1491 by Charles C. Mann

Because I’m beginning to teach a year of light American history for my son, I have decided to read some books on various subjects in American history myself. Where else to begin but with a review of life in the Americas before Christopher Columbus and his fellow explorers brought Europeans en masse in the late 1400s?

The book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann examines the evidences that we have in order to draw a picture of what the Americas were like before Columbus came. Relying on archeological evidences as well as historical records and geological studies, he draws a clear picture of how the native Americans may have lived. As he points out, much of his discussion is on life for the natives during the conquests, as the European reaction, descriptions, and memoirs are what we have as evidences of how life may have been before they appeared. I realize now better than ever that the native population of the Americas was huge, diverse, innovative, and talented. As a precursor to my own study of American history, 1491 was an essential introduction. Continue Reading

Thoughts on The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks

Yesterday, I reread The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks (first published 1981). I loved it as a child. I remember learning about Iroquois Indians and longhouses and being fascinated. I loved the magical adventure when a toy comes to life.

For those that have not yet read the children’s novel, young Omri locks his plastic toy American Indian in a cupboard and the Indian comes to life! His friend does the same to his plastic cowboy, and the result is disastrous.

As an adult, I’m incredibly uncomfortable with the basic errors (false and negative stereotypes) in this book. I also recently finished a nonfiction book about the first Americans, 1491 by Charles Mann, so I believe that my perspective on how the native Indians really were makes me uncomfortable with the stereotypes encountered in this children’s novel today. Looking at The Indian in the Cupboard 30 years after it was first published, I certainly see it as inappropriate and dated. I’m not just trying to be “politically correct” although that is a term that could be applied to me I suppose. It’s somewhat disturbing to read the inaccuracies and the inherent racism in the boys comments … and in the author’s suggestions from those comments.

A few of the things that disturbed me:

  • The Indian’s pidgin English. While I’m sure there would have been some language barrier between American Indians and colonists in the early 1700s, the Indian’s pidgin is ridiculously stereotyped. Did the author research how he’d have spoken, or was Little Bear’s English based on the stereotypes in Westerns?
  • The Indian is stereotyped as a proud warrior that wants to kill and scalp because he can. Scalping was not that wide spread, and while there was scalping during the French-Indian War, Little Bear’s obsession seems disproportional to what I’ve found about the Natives. Few Haudenosaunee warriors joined the British in campaigns.
  • Little Bear calls himself Iroquois when he really would have called himself Haudenosaunee. There are other out of character things. The chiefs of the Five Nations were not so bossy; it was much more of a council. That Little Bear would assume the title chief after the unknown chief died in the cupboard just doesn’t resonate with who his people were in terms of government. “Chief” is quite a symbol of respect, not necessarily a self-appointed inherited title.
  • The cowboy’s racist attitudes toward the Indian may fit in with the Westerns on TV in the ’70s and ’80s, but how accurate were they? As soon as he saw the Indian, he wanted to kill him. Did 1880s cowboys just immediately kill Indians they saw? This seemed rather extreme and stereotypical.
  • Neither one of the magical toys were people; they were types. True, Little Bear was brave and the cowboy was wimpy. But then boys turned on the TV and became just as racist, laughing at the Western. The characters in the book were like those in a glorified Western (albeit one for kids). What does this really say about the people who supposedly really lived in history? Omri supposedly has learned they are people with feelings, but he’s still playing with them right up to the end.
  • Others have compared playing cowboys and Indians to something as offensive to playing slave master and slave. While I’m not sure about that, there is something inherently unequal, unfair, and discomforting about portraying these “people” as toys to interact with each other, starting with the fact that Omri felt he couldn’t play with the Indian unless he had a cowboy as well.

All this is somewhat sad for me to say, since the book is well paced, magical, and simply fun from my WASPy perspective in the twenty-first century. It’s too bad its not one I can readily recommend today. If I were American Indian, I would not have found it “fun.” And that to me is a good reason I shouldn’t be encouraging my son to read it.

What do you think?

To put it another way, at what point is racism in semi-classic literature no longer okay? I ask because there were likewise a few racist comments in The Secret Garden where I recently reread, and I’ve encountered it before in other older classics for children, like Kipling and so forth. But it surprised me how racist this book was, and it’s only thirty years old.

At any rate, if I do hand it to my son when he’s older, it will be with lots of discussion about the attitudes and inaccuracies found therein.

A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

Supposedly, Jules Verne is, in France, considered a “travel and adventure” writer, and is considered one of the great French authors, along with Zola, Hugo, and Dumas. Although I don’t consider him one of the greatest authors I’ve read, I have no doubt that Jules Verne is a great author, and well deserving of his “classic” status. The splendor of his writing may have been lost in translation.

His novels are amazingly inventive creations, a mix of science and fantasy. I am not generally interested in science fiction, but Jules Verne I can read and enjoy. Many name him the father of science fiction, and I definitely can see him as an influence on later writers. In general, I really like Jules Verne’s books because they feel like classics “light.” The stories are simply fun, and the prose is not challenging to read for the most part (although some of his book gets science heavy in parts). As for the science fiction aspects of some of his novels, they truly do make for a fun adventure!

A Journey to the Center of the Earth (originally published 1864 in French) was our book for this month’s book club, and we all enjoyed it, though few of us considered it a favorite classic.Continue Reading

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevens

Miss Buncle is an aging old maid in a boring town in the suburbia of London, 1930s. When she finds herself in need of funds, she decides to earn some money by writing a novel. Miss Buncle’s book causes waves in the careful social fabric of the small town because she has written about the people she knows, albeit with different names, of course. Those who have not been portrayed nicely certainly do not appreciate the caricatures by the anonymous “John Smith” and vow to find out who has written the book. As Miss Buncle watches the chaos, she can only find inspiration for more fiction!

Miss Buncle’s Book (to be published September 2012 by Sourcebooks; originally published 1934) by D.E. Stevens is a laugh-out-loud experiences as one considers proper and shy Miss Buncle overhauling her small town’s social order. It is in part an humorous portrayal of the old-fashioned traditions in a tight-knit community of the early twentieth century as well as a mingling of various amusing personalities. But it also seemed to me to have a deeper perspective on self-realization. As some of the people of the town viewed themselves through the caricatured view of the unknown author, they changed their own actions: the “mean” person tried to be more kind; the old bachelor allowed himself to think in terms of falling in love, and even shy Miss Buncle found herself loosening up. (Did she really leave the tea party without politely excusing herself?!) If I were in a novel, how would I be portrayed? What faults and strengths would be caricatured in myself?

I was delighted to see that Sourcebooks is republishing this lost classic (to be published in September). It has been previously republished overseas by Persephone Books, and it was about time that it made it’s way to America as well! People who enjoy the humor of The Help by Kathryn Stockett or those who enjoy a look at a small town community, such as that in the much older Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, may also enjoy this book. It is, after all, a book about a woman writing a book about a woman writing a book. Satire abounds, but there is also plenty of subtlety hiding amidst the humor.

Note: I read a digital copy from the publisher via netgalley.com for review consideration. I was not compensated for this review.