Journey into Mohawk Country
Written by Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert; Illustrated by George O’Connor
For reasons not important right now, I once found myself in the position of needing to read Captain Woodes Rogers’ A Cruising Voyage Round the World: The Adventures of an English Privateer. Pirate story, right? Bound to be interesting.
And to some extent it was. There was pillaging and plundering, scheming and plotting, mutiny, and even a dramatic rescue of a stranded sailor on a deserted island. You just had to trudge through all the manifests, crew lists, geography lessons, and accounting to get to it. In the end, I’d much rather read Treasure Island.
So, it was with cautious interest that I picked up Journey into Mohawk Country, George O’Conner’s adaptation of the journal of a Dutch trader. H.M. van den Bogaert set out from New Amsterdam in December of 1634 with the sole mission of getting up into Indian country and solidifying the Dutch colony’s relationship with the Iroquois trappers on whom they relied to stay in business. Apparently the French were putting up some stiff competition and something drastic had to be done. Apart from some economic drama, that plot doesn’t even sound as interesting as A Cruising Voyage Round the World. Enter George O’Connor.
O’Connor graciously gives all the writing credit for Journey into Mohawk Country to Van den Bogaert, and it’s an understandable stance for him to take. After all, as he says in his introduction, “(An English translation of Van den Bogaert’s journal) makes up the text of this comic. None of his entries have been altered or abridged; all is as Van den Bogaert recorded it.” It’s sweet to read O’Connor’s writing so fondly of his centuries-dead collaborator, but he’s also being a bit modest.
Far from the dry narratives that Cruising Voyage and – I have no doubt – the text-only version of Mohawk Country are, O’Connor’s book is as thoroughly thrilling and funny as it is educational. Yes, there are descriptions of villages complete with hut-lengths and the number of beaver pelts available there, but O’Connor’s whimsical illustrations never allow you to get bored. Not even a little bit.
They also add to the story by allowing O’Connor to read between the lines and tell the story that Van den Bogaert doesn’t. Van den Bogaert’s companions on his journey are a couple of men named Jeromus La Croex and Willem Tomassen. He doesn’t describe them in detail in the text, but O’Connor inserts wordless panels between the text-driven ones to bring these two characters to life, showing a friendly rivalry between them and even giving one of them a romantic sub-plot with an Indian girl.
Another example of this is when Van den Bogaert writes about giving one of his Indian guides a pair of shoes. The following day, he says that they had to cross a stream “with many large chunks of ice.” He ends the entry with, “We were soaked up to the waist,” but O’Connor juxtaposes the text with an image of the disgusted Indian guide’s putting his moccasins back on and walking away from his abandoned, uncomfortable Dutch shoes. The book’s full of stuff like that. It’s like watching a really talented Shakespearian actor pull meaning out of a line of dialogue that you never noticed before. You have to admire both O’Connor’s love for the material that he studied it so carefully, as well as his talent to make it painlessly entertaining.
Maybe I can talk him into adapting Woodes Rogers next.