Where the Broken Heart Still Beats
is a novel in the historical fiction genre. Written by Carolyn Meyer in 1992 for a middle-grade audience, the novel tells the story of a young girl from a frontier Texas family who is captured in a Comanche raid and is then recaptured by Texas Rangers twenty-four years later. Meyer based her work on the real-life Cynthia Ann Parker, using the scant known details about her life to build a poignant portrait of a woman who assimilates into the tribe that enslaved her to the point that returning to her family of origin feels like imprisonment and torture.
Meyer writes the novel from the points of the view
of two different narrators. We hear the voice of adult Cynthia Ann as she fights against her near-imprisonment by her family of origin, who are struggling to figure out why the young girl who was captured now identifies as a Comanche tribeswoman. Interspersed with her voice are the diary entries of the fictional Lucy Parker, Cynthia Ann’s twelve-year-old niece, who is fascinated by the Comanche life that Cynthia Ann wants to return to.
Although the novel tells Cynthia’s story through flashbacks and time skips, this summary will proceed in chronological order.
It is May of 1836, and just a few months ago, Texas split off from Mexico, becoming its own country – the Republic of Texas. For the last two years, Cynthia Ann Parker and her family have lived in a compound in the north of this region.
One day, a raiding party of Comanche warriors invades the settlement. They kill and scalp the adults, and capture the children. Most of the children, including Cynthia Ann’s siblings, are later used as hostages, or traded back to other settlements for weapons and goods. However, nine-year-old Cynthia Ann is taken back to the rest of the tribe to work as a slave.
Life in the tribe is harsh for the young girl, especially since the couple that adopts her is often cruel and unforgiving. As Cynthia Ann realizes in adulthood, during this period of her life she ends up purposefully forgetting much of her childhood. The only way that she can survive her ordeal is to assimilate as quickly as possible into her newfound family and community. Because she is so young, this process is surprisingly easy: she learns a new language and almost entirely forgets English, she represses her memories of the violence inflicted on her mother and father during the raid that brought her to the Comanche in the first place, and she takes a new name – Naduah.
In the next twenty-four years, Naduah becomes a respected and valued member of the tribe. Her high social status is reflected in the fact that she ends up marrying Peta Nocona, the chief of the tribe. She has three beloved children with him – one of her sons grows up to be the warrior Quannah Parker, a famous nineteenth-century leader of the Comanche people.
Then in 1860, during an attack on the tribe, the Texas Rangers recapture Naduah and her infant daughter, Topsanah, or Prairie Flower. Thrilled that they are “rescuing” an unwilling captive, the Rangers bring Naduah back to the surviving members of the Parker family.
Most of the novel is spent exploring the well-meaning, but deeply misguided and insensitive actions of the Parkers, who refuse to let Naduah return to the husband and children that she was forced to leave behind. Instead, they assume that whatever desires to return to the Comanche people she expresses must be the work of demonic possession – something they attempt to rectify with copious amounts of Bible reading. After she attempts to escape and is recaptured, the miserable woman is virtually imprisoned by a series of relatives.
Still, returning to her people and place of origin forces Naduah to confront several brutal truths about the way she became a tribe member – images of being Cynthia Ann, watching her family be slaughtered, and then being abused and enslaved flood her mind. Outwardly, “Cynthia Ann” is heralded by the state legislature and gains some measure of celebrity as a famous “Indian kidnapping victim.” However, her life remains a torment to her, as she is not allowed to leave her family’s custody and is instead forced to watch her daughter start to slowly assimilate white settler ways.
Naduah’s only relief is telling her story to Lucy, who wants to know everything about Comanche life; she is the only family member who doesn’t shun the returned woman for clinging to the only way of life that she remembers and understands. Through this relationship, the novel explores daily tribal life, comparing it with that of the white settlers. In what critics describe as “a fair assessment,” Meyer points out similarities and differences while informing her audience about details such as Comanche hunting practices, and clothing and food preparation.
The novel ends abruptly and sadly. The lively Topsanah becomes ill and dies in her mother’s arms in 1862. Unable to recover from the grief, Naduah dies a few months later, having never seen her husband and sons again.