Published in 2000, Adaline Falling Star
is a historical novel intended for middle-grade readers by Mary Pope Osborne, the prolific author most famous for the Magic Tree House
series of children’s adventure books. Drawing on the scanty account of the mixed-race daughter of famed mid-nineteenth century American frontiersman Kit Carson and his Arapaho wife, Osborne imagines the life of a girl wrestling with how to understand and reconcile her Native and white ancestry. Declaring her take on this real person to be fiction, Osborne changes a few of the historical details. Primarily, she ages Adeline up in order to make her canny inventiveness and survivalist knowledge plausible.
When Adaline Falling Star is eleven years old, her mother, Singing Grass, and most members of her mother’s family, die of cholera. Because Adaline’s father, Kit, must continue exploring the West—he is a professional scout—he sends Adeline to live with his cousin’s family in St. Louis. Kit promises that after the mapping expedition he is leading is over, he will return to retrieve Adaline.
Kit’s cousin Silas is a bigoted Christian who is resentful of having to take in Adaline because of her Native heritage. He and his family make her stay with them a nightmare, praying that they’ll be able to overcome her “savage nature,” discussing her parentage as a “devilish mixture of white and Indian blood,” and telling her outright that she “must have done some sinning before [she] were born, or [she] wouldn't have been born half red.”
Before sending her off, Kit had told Adaline to tamp down some of her outspoken and forthright nature, warning her to “Hold your tongue, darter.” Taking this completely at face value, Adaline refuses to speak at all once she gets to St. Louis, so Silas’s family assumes that she is mute. Adaline also doesn’t let on that she knows how to read, and her new guardians assume that because she is half-Native, she must be ignorant and uneducated. Instead of enrolling her in school, they force her to do housework and take on the role of a maid.
The only person in the household who doesn’t treat Adaline this way is the long-suffering housekeeper, whose strength and wisdom give the poor girl some comfort. Adaline’s other respite comes when she combs through her Arapaho memories and beliefs, trying to square her life before with the version of her father’s Christianity exhibited by his family. Her interior monologue ranges from a longing for her missing parents to fury at her circumstances. Trying to handle her grief, she cuts her arms and legs according to Arapaho custom.
Things come to a breaking point when Adaline overhears Silas and his wife discussing sending her to an orphanage. Thinking quickly, she cuts her hair short so she can pass as a boy, and flees the house. Relying on her knowledge of the wild and survival skills, Adaline plans to forge her own course through the wilderness to find her father.
Her adventures in the woods carry life-threatening dangers. She becomes very sick with an infection that gives her a high fever and almost kills her. At one point, she runs into strangers who shoot at her, mistaking her for a local criminal. However, the woods also bring elements of the supernatural into the story. When she must cross a river, Adaline finds a mysteriously convenient canoe that then vanishes when no longer needed. In order to calm herself, Adaline communes with the spirit of her mother, who whispers advice to her when she needs it most.
The most important connection Adaline forges is with an ugly stray dog that joins her on the trail. Although at first, she is hesitant to get attached to the ungainly creature, eventually she grows to love it wholeheartedly. The dog repays this affection by saving Adaline’s life several times at crucial moments.
At the climactic scene in the book, Adaline is forced to choose between the dog and a chance of finally finding Kit. Assuming she is a boy, some river men offer Adaline a job—going with them will allow her to get to the place where she thinks her father is. However, the men tell her to leave the dog behind. Adaline makes the difficult decision to leave the dog on the shore and climb into the men’s boat, but at the last second, she changes her mind, leaps out of the boat, and swims against the current to the shore, where she passes out from exhaustion.
When she comes to, her father has found her on the riverbank and they are happily reunited.
The novel ends happily, with Kit and Adaline and the dog planning a trip to New Mexico.