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Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel delves into YA fiction with ‘Wabanaki Blues’

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Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, now an accomplished author, began writing because the books she read about Native Americans from the Northeast simply didn’t correlate with her experiences as a member of the Mohegan tribe or her family’s oral tradition.

Someone gave her this piece of advice: if she wanted folks to know her version of Indian history, she had to write it herself.

Zobel took that to heart. In 2000, she published “Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon,” about her great aunt, medicine woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon, and the Mohegans’ history.

And she segued into fiction when, at a talk she gave about the spiritual elements of the tribe’s history, an audience member said he was fine with what she had been saying — until she talked about those spiritual beliefs as history.

“I realized that my culture did not distinguish those things as separate,” says Zobel, who serves as the Mohegan tribe’s medicine woman and tribal historian.

With that in mind, she turned to writing novels, since that is “where you create/recreate worlds for people and don’t necessarily break those worlds into categories of belief.”

She published 2004’s “Oracles” and 2010’s “Fire Hollow,” both novels for adults. But Mandy Suhr-Sytsma — a scholar of indigenous/YA literatures who interviewed Zobel and other native writers for her dissertation — suggested that those releases could both be considered young adult novels. They have a young protagonist and are coming-of-age stories. Nothing in them is so untoward that a young person couldn’t read them.

That analysis made quite an impression on Zobel.

“I thought, maybe that is where I’m comfortable, talking to younger people, having young protagonists, watching them come of age, especially as native people,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘Just make your peace with that and go with it.’”

And so she has just released her debut YA novel. “Wabanaki Blues” is published by Poisoned Pencil, an imprint of Poisoned Pen Press that publishes mysteries for young adults.

This is Zobel’s first novel since earning her MFA in creative writing from Fairfield University in 2012. (She had previously received her bachelor’s in history/diplomacy from Georgetown and her master’s in history from the University of Connecticut.)

“That was wonderful,” she says of the creative writing program. “I was able to work with a lot of tremendous writers and have a better understanding of professional writing.”

“Wabanaki Blues” is a YA mystery that explores not one but two mysteries — a murder mystery and a mystery about the land. The main character is Mona Lisa LaPierre, a 17-year-old who is just graduating from high school and who loves playing the blues on her guitar, which she has bestowed with the name Rosalita.

“Unlike a lot of Native American stories where the protagonist starts out in the middle of nowhere on a reservation and goes to the big city, my protagonist is born in Hartford. She’s from the city and she loves the city,” Zobel says.

But then she ends up in the wilderness. When her parents head off on the father’s work trip to Russia, she is left for the summer with her grandfather in a remote area of northern New Hampshire. He has a rustic cabin in the woods and, Zobel notes with a laugh, Mona “thinks this is going to be the end of her life but instead winds up discovering a lot more about the world than she imagined possible.”

And Mona is on track to meet her destiny, which is symbolized in three ways. One is a bear that her grandfather has befriended. Another is a fellow musician she meets named Del. And the third is a cold-case murder at her high school in which Mona becomes embroiled. Searching for the culprit in that case unlocks a whole set of clues to Mona’s own identity.

The character is, in many ways, negotiating the modern world and her heritage. She comes from Mohegan, Abenaki and French-Canadian ancestry.

The “Wabanaki” of the title refers to a group of northern New England tribes. Zobel recalls Gladys Tantaquidgeon teaching her that the Mohegans have an ancient connection to that Wabanaki confederacy — which helped inspire “Wabanaki Blues.”

Indeed, Zobel weaves rich Native American history, legends and heritage into the novel.

“There’s a lot encoded into this book about colonialism, native New England history and New England native culture. That’s why I write fiction now (instead of nonfiction) because I feel it’s easier for more people to swallow it,” she says.

In fact, “Wabanaki Blues” will be taught in a few college classes, and it has a teacher’s guide created by Beth Regan. Regan is a member of the Mohegan’s Council of Elders who just retired from 35 years as a teacher at Tolland High School. A link for the guide is listed in the back of the book.

One of the catalysts for Zobel’s “Wabanaki Blues” was a certain location, Pittsburg, N.H., where she has visited a lot over the last decade.

“It’s a place, in many ways, that’s out of time. The woods are pristine. The moose are everywhere, the bears,” she says. “I had several good friends who are Abenaki Indians; that’s their home territory. So we would talk about the place. It makes me think of what all of New England at one time would have been like. It makes me feel that connection you have when you go the place that is very much like where you live but in its natural state.”

With that in mind, different ideas began to brew. Among them, Zobel reflected on the stories that New England Indians hold in common — one, for instance, that has to do with the changing of the seasons in the autumn.

She says there are a lot of stories that haven’t been told about this area, so she likes to think of ways she can use them in her books — but not in an old-fashioned, folk-tale way. Instead, as in “Wabanaki Blues,” she gives them a modern interpretation so they speak to the current generation of young people in a way that makes sense to them in their world.

Zobel says that one of the reasons she wrote this book is “to give people an understanding of New England and what is so special about this place in which we live at a very deeply rooted, ancient level. My goal in many ways is to root people in this place in a deeper way. I call this my love song to New England because I’m very much a fan of my region.”

“Wabanaki Blues” is also about responsibility — not just to other people but also to the place where a person is from and where a person lives.

Zobel says that she wants readers to come away from the book feeling better about their world and themselves; she says she considers that part of her responsibility.

“That’s not to say I’m not going to talk about issues, especially in this book, that are very challenging to all of us. If you offer a problem, you should offer a solution — I guess that’s always been my motto,” she says.

She notes, too, that “you’ll find very few Indians write well about things too dark and dismal. You feel sometimes you’re calling those things.”

Zobel says that the YA crossover novel — which is what she’s writing and which is meant for adults, too — is a fun genre. She has this entire trilogy outlined, and she’s got a second series in the works. She’s just finished a book for that other series. It, too, is a mystery.

“Once you get the bug of writing mysteries, it’s very hard to break away from it,” she says.

If you go

Who: Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel

What: Talking about and signing her new YA novel "Wabanaki Blues"

When: 1-3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St., Mystic

Contact: (860) 536-3795, banksquarebooks.com

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