York City and North America. In an interview with PWCW, debut graphic novel artist O'Connor explains that he learned of von den Bogaert while reading Russell Shorto's Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America (Vintage). He then sought out William Staarna and Charles Gehring's translation of the journal. His subsequent research included sketching hundreds of artifacts in museums: "Basically, anyplace that had some time-appropriate collections of Iroquois artifacts, I dropped by."
"Doing Journey into Mohawk Country was like scratching an itch I didn't know I had," says O'Connor, author of the popular children's books Kapow!, Kersplash (both S&S Children's) and Sally and the Some-thing (Roaring Brook). The final product represents a impressive collaboration among O'Connor, Siegel and colorist Hilary Sycamore. O'Connor's first draft presented realistic but dry renderings of the journal's events. Siegel encouraged the artist to portray the emotion and humor of the Dutchman's experience, while keeping his words intact. O'Connor believes he ultimately grasped the "soul of the story," which is "the tale of these three young men sent into the wilderness of North America, with really no preparation or support to speak of, and how the experience transformed them." Sycamore's rich palette of browns, yellows, and purples is critical to the book's emotional resonance, and O'Connor praises her talent and her patience: "She would endure these long conversations with me, filled with many pointless diversions and trivia I had picked up, as I explained what I hoped she could accomplish with the color, and she would come back with something even better than I had envisioned."
"O'Connor," says Siegel, "is a very good self-promoter. He used to work at [Manhattan children's bookstore] Books of Wonder, and knows a lot of people and a lot of places." The author will tour Hudson Valley bookstores in the fall. First Second featured the book prominently in its displays at the MoCCA Art Festival, San Diego Comic-Con and American Library Association, and will feature it at the New York Comic-Con as well; copies were distributed at Book Expo. Material from the hundreds of sketchbooks O'Connor created will be posted on the First Second Web site (www.firstsecondbooks.com/).
First Second is hoping Journey's story and illustrations will appeal to a wide audience, particularly history buffs, librarians, teachers and young adults, as well as fans of innovative graphic novels. "The whole thing can be read in many different ways by different people," notes Siegel. Gene Luen Yang, a high school teacher and the author of American Born Chinese, also on First Second's fall list, is creating a teacher's guide for the book.
Historical works are an important part of First Second's publishing plans. "The graphic novel can be such a lovely way to work with history, because there are some things you can really pick up with the text, and some with the illustrations, without either weighing the material down," Siegel believes. The prominent historian Catherine Clinton is currently working with the artist Tanitoc on two projects for the company: Booth, about John Wilkes Booth, and another with the working title Constitution.
Working on Journey has been satisfying experience for O'Connor, but he's back working on children's picture books. Seigel says he is now working on a book called Uncle Bigfoot for Roaring Brook, about a boy who believes his uncle is a sasquatch, and spent six months in Southern Europe researching ideas for a graphic novel that will draw on the elements of Greco-Roman mythology.
As for his hopes for Journey, his first graphic novel, O'Connor says, "I really hope that Journey into Mohawk Country really turns a lot of people onto this amazing and almost completely overlooked period of history."
O'Connor's graphic novel is an example of the kind of work that will engage younger teens and spark interest in a potentially dull and little-known segment of American History. Based on the 1634 journal of Dutch trader Harmen Meynderstz van den Bogaert, this describes his venture into what is now the state of New York. The 23-year-old interacted with Native American tribes, establishing trust in order to acquire wildly popular beaver pelts used in European hat-making. O'Connor incorporates rich browns and blues against a black backdrop in the work's panels that include both interior and exterior scenes. Readers can almost feel the extreme cold and the harsh conditions of the region. The tribes' lifestyles are presented favorably and their customs enhanced by the artwork. Several facial expressions are presented with exaggerated juvenile quirkiness, making the work's interest level as definitely middle-school. Though the price tag is high for the format, the book's quality ensures its place in studies of pre-Revolutionary America.
O'Connor, writer and illustrator of the entertaining children's book Kapow!, puts pictures to the actual diary entries of Dutch trader Van den Bogaert, who set off through New York's Indian territory in 1634, searching for a source of valuable beaver pelts. More than simply illustrating the account, O'Connor fills it with a new life, expanding on ideas only touched upon, creating action and conflict, casting some welcome humor into the Dutchman's somewhat dry original commentary. While not exactly fast paced, the odyssey is filled with unusual facts of Native American life, like the frequency of bear meat in their diets, the strange practice of curing certain sicknesses by vomiting on the patient, and peculiar combination of both serving and being bemused by foreigners. O'Connor himself seems well versed on the subject, and his pictures conjure an authentic sense of a sparse and demanding landscape as they offer a glimpse into a lost culture. The diary is absent of racism, but there is a single frame of nudity and a bloodless depiction of a scalping. —Jesse Karp
In 1634, an employee of the Dutch West India Company volunteered to find out the reason beaver-pelt trade at Fort Orange (present-day Albany) was taking a nose-dive. Bogaert and two companions, Willem and Jeromus, took a six-week journey to meet with their former Indian suppliers and learn the truth behind rumors of the new trading alliance that seemed to be undercutting business. O'Connor takes Bogaert's terse record of the journey and creates not only a literal pictorial rendering of their adventures in graphic novel format but fleshes it out with credible, if speculative, subplots that play out only in the full-color sequential art. Graphic novel format is, admittedly, an unusual choice for reproducing a colonial document, but O'Connor brings it off with panache. Working within the comic book idiom, star-of-his-own-story Bogaert is the bright-eyed, Doonesbury-esque sharp guy, his sidekicks are tall-and-lean and short-and-round, and most of the workaday Indians encountered are heavy-browed and solemn, except when they're snickering or forehead-slapping over the white guys' ineptitude on the trail. Arenias, the Sinneken leader who ultimately saves their financial bacon and guides them back to Fort Orange, gets the role of superhero with his pumped-up muscles, brilliant-toothed smile, unshakable benevolence, and possession of the beautiful, loving wife whom Bogaert has been lusting after. O'Connor's particular skill lies in taking a snippet of the translated historical journal (e.g., "We came at one hour into the evening to a cabin one half mile from the first castle. No one was there but women") and, while remaining true to the known course of events, launching a visual back story (e.g., in which Willem gets himself a girlfriend) rife with humor or tension. The 1634 encounter captures a moment in early Indian/white contact when, although disease had insinuated itself into native communities, the two races still met as equals at the pelt bargaining table, confused and skeptical of each other¹s customs, but knowing a good deal when they saw one. Notes on geography and sources are included, as is a glossary of terms. EB
From December 11, 1634, to January 21, 1635, Dutch trader Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert traveled one hundred miles from Fort Orange, on the tip of what is now known as Manhattan, into the heart of the Mohawk tribe. The French had begun butting into the Dutch beaver pelt trade, and van den Bogaert and his friends needed to protect their market to prevent the failure of the colony. During the trip van den Bogaert kept a journal, unabridged and unaltered except for the translation, that O'Connor uses as the basis for the book. O'Connor handles his duties well in his first graphic-format rendering. His pictures are funny and interesting and keep the flow of the book going. Starna and Gehring's translation is easy to read, while still retaining the work's old-fashioned flavor. A glossary at the back of the book helps with Dutch or Mohawk words that could be confusing, although most questions are answered by the illustrations.
The main problem with placing this title in nonfiction is that O'Connor's interpretations of the action could be taken as what actually happened as opposed to an artist's liberty. The book is a good choice for libraries looking for something different for their graphic novel shelves, but it should be paired with the original work or other book on the history of New Amsterdam colony in order to get the full picture of the times. Snow Wildsmith.
Review in 9/1/06 KLIATT
This is an adaptation of the journal of Harman Meyndersantsz van den Bogaert, a Dutch barber-surgeon. In December 1634, he and two companions journeyed into upstate New York. Their mission: forge new trade agreements with the Indian tribes in the area. In the 1630s, beaver hats were all the rage in Europe, so beaver pelts were of vital importance to the small settlement of New Amsterdam. The Dutchmen traveled from village to village, dining on such delicacies as beaver meat, beans lathered in bear grease and cooked pumpkin. They watched a village play war games, saw how Indian healing worked (the doctors thrust sticks down their throats and vomited on the patient), and attempted to buy a tame bear. Since they journeyed in the heart of the winter, there was a lot of snow.
Journey Into Mohawk Country is a good choice for graphic novel collections with an educational emphasis. Bogaert's journal provides a wealth of interesting historical details, but in itself is rather dry reading. It is left to O'Connor to fill in the details, which he does by creating visual gags, giving his protagonists personalities they probably didn't possess, and making up stories that didn't happen--for instance, Willem Tomassen (one of the Dutchmen) gets a girlfriend. Journey Into Mohawk Country contains mild comic book violence and is recommended for junior high and high school graphic novel collections.
George O'Connor, illustrated by the author