In a blurb for Thomas D. Peacock’s novel “Beginnings: The Homeward Journey of Donovan Manypenny,” Marcie Rendon, the White Earth Ojibwe mystery writer, rightly calls the book “a beautiful coming home story.” “Coming home” resonates for those who, like Donovan Manypenny, have experienced cultural displacement.
Much classic American writing explores the need for its protagonists to escape from home to achieve full actualization as individuals. Like much Native writing, Peacock’s “Beginnings” inverts this narrative tradition as we travel with Manypenny, a 53-year-old schoolteacher who has lived for more than 40 years in Massachusetts, back to his home at the Red Cliff Ojibwe nation in northern Wisconsin.
Manypenny grew up at Red Cliff in the 1950s and early 1960s with doting grandparents after his mother, who struggled with substance abuse problems, left him with them. When he’s 10, both grandparents pass on and he is adopted by a white couple. Shortly thereafter, the family moves to Massachusetts, where Donovan comes of age, marries, raises a daughter and pursues his teaching career.
One of the many things I like about this novel is that Peacock avoids the melodrama this setup might allow. Donovan’s adoptive parents are loving and supportive, not coldblooded tyrants. He doesn’t suffer the traumatic destruction of his Ojibwe identity. Rather, what he experiences is a drifting away from who his grandparents raised him to be. He no longer knows who he is as an Ojibwe person. Not-knowing is explored by many Native writers, and the process of coming to know who you are as a Native person can be complex, frustrating and rewarding, as Susan Harness’ recent memoir “Bitterroot” illustrates.
Donovan Manypenny’s story is not one of frustration. In response to his college-age daughter’s prompting, Donovan undertakes a journey home. In reading about Ojibwe history, Donovan has learned about the generations-long migration the Ojibwe people undertook centuries ago from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior. Donovan decides to replicate this journey, planning his trip around the seven stopping points that structure the epic Ojibwe migration narrative.
Rather than exploring the emotional complexities of being an adoptee, Peacock delves into Donovan’s process of learning about how the great migration created the Ojibwe people and how it allows him to re-create himself as an Ojibwe person, along with the help, intentional and unintentional, of many along the way.
I won’t say too much about these encounters, but I will say that they are emotionally satisfying and explore the many complicated ways there are of being Native in the 21st century. What Donovan Manypenny realizes, especially as we draw near the end of his story, is that maybe he hadn’t forgotten as much as he thought.
Carter Meland, a White Earth Ojibwe descendant, teaches American Indian Literature at the University of Minnesota. His novel “Stories for a Lost Child,” a finalist for the 2018 Minnesota Book Award, also explores this theme of not-knowing.
Beginnings: The Homeward Journey of Donovan Manypenny
By: Thomas D. Peacock.
Publisher: Holy Cow! Press, 171 pages, $15.95.
Events: Signing at 3 p.m. Nov. 18, Birchbark Books, 2115 W. 21st St., Mpls. Reading and signing at 7 p.m. Nov. 19, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.