Tour: ‘Tho I Be Mute by Heather Miller

Book details:

Book Title:‘Tho I Be Mute

Author: Heather Miller

Publication Date: 13th July 2021

Publisher: Defiance Press and Publishing

Page Length: 340 Pages

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Home. Heritage. Legacy. Legend.

In 1818, Cherokee John Ridge seeks a young man’s education at the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut. While there, he is overcome with sickness yet finds solace and love with Sarah, the steward’s quiet daughter. Despite a two-year separation, family disapproval, defamatory editorials, and angry mobs, the couple marries in 1824. Sarah reconciles her new family’s spirituality and her foundational Christianity. Although, Sarah’s nature defies her new family’s indifference to slavery. She befriends Honey, half-Cherokee and half-African, who becomes Sarah’s voice during John’s extended absences. Once arriving on Cherokee land, John argues to hold the land of the Cherokees and that of his Creek neighbors from encroaching Georgian settlers. His success hinges upon his ability to temper his Cherokee pride with his knowledge of American law. Justice is not guaranteed. Rich with allusions to Cherokee legends, ‘Tho I Be Mute speaks aloud; some voices are heard, some are ignored, some do not speak at all, compelling readers to listen to the story of a couple who heard the pleas of the Cherokee.

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Long days later, we approached Cornwall, Connecticut, from the south. From the coach windows, the village introduced itself with stables and sawmills to accommodate the apparent logging trade. Many sheep grazed in the valley of Colt’s Foot Mountain, supplying the wool mill with its need for raw materials. Hamlets of family farms surrounded First Church, not only in location but also in my impressions of the pious lifestyle of its parishioners. Wooden fence posts and rails divided Cornwall, where at home, Cherokee land overlapped and provided for an entire people.

The Academy of the Foreign Mission schoolhouse sat among bare cedar trees and hemlocks this blustery fall of November 1818. The school building was a gambrel-roofed, two-story structure with a chimney on one end and weather vane on the other, acting as bookends. Next to our classroom, a winter garden grew purple-leafed kale and hearty cabbage. A bare maple stood alone in the yard. With it, I sympathized, separate yet under constant surveillance—naked. Unimpressive in appearance, this academy was where I hoped to gain insight into history and English, more advanced than my previous schools at Spring Place and Brainerd. Here, I must endure the constant watchful eye of Cornwall’s residents: my teachers.

Reminiscent of the original ‘city on the hill,’ the Foreign Mission School was primarily for religious instruction, training future missionaries whose intent would be to convert the ‘savages.’ I understood the whites’ faith; the Great Spirit had many names. Therefore, I would be contrite, but full conversion was not my intention. I did not plan to become a missionary, but a lawyer, a politician. It was what my people needed. I would leave it to the Great Spirit to guide the Cherokee to salvation.

Dr. Dempsey interrupted my observations with reminders of my father’s expectations and guidelines for my behavior. To say these reminders were absent from my attention would imply his words were irrelevant. Still, Dempsey’s lecture was unnecessary. “We are here, John. Let us make our introductions,” concluding his sermon from the coach. We crossed the worn path, with Dempsey leading and I following behind him as these crutches slowed my walk.

Upon entering, smells of recent peat fires and old books struck me. Sheer numbers of texts bordered the log walls of the schoolroom. The spines on the shelves wrapped around home-crafted tables and straight-backed chairs set for study and meals. A small fire burned in the hearth, and candles lit this day of clouds. As we entered, students, grouped in pairs, hovered over what appeared to be books of prayer. Students took turns reading in English, various verses absent of context and translated them into the languages of their homelands—missionary school indeed. The Bible taught me many things from the stories whites esteemed, including what it meant to be a man. Although I would never be a Sampson or King David. My English name was John. My Cherokee name, Skahtlelohskee, the mockingbird.

As an English educator, Heather Miller has spent twenty-three years teaching her students the author’s craft. Now, she is writing it herself, hearing voices from the past.

Miller’s foundation began in the theatre, through performance storytelling. She can tap dance, stage-slap someone, and sing every note from Les Misérables. Her favorite role is that of a fireman’s wife and mom to three: a trumpet player, a future civil engineer, and a future RN. There is only one English major in her house.

While researching, writing, and teaching, she is also working towards her M FA in Creative Writing. Heather’s corndog-shaped dachshund, Sadie, deserves an honorary degree.

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Tour hosted by: The Coffee Pot Book Club