In the 1700s, Mary Draper Ingles has everything torn away from her when Shawnee Indians massacre her Virginia settlement. She watches horrified as a neighbor’s baby has its head smashed open, then her mother’s scalp is waved in front of her. Pregnant and with two young boys, she is taken captive and forced to ride and walk far beyond where any white people have settled. All she can do is memorize landmarks along the way, although she receives hostile looks when she glances back to see what a course back would look like.
She gives birth in squalid, unclean conditions. Only her dignified air makes the Shawnee leader respect her enough to grant her some material comforts as she is forced to continue the journey without pause, along a river larger than any she has seen before. Mary is determined to escape and return home, hoping her husband is still alive. But how can she make it all the way back on foot, all those hundreds of miles?
Follow the River by James Alexander Thom is historical fiction based on the incredible true story of Mary Draper Ingles, who walked an estimated eight hundred miles along the Ohio River and through the Appalachian Mountains.
Thoms describes the ordeal in vivid detail. In this passage, Mary recovers from her numbness after the massacre:
Her skin began to tell her of the humid valley air, the trickling of her own sweat, the crawling of wood ticks, the bites and stings of mosquitoes and no-see-ums, the rubbing of the horse’s hair against the inside of her knees, the whip and drag of leafy branches across her face and shoulders.
This description continues as Mary passes through scenery beyond her imagination, encounters Shawnee culture, plots her escape, and makes the arduous journey back.
I highly recommend Follow the River as an engrossing account of an unlikely survival story, and also as a slice of life that exposes a violent period of American history. I have to make a couple of qualifications: If you didn’t like the part about a baby’s head getting smashed open, there are other gory details as the Shawnee torture other white captives. And for some reason, Thom has Mary daydream about having sexual relations with her husband, in too much detail. I have no idea why he did that, but it makes the book for adults only.