See Jane. See Jane Learn. See Jane Grow

Jane Gibbs: Little Bird That Was Caught
Anne E. Neuberger
Ramsey County Historical Society, 1998
$16.95 (hardcover) $ 6.95 (paperback)

It's written and illustrated by Twin Cities talent and published by our own Ramsey County Historical Society. It's the ultimate PC read for eight- to fourteen-year-olds. But the best reason to pick up Jane Gibbs: Little Bird That Was Caught is the fact that it reads like a heart-to-heart with a brave and tender young girl.

The 230-page biography follows Jane DeBow Gibbs's real-life 1834-35 journey from New York to (what would later become) Minnesota. Author Anne E. Neuberger's clear, simple narrative revolves around Jane's experiences. She treats Jane's feelings with respect and makes her observations sound quietly profound. The narrative musters a little bit of justice for the real Jane DeBow, who was actually handed over to a Westward-bound family by neighbors who had been caring for Jane while her mother lay dying. Jane overhears the grownups agree that it's the best thing--a relief to the struggling DeBow family and a deserved gift to the Stevenses, who had recently lost their own daughter. Like any resilient five-year-old, Jane tries to make sense of her situation. In the Stevens's covered wagon in the cold rain, when she cries out for her mama and gets only Mrs. Stevens, she wraps her quilt "more tightly around her, to close out the thunder and the voice that was not Mama's." Jane clings to her belief that this is an adventure from which she'll return, safe and sound, to her Mama and her New York home.

She doesn't. And the Stevens family's creepy hypocrisy doesn't stop with Jane's "charitable" abduction. The Reverend Jedediah Stevens--no Pa Ingalls--is the archetypal colonizing zealot, barking Biblical references at his family, fellow missionaries, and the Dakota people while he acts the antithesis of compassion. Mrs. Stevens and the boys follow along, sneaking bits of warmth and joy when the Reverend isn't looking. Author Neuberger's simple, flowing narrative clashes with the disturbing complexities of life in the Stevens family. The contrast makes clear some important points without beating young readers over the head: that it's wrong and all-too-easy for grownups to exploit children; for people to wield religion in order to abuse and oppress; and for groups of people to devastate other groups of people.

None of this escapes Jane. She learns to watch out for the "look of thunder" in the Reverend's eyes, and she decides fast that his ominous, scripture-filled warnings are flimsy, noting that "too many nights she had gone to bed frightened, and awakened to find everything was fine." Jane wastes no time on protest. Rather, she spends as much time as possible opening herself to friendships with the Dakota people. Far more than her missionary caretakers, Jane learns to communicate, to appreciate differences, and to respect ways of life that are different from her own.

One of the story's most joyful moments is the first touch between Jane and Winona, a young Dakota girl. The Reverend had sent Jane on a blind search through the village for a fellow missionary, and, without hesitation, Jane stops at a Dakota bark lodge in search of help. She finds it, and a friend--"the prettiest little girl Jane had ever seen . . . Winona grasped Jane's hand and the two girls walked through the cornfields to Lake Calhoun." From this point on, the story is rich with Jane's exploration of Dakota life. Hand-in-hand with Winona she discovers Dakota games, toys, foods, words, and customs. She grows closer and closer to Winona's family, ultimately exposing the abduction that brought her to Minnesota. With this quiet confession Jane earns the Dakota name that means "Little Bird That Was Caught."

Delicate line drawings by illustrator Tessie Bundick suit the narrative perfectly. Sketches of Jane, Winona, and others are both realistic and enchanting. Early in the story a small sketch of Jane's tiny boots alongside a large, open satchel speaks volumes about Jane's quiet optimism. The Dakota people and their accoutrements--food, utensils, toys, clothes, and homes--are drawn with distinctiveness and softness that suggest Jane's own delight and respect.

Too often affirmative messages for girls, depictions of well-oiled diversity and lessons in local history, are weighty with didactic drabness. Not here. Any young reader who devours the Little House or American Girl books will take pleasure in the Jane Gibbs story--maybe more so, since local readers can skip barefoot by the very same Lake Calhoun as this book's brave heroine.

Jane Gibbs: Little Bird That Was Caught is available through the Ramsey County Historical Society's Web site, The book was published in 1998 as part of the expansion of the Gibbs Farm Museum (the home Jane later occupied) to include the Stevens family's log and sod house, a Dakota bark lodge, and other structures and materials from Jane's early life in Minnesota.


Ann Rosenquist Fee is a regular reviewer of books for Minnesota Parent.

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