Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Analysis: PETER PAN IN SCARLET

After spending the last 24 hours re-reading and making notes on Geraldine McCaughrean's Peter Pan in Scarlet, I feel a bit like the character, Mr. John.  The book opens with him saying "I'm not going to bed." (p. 2) He doesn't want to go to bed, because he'll have another dream. These dreams are unsettling to him. The worst night are when John dreams of Captain Hook.

Riffing off Mr. John's feelings...

As I read Peter Pan in Scarlet, I'd take time out for meals, teaching, talking with students, and the like. It was a relief to set the book aside to do those things! Tasks finished, then, I was a lot like Mr. John (avoiding something unpleasant). I didn't say "I'm not going to bed." I was thinking "I'm not going to pick that book up again." (But I did.)  Mr. John's worst nights are when he dreams of Captain Hook. The worst parts for me, as I read this book, are McCaughrean's references to Indians:

  • Head-dress
  • Warpaint
  • Redskins
  • Tepee
  • Warpath
  • Totem Poles
  • Hidden warpaths
  • Cannibals
  • Chief
  • Signal fires
  • Tribes

And then.... the Indians themselves.

  • Waist high
  • Wearing full warpaint
  • Armed with hatchets, bows and arrows, bowie knives
  • Child warriors
  • Long silken hair
  • Buckskin tunics
  • Scalping
  • Papooses
  • Squaws
  • Braves
  • Throat slitters
  • Warpainted pirates
  • Warriors
  • (Puppy eaters)
  • Throat-slitters ready to shoot arrows

In all of what I've listed above, McCaughrean, (apparently in the same style as Barrie), provides readers with a specific viewpoint or portrayal of Indians.  Like countless writers, she provides her readers with a stereotypical Indian... a mish-mash of tribes...

Tipis (she spells it tepees) and totem poles do not originate with the same tribe!

Her Indians are warriors and squaws in warpaint, carrying bows and arrows and knives. They know about scalping. And her Indians are also throat slitters. Throat slitters??? That's a new one for me. I've never seen it before (that I can remember) in any children's or young adult book. Just now, I've done a search on "throat slitters" and the hits are all related to terrorists.  Do any of you know of a book that says Indians were throat slitters? If you do, please comment below or write to me (dreese dot nambe at gmail dot com).

Not only does McCaughrean use just about every stereotypical image of Indians and just about every word to describe them, she adds a new one... One that is brutal, violent, and graphic. Where did McCaughrean get throat slitters? And why did she add it? I don't think it was in Peter Pan.

Moving forward in the book now, to chapter 24, "Back Together." There, we learn of the "Tribes of the Eight Nations." What is that? I can't pin it down to anything I know of, but, McCaughrean tells us what it is made up of:

Bison
Appaloosas
Travois
Squaws
Dogs
Braves
Thunderbirds
Drums
Papooses
War Bonnets
Peace Pipes
Braids
Coup Sticks
Moccasins
Bows and Arrows

Some list, eh?! This "Tribes of the Eight Nations" came in response to the "smoke signals" (p. 280) that Peter sent from the top of Neverpeak.  These tribes are from the north, south, east, west, and "the other place" (p. 280). What is that other place?!

When these tribes see Peter and the Explorers, they "bang on their shields and drums and papooses..." (p. 280). Their papooses?! Doesn't McCaughrean know what papooses are?! My question shouldn't be read to mean that I think that's an ok word.... I've written elsewhere that it IS a word for baby, but it is not EVERY tribal nations word for baby. Unfortunately, it has come to be seen as the universal Indian word for baby. It isn't.

They have a potlatch, during which a Princess smears their faces with warpaint and tells them they are now honorary members of the Eight Nations. Oh dear. I don't know what to say to that... 

And just as suddenly as they appeared, the Indians go away, moving off in eight different directions, to:

Tepees
Hogans
Kivas or Longhouses
Roundhouses
Bivouacs
Stockades
Under the stars

Why does McCaughrean say kivas or longhouses? Does she think they're the same thing? (They aren't.) Bivouc and stockade?! I associate those with the army. And, under the stars? Did she add that to reach her tidy number of eight? Eight tribes, eight directions, eight kinds of houses...  And what is it with eight??? Is that from Barrie? Or is that all McCaughrean?!

Peter Pan in Scarlet got great reviews. Only one reviewer (to my knowledge) mentioned the stereotypical Indian content. Over on  Amazon, there are 45 customer reviews (I'm looking at the page on November 3, 2009). 30 readers give it four or five stars.  None of the reviews, good or bad, mention the Indian content.

Of course, I object to all of it. It's all stereotypical, and the addition of throat slitters really bothers me. All of that aside, the story is dark. Bleak. Scary. A lot of the imagery is nightmarish. Let's hope it doesn't trouble my sleep tonight. I have more questions than answers or analysis... 

To see my extensive notes, read Notes and Summary:  Peter Pan in Scarlet.

8 comments:

Delux said...

"Oh dear. I don't know what to say to that..."

Pretty much my response to this entire review! Banging on papooses? Really?

Anonymous said...

Not that this makes it all right in any way, but reading the quote (in the other post) about throat-slitters, I wonder if the throat slitting is a reference to them now being pirates, and not about being Native.

JCD said...

I haven't read any of these new "Peter Pan" books so I appreciate your analysis. "Banging on papooses? That is so ridiculous it almost made me laugh out loud (and not in a good way). Not that I'm defending the author (I am not), but I think the OR (as in kivas or longhouses) is simply a weird edit/grammatical thing. She doesn't mean (I hope!) they're the same thing - she's trying to say: "they went to these different places". It is very awkward though, and something the editor should have corrected. Then again, she does write how people bang on papooses...

J.

Julie said...

Hello Debbie,
I took a break from blogging for a while but have returned. Just linked up to your review. Hoping to pass your work along once again. For the Record: Peter Pan is still not salvageable
Julie at UO

Doret said...

How can so many reviewers overlook the stereotypical content, if its right there from the beginning.

I can understand readers not seeing subtle between the line stereotypes but this is right in your face.

It so riduclous and sad that this kind of stuff continues to happen.

Did you link any of this to
Amazon?

Debbie Reese said...

Doret,

Not sure what you mean: "link to Amazon." Do you mean, did I put any of this on the Amazon site?

Doret said...

Yes, you guessed right. Did you write a review for Amazon?

We had one copy in the store, today it some how ended up in the return pile.

porterjennifer said...

I can't believe they are still publishing children's books that are outright racist. I'll have to read this book just so I can give it bad reviews on amazon.com and everywhere else!!
Jennifer