Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Reaction to Slapin’s review of Touching Spirit Bear

Beverly Slapin’s review of Touching Spirit Bear (posted here on September 20th) has generated discussion on a listserv sponsored by the American Library Association and other places as well.

I share some of the discussion and my responses here. I paraphrase a response and use italics to differentiate it from my response.


It is well written and a great story. Teen boys who are bullies need books like this to learn about the consequences of their behavior and that there are other ways of behaving. Errors regarding Tlingit culture are excusable because the book has so much value for bullies.

Debbie: Is it ok to use and misrepresent one culture (in this case Tlingit) because someone else (bullies who are presumably not Tlingit) stand to gain?


I will continue recommending the book because it was favorably reviewed and is on so many award lists.

Debbie: How knowledgeable are the people who wrote the reviews? When Ann Rinaldi’s My Heart is on the Ground came out, it was favorably reviewed and it was likely headed for Recommended Books lists. But our critique headed that off, because, I think, people knew that the information in the critique was (and is) irrefutable, and that it was irresponsible to laud the book.


IT IS FICTION! JUST A STORY! It doesn’t matter if it is accurate or not.

Debbie: If a work of fiction said that 2+2=7, everybody would know it was a mistake. But we, as a society, know so little about American Indians that we don’t know when American Indian cultures are being misrepresented, stereotyped, or otherwise inappropriately used.

American society is so enamored with a narrow, romantic view of who we (remember, I am Nambé Pueblo Indian) are that it is not open to criticism that gets in the way of wholeheartedly endorsing or recommending a book. People who love the book and don’t like Slapin’s review may feel the criticism is an attack on them, on their personal values. Critiques like Slapin’s are not personal attacks, but they can feel that way when the book under critique is well loved.

If there was only one book like Touching Spirit Bear out there, then maybe it wouldn’t matter. But there are more flawed stories about American Indians than there are good ones. All those flawed ones contribute to the misperceptions American have about American Indians.


I’m out of time and will have to stop here. Your comments in the "Comments" option are welcome.


Anonymous said...

As someone who participated in the discussion on the YALSA listserv, I have to say that I'm enormously grateful for Beverly Slapin's review of Touching Spirit Bear, and more than a little disappointed in the resulting discussion. It's interesting that the discussion changed from the question of accuracy to the question of who is "allowed" to tell certain stories... ignoring the responsibility of telling them well.

I know this this a book that will include some serious disclaimers and discussion from me next time I check it out to a young patron.

Claire Scott

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Claire, for pointing out the way the discussion went from problems in the book to the "who gets to" discussion. If you'd like to write about that, I'll post it to the blog.


Anonymous said...

I am rather interested that the race aspect of the review didn't get discussed here. I found the review offensive mostly because of the race aspect of it. And not because I am white, but because many of my family members are a mix of white and Indian.

So according to this review, they shouldn't be able to enjoy Indian things if their skin is too light, or I can't really be part of their family because I am "white".

I read the review to my husband who is Ojibway Indian, and while the rock trial didn't sound familiar to him the idea of a totem animal sure did.

How come it is ok to say that a "white kid" shouldn't "play" at "being Indian"? I thought we were supposed to move beyond the idea of someone's skin color deciding who and what they are.

Rob said...

Minstrel shows and Amos 'n' Andy were just fiction. Birth of a Nation was just a story. Why don't we revive these productions if fiction is so harmless?

mbpbooks said...

I posted my own contribution to the YALSA discussion on my blog, and Laura Atkins commented from England:

"To see the problems with how the English can still perceive Native Americans (frequently referred to as 'Red Indians' over here), take a look at this new ad from Virgin Trains. It is patently offensive, and I've written several emails to complain."

The ad is astounding. Terrible. I hope something can be done to get it off the air in the U.K.

Anonymous said...

I was suprised that supporters of the book use the reasoning that "the book is fiction" and therefore inaccuracies about the Tlingit culture and rituals are excusable. If the writer did not want to correctly depict the culture then why use a tribe? Make it completely fictional and don't try to blend in real life places and people. I have the same issue with use of the use of the Quileute in "Twilight".

Compare this to the outrage over the book "The Golden Compass" -- it is completely fictional, in a supernatural setting, never mentions any "real life" religion and yet protested because it inaccurately reflected Catholicism. So you can't even allegorically "misrepresent" Catholicism in a fantasy book but it is acceptable to misrepresent a tribe and use the "fiction" excuse?

I am so glad that this site exists as a resource to help point out these issues. Like many, I would not have known of the extent of the inaccuracies without it.

TanteKaren said...

I am so grateful for your blog. I work in a public library and often refer to your blog for reviews. The book Touching Spirit Bear was recently brought to my attention because it has just become assigned reading this year in the local high school. It's unfortunate that this book has been assigned.

Unknown said...

I'm glad this site and its reviews are still here!
My wife used TSB in her middle school classes last year and really liked it, so when a colleague offered me copies to teach from this year with my students (in an alternative setting, my 8th graders have all been expelled, and I have kids not that different from Cole in their thinking) I jumped at it.

I knew the story was ridiculous in some ways--kind of like no parent would actually send their kids to Hogwarts to die in the Forbidden Forest, we talked in class about how nobody seems too concerned about the safety of sending a teenager with no known wilderness survival skills to muddle through a winter alone--a broken leg could easily have killed Cole during his first banishment.

But I did not, to my shame, even consider whether the portrayal of Tlingit culture was accurate or even fair. I stumbled across this site as we were midway through Part 1 of the book. My plan for now is that we're going to take tomorrow to read some of the responses to TSB here, plus the New York Times article "Boys' Banishment Turns Out to be a Hoax." Next year, we simply will not read the book . . . and we might even do a quick mini-lesson on the controversy. I cannot understand people who say "Well, it's just a FICTION book, kids shouldn't be learning from it." Are they kidding? Why do we spend so much time and effort trying to get children to read for pleasure if we believe that? I've learned *enormous* amounts from the fiction I read, and when a lot of what I read turned out to be propaganda, such as the Little House On the Prairie series, I wanted to know about it! I know it's been ten years since most of the comments on these topics here, and I kinda wonder whether the commenters would still, in 2018, say that representation and cultural appropriation don't matter because the description of Cole's anger and natural consequences is so poignant.