Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Paul Goble's THE GIRL WHO LOVED WILD HORSES

Is Paul Goble's The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses one of your favorite books? It won the Caldecott Medal thirty-five years ago. Let's take a look at it.

Here's the first paragraph in the story:
The people were always moving from place to place following the herds of buffalo. They had many horses to carry the tipis and all their belongings. They trained their fastest horses to hunt the buffalo.
With the word 'tipis' in that paragraph Goble suggests that these are Plains people. The buffalo are another clue that suggests the story is one belonging to the Plains tribes.

As the story begins, we learn of "a girl" (we are never given her name) who loved horses. People in the village see that she has a way with them. One day when she is out with the herd of horses, a huge storm erupts. She leaps onto one as the herd races in fear. When the horses stop that night, the girl looks around and realizes that they are lost. The next morning she wakes to the neighing of a handsome stallion who tells her he is the leader of the wild horses that roam the hills. He welcomes her to live with them. She and her herd are happy.

Meanwhile, her people spend the next year looking for her. One day, two hunters see the stallion and the girl, too. She's on a horse, leading a colt. They call and wave at her. She waved back, but the stallion drove her and the herd away from the hunters. Other men join them in an attempt to reach the girl, but the stallion keeps them away from the girl and the colt. But, the girl's horse stumbles, and she falls. The hunters take her back to the village. She was happy to see her parents but she is sad. She misses the colt and the wild horses. At night, the stallion calls to her. The girl is lonely and gets sick. Doctors ask what would make her happy again, and she says she wants to return to the wild horses.

The stallion and wild horses come to the village. The people give the horses blankets and saddles and they give the girl a beautiful dress and the best horse in the village. The girl gives her parents a colt, and she rides away, beside the stallion, reunited with the herd. Each year, she brings her parents another colt. But one year, she doesn't return at all.

Then, the hunters see the stallion again. Beside him is "a beautiful mare with a mane and tail floating with wispy clouds about her." They believe the girl is that mare, that she has become a wild horse, too. The story ends with:
Today we are still glad to remember that we have relatives among the Horse People. And it gives us joy to see the wild horses running free. Our thoughts fly with them.
Nowhere in The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses do we have any sources for that story. As noted earlier, Goble's use of 'tipis' suggests a Plains tribe. What we know as the Great Plains is a vast area. Here's a map from the Smithsonian:



See how that area stretches from the north to south, spanning at least 1500 miles? See the 20 or so tribes listed in that area? There's a lot more than just those 20. They don't speak the same language and they don't tell the same stories.

The question is, who does this story about a girl who became a wild horse belong to? It'd be good to know. If it is a story Goble came up with, then it isn't a Native story, is it?

Though it won the Caldecott, and though a lot of people love Goble's art, I think it is (past) time to set aside The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses. What do you think?


Update, 6:00 AM, June 11, 2014

(1) Elsewhere people are noting how much like they like his art. It is a style most people would recognize as "Goble" but let's pause again. I haven't done a close study of it, but does it suffer from the same ambiguity we see in The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses?

(2) Someone noted that Goble was adopted by a tribe.  His Adopted by the Eagles (Macmillian, 1994) includes this:



Does being given a name and being called "Son" mean he was adopted? Was he adopted by Edgar Red Cloud? Or was it by a tribe, as was done with President Obama? I've ordered Goble's autobiography and will revisit this post when it arrives. It may provide details about how he met Edgar Red Cloud.

(3) The Author's Note for Adopted by the Eagles says:
"I would like to think that Edgar somehow sensed, right from the start (1959), that I would one day make books of some of the stories he told me."
Many authors say something similar to that... about how Native people they know/live amongst asked them to write a story about them. As readers of AICL now, I frown on that phrase.

(4) Goble's note ends with this curious paragraph:
Finally, it needs to be stated that the traditional kola friendship of the two Lakota men, as described in this story, was never a homosexual relationship. Kolas sought to guard each other from all errors; to share their strengths while walking life's Good Red Road together.
I wonder why Goble felt compelled to include that paragraph? Adopted by the Eagles was published in 1994. Perhaps it was prompted by a fear that people wouldn't buy a book about friendship between two men, but, do other books published then have a similar disclaimer?

(5) The last item on the page with the Author's Note is a very important note for teachers. Here it is, in its entirety:
When a book like this has been read in the classroom, students are sometimes asked to write their own "Indian" stories. It is not asked with bad intentions, but it belittles these traditional stories, suggesting that any child can invent them. When studying the Greek myths, or the legends of King Arthur, or Bible stories, students would never be asked to invent stories in the manner of... Instead, children should be encouraged to write down the stories in their own words to help remember them. Over the years they will come to think about the inner meanings which all these stories hold.
I say that, too. I'm glad to see it in Goble's book. But he's invented stories! Is it ok, since he is not a child? I don't think so!

See my previous posts about Goble. I'll have more to say when I get Goble's biography.
July 22, 2009: About Paul Goble and his books...
April 3, 2011: Dear Mr. Goble: 

5 comments:

Alphabetty said...

yes, let's! Saw a brand new documentary last night (it's about transgender people) and the narrator spoke about Native Americans IN THE PAST TENSE.

SBange said...

Debbie, Thank you for your honest look at Paul Goble and his work, using tools and knowledge from today. I encourage my students to take a look at past award-winners and classic titles to see if they have "stood the test of time" and maintain their relevancy. I'm sure Goble's intent was honorable when he wrote/illustrated these, however he has sent many mixed messages over the years. Bravo for giving us your perspective of his works. To survey his body of work took many hours, I'm sure. I look forward to what new information you discover in the future and hope you will occasionally reevaluate classic works in your blog. Many thanks!

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Thank you as always, Debbie, for doing all this work and research so that I don't have to.

Gabrielle Prendergast said...

As always, your rigorous analysis is illuminating. I wanted to comment, however, on the note about children not being asked to make up their own "legends". In fact children ARE frequently assigned to make up versions of Greek, Arthurian or other legends- it is not limited to Native culture. The same goes for art - when studying native art the children try out the styles. When studying impressionism, or cubism they do the same. When they talk about Russia or the Ukraine they make Easter Eggs and Matrushka dolls. They aren't however, encouraged to make up their own Bible stories or religious icons. That's because they don't study the Bible or overtly religious art in public school. So my question is, as important it is that children are educated about the history of native peoples, should we be treating their sacred stories as a religion? And thus excluded from public school education? Greek and Roman myths are part of "dead" religions (bar a few tenacious adherents) but Native spirituality is alive and well. Is the free display of Coastal Native art in places like Vancouver airport akin to displaying overtly Christian art? Perhaps there is a distinction in Euro culture between "life" and "religion" that is less clear in Native culture. Personally I think there is something to be said for leaving the "legends" aside in public school and focusing on the history. I grew up with the pretty "legends" and learned nothing of the residential schools, the forced marches etc, nor of the widespread resistance and the many ways native culture succeeds where western culture fails. Perhaps the joy of the abstract and sacred has been obfuscating the concrete and real for too long?

postcardsfromlalaland said...

To build on Gabrielle Prendergast's comment, I actually think it is possible for children -- at least in a private/religiously-themed school -- to write stories in the style of parables, for example, or to write their own proverbs about contemporary life.

It really depends on how the teachers and administration view the Biblical stories -- whether as literal historical accounts, or unquestionable models for one's life, or as a form of literature that can be studied/discussed the same way as you'd do for a work like Beowulf or The Illiad. Not all people for whom the Bible is an important part of their religion would necessarily be offended by the idea of students writing their own Biblical-style stories.

To comment on The Girl Who Loved Horses,, I'm a little confused by the arguments this post makes against it. Did Goble intend this story to be read as a re-telling of an actual legend? The paragraph you quoted, from the end, does suggest that interpretation, but then again, it might just be a literary technique -- the "we" might simply refer to the people within the fictional world, the descendants of the fictional girl's community.

If Goble did intend this as a re-telling, I do think he should have made that more clear, either in his author's notes or in the story itself. If he's simply telling a story he himself invented, that too should have been made clear in the author's notes. But I don't think it's wrong in and of itself to invent stories just because one is not a child.

As for the question of how Goble portrays his characters, and what he knowingly or unknowingly suggests about the real people who lived in the Plains regions, I don't know...just from the details you've described, it doesn't seem to me that the story does anything so wrong that no one should read it anymore.

What teachers can do, if they assign this book to students, is discuss the actual history of the people of the Plains regions, and point out if there are any discrepancies between how Goble portrays the characters vs. what was true about the real people.