Saturday, January 12, 2008

Romantic Fiction, Historical Fiction, and American Indians

This may seem a bit off-topic because it isn't ABOUT children's or young adult books/media...

I'm speaking about authors who use Native imagery in their writing. Specifically, I'm talking about Cassie Edwards, who writes romance fiction, purchased---presumably---by librarians, teachers, and moms across the country. She is, in fact, regarded as one of the top ten best-selling writers of this genre. She's written two series in which the hunk is a savage Indian. Literally, one of her Indian-themed series is called "The Savage Indian" series.

She's been in the news this past week. Media scrutiny began with a blog that listed, side by side, excerpts from one of her books, with excerpts from other books. In comparing the two sets of excerpts, the blogger calls them "Startling and Eerie Similarities." The AP picked up the story, and today's NY Times has it, too.

Here's an excerpt from the NY Times article:

In the novel “Shadow Bear,” published by Signet in 2007, the bloggers said a reader was able to find lines that appear to have come, with little or no modification, from a few sources, though mostly from a novel, “Land of the Spotted Eagle” by Luther Standing Bear, and an article about black-footed ferrets from Defenders of Wildlife magazine.
It is outrageous, of course, and plenty of folks are pretty steamed about it. She is far from the first to do this, however, to books written by Native people.

Children's book author Ann Rinaldi did something akin to this in her book My Heart is on the Ground. Myself and several of my colleagues wrote an extended essay about that book. The first essay appeared in Rethinking Schools. and later on in Multicultural Review, and Multicultural Education. A longer critique is at the Oyate site, and if you wish to compare passages Rinaldi used with the writings of others, read '"Literary License" or "Muted Plagiarism?"' She, too, used Luther Standing Bear's writing.

Questionable use of sources aside, Edwards' books are best sellers, but they're dangerous in this way. She does some research, enough to be able to introduce plots that hook the reader with a semblance of authenticity.

For example, the heroine in one of her books is the daughter of an anthropologist who works for the Smithsonian. He's out west to gather information about Indians before they vanish. That activity did, in fact, take place. The Smithsonian sent people out west to collect information, under the notion that Indians were about to vanish. So, Edwards has a hook.

Now we're learning, according to the news reports, she's using material from Native and non-Native sources to flesh out her stories. If she acknowledged her sources, that could be seen as a good strategy.

However! The stories themselves are so deeply enmeshed and woven with romantic, tragic, stereotypical characters, that the novels work towards strengthening and affirming the readers mistaken ideas about who American Indians were and are.

What is troubling is that some (most?) of Edwards' fans buy books for children. And, they likely draw on their "knowledge" about Indians to make their choices. Hence, it is hard to interrupt the sales of children's books filled with stereotypical imagery. In short, Edwards success feeds the on-going creation and consumption of stereotypical children's books about American Indians.

With Edwards writing for the adult market and Rinaldi writing for the children's market, all of us are caught in a destructive cycle that must be stopped. Every reader, Native and non-Native, from babies to elders, should learn that American Indians are not mere figments of the past, but people of today who live lives much like any-American.

It is likely that many who read this will object to my criticism of Ann Rinaldi, a favorite in the children's writing community. Some will be moved to defend her. Poor Ann Rinaldi.

To which I reply "Really? How about all those kids who read her book and think they've learned something or gained insight to American Indians? How about feeling some outrage on their behalf?"

If you've got Rinaldi's My Heart is on the Ground in your library, pull it. Throw it away, or, use it in a critical media lesson.
.

6 comments:

jpm said...

If memory serves, somebody has noted a trend in historical fiction for young people (and I seem to remember a couple of "Indian-themed" books with teenage girl protagonists specifically) toward almost PREPARING teen readers for the historical romance subgenre of adult fiction. That is, there are not-so-subtle parallels in situations depicted and in the prose used to depict them that kind of presage or set the stage for what awaits the young female reader when she "graduates" to the next level: Savage Love or whatever.... It was strange to learn that there are several lines or whatever of romance novels that deal in their own inimitable way with Native-white relationships, but every now and then one can spot them in the drugstore book section. Usually it's the protagonists who are white (in my limited experience) while the male objects of their passion are NOT actually full-blood Lakota or whatever, but are white boys who "grew up with Indians" OR are mixed blood but pretty much always descended from a chief.

Terrie said...

The site now has a possible response from Cassie Edwards. I will note it has note been confirmed as authentic, but it's worth noting for the contents of "same song, different verse".

"The sad thing is that I am writing these books now in a way to honor our Native Americans, past, present and in the future. And I am honoring my great grandmother who was a full blood Cheyenne. She would be so proud of me if she could read what I am writing about the Indians who have been so maligned for so long. And do you know? I feel picked on now as our Native American Indians have always been picked on throughout history. I am trying to spread the word about them and what do I get? Spiteful women who have found a way to bring attention to themselves, by getting in the media in this horrible way. "

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Did Rinaldi ever respond to the criticisms about My Heart is On the Ground?

Debbie Reese said...

I don't recall that Rinaldi responded.

At an NCTE conference, she was there signing books. I introduced myself.

She drew back from the table and said she would never write a book about American Indians again. I wouldn't describe her pulling back as fear, or her remarks as angry. In reflection, it was not the right place to ask the question. It was a long line of fans, wanting her signature on whatever book was out at the time.

I told her I thought it would be good if we could talk about the book and a rewrite, that it could be a marvelous teachable moment for everyone.

She said again that she'd never write a book about American Indians.

That was the end of the conversation. No drama; just a brief exchange.

jpm said...

In an interview in an issue of The New Advocate several years back, Ann Rinaldi was asked about that critical review. She responded somewhat dismissively to the question, saying something like, "I was told it was an internet thing". (Because nothing important happens on the internet?? Not clear what she meant there.) She did not acknowledge that many of the review's co-authors were in fact Native scholars, teachers, librarians, etc., or address any of the concerns raised in the review regarding accuracy, etc. I have lost that copy of New Advocate so can't fact-check myself.

With all due respect to one's felt-connection to one's great-grandmother: I would hesitate to speculate which of my own behaviors would have made any of my great-grandmothers proud, and which would have earned me a scolding. Ms. Edwards seems to feel she is giving voice to the voiceless -- when in fact Native people are NOT silent. They are speaking, and some of them are voicing objections to her work!!!

Romance fandom being what it is, I wonder if romance writers are accustomed to receiving much criticism at all?

Anonymous said...

I understand your problems with Cassie Edwards' books (and share your concerns) but I wish you didn't have to stereotype romance readers while you did it. You of all people should know that stereotypes aren't useful at all. Romance readers are a wide swath of the reading populace - not all women, DEFINITELY not all moms, teachers and librarians!! Even if most are women, not all women are moms, teachers or librarians or have any prolonged contact with children. :/