Chogan and the Vision Quest By Larry Buege

Review by Victor R. Volkman

The image shows the cover of a book titled "Chogan and the Vision Quest Book #5: A Native American Novel." The cover features a white deer with antlers set against a lush forest background. Various shades of green from the trees and plants dominate the scene.Chogan and the Vision Quest” is the fifth installment in as many years of this popular Middle-Grade reader. The series begins in the 14th century with “Chogan and the Gray Wolf” which is the first book. Buege sets the series in that era, which he calls “100 years B.C” (Before Columbus), so the stories can be told without the complicating factors of the French and English incursions into the Upper Peninsula. As “Chogan and the Vision Quest” opens, Chogan is about to turn twelve years old and soon to assume some of the burdens of being a man in his Anishinaabe tribe. The vision quest he will embark on late in the book essentially acts as the rite of passage for him. But I am getting ahead of myself!

I had a little bit of trepidation starting a book on the fifth installment but I’m here to say that I found the book extremely accessible in that regard and did not feel as if I had been left out.  Recurring characters are introduced gradually enough that I felt the narrative was opening naturally in front of me.  And what a narrative it is, a complete “Hero’s Journey” in the motif of Joseph Conrad.  Buege gently and deftly introduces the Anishinaabe language and customs without ever becoming pedantic or a bore. Although I previously read about birchbark canoe construction in Deborah K Frontiera’s “Superior Tapestry”, the way Buege pulls It off I found equally enthralling to learn about. For readers who are hungry for even more detail, the author provides five or six web links throughout the text to satisfy curiosity.

It is rare for me to pick up a Middle-Grade reader that is not specifically aimed toward either boys or girls. In Chogan’s world, I found it refreshingly written in such a way as to be equally accessible to both boys and girls. Chogan (“Blackbird”) himself is laconic and prone to thoughtful contemplation of a situation. His sister Kanti (“Sings”), a few years younger, is a chatterbox and often as rash or impulsive as Chogan is stolid. She is Yang to Chogan’s Yin. For example, Chogan will calculate how to turn the strength of the towering bullies Taregan and Ahanu against themselves, but Kanti cannot resist delivering a barb that tells them they’ve been tricked into foolishness. When the bullies plan to wrest away the firewood that Chogan and Kanti have painstakingly gathered in their own arms for an important tribal meeting, Chogan points them to an especially good-looking log which he has previously noticed contains an active hornet’s nest.

Speaking of barbs, Kanti carries a vicious-looking bone-tipped spear for hunting. This weapon belonged to Chogan, but he has taken his grandfather’s bow and passed his old spear down to his sister. This is definitely not how the girls in this tribe roll, and that makes Kanti a bit of a tomboy. As such, she is a perfect comrade-in-arms for a reluctant Chogan whether they are running the trap line of snares or sneaking off in a mad plan to save the village in one of the later episodes of the book.

The band which Chogan and Kanti belong to live a few miles south of the shore of Lake Superior on a small tributary in the vicinity of Au Train Lake (some 10 miles west of where Munising sits today). As the story opens in late summer, a massive thunderstorm rolls through and completely wipes out the waterborne growth of wild rice for miles and miles. Neighboring villages report that this staple crop has been destroyed all along the south shore of Lake Superior. This becomes the impetus for our Hero’s Journey: an expedition must be immediately mounted to gather what trade goods they have in stock—deer skins, moose robes, cord, nets, anything at all of value—to chance it all on a journey of nearly 200 miles each way.  They will traverse by land south to Lake Michigan and then by canoe eventually hugging the coast of Wisconsin deep into the heart of Winnebago country.

As if that were not a difficult enough journey, there are language barriers aplenty.  Grandfather speaks the language of the Sioux, which is similar enough to that of the Winnebago to get some basic points across. However, it will not do for a complicated trade negotiation. As such, they must seek out the well-traveled Winnebago trader named Chunka who is fluent in both languages. Otherwise, their trip is doomed and the band may very well starve due to the difficulty of finding winter game and for the lack of the caloric value of the missing wild rice.  The book moves along quite quickly—all of this background is covered in the first three short chapters!

Since I enjoy watching TV series with Native American themes, I have always found their portrayal of vision quests as laden with unsatisfying hallucinatory visuals. I found Buege’s depiction of Chogan’s vision quest both intriguing and the messages received by the young boy fit the story to a tee. The author lays down the background of how the quests are conducted without the reader feeling like he’s being lectured to. Throughout the book, Chogan has a recurrent nightmare of a whiteout snowstorm with no landmarks in which he loses Kanti. This is all rewardingly wrapped up in the book’s denouement.

I highly recommend “Chogan and the Vision Quest” for boys and girls who enjoy Middle-Grade adventure stories in the great outdoors. The book would be equally at home in an Indian Studies class at a reservation school. Although approaching my sixtieth birthday this year, I rarely reach for a Middle-Grade book, but I found “Chogan and the Vision Quest” to be a welcome sojourn into a world that existed for hundreds of years before today’s problems which are largely of our own invention.


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