As the dust jacket also states, The Matchlock Gun is "a stirring story of American courage...the straightforward, deeply moving tale of a small boy, his smaller sister, their splendid mother and an antique matchlock gun...[that] happens to be a true one."
The story takes place near Albany, New York in 1757, when this part of New York was a British colony mainly populated by Dutch and German settlers. Although Edmonds doesn't explain it as such, the raids he describes were part of the French and Indian War, when the British and the French and their respective Native allies battled for control of eastern North America.
Edward Van Alstyne, the 10 year old hero of the story, lives with his parents, Teunis and Gertrude, and his little sister Trudy, in a snug house near the larger brick house where his grandmother (Widow Van Alstyne) and her slaves live. When Teunis leads the local militia to defend the settlements north of Guilderland, Gertrude decides to stay in the family's cabin, hoping that if the French or Indians (which Indians? It would be nice to know) make it past the militia, their house will be overlooked, since it is not on the main road. Unfortunately, raiders find their house, as described here:
There were five of them, dark shapes on the road, coming from the brick house. They hardly looked like men, the way they moved. They were trotting, stooped over, first one and then another coming up, like dogs sifting up to the scent of food (p. 39).Edward uses the antique gun, and kills three men who chase his mother to an ambush she sets up on their front doorstep. Gertrude is wounded, and the cabin burns, but Trudy and Edward escape, and join their mother outside. Their father returns with the militia (killing another Indian they find, who had been wounded by the single blast Edward shot from the matchlock gun), and then they find Gertrude, Edward, and Trudy with the gun in the dooryard.
"They sneaked by us," Mynderse said. "Who shot them, Edward?"
"I did. With the Spanish Gun," said Edward.
"You've killed more than all the rest of us put together!" Mynderse exclaimed, and he picked up the gun and hefted it (p. 50).Although I did enjoy the suspense, and appreciated Edmonds' writing (his descriptions of the house, their farm, and Trudy's occasionally annoying toddler behavior are especially good), the two passages cited above pretty much stopped me in my tracks. I just don't want my kids reading that.
And it's not that I want to sugarcoat colonial history. My kids have seen the bloodstained bonnet and vest (in a case at the little historical museum near my hometown) that my great-grandfather's grandparents were wearing when they were killed along with thirteen other settlers during the Black Hawk War. But even my surviving great-great-grandmother and her sister - who saw their parents, little sister, and neighbors massacred, and spent two weeks as hostages, and wrote about their experiences - never described their attackers as less than men, or spoke in such a matter-of-fact manner about killing.
I was pretty critical of the subtle racism that I saw in Caddie Woodlawn (see here), which was actually written six years before The Matchlock Gun. Well, maybe I shouldn't have been quite so hard on Caddie, because it can't hold a candle to The Matchlock Gun in this respect. Then again, I don't think Matchlock is a favorite of nearly as many people.
Doris Seale, on the other hand, writing for Oyate (a Native organization that examines how Native peoples are portrayed in literature) notes that The Matchlock Gun "may very well be one of the worst descriptions of Native people in children’s literature, certainly in the 20th Century." Check out her review for some interesting insights on it.
It's a shame, really, because Edmonds is a skilled writer, and I think that this period of our history is an important and interesting one. But I'll be looking elsewhere for stirring stories of American courage for my kids.