Monday, September 04, 2006

Jean Mendoza: Reflections on THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD

[Note: Today’s post is by Jean Mendoza, professor in Early Childhood Education at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. Jean and I are both former schoolteachers and have collaborated and commiserated many times as we raise our children in a college town that embraces a race-based mascot (“Chief Illiniwek”). See our article "Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom".]

The list you shared several weeks ago of top-selling paperbacks is disturbing, and resonated with an experience I had recently. 

I’ve been revisiting Louise Erdrich's Tracks, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, and Four Souls. Recently, I noticed on a colleague's door a big poster of Caldecott (children’s book) Award winners, going 'way back. There on the bottom row was Robert Lawson's contribution to the "canon": They Were Strong and Good, a mostly uncritical look at some of that author's forebears. It contains the following lines (if I remember right):
"When my mother was a little girl there were Indians in Minnesota--tame ones. My mother did not like them. They would stalk into the kitchen without knocking and sit on the floor. They would rub their stomachs and point to their mouths to show that they were hungry. They would not leave until my mother's mother gave them something to eat."
In contrast, Erdrich’s accounts of the fictional lives of Nanapush, Kashpaws, and Pillagers reflect a different historical and personal reality situated in essentially the same locale at about the same time as Lawson’s family stories.

For an adult reader, Erdrich provides a kind of unintended backstory for Lawson's superficial and bigoted child-directed comments about those "tame Indians". In order for the Lawson forebears to settle in Minnesota, the land had to be taken from families whose own forebears had made their lives on it, and from it, for millennia -- forebears who could undoubtedly have been described as “strong and good” themselves.

Obviously we are to assume that Lawson’s “tame Indians” were too lazy or incompetent to get food on their own, choosing instead to rudely enter the rightful home of Lawson’s hardworking family to beg. Erdrich’s characters may have been fictional, but the waves of disease, famine, and land theft were horribly real to the actual indigenous people of Minnesota & the Dakotas. What a small, shallow, relatively ahistorical world-view Lawson’s book expresses, despite the array of countries his ancestors hailed from!

Lawson does not seem to question what might have led up to the situation he describes. Did none of his strong/good ancestors ever say, “Hm; we prosper while others in the same space starve. How did this come to pass?”

In Four Souls, Erdrich has a (Euro-American) character describe a particular house:
“On the most exclusive ridge of the city, our pure white house was set, pristine as a cake in the window of a bakery shop.”
In the preceding chapter, however, Ojibwe elder Nanapush tells a more complete story of that house: the origins of the stones, the brick, the iron – and most importantly (as it turns out), the wood.
“Once this stone had formed the live heart of sacred islands,” says Nanapush; but now to the couple who occupy the house, that stone “was a fashionable backdrop to their ambitions.”
Not sure where to take this line of thought now, except that this experience makes me wish that if a teacher, parent, or librarian is going to recommend that a child read They Were Strong and Good simply because it has the Caldecott stamp of approval and seems like a good All-American story, that teacher/parent/librarian would first read Erdrich’s books.

There’s another “All-American” story behind Lawson’s – one that any child in the US ought to have access to, so that he or she doesn’t construct a false picture of how the US came to be.

I guess then the next step would be for that adult to recommend Erdrich’s children’s novels, The Birchbark House and The Game of Silence to the same child. In fact, ideally the child would have read Birchbark and Silence BEFORE giving Strong and Good a second glance. Then Erdrich’s picture of Ojibwe life can become a lens through which the child can consider the picture of “tame Indian” life Lawson presents.

Books like Lawson's seem never to fade into richly-deserved oblivion. A visit to the reader reviews indicates that They Were Strong and Good is still making some people feel fine about themselves, 60-some years after it was awarded the Caldecott, which means that it continues to be a tool for the disinformation of children, whether or not teachers, librarians and parents mean for it to be so.

By the way, I appreciated the comments from the mother whose daughter kept encountering Education of Little Tree. Thanks for the account of what critical reading and writing can look like (and feel like). Many people have written eloquently about the problems that book has and presents, and still it manages to be beloved of many who resist any questioning of its value – and who are determined to continue its legacy of bigotry and lies.

I’ve asked this question before in other circles and had interesting replies: Is there, or should there be, some kind of “ethics of aesthetics”, that would have an answer to the notion that, for example, an author's background or bigotry "doesn't matter because the book was well-written". Is an award for illustration, for example, a good enough reason to keep Strong and Good in print and on Recommended lists, when it perpetuates negative images of Native people (not to mention an apparently sympathetic or apologist view of slavery)?

At what point might an author, an illustrator, a publisher, a librarian, a teacher have a responsibility to say no to what's in a book in the interest of "doing no harm" to the child reader? Always, sometimes, never? And then, what constitutes "harm"...

---Jean Mendoza

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