Thursday, September 22, 2016

Not recommended: THE COURAGE TEST by James Preller

People have been asking me about James Preller's The Courage Test. I got a copy of it, and it was in line for a "Debbie--have you seen" post. On September 20, 2016, a conversation on Facebook prompted me to move it up in the line.  

Here's the synopsis:
Will has no choice. His father drags him along on a wilderness adventure in the footsteps of legendary explorers Lewis and Clark--whether he likes it or not. All the while, Will senses that something about this trip isn't quite right. 
Along the journey, Will meets fascinating strangers and experiences new thrills, including mountain cliffs, whitewater rapids, and a heart-hammering bear encounter.
It is a journey into the soul of America's past, and the meaning of family in the future. In the end, Will must face his own, life-changing test of courage.
A father-and-son journey along the Lewis and Clark Trail--from Fort Mandan to the shining sea--offers readers a genre-bending blend of American history, thrilling action, and personal discovery.
Will's dad, Bruce, is a history professor. He's into Lewis and Clark so much, that he named his son William Meriwether Miller (William for William Clark, and Meriwether for Meriwether Lewis). 

Bruce's reverence for the expedition is evident as I read The Courage Test. As they travel, Bruce tells Will about the expedition, how Lewis and Clark were seeing a "new world" (p. 22) and "things that had never before been seen by white men" (p. 27). He gives Will a copy of O'Dell and Hall's Thunder Rolling in the Mountains to read. If it is anything like what I read in Island of the Blue Dolphins, it is a poor choice if Bruce's intent is for Will to learn about the Nez Perce people. 

Time and again as I read The Courage Test, I thought "oh come on..." But, there it is. In some places, Will says or thinks something that puts a bit of a check on his dad's reverence, but for the most part, he's in awe, too, and uses the same kind of words his dad uses. Scattered throughout, for example, are pages from a journal Will uses. In the first one, "My Summer Assignment" he writes that (p. 17):
When Thomas Jefferson was president, a lot of North America was unexplored. No white American had ever seen huge parts of it.
I grew tired of all that pretty quickly. I stuck with it, though, right to the end, to Preller's notes in the final pages. There, Preller wrote (p. 209):
I owe the greatest debt to Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose, The Journals of Lewis Clark edited by Bernard DeVoto, Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes: Nine Indian Writers on the Legacy of the Expedition by Alvin M. Josephy Jr., Lewis and Clark Among the Indians by James P. Ronda, and Traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail by Julie Fanselow.
Of that list, the one edited by Alvin Josephy, Jr. stands out. The first Native writer in Josephy's book is Vine Deloria, Jr. Deloria's work is of fundamental importance to Native peoples, and to Native studies. Have you read, for example, his Custer Died For Your Sins? The first sentence in his chapter, “Frenchmen, Bears, and Sandbars” is this (p. 5):
Exaggeration of the importance of the expedition of Lewis and Clark is a typical American response to mythology.
If Preller read Deloria carefully, how is it that he has such celebratory language all through The Courage Test? And, there's this, on page 6-7 (bold is mine) in Deloria's chapter:
We have traditionally been taught to believe that the Lewis and Clark expedition was the first penetration of white men into the western lands. This belief is totally unfounded. The location of the Mandan villages, scattered from the present North Dakota-South Dakota line along the Missouri River to some distance above present-day Bismarck, were already common knowledge. French and British traders had already established a thriving commerce with these villages and the sedentary Indians were accustomed to dealing with foreigners.
Did Preller choose to ignore that? Or... did Will (writing in his journal) think that the French and British didn't count as "White Americans"? It just doesn't seem to me that Preller actually brought any of the writings in Josephy's book to bear on what he wrote in The Courage Test. Listing Josephy's book, then, feels... not right. 

Jumping back into the story of Bruce and Will on their journey, we meet a guy with broad shoulders, high cheekbones, tanned/rugged/deeply lined skin, black hair in two long thick braids, wearing a beaded necklace. Of course, he's Native. His name is Ollie. He's Bruce's friend, from grad school. Ollie is Nez Perce. When he tells Will about his ancestors, I think it would work better if he used "us" words rather than "them" words:
"My people, the Nez Perce, crossed this river not far from here in 1877. They hoped the Crow would join them in their fight against the U.S. Army, but the Crow turned their backs."
I'm not keen on his characterization of the Nez Perce being like deer grazing on the grass, while the white people were like the grizzly. It has a doomed quality to it that--while plausible--doesn't work for me. Later when Bruce and Ollie share a drink of whiskey, they tell Will that soldiers got flogged for getting drunk. Bruce goes on, saying (p. 69):
Remember, Will, this was a military operation. They were headed into hostile territory.
Bruce says that, with his Nez Perce friend, sitting right there, beside him. Don't his words, then, seem.... odd? Let me frame it this way, for clarity. Let's say I'm camping on my homelands. One of my dear friends and her kid are there, too. We're sharing a drink and talking about colonization. That dear friend would not say to her kid "Remember, ___, this was a military operation. They were headed into hostile territory." She might do it out of the blue in a cafe in a city somewhere, but if we were having a drink around a campfire ON MY HOMELAND and talking about something like the Lewis and Clark expedition... that friend wouldn't do that! And if she did, I'd say something. So---why didn't Ollie say something?! 

And then later, Will watches Ollie fix his hair (p. 74):
He fusses with his front forelock, stylishly sweeping it up and to the back.
"Going for a different look today?" I joked.
Ollie frowns. "It is the style of my people. Goes back generations. Don't you like it?"
"I definitely do," I say.
You know what "style" he's trying to do? Do a search on Chief Joseph, and you'll see. Now it is plausible that a Nez Perce man who is an investment banker in Brooklyn might go home and do his hair that way, but I'm kind of doubtful. (Also, though "forelock" is also used to refer to hair people have, it comes across more strongly for me as specific to horses, so that is a bit odd, too. Not that he's equating Ollie with animals, but that it is just an unusual word.)

I said above that I stuck with this book. That hair style part was tough. So is the part where Ollie tells Will that the bear he thinks he saw the night before was not a real bear (Will didn't see any tracks)... it was probably a spirit animal. They, Ollie tells Will, occur when someone is on a vision quest. It comes, he says, to "bestow the animal's power" and is a "great gift" that he must accept (p. 81). Later in the story, Will has an encounter with a bear. He froze, unable to do what he planned to do if he came across a bear (he's prepped for it), and thinks he's a failure. So.... I guess the power of the "spirit animal" didn't work... in that moment. Will's major task in this book is to be ready for dealing with his mother's cancer. Maybe that's what he'll need the power of that "spirit animal" for, but, really. This is all a mess. So is how the dreamcatcher is shown, later. So is the "illegal" they meet and help out. 

I've got more notes, but I think what I've shared here is enough. Published in 2016 by Feiwel and Friends--an imprint of MacMillan--I do not recommend James Preller's The Courage Test. 






3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Or... did Will (writing in his journal) think that the French and British didn't count as "White Americans"?

Well, no...they don't count. The French and British were not Americans, nor would they have referred to themselves as such.

I appreciate the fact that you have indicated that Preller seems to at least be trying in a way that so many historical fiction writers for children in the past have not. Now it's your turn to try a little harder, too, and edit some of the faults you find that aren't actually faults at all.

Unknown said...

Congratulations, you caught an error. However, considering that sentence about "white Americans" comes right after a sentence claiming that the land in questions was "unexplored" (which would be wrong and obnoxious even if no white people had ever been there; the land was perfectly well explored by Native Americans), I think it's the book that is misleading and in error.

What, precisely, do you mean, that Debbie should "try harder"? That she should not hold the books to a high standard?

--Veronica

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous at 12:32 on September 23, 2016:

Thank you for your suggestion that I "edit some of the faults" I found that aren't actually faults.

I see that you read "French and British" as tied specifically to Will's journal where he said "White Americans." That, I think is what you think is a fault.

If you read up just a bit before that, in the paragraph that starts "Bruce's reverence for the expedition..." I cited Bruce's words about how this "new world" had "never been seen by white men." Those are two examples of the reverence I'm pointing to. There's more of that, elsewhere. Like the page prior to chapter one, where Preller devotes a page to these words, from Meriwether Lewis:

"We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden."

We know that Lewis's use of "civilized man" is biased. Lewis said it, but we need to repeat that sort of thing, right? Preller chose to do that, however, in his story of this father and son. He opened the book with it, and puts that sentiment in Bruce and in Will, too.

He puts it in the Nez Perce character, too. I noted their conversation around the campfire. I didn't include Ollie saying, on page 79, that he's is a Lewis and Clark "enthusiast" like Will's father. He says "I love the history of it, the days gone by, what one scholar, Greil Marcus, calls 'the old, weird America." The way that Ollie expresses that enthusiasm is through stories tinged with noble Indian qualities, like that "end of the trail" statue. He doesn't sound like a person whose people fought, persevered, and survived to the present day as a sovereign nation. On page 87 when he parts way with Bruce and Will, Ollie tells Will "When we celebrate Lewis and Clark, we also honor the native tribes who allowed them to pass."

On page 122, Will is standing at Lehmi Pass, looking over the view. Will thinks about the song, "This land is my land..."

I'll stop for now, Anon, but when you read the book, please come back and share your thoughts.