Robbie Robertson's HIAWATHA AND THE PEACEMAKER - Guest Post by David Shannon!

by David Shannon

      When I was approached by Abrams about illustrating this book, my first inclination was to turn it down. I was in the middle of several projects and busy writing my own stories, but I agreed to meet with the author, Robbie Robertson. After all, it’s not everyday you get a chance to meet one of the rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest guitarists, and his telling of the Hiawatha story was very compelling. It reminded me of some of the first books I’d illustrated, particularly The Rough-Face Girl, by Rafe Martin.
      Robbie and I met at his recording studio, and he told me how as a boy he’d listened to an elder tell the story of Hiawatha in a lodge in Canada. Robbie is a very good storyteller - whether it’s in a song, a book, or just sitting in a room – and soon I was beginning to mentally re-arrange my work schedule. Then he played the song he’d recorded for the book and it was clear that working with him would be a unique experience. So, I agreed to illustrate Hiawatha and the Peacemaker.
      Anytime I work on a cultural folktale, it begins with research. Librarians use books like this as teaching tools, so I try to get the details as accurate as possible (it’s a great excuse to buy a bunch of books and visit museums). At the same time, I don’t want to just copy what I’ve found, so there’s some imagination involved as well. I also try to use clothing, artifacts, and setting to enhance the story through symbolism.
      Hiawatha is a big, dramatic story about war and peace, hate and righteousness. There are many symbolic elements of magical realism – a stone canoe, a villain with snakes in his hair, a solar eclipse – that needed to be front and center in the illustrations. It took a lot of work in both the pencil sketches and the finished oil paintings to make these pieces believable and yet maintain a feeling of “otherworldliness”.
      As with many Indian tales, Nature plays a large part and I tried to use trees, water, fire, and stone as secondary symbols to reinforce the spiritual side of the story.
      The theme that drew me to the story most, however, is the idea of healing through forgiveness. Hiawatha suffers a great loss at the beginning of the story – the murder of his family – and must heal himself while he seeks to bring peace to the warring tribes. He does this by forgiving his enemy rather than fighting him. By healing his enemy’s psychic wounds he heals himself. His enemy, the warlord Tadodaho, is physically corrupted by his own evil and power. His body is contorted and snakes slither in and out of his hair. Hiawatha gives him medicine and drives away the snakes – pretty clear symbolism there!
      But Hiawatha’s healing is more subtle and internal and is symbolized by a wound across his eye. As the story progresses and he learns to see things differently according to the teachings of the Peacemaker, the wound slowly heals. In the end, it is his act of forgiveness toward Tadodaho that breaks the cycle of war and allows all the tribes, and Hiawatha in particular, to embrace his own life again.

CLICK HERE to buy the book.
Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson, illustrated by David Shannon, published by Abrams Books for Young Readers.

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