The best historical fiction on Indians at first contact with Europeans

Who am I?

I’ve written seven books, all along the theme of adventure in one way or another, but my best-known work is that of my novels of the Ojibwe Indians. As a child, I grew up on a farm where my dad discovered scores of arrowheads and artifacts while plowing the fields. This was a deep revelation for me as to the extent of Indian culture and how little we know of its people. In my books, Windigo Moon and The Wolf and The Willow, I try to bring the world of the 1500s and its Native peoples to life.


I wrote...

The Wolf and The Willow

By Robert Downes,

Book cover of The Wolf and The Willow

What is my book about?

The Wolf and The Willow is a novel of first contact between Native peoples and European explorers. Willow, a house slave of a Moroccan lord, is swept up in the 1528 expedition of conquistador Panfilo Narvaez to the New World. There, she meets Animi-Ma’lingan (He Who Outruns the Wolves), a young trader and storyteller who is on a mission to find a mysterious animal for the shamans of the Ojibwe people. Together, Willow and Wolf must outwit their captors on a journey up the Mississippi River through the heart of many thriving Indian civilizations.

The novel delves into the culture of the Ojibwe, Odawa, Mandan, Dakota Sioux, Caddo, and other tribes, culminating in a showdown at the great pyramid of Cahokia near present-day St. Louis.

The books I picked & why

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The Orenda

By Joseph Boyden,

Book cover of The Orenda

Why this book?

Grounded in historical fact, The Orenda (The Magic) tells the story of Jesuit missionaries caught up in the war between the Wendats (Hurons) and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) living on the shores of Lake Huron in the mid-1600s. It’s a very dark book, with its depictions of ritual torture not for the squeamish, but it perfectly captures the time and culture of two very different civilizations, grappling to understand one another. Bowden does an excellent job of capturing the thoughts and outlook of the Wendat war chief Bird, and the French missionaries struggling to Christianize his village.

I loved this book because it helped me to understand the Indians’ way of thinking and their outlook on the world.


The Light in the Forest

By Conrad Richter,

Book cover of The Light in the Forest

Why this book?

The Light in the Forest is a classic beloved by generations of school children and surely reigns as one of the first great Young Adult novels. I read it several times as a child in the 1960s and still recall scenes from the book, which tells the tale of young John Cameron Butler, who was captured at the age of four by the Lenni Lenape Indians and raised as the adopted son of a war chief. Eleven years later an angry and unwilling 15-year-old John is returned to his white family at the end of the French and Indian War. He longs to return to his Indian family, having forgotten the ways of white settlers.

This is the forerunner of many books about settlers captured by the Indians who are unwilling to return to white society, including the likes of News of the World and Flight of the Sparrow. I love this book because it led to a life-long fascination with the Indians and the writing of my first novel of the Ojibwe.


Hanta Yo: An American Saga

By Ruth Beebe Hill,

Book cover of Hanta Yo: An American Saga

Why this book?

Largely forgotten now, this was a huge bestseller when it was published in 1978. Based on stories drawn from the Winter Count of the Lakota Sioux (a record of pictographs depicting notable events of the year), this novel tells the story of two Sioux families living on the Great Plains prior to the arrival of white settlers.

Running 1009 pages, Hanta Yo is surely one of the most singular books in all of literature in that author Hill worked with a Sioux elder to translate her manuscript into the Siouan language and then back into English. I love the book because it offers a deep dive into the thoughts of the Sioux people and their way of life. Only at the end of the book do they encounter the troubles attendant to the white culture.


People of the Longhouse: A Novel of North America's Forgotten Past

By W. Michael Gear, Kathleen O'Neal Gear,

Book cover of People of the Longhouse: A Novel of North America's Forgotten Past

Why this book?

No list of historical fiction depicting the Indians’ way of life would be complete without the inclusion of a book by the Gears, who’ve written many novels of Native life years before the arrival of European explorers.

I like this book because it’s a bit of a retelling of Hansel and Gretel set in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) culture. Two young children are among many captured by a witch and bound for an uncertain fate. The book delves into the widespread fear of witches in many Indian cultures and also offers a glimpse of life among the Haudenosaunee, who famously lived in large agricultural communities, dwelling in longhouses surrounded by palisades.


Beyond the Far Horizon: Adventures of a Fur Trader

By Charles Cleland,

Book cover of Beyond the Far Horizon: Adventures of a Fur Trader

Why this book?

This fictional account of the life of an English fur trader is a sentimental favorite for me out of my respect for historian Charles Cleland.

Cleland tells the story of Alexander Henry who was captured by the Odawa Indians during the attack on Fort Michillimackinac in 1763. Henry lived among the Indians through the seasons, giving an eye-witness account of their lives as hunter-gatherers. Cleland is better as a historian than a novelist, but this is still a fun read and would also be a good book on any Young Adult list.


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