Friday, January 17, 2014

About "diverse" books and inclusivity in Brian Floca's LOCOMOTIVE

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Editor's note, March 1, 2014: The book discussed herein won the 2014 Caldecott Medal. Its win signals how much work there is ahead of us in terms of diversity and representation of everyone who "We the People" references. 
________________________________________

Among the books that has gotten some buzz this year as a frontrunner for major book awards is Brian Floca's Locomotive. It is a celebratory treatment of the transcontinental railroad presented in a travelogue style. That railroad was completed in 1869.

In Locomotive, a white woman and her two children board the train in Omaha bound for San Francisco. As they get off the train at San Francisco, Floca's text reads:
Now your days on the train are done.
You are tired and dusty,
the smell of smoke in your clothes.
But now you are here!
Here where you needed to go,
here where you need to be...
Turning the page, one sees a man, arms outstretched. I assume he is the children's father and the woman's husband. The text on that page is:
...here with the people
you've waited
and wanted
and needed to see.
I won't deny the need and joy of any family's reunion, but in this review essay, I use Floca's text to pose some questions, particularly as people in children's literature take up the word "diversity" or "diverse books." So far, I haven't seen anyone say that his book is a "diverse" book, but I can see how it might garner that sort of characterization, because the first full page of the book shows Chinese men. For Locomotive to succeed as a "diverse" book, however, its readers need to see far more than Floca gave us.

On the page "The Great Plains" (the book is not paginated; the words "The Great Plains" are on the bottom right corner of the double-paged spread), the illustration is of a vast sky and an expanse of grassland. Moving through it is the train. Here's what Floca wrote:
The hours and miles roll by.
The country opens,
opens wide,
empty as an ocean.
I paused when I read "empty as an ocean." Describing land as empty is something that Laura Ingalls Wilder did, too. Describing a place as empty depends on the person using that description. Some years ago, I took my laptop in for servicing. The screen background I had at the time was a photograph I took of the view from my house on the reservation. The technician looked at that photo and said something about how empty it was and how it should be developed. To me, it wasn't empty. To me, it is my homeland. If the Great Plains were my homeland, I wouldn't call it empty. But that's what Floca's white family sees. I think that is what they want and need to see in order to be able to celebrate that railroad and their travels across those plains.

Floca's text on that page continues with this:
Here the bison used to roam,
by the hundreds, by the millions.
Here the Cheyenne lived,
and Pawnee and Arapaho.
Again, I paused.

Will Floca tell his readers that the railroad played a role in the demise--or rather, slaughter--of the bison? Will he tell them, for example, that white hunters shot buffalo from open train windows? Or that millions of hides were shipped on those trains by hunters who left bison carcasses to rot? (The answer to those questions is no. He doesn't. Is it fair to expect him to? Could he include it in the notes at the end of the book? Whether he should or not is debatable. More on that later...)

And what about the use of "lived" to describe the Cheyenne, Pawnee, and Arapaho. Does that sentence suggest to a reader with "vanished" Indians as part of his or her knowledge base that the Cheyenne, the Pawnee, and the Arapaho no longer exist at all? Will Floca say more about this? (The answer is no.)

On the page with "The Forty-Mile Desert" in the bottom right corner, we learn that the train is now in the Great Basin:
On the train rolls,
down through the desert,
the home of the Paiute and the Shoshone,
It's a land of dust and bitter rivers,
rivers that never reach the sea--
they sink away,
they vanish.
I like what he says there, "home of the Paiute and the Shoshone" much better than his use of "lived" regarding the Cheyenne, Pawnee, and Arapaho. I like that he names specific tribes, too, but that isn't enough--in my view--to make this a book that would appeal to a diverse audience that includes children of those Native Nations, or children who have learned a more critical history and view of history.

Let's flip to the end papers that open the book. I like that Floca has used them, too, to pass along information by way of his illustrations. There's a map showing the transcontinental railroad and all the states it passes through. There's some people drawn on the map, but none of them are Native. In fact, nowhere on the end pages do I see illustrations or references to Native people at all. The small illustrations that frame the map on the top of the page show what I take to be the Mayflower and a wagon train. Beneath the map is one that shows workers making a tunnel, one that shows them laying track, and then, one that shows the meeting point for the tracks the two companies built (the two companies were the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific).

If I was advising Floca, I'd have suggested--at the very least--that he add homelands of Native Nations to that map.

Let's turn now, to "A Note on the Locomotive" at the end of the book. There, Floca tells us about the thousands of Chinese who worked for the railroads in the West, and he tells us of the waves of European immigrants who settled along the railroads. Then, there's a long paragraph about Native peoples. All of the following excerpts are in that paragraph. He begins with this:
If the railroad offered change to some, it imposed change on others, none more so than American Indians, who variously accepted, cooperated with, and fought the railroads as the railroads pushed across the continent. In the West, the Central Pacific made agreements with the Paiute and Shoshone of the Great Basin, some of whom worked alongside Chinese laborers to help build the road. (The groups worked well together, although there is a story of the Paiutes alarming the Chinese by telling them that the desert was inhabited by giant, man-eating snakes.)
"[A]s the railroads pushed across the continent"? How about "as the railroads and the federal government did what they wanted to take Native land." And what are we to make of the story in parentheses? That the Paiutes were mean to the Chinese? Or, maybe we're meant to think of the Chinese as simple minded? Or maybe, superstitious? Maybe this is Floca's attempt to inject a bit of levity?

Floca goes on to say that Pawnees also chose to work with the Union Pacific, and it was when the railroad "pushed" through Nebraska that there were problems because it
disrupted the grazing ranges of the bison, or American buffalo, the animal at the center of the diet, economy, and culture of the Plains, and the Cheyenne responded with attacks on surveyors and work crews.
There's a section in the book that shows things that did not happen to the train the family was riding on. One is a train going too fast on a curve and derailing. Another is of the crew letting too much water boil away, leading to an explosion. I think Floca could have shown one of those Cheyenne attacks on that page. What he says next tells us that he has a good sense of the reason for those attacks. He could have used that information alongside an illustration of Cheyenne's attacking the trains:
(General Phil Sheridan, although as ruthless a campaigner in the Indian wars as any, observed that "we took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and against this that they made war. Could anyone expect less?")
The parenthesis in that excerpt are in the book. Parentheses are generally used to set off supplemental information that is an aside, or an afterthought, or something that is tangential to the information being presented. Seeing Floca's use of it in this instance sort of reflects his treatment overall of Native people in Locomotive. We're an aside. An afterthought. What happened to Native people is tangential to the information he wants to share in Locomotive. Therein is the problem. Did he not imagine us as his readers? And let's not forget that Sheridan said "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead"

Next is this:
The attacks were recurring and deadly, but the railroad--backed by the U.S. Army--could not be stopped. Once the line was completed, portions of it in Nevada were sometimes used by the Paiute and Shoshone, who through their treaties with the Central Pacific were entitled to rides on the train through their territories. 
First thing to note: tribes didn't make treaties with railroads. Treaties are agreements made between governments. The treaty Floca may have had in mind is the US government's 1863 Treaty with the Western Shoshone in which the Shoshone agreed to stop attacking the existing trains and also agreed not to attack the construction of "a railway from the plains west to the Pacific ocean."

Second, that excerpt tells us that Floca knew that Native people rode the trains. Could he have included illustrations of Paiute or Shoshone people riding the train? There's a page in the book that shows the interior of a train. A boy is walking down the aisle selling newspapers. In the foreground is a man reading Harper's Weekly. What if that was a Paiute or Shoshone man, looking askance at this illustration from an October 1874 issue?



The point I wish to make with this essay is that Locomotive is a one-sided presentation of history. It has to be, I suppose, in order for it to be celebratory, but shouldn't we be beyond one-sided celebrations?

A few years ago, the Children's Book Council established its CBC Diversity Committee. Among its goals are a dedication to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children's literature. The experience that is missing in Floca's book is that of Native peoples. Including us probably wasn't his intent. Maybe one of CBC's actions towards diversity could be to ask authors to be more inclusive in what they create. Maybe another one could be to ask reviewers to note absences in books like Locomotive. 

There are other absences in Floca's book. He includes an illustration of Chinese laborer's on the first page, but doesn't say much about them in the text or in the Note at the end of the book. Though they constituted 90% of the work force, they weren't invited to that celebration of the railroad being completed. How, I wonder, does a child descended from one of the Chinese laborer's feel about so little of their experience being included in Locomotive?

And, there's more to say about San Francisco and Native peoples of California, too. Am I asking for too much? Some would say yes, others would say no. Some would be critical of me for criticizing the book for what it leaves out, but I'll say, again, we have to provide books that are more inclusive of all the peoples that live in the United States. Without them, we're still stuck in an all-white world of children's books, and demographics show---the United States is not an all-white world.

Editors note: My apologies for inadvertently using Locomotion instead of Locomotive in four places. That error has been corrected. 

--------------------------
For further reading:
American Indians and the Transcontinental Railroad



Update: Jan 21, 2014, 5:15 PM

Brian Floca submitted comments to my critique. I am pasting them here for the convenience of readers of AICL and will respond once I have studied his comments. Here they are:

Debbie,

I appreciate your thoughts on “Locomotive,” critical and otherwise. “Locomotive” was always intended first and foremost as a book about what it was like to operate and travel behind a steam locomotive in 1869. The most difficult stretches in the making of the book were spent thinking about how best to handle the many people and stories connected with the first transcontinental line without taking the book too far from that core concern, from the book I most wanted and felt most able to make, and no story was more difficult to try to get right than that of the Native American relationship to the line. The balances I struck with all those stories will be right for some readers and not for others, I recognize. I appreciate your perspective on those choices, and would be glad for the chance to share a response to a few of the questions you raised.

I had text and illustrations to work with while making this book, and you’re right of course that the Native American material ended up represented in the text and not the drawings. Many factors led to the final shape of this information in the book, including pacing and availability of reliable visual reference material for particular moments and periods. I knew any images would be looked at critically, and I didn’t want to include them if I wasn’t sure I could get them right. I also had to consider the choice of scenes that might accurately and representatively be shown given the setting and period of the book. One thing I had to consider, for instance, was this difficult and restricting paragraph from Dee Brown’s “Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Railroads in the West”: “The universal desire of all pioneer travelers on the transcontinental was to see a “real wild Indian.” Few of them did, because the true warriors of the plains hated the Iron Horse and seldom came within miles of it…. The Indians whom the travelers saw were mostly those who had been corrupted and weakened by contacts with the white man’s civilization—scroungers, mercenaries, or beggars by necessity.” It was also hard to find reference for the sort of interaction I would have wanted to show between the Paiute and Shoshone who rode with white passengers on the Central Pacific in Nevada, and this felt like another imposed limit. Your post makes me wonder again what other options I had and what else I might have done, but I assure you the effort was there as I was making the book.


Some of these questions about presentation and what’s included and what’s not are simply matters of taste and tone. The emptiness of the Plains is, of course, one of those matters of perspective, but it’s not described as empty for no reason. In various accounts, train passengers on the Plains in the 1860s were overwhelmed by an expanse so different than the forests, hills, valleys, mountains, or cities that many were used to. To Robert Louis Stevenson, for instance, the Great Plains were “a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, an empty earth; front and back, line of railway stretched from horizon to horizon, like a cue across a billiard-board…. The train toiled over this infinity like a snail….” I wanted that feeling in the book. 

When it comes to word choices, the use of the word “lived” on that page was not meant to imply “vanished,” and I hope that for readers it won’t. I also hoped that “The railroad and the men who built it—they have changed it all” would indeed convey who was behind these changes, and that the herd of bison covering the land on the book’s cover, beneath the jacket, would suggest the destructive as well as triumphant nature of the rail line. 

On the front endpapers, the drawing of a clipper ship is there to illustrate the passage of text immediately to the right of the drawing, the description of trips taken by ship around Cape Horn. Across these endpapers I wanted to show the motives for the railroad and its construction and in the end, for better or worse, these filled the page. 

In the note at the back of the book, what I liked about the anecdote about the Paiute and Chinese was the surprise, humanity, and unexpected humor in the story. I often see stories about these workers presented rather stiffly, in my opinion; this story was a break from that tone. 

No Cheyenne attack is shown in the book for a few reasons, but the foremost is that the Cheyenne weren’t really attacking the first transcontinental railroad after it was constructed. In “Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow,” Brown writes of passengers who were worried about such an attack: “Such perturbed passengers might better have been fretting over Anglo-Saxon train robbers, such as Jesse James, who were far more likely to wreck and rob a train in the 1870s than were the Indians.” One of the consolations of not being able to fit everything in a book is knowing that you’re surely not making the only book on the subject, though. I wonder what you think of Paul Goble’s “Death of the Iron Horse,” depicting the Cheyenne attack on a train at Plum Creek, Nebraska, in 1867? I can imagine “Locomotive” and “Death of the Iron Horse” paired together.

The parentheses around the Sheridan quote were a way of giving that quote, a change of tone from the rest of the note, a bit of its own space. Possibly they were unnecessary, and if because of them the quote reads as less important than it would otherwise, then they were a mistake. Sheridan’s ruthlessness, also mentioned in the note, I thought only added to the sting and surprise of the remark, and that was one of the things I found remarkable and provoking about it.

As for the treaties with the Paiute and Shoshone, while an agreement with a government may be one definition of a treaty, I don’t believe it is the only one. In “A Great and Shining Road,” John Hoyt Williams describes the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863 and then continues, “The Central Pacific, which was granted permission by the Nevada legislature to build through the state only in 1866, was taking no chances. In that year the company signed its own treaties with the dreaded Apache subtribes, Paiutes, and others.…” And here is Dee Brown again: “To avoid conflicts with Indians—such as had hampered the Union Pacific and Kansas Pacific on the Great Plains—the Central Pacific offered some of the [N]ative Americans employment and then signed a special treaty with the Paiutes and Shoshonis.” 

Finally, it’s incorrect to say that Chinese workers made up 90% of the workforce that built the transcontinental line. As is stated in the front endpapers of “Locomotive,” Chinese workers constituted up to 90% of the Central Pacific workforce, but the Union Pacific half of the line was built largely by Irish immigrants and former soldiers. It is also, happily, incorrect to say that no Chinese were invited to the celebration of the railroad’s completion. A. J. Russell’s stereograph “Chinese at Laying Last Rail UPRR” shows Chinese workers laying the last piece of rail at Promontory Summit, and a contemporary account tells us that “J.H. Strowbridge [sic], when the work was all over, invited the Chinamen who had been brought over from Victory for the purpose, to dine in his boarding car. When they entered all the guests and officers present cheered them as the chosen representatives of the race which have greatly helped to build the road—a tribute they well deserved, and which evidently gave them much pleasure.” This was surely less than they warranted, but is worth remembering. More about the Chinese and Irish in this book might have been better, but there are other books the cover building the line, and the heart of this book is about traveling the line—thus the low proportion of attention given to the line’s builders (to say nothing of those who first envisioned the transcontinental railroad, advocated for it, legislated it, financed it, surveyed it, and engineered it). 

Like every book, “Locomotive” has its limits. I wouldn’t be able to and I haven’t tried to tell and show readers everything that I might, but I’ve hoped to make a book that will interest them and, ideally, make them want to know more. I hope that for most readers the book makes a contribution to their understanding of the period, events, and people it describes, including the Native Americans. I’m aware that no book will please all readers, though, and I appreciate your thoughts on my effort. Certainly working on the book was a learning experience for me, and indeed I feel like I’m still learning from the book and where it’s led me, this conversation included.

Best,
Brian Floca


Update, Monday January 27, 2014

Brian,

A few hours ago, your name was read as the winner of the 2014 Caldecott. While I'm trying to make myself feel joyful--because I love books, too--I'm not joyful. I'm angry. But my anger isn't necessarily at you. It's more at the status quo than anything. Your response indicates to me that you gave a lot of thought to what you included and how and why, and I'm glad of that. I'll address your comments in a moment.

For now, I'm addressing the whole-ness of children's literature. Or, maybe, the Caldecott committee. And maybe all those who cheered when your name was called out. Given all the attention to diversity of late, it seems LOCOMOTIVE is a choice that says "we don't care about diversity." Course, that assumes that people who are on the committee know and care about diversity in the first place, and I'm not privy to that information.

Some people are paying attention. Betsy Bird and Lori Ess held a "pre-game" event during which they noted the importance of my critique. Others are tweeting and sharing it via Facebook, so that's good, too.

So here I am, angry. It feels small and petty to be raining on your parade. Perhaps a bit later you can return here and we can continue to talk, because there is much to do, I think, and your assistance in helping us get a bit further down that road would be invaluable.

So. On to your comments.

I imagine you feel damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't when considering how you might illustrate anything to do with Native people. Myself and many others are deeply invested in those images being right, and you're right to be wary. Source material is highly problematic! Seems that Dee Brown is the go-to person for information about American Indians. Reading Brown's books can give some insight so that people avoid making certain kinds of errors, but goodness! There's so much better material available! I strongly urge authors/illustrators to move beyond Brown to Native sources.

The first place I'd go is right to the website of the tribe I was trying to illustrate. Lisa Mitten of the American Indian Library Association has a list of websites by tribe. Sites created by the tribe (rather than a company) are marked with a drum. Once at the site, I'd look for a tribal historian or tribal museum. I'd absolutely stay away from standard encyclopedias. Perspective in them is so biased! So---to authors and illustrators out there---your first stop ought to be a tribe's website. That's not saying someone there will talk to you. Some will, some won't. Some will be too busy helping tribal leaders who are defending the land and resources -- both of which are constantly under assault.

Some will be delighted that an author/illustrator wants to feature their tribe, and they'll be glad to help, but they may not know much about children's literature and critical analysis of image. Or they may not know how important it is to get it right. I'll use myself as an example. Before I started graduate school at the University of Illinois, I knew image was important, but leaving my reservation and living amongst a white population with white perspectives really made it clear to me how damaging stereotypes can be. To them, we didn't look "Indian" because we weren't wearing buckskin and feathers. I kid you not! As you travel in the coming year, talk to kids and teachers. See what they know about American Indians. I'm working with a teacher in a school in the Midwest who is dumbstruck by the things the gifted children she works with "know" about American Indians. I expect that the conversations you have will be similar to that. Her reports affirm what I said in my critique about "lived" and undergird my concern with the use of past tense. So--if you do find someone at the tribe who will work with you, be mindful of the need to triangulate with others, too. This isn't easy--I know--and though it'd be easier just NOT to depict Native people... we've got to try! And if your source is critical and asks you to change something, do it! Ann Rinaldi is Exhibit A in asking for and then disregarding input.

In your response about "lived" you noted that the book cover is a herd of bison. I had no idea. I only saw the jacket. And it is the jacket that is being shown on all sites. Everyone who is reading this conversation between me and Brian---look under the jacket. It is startlingly different in impact. You said you hoped that the line "The railroad and the men who built it--they have changed it all" would convey destruction and triumph. I haven't seen any reviews that say anything at all about destruction of land, killing of bison, or the taking of Native lands for the railroads and towns along them. If you had included---maybe on that page with the wreck and explosion---an illustration of bison dead all along the railroad, shot from train windows, that'd have made destruction very clear. I understand it may have taken you, in part, in a direction you didn't want to go, but I think it would have made your book so much more informative and inclusive if you had. Teachers and librarians reading this conversation--I'd love to know if you take up the destruction, or if you see it referenced in a review.

The anecdote about Paiute and Chinese: Right! Both populations are too often portrayed in stiff ways. Hence, your surprise at the story is understandable AND points to why it would have been great for you to have included illustrations that would counter that depiction.

The Cheyenne attack: Ok, they didn't attack the transcontinental railroad, but the wreck and explosion you showed on that double-paged spread weren't about the train the family was on. So--I think it could have been included. Your text could explain the attack, just as you explained the wreck and explosion.

Paul Goble's book? You see it as being paired with yours. I'll get it and see. I'm not optimistic, though. Native critics are not at all happy with his trickster books: About Paul Goble and his books.

Front endpapers: You write that you wanted to show motives for the railroad and its construction, but I'm not sure I see what you were getting at. I understand that there was a desire to have that railroad, but why? Saying the journey was "expensive, difficult, and often dangerous" describes the travel, but not why the travel was being done. Who was trying to get to California? Why were they trying to get to California? What did their desire to get there mean for the Native peoples who were already there?

Treaties: When looking for information on treaties, I generally turn to Native scholars. I pointed to one in my critique. Here's another one, which is the one you referenced in your comment. You cite the author of A Great and Shining Road as saying tribes made a treaty with the railroad company. The Treaty with the Western Shoshone starts out like this: "Treaty of Peace and Friendship made at Ruby Valley..." That treaty is between tribes and the US government, not the railroad. I don't have Hoyt's book, and maybe there is a treaty between the tribes and the railroad, but I kind of doubt it. I don't have Brown's either. Can you tell me what they cite?

Chinese and celebrations: Right. They were 90% of labor on the Central Pacific workforce. Thanks for sharing the info on Chinese being at the celebration. My info came from Gallery2 of the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American Studies page, in the caption for the photograph "Joining the Tracks" which is the photo that I think you used for your illustration of that celebration. Their source is Lisa Yee's book, On Gold Mountain. 

Well. That's all I've got for now. Thanks, Brian, for your response, and I look forward to a continuing conversation. And do ask kids and teachers and librarians what they know about American Indians and see what they say.

Debbie


10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Debbie, thank you for your always educational and thought-provoking posts. I am so appreciative of the work you do.

Brian Floca said...

(1 of 3)

Debbie,

I appreciate your thoughts on “Locomotive,” critical and otherwise. “Locomotive” was always intended first and foremost as a book about what it was like to operate and travel behind a steam locomotive in 1869. The most difficult stretches in the making of the book were spent thinking about how best to handle the many people and stories connected with the first transcontinental line without taking the book too far from that core concern, from the book I most wanted and felt most able to make, and no story was more difficult to try to get right than that of the Native American relationship to the line. The balances I struck with all those stories will be right for some readers and not for others, I recognize. I appreciate your perspective on those choices, and would be glad for the chance to share a response to a few of the questions you raised.

I had text and illustrations to work with while making this book, and you’re right of course that the Native American material ended up represented in the text and not the drawings. Many factors led to the final shape of this information in the book, including pacing and availability of reliable visual reference material for particular moments and periods. I knew any images would be looked at critically, and I didn’t want to include them if I wasn’t sure I could get them right. I also had to consider the choice of scenes that might accurately and representatively be shown given the setting and period of the book. One thing I had to consider, for instance, was this difficult and restricting paragraph from Dee Brown’s “Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Railroads in the West”: “The universal desire of all pioneer travelers on the transcontinental was to see a “real wild Indian.” Few of them did, because the true warriors of the plains hated the Iron Horse and seldom came within miles of it…. The Indians whom the travelers saw were mostly those who had been corrupted and weakened by contacts with the white man’s civilization—scroungers, mercenaries, or beggars by necessity.” It was also hard to find reference for the sort of interaction I would have wanted to show between the Paiute and Shoshone who rode with white passengers on the Central Pacific in Nevada, and this felt like another imposed limit. Your post makes me wonder again what other options I had and what else I might have done, but I assure you the effort was there as I was making the book.

Some of these questions about presentation and what’s included and what’s not are simply matters of taste and tone. The emptiness of the Plains is, of course, one of those matters of perspective, but it’s not described as empty for no reason. In various accounts, train passengers on the Plains in the 1860s were overwhelmed by an expanse so different than the forests, hills, valleys, mountains, or cities that many were used to. To Robert Louis Stevenson, for instance, the Great Plains were “a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, an empty earth; front and back, line of railway stretched from horizon to horizon, like a cue across a billiard-board…. The train toiled over this infinity like a snail….” I wanted that feeling in the book.

Brian Floca said...

(2 of 3)

When it comes to word choices, the use of the word “lived” on that page was not meant to imply “vanished,” and I hope that for readers it won’t. I also hoped that “The railroad and the men who built it—they have changed it all” would indeed convey who was behind these changes, and that the herd of bison covering the land on the book’s cover, beneath the jacket, would suggest the destructive as well as triumphant nature of the rail line.

On the front endpapers, the drawing of a clipper ship is there to illustrate the passage of text immediately to the right of the drawing, the description of trips taken by ship around Cape Horn. Across these endpapers I wanted to show the motives for the railroad and its construction and in the end, for better or worse, these filled the page.

In the note at the back of the book, what I liked about the anecdote about the Paiute and Chinese was the surprise, humanity, and unexpected humor in the story. I often see stories about these workers presented rather stiffly, in my opinion; this story was a break from that tone.

No Cheyenne attack is shown in the book for a few reasons, but the foremost is that the Cheyenne weren’t really attacking the first transcontinental railroad after it was constructed. In “Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow,” Brown writes of passengers who were worried about such an attack: “Such perturbed passengers might better have been fretting over Anglo-Saxon train robbers, such as Jesse James, who were far more likely to wreck and rob a train in the 1870s than were the Indians.” One of the consolations of not being able to fit everything in a book is knowing that you’re surely not making the only book on the subject, though. I wonder what you think of Paul Goble’s “Death of the Iron Horse,” depicting the Cheyenne attack on a train at Plum Creek, Nebraska, in 1867? I can imagine “Locomotive” and “Death of the Iron Horse” paired together.

The parentheses around the Sheridan quote were a way of giving that quote, a change of tone from the rest of the note, a bit of its own space. Possibly they were unnecessary, and if because of them the quote reads as less important than it would otherwise, then they were a mistake. Sheridan’s ruthlessness, also mentioned in the note, I thought only added to the sting and surprise of the remark, and that was one of the things I found remarkable and provoking about it.

As for the treaties with the Paiute and Shoshone, while an agreement with a government may be one definition of a treaty, I don’t believe it is the only one. In “A Great and Shining Road,” John Hoyt Williams describes the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863 and then continues, “The Central Pacific, which was granted permission by the Nevada legislature to build through the state only in 1866, was taking no chances. In that year the company signed its own treaties with the dreaded Apache subtribes, Paiutes, and others.…” And here is Dee Brown again: “To avoid conflicts with Indians—such as had hampered the Union Pacific and Kansas Pacific on the Great Plains—the Central Pacific offered some of the [N]ative Americans employment and then signed a special treaty with the Paiutes and Shoshonis.”

Brian Floca said...

(3 of 3)

Finally, it’s incorrect to say that Chinese workers made up 90% of the workforce that built the transcontinental line. As is stated in the front endpapers of “Locomotive,” Chinese workers constituted up to 90% of the Central Pacific workforce, but the Union Pacific half of the line was built largely by Irish immigrants and former soldiers. It is also, happily, incorrect to say that no Chinese were invited to the celebration of the railroad’s completion. A. J. Russell’s stereograph “Chinese at Laying Last Rail UPRR” shows Chinese workers laying the last piece of rail at Promontory Summit, and a contemporary account tells us that “J.H. Strowbridge [sic], when the work was all over, invited the Chinamen who had been brought over from Victory for the purpose, to dine in his boarding car. When they entered all the guests and officers present cheered them as the chosen representatives of the race which have greatly helped to build the road—a tribute they well deserved, and which evidently gave them much pleasure.” This was surely less than they warranted, but is worth remembering. More about the Chinese and Irish in this book might have been better, but there are other books the cover building the line, and the heart of this book is about traveling the line—thus the low proportion of attention given to the line’s builders (to say nothing of those who first envisioned the transcontinental railroad, advocated for it, legislated it, financed it, surveyed it, and engineered it).

Like every book, “Locomotive” has its limits. I wouldn’t be able to and I haven’t tried to tell and show readers everything that I might, but I’ve hoped to make a book that will interest them and, ideally, make them want to know more. I hope that for most readers the book makes a contribution to their understanding of the period, events, and people it describes, including the Native Americans. I’m aware that no book will please all readers, though, and I appreciate your thoughts on my effort. Certainly working on the book was a learning experience for me, and indeed I feel like I’m still learning from the book and where it’s led me, this conversation included.

Best,
Brian Floca

Jean Mendoza said...

Thanks, Debbie Reese and Brian Floca, for this extraordinary conversation.

Eugenia Beh said...

Brian's response made me think of Claire Light's terrific post about writing about white authors writing about people of color:

"In response to the complaint of white writers about writing about people of color: "Damned if you do. Damned if you don't," I want to say: absolutely.

It's absolutely true. You're damned either way. If you don't do it, you're a racist. Yes, you are. Race and racism exist in this society, and if you ignore them, you're expressing a racial privilege that you don't, morally, have any right to. That's a subtle form of racism.

If you do do it and get it "wrong", you'll get reamed, and rightfully so. It's presumptuous of you to think that you have the right to represent a culture you don't belong to if you can't be bothered to properly examine and accurately portray that culture.

Further, if you do it and get it "right", or rather, don't get it wrong, you'll still get reamed by members of that culture you've represented who rightfully resent a white writer's success representing their culture. After all, every American ethnic minority has its writers: good and bad. The good writers are mostly ignored. Inevitably, some white writer will come along and do a bang-up job portraying that culture and will get--in one book, in one section of a book--more attention than the poc writer got over the course of three or five or ten books.

You're a white writer trying to do the right thing, but no matter what you do, it's wrong. And that's so unfair to you, isn't it?

Welcome to a tiny taste of what it's like to be a person of color."

Also, I'd like to share a response from a professor of Asian American Studies who saw both posts:

"This is the first account I've ever read that said the Chinese were invited to any kind of official celebration of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Of course, I don't know all of the stereographs that were produced by Russell and others during the construction of the railroad, but my impression has always been that these were images of the Chinese working on the railroad, not images of the Chinese celebrating the railroad's completion. Brian Floca's rationale for his treatment of the Chinese is interesting: he states that others have talked about the building of the line but fails to mention that the vast majority of these works pay minimal attention to Chinese labor as well. And yes, he's technically right that Chinese didn't make up 90% of the entire workforce that built the t/c railroad; however, they *did* make up 90% of the Central Pacific workforce, and it is the portion completed by the CP that everyone thinks of when they think of the difficulties of building the transcontinental railroad in the first place (building over the Sierras, the shift from dynamite to nitro-glycerin as an explosive etc etc). As a final thought, I find it strange that anyone can write anything resembling a celebratory book about the transcontinental railroad these days. From the moment of its inception, it was a racist and racializing project that enriched the already wealthy, stole land from Native peoples, stratified labor, and inspired xenophobic and exceptionalist rhetoric about American manifest destiny. As racist, classist, sexist and imperialist boondoggles go, it ranks right up there."

Rosanne said...

Thank you both for a thoughtful conversation. I appreciate your thoroughness, and especially Debbie, your encouragement to contact tribes individually for informations specific to their history and culture. I've found that very helpful. Many tribes also have excellent museums and historical collections of their own--a great resource!

There is, however, an element to consider that neither of you have mentioned so far. Audience. In general picture books are for 3-10 year olds with the bulk of the audience at 4-7years old. Locomotive is word heavy and visually intricate which would tend to hold the interest of older readers but still most will be younger than 3rd grade.

As Brian mentioned, art is all about making choices and one of the considerations is which pieces of information are most appropriate for little kids. The reunion of a family, the wonder of seeing ecosystems you've never encountered roll by your train window, the fascination with how a train actually operates, those are all developmentally right on target for the intended reader. The slaughter of buffalo, the oppression of Native Americans, train attacks and robberies, all those things are vital to a full understanding of our history. And yet they are not really developmentally right for primary grades. That is more properly the territory of middle grade books. Opinions vary of course on what is appropriate for what age but I think most Jewish schools, for example, hold off on teaching the Holocaust until upper elementary or middle school, not because they are interested in denying the events but precisely because they want those important events to be fully and maturely understood.

It is a great comfort to me as a writer to know that I'm writing into a whole field of other books. So for example when I wrote about the cold war, I didn't have to go too deeply into the atrocities committed by the Russians against their own soldiers from the Soviet Republics. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys covered some of that ground. And there are many other books for YA and adult readers that my MG readers will find some day.

So I agree that while Locomotive is an exemplary book in many ways, it is also incomplete, as all books invariably are. I'd love to see some recommendations for books to pair with this one that would round out the history of the west more completely.

The one that springs to mind for me is Coolies a picture book about Chinese railroad workers. I wonder if there is a similar picture book about the Irish workers on the Union Pacific line. I'd love to hear about a middle grade or young adult book that delves into the issues Debbie has raised more directly. Does anyone have additional books to recommend?

Debbie Reese said...

Rosanne--you're focused on the 'intended reader' by age. Defending what an author does/does not do on the basis of the age of an intended reader assumes that all kids are the same, and that's not the case. The reader that I think Floca, and perhaps you, imagine is not a Native kid.

Who we are matters in terms of what our kids know. And who we are matters in what we think our kids ought to know and when they ought to know it.

Putting forth the argument that you put forth reinforces the status quo and existing power structure.

Anonymous said...

First-- apologies for jumping into conversations that have been going on for a while... and into a larger conversation that you've facilitated even longer! Thank you for making this space, and for having the patience and fortitude to stay here and keep having the conversation as others come and go.

I wanted to say, in response to the above, that there is also the question of accuracy-- if the story of the transcontinental railroad *is* the story of the destruction of the bison herds, and *is* the story of its systematic effects on Native peoples, and *is* a story bound up with racism-- what is the purpose of a nonfiction book that teaches children this history without those elements? If that content is not age appropriate (which is debatable) what story is being told in its place, and why? Why does the author wish to tell this particular story?

To me, the story was straight-up manifest destiny, pure and simple. In my reading, the story conveys that there were some destructive consequences, but through the railroad we (who?) were following an inevitable, taut trajectory. As readers, we are asked to be propelled along that trajectory, and never asked to stop and question its direction. This makes for a fast-paced, engaging story (for who?), but not for an engaged reading of history (or of the present day.)

It seems a particularly strange moment to want to tell this story, too, given current conversation about environmental destruction and resources. This isn't just history. It might feel nice to some to sit on the train and enjoy the ride to the next stop, but I think all of us deserve a more critical approach to where we've been, and what it might teach us about where we're headed.

Sarah

Anonymous said...

(Sorry-- by "above" I meant Rosanne's comment.)

Sarah