Norma Sommerdorf creates a "Red River Girl"

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"Red River Girl"
The cover of "Red River Girl," by Norma Sommerdorf.
Image courtesy of Holiday House publisher

When we meet Josette Dupre, a Metis (pronounced MAY TEE) from Canada, she has become the female head of household. Her mother has died. Her father, Jacque, is an aging voyageur.

Jacque is in search of a new way to make a living, and frequently uproots the family to follow plans of his design.

Norma Sommerdorf
Norma Sommerdorf, author of "Red River Girl." The book is about a 13 year old Indian teenager's adventures in the mid-1850s. Norma Sommerdorf grew up in the upper Midwest and Canada and has maintained a keen interest in the history of these areas. A former librarian, she has written for "Minnesota History" and other history journals.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

That's how Josette finds herself taking care of her young brother on a buffalo hunt somewhere in the Red River Valley in 1846. Josette and the other women and children are in a sprawling camp, waiting for the men and older boys to kill buffalo so they can cut and preserve the meat.

Suddenly Josette hears a noise.

"I felt a strange thundering and looked up. Oddly, there were no clouds. People looked up and then everyone screamed. A herd of buffalo was charging toward us. I grabbed Armond in my arms and threw him in the cart. My heart was pounding and he was screaming. I picked up a blanket and ran forward, flapping that blanket as hard as I could, trying to get the buffalo to veer off."

Josette's blanket waving works. Everyone is saved, and our heroine is lauded for her bravery.

"Some of the things that were hard to come by included, how would a 13-year-old girl go about cutting up a buffalo and then cutting more and more, because they're cutting it into tiny strips to make pemmican."

"Red River Girl" author Norma Sommerdorf of St. Paul says there are plenty of historical accounts describing buffalo hunts. After that, she says, she had to use her imagination.

"Some of the things that were hard to come by included, how would a 13-year-old girl go about cutting up a buffalo, and then cutting more and more, because they're cutting it into tiny strips to make pemmican," Sommerdorf says.

The solution is have your heroine, Josette, ask for help. The older women in camp teach her what to do. Pretty soon everyone is literally up to their elbows in buffalo gore.

Sommerdorf has Josette observe, "Adelle thinks the buffalo liver is especially delicious uncooked. She talked the boys and me into trying it. It tasted warm and fresh and little chewy."

Sommerdorf has populated "Red River Girl" with a diverse collection of people, including Metis, the descendants of French fur traders who mixed with the women of Canada's indigenous people.

Sommerdorf creates a role in her story for one of her personal heroines, the real life Harriet Bishop.

Bishop was the teacher recruited from Vermont to come to St. Paul in 1847 and open the city's first school.

Bishop was unmarried at the time, and by many accounts she was a steamroller as she exhorted locals to build a school, start churches and create cultural and educational groups. The 13-year-old Josette Dupre is fiction, but with a foot in reality, Sommerdorf says. Harriet Bishop wrote in her journal how none of her first St. Paul students could speak English.

Voice of Josette Dupre
St. Paul high school student Melissa Englund was recruited by author Norma Sommerdorf to be the voice of Josette Dupre in public readings of "Red River Girl."
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Bishop wrote that she turned for help to "a large half-breed girl ... who could speak English, French and Sioux." Sommerdorf's fertile imagination took it from there and gave the girl a name, Josette Dupre, and a personality.

History can be a little musty, so Sommerdorf creates a bit of soap opera and adventure in "Red River Girl." She has Josette lock horns with her tyrannical father and confront out teen trials.

"I had an editor that would always write, 'More emotion, more emotion.' So I had to keep on trying a little harder," Sommerdorf says.

Sommerdorf throws Josette into a harrowing oxcart journey where she nearly drowns, only to be rescued by her hearthrob and fellow oxcart traveler, Denis.

"It's interesting, I had three teenagers read this close to the end of the first draft. All of them wanted to know more about Denis," Sommerdorf laughs.

Sommerdorf says she's at work on her next book. The inspiration for her new story came while visiting a St. Paul junkyard, where she was scrounging materials for a backyard patio.

A helpful young man advised her, and Sommerdorf says she'll have him befriend a curious young immigrant boy from across the street and build her next story around their adventures.

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