A shorter version of this review of Terese Svoboda's Bohemian Girl first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers on September 2, 2011.
Temporarily enslaved by a Pawnee to settle one of her father's bets, twelve-year-old Harriet clings to the promise of someday being reunited with her family. Ankles hobbled, she is forced into hard labor, biding her time until her sentence is complete. When she realizes the Pawnee has no intention of letting her go, she decides to slip her bonds and take off east in search of her father. Alone in the tall grass, she thinks:
I have no fear now. The Indian gave me so much fear at the end, it came in buckets until I had no choice but to drink it down and be Bohemian.Harriet's journey across the Great Plains during the Civil War years is neither romantic nor gratuitously violent; it is simply her reality: from hungry nights alone to run-ins with soldiers and chance meetings with other wanderers. As a consequence of one of those encounters, Harriet takes on the care of a baby boy when another young girl, claiming to be his sister, decides to abandon him. Making the best of every possible opportunity, Harriet finds a way to raise the boy, sacrificing her own desires to do right by him, even as those she loves and trusts unhesitatingly leave her behind.
I walk right into the blue of this country's sky, the color of the glass Bohemians keep one or two bottles of in every house. If I had any sense I would change my skin and clothes to this blue so no Indian could find me, new or old. I could be a walking blue and lost to the eyes of all. (32–33)
Although quick thinking and a level head serve Harriet well, 19th-century Nebraska offers no safe haven for a single woman. The American West of Teresa Svoboda's Bohemian Girl is both harsher and more ordinary than that portrayed by Hollywood. Harriet is not caught up in an Indian raid or lured by pimps, instead she is involved in the more personal conflict of staying alive without losing her "true self."
Svoboda weaves her varied talents (published poet and winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize) into Bohemian Girl, infusing her prose with poetry and her fiction with truth to craft a beautifully written story of a young girl's determination to live with honor. From the first page, readers will be drawn to Harriet's unique perspective ("If I look into the perfect face of the river, with no rock to make a muscle in its flow or tree stump to divide it, I see Pa in it") and will later marvel that even after years of sacrifice, loneliness, and sorrow she can still pause to watch the "quail skitter up in the new evening-pale light" along the river and hope for a better future.
These links lead to affiliate programs.