The Crimson Cap, by Ellen Howard; Holiday House
Books for Young People: New York, 2009; $16.95
Growing up is something we all do at one time or another. I just stumbled upon Pierre Talon when he was in the middle of the process. He looked at me with sad, intense eyes surrounded by tattooed charcoal dots and crowned with a fraying crimson cap. He introduced himself as I read the covers of Ellen Howard’s The Crimson Cap. His “voice” was dry and humorless. Through it I heard traces of French, Hasinai Indian, and Spanish languages that he had picked up one-by-one throughout the book.
Why did I take this book home in the first place? The little French woven into the excerpt on the back of the book caught my full attention. Because I speak a good bit of French, the wonderful job the author does at using a tiny salting of it had a magnetic pull on me. Then I discovered, with the delight of a historian who has just found an ancient prize, that the book was based on a true story! At once I snuggled down with glee (I love historical fiction) to read my newest book.
Pierre Talon, a French boy in the expedition of Monsieur de La Salle, must leave his family in the French settlement when he’s only eight years old. Then, in six years, his life takes many strange (and alarming!) turns. His crimson cap stands for the time that passes and the changes he faces. Every time he takes it off it’s a fainter shade of red. He is continually shocked by how different it has become—how different he has become. He then looks at what has happened in his life and has a choice to make: to despair, or rejoice. Should he stay with the Hasinai Indians? Is there any reason to go back and search for his siblings?
I am a born-and-raised American. I also have grown up in a wonderful, loving home in the twenty-first century. So I was surprised to find, no matter how vastly different our lives are, that Pierre and I are very much alike.
In a way, I have a “crimson cap” too. On a hill off our front yard, there’s a beautiful box elder tree that’s been there since I knew what a tree was. If I think as far back in my memory as I can reach, the tree was a sapling with a thin trunk, spindly branches and very light green leaves. But over the years, it has grown thick and tall and a richer shade of green has replaced the old lime hue. I’m continually shocked by how different it has become—how different I have become. And I face that same choice: to despair, or rejoice.
In The Crimson Cap, Pierre is forced to dwell among teens and grown-ups from the time he’s only eight years old. Having two older sisters, I’m a lot like Pierre. Growing up is a doubly challenging process when, like me and Pierre, you’re raised in a more mature, experienced setting. Sometimes I find myself feeling small and young, and other times I feel very grown up.
Pierre says to his sister in the book that he and she are branded by their sufferings, not by any marks they wear on their face. I believe that everyone is branded in some way: their own history, or their family’s. I am branded by the family and friends I love, who have left their mark on my biggest crimson cap—my memory—by the ways they have loved me. Love and suffering are the two noblest brands anyone can ever have.
As you can see by now, this book has made me think very hard about my life. It’s a potent read that no thinker and French speaker, like me (and like the main character), should pass up!