A Boy Named Beckoning
Fascinated by Carlos Montezuma's 1905 letter to the Smithsonian Institution, Gina Capaldi '06 embarked on a twelve-year quest to adapt and illustrate his story for her new children's book.
A warm spring breeze tiptoes through the patio door, as illustrator and author Gina Capaldi '06 leans over the drafting table nestled beside her family room couch. A photo of her grandmother who attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago gazes back from its place beneath the table's light. Reexamining an original illustration from her latest book, Capaldi runs her fingertips over the whimsical brush strokes that rest upon the bark paper's coarse surface. “I remember an old Bob Hope movie was playing on late-night TV while I painted this scene,” she says.
In the painting a five-year-old boy sits atop two wooden crates. Overcome with fear, he covers his eyes as tears flow freely. It is the third day of his captivity. He is completely surrounded by strangers who are performing a war dance—the men tease him with spears, the women throw dirty rags and the children spit. The boy is named Wassaja or “Beckoning.”
A Yawapati Indian living in central Arizona's Superstition Mountains, Wassaja was kidnapped in 1871 by the Pima, a longtime enemy tribe. The Pima initially attempted to trade him for a horse, but instead he was purchased for $30 by Italian photographer Carlo Gentile who renamed him Carlos Montezuma and raised him as his son. Before settling down in Illinois, Gentile and the young Carlos traveled the West taking photographs for nearly a year. Full of much intellectual promise, Montezuma began his undergraduate studies in chemistry at age fourteen at the University of Illinois and then completed his medical training at Chicago Medical College, a branch of Northwestern University.
After finishing medical school, Montezuma began working as a reservation doctor for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He became disillusioned with the government's treatment of Native Americans, however, and started drafting ideas for new Indian policies that would do away with the Bureau. He traveled the country giving lectures and published a newsletter that called for equal rights for Native Americans. Montezuma not only served as a Native American spokesperson and activist, but also maintained a private medical practice and taught at three Chicago medical schools. He died of tuberculosis in January 1923, just one year before the Indian Citizenship Act established all Native Americans as citizens of the United States.
It was while working on and researching her first written and illustrated educational book, Native American Indians: Customs, Costumes, Legends and Lore, that Capaldi came across a letter Montezuma wrote to Professor H.W. Holmes of the Smithsonian Institution in 1905. Holmes, who was gathering materials on Native Americans for his forthcoming book, requested that Montezuma share his life story.
“When I read the letter, I thought ‘Oh my gosh, I need to know more about this man,’ and that's how it happened,” Capaldi said. “One story leads you to another story. In my illustrating and writing, I'm driven by character and I think most people are too—it just grabs hold of you. I love history and culture and it's usually by reading biographies that I come across my characters. I'll find an interesting historical figure and I'll keep researching until it envelopes my entire life.”
Once she became acquainted with Montezuma through the pages of his letter, he was a part of her life for the next twelve years. “While I continued to publish many other books, most in the non-fiction and educational genre, the Montezuma letter haunted me,” Capaldi said. “His words were so powerful and his message helped me forge ahead whenever I felt stalled.”
Capaldi was further urged to share Montezuma's story when she attended a Los Angeles book conference. While glancing around one booth, she came face-to-face with The Remarkable Carlo Gentile. The newly published book, by Italian ethnologist Cesare Marino, featured all of Carlo Gentile's photographs and provided the rest of the story for which she had been searching.
“I realized then that this was the tip of the iceberg,” Capaldi said. “I ended up researching at the Southwest Museum and printed out all the Montezuma archives from microfilm. I collected folders full of his writings, letters, even bills for redoing his house with copper piping. When you get that close to somebody, you're bound to be obsessed.”
After several years of collecting research, the first challenge that Capaldi grappled with was how to adapt the letter into a story. She felt intimidated by Montezuma's perfectly crafted prose, but eventually found that it provided the perfect biographical framework to which she could add other fascinating details she uncovered in his articles and interviews. She also read Native American writings and tried to incorporate similar symbolic language.
“I just didn't see how I could write a story that was already written,” Capaldi admitted. “So, I gathered all my research and tried to put in place timewise how everything happened, but in his words. In order to modernize the text I had to rewrite phrases and I constantly felt I was walking a tightrope. Did I change too much? Did I not change enough? There may have been a sentence or two that I fabricated to create more drama, but these always remained in context,” she continued. “For example, I used the term ‘white leaf’ to refer to photographic paper: ‘It could take a person’s face off without hurting them and put it on a white leaf.’ I don't think Carlos ever said that, but it adds a certain flair.”
It was while fashioning the story for A Boy Named Beckoning: The True Story of Dr. Carlos Montezuma Native American Hero that Capaldi was drawn to the New Resources program and completing her degree at Pitzer College. She had previously attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, as well as Pepperdine University in Malibu, and credits Pitzer’s Writing Center Founder and Director Jackie Levering-Sullivan and Professor Emeritus of Political Studies Jack Sullivan for encouraging her to finish her studies at Pitzer. She and Levering-Sullivan were part of the same writing group for years and Capaldi recalls how she would marvel at Levering-Sullivan's stories.
Shortly after completing her BA in art in 2006, Capaldi began sketching her illustrations as well as searching for a publisher. She chose to abandon her usual medium of watercolor and instead returned to acrylic painting, which she had not done in years. For Capaldi illustration is an inexact craft. She does not consciously think about what to illustrate, but rather listens for the story to tell her.
“It's hard for me to do certain types of picture book styles,” Capaldi said. “I don't do cute. It's not that I wouldn't want to do cute, it just doesn't come out of me. Once I broke the story down into thirty-two pages, it was pretty intuitive,” she added. “I illustrated whatever felt visual. It only took me about four weeks to complete my rough sketches whereas other projects have taken me longer.”
Capaldi compiled her “dummy” or initial conceptual layout for the book, which included these rough sketches and two acrylic paintings, and sent it along with the manuscript and cover letter to numerous publishing companies. She received positive feedback, but at first there were no “takers.” Since Capaldi had chosen to supplement her drawings with side panels featuring historical photographs by Gentile and others as well as contextual notes, she recognized it was going to be an expensive book to produce.
Eventually, however, the book was picked up by Jean Reynolds, senior editor at Carolrhoda Books, and designated for third- to fifth-grade readers.
“The publisher didn't ask me to change much,” Capaldi recalled. “But once I had to begin illustrating the entire book, I was scared. In my mind so much was riding on this book and I wasn't sure if I had the guts to do it. That's exactly why Montezuma's story is inspiring to me; he encountered numerous obstacles and managed to overcome them. His is a Native American story, but to me, it's more than that. There's a lot more depth to him as a human being.”
The release of A Boy Named Beckoning in March of this year has been met with critical acclaim in the children's literature field. The book received a starred review from Booklist, a glowing review from the School Library Journal and was selected as the Book of the Month for March by the Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children.
“You can't possibly give up on something you truly believe in,” Capaldi said. “Although I have had an established career as an illustrator, I believe this is my most significant work so far. This book was so important to me that I stuck with it for twelve years,” she continued. “People get excited about how ‘fun’ it would be, but the ‘fun’ is the challenge and the actual creation of your vision no matter how long it takes.”
Capaldi, who resides in San Dimas, California, works fulltime as an illustrator for a manufacturing company and is a freelance illustrator for educational publishing companies. No sooner had her newest title hit shelves and she already was working on her next project, the sister book to A Boy Named Beckoning. Tentatively titled Red Bird, the book will chronicle the life of Zitkala-Sa or Gertrude Bonnin Simmons, Montezuma's one-time fiancé. An author, poet and musician, she, too, was a political activist who fought to obtain fairer treatment for Native Americans.
“I'm always busy,” Capaldi said. “I believe that if you think you're a writer or an artist, you have to do the writing and the art. Every project allows you to grow.”