Jane Johnston Schoolcraft and her husband, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, were early chroniclers of Ojibwa history and lore. Through their magazine, The Literary Voyager or Muzzenyegun, they explored traditional Ojibwa legends and history, as well as current issues affecting Chippewa and other Native American groups. One such legend is "The Forsaken Brother: A Chippewa Tale. " It falls squarely into the category of folk tale: the characters are one-dimensional and magical transformations take place; a simple moral is learned. It would not be out of place alongside the Grimm brothers' tales.
In "The Forsaken Brother," the story opens on the deathbed of a father; the family consists of the father, the mother, an older sister and brother, and a brother who is still a child. They live together, on the shore of a lake isolated from society. As he dies, the father makes the older siblings promise they will care for the younger brother after he and their mother are gone. They promise to cherish each other and watch over their brother, and the father dies. The mother dies a short time after, and the children renew their promise.
The scene in which the family grieves introduces a key theme in the piece: the transforming and healing power of nature. At the beginning of the piece, the wind gives the dying father strength: "The door of the lodge was open to admit the refreshing breeze of the lake, on the banks of which is stood; and as the cool air fanned the head of the poor man, he felt a momentary return of strength. " After the parents die, the children's grief is helped by the world around them: "the beauties of spring cheered the drooping spirits of the bereft little family. " A connection to nature is emphasized throughout the piece.
The older brother soon grows restless and leaves his sister and younger brother. The sister continues to care for him, but after some years have passed she becomes lonely for others and leaves. She accepts a marriage proposal and forgets all about her brother. The little boy exhausts the food she left for him and is forced to forage, first for berries, then feeding on scraps the wolves leave behind. He soon joins a pack of wolves, and one day his brother sees him on the shore of the lake, where he sings:
Neesya, neesya, shyegwuh gushuh!
Ween ne myeengunish!
My brother, my brother,
I am now turning into a Wolf! –
I am turning into a Wolf.
When the older brother sees that he is already half wolf, he tries to take him in his arms and comfort him, but the boy breaks free, howling and singing. The older brother chases after him, but the boy changes more rapidly, until he is entirely wolf. He escapes into the forest. The older brother goes and tells his sister what has happened, and the two mourn their broken promise until their deaths.
The connection to nature is also apparent in the relation between humans and animals, specifically the little brother and the wolves. He follows them around, eating their leftovers, and "the animals themselves seemed to pity his condition, and would always leave something. " He becomes closer and closer to the pack, until they are referred to as his "friends and companions. " In the story, the wolves display more "humanity" than the family of the boy, aiding and protecting him.
Yet the tale also teaches that family is paramount, even though it can disappoint you as well. Obviously the betrayal of the parents and the abandonment of the little brother are the actions that are most severely punished, but the father wants the children to know society will let them down. On his deathbed, he warns his family of the ways of the world: "My poor children! you have just commenced life, and mark me, unkindness, and ingratitude, and every wickedness is in the scene before you. I left my kindred and my tribe, because I found what I have just warned you of. " This serves not only as foreshadowing of events that are to come, but also as a lesson that, if heeded, would have saved the family. Both older children give into their selfish desires for society; the father wants the children to know they can only count on themselves; society will disappoint them.
Overall, The Forsaken Brother is a faithful (as far as we know) transcription of a Chippewa folk tale. The language of the piece is not overly flowery, but is a clear and succinct telling of the story. Schoolcraft's role here seems to be more that of an anthropologist than of an author. She doubtless embellishes on the story and adds her own touches, but her goal was to chronicle the stories of the Chippewa, and in that, she succeeds. She also succeeds in conveying fully the moral of the piece; that family is the most important thing, and that to give in to one's selfish desires is a betrayal.