Sunday, May 04, 2008

A response to Richie's review of GHOST OF SPIRIT BEAR, and a critical look at TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR

In the last few weeks, Richie Partington's review of Ben Mikaelsen's sequel to Touching Spirit Bear has been making the round on Internet listservs.

He opens his review with this excerpt from Black-Eyed Peas "Where is the Love?"

"Wrong information always shown by the media
Negative images is the main criteria
Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria
Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinema
Yo', whatever happened to the values of humanity
Whatever happened to the fairness in equality
Instead of spreading love we spreading animosity."

He goes on to praise Ghost of Spirit Bear, but again and again, I come back to the lyrics he opened the review with...

"Wrong information always shown by the media" --- That describes, perfectly, the way that Native peoples are portrayed in the movies, cartoons, advertisements, commercial products, and, of course, children's books.

"Wrong information" also perfectly describes Mikaelsen's first book, so it is puzzling that Partington uses that phrase to describe the book. Either Richie hasn't read criticism of Native imagery in Touching Spirit Bear, or, like so many others, he thinks a critique of Mikaelsen's misuse and misrepresentation of Tlingit people doesn't matter.

Touching Spirit Bear relies on and draws heavily from Mikaelsen's ideas about American Indians. His writing includes stereotypes, old and new. 'Old' meaning those older ones that put American Indians in the same class as animals; 'new' meaning the new-age use of Native spirituality.

Chapter 1 opens with Cole in a boat on his way to spend a year on an island in Alaska. This is "banishment" and the outcome, we are told later, of Circle Justice. With Cole are two men, both of them Tlingit. One is Garvey, who is "built like a bulldog with lazy eyes" (p. 3). The other is Edwin who "stared forward with a steely patience, like a wolf waiting" (p. 4)

Bulldog? Wolf? Is this a style Mikaelsen uses to describe all his characters? Here's how he describes Cole:

"He was an innocent-looking, baby-faced fifteen-year-old from Minneapolis..." (p.5)

And here's Peter, the kid Cole beat up:

"...the skinny red-haired boy," (p. 7)

Cole's parents:

"His mom acted like a scared Barbie doll, always looking good but never fighting back or standing up to anyone" (p. 9)

"His dad was a bullheaded drinker with a temper" (p. 9).

Bullheaded is certainly derived from an animal, but the term is common usage for someone who is determined to do what he wants, regardless of what others might think or want. Given that, I think it is different from the ways that Garvey and Edwin are described.

It is through Garvey that Cole learns about Circle Justice. Based on my reading about Circle Justice, Mikaelsen (through Garvey) does a reasonably accurate job of laying it out on pages 10-12. Where Mikaelsen goes astray is when Cole gets banished. Several meetings of the Circle have taken place, but Cole isn't making any progress. In frustration he tells the people at the meeting: "Send me someplace where I'm not in your face and can't hurt anyone. But why do I have to go to jail?" (p. 55).

Garvey replies "I'm a native Tlingit," he said. "I was raised in Southeast Alaska. It is possible I could make arrangements to have Cole banished to a remote island on the Inland Passage" (p. 55-56).

This banishment to an island comes straight out of the pages of the newspapers in 1994. "Indian Boys' Exile Turns Out to Be Hoax" ran in the New York Times. Reading it is much like reading the early part of Touching Spirit Bear. Except for the part of the article that reads:

"Now it turns out there is no such thing as banishment in Tlingit culture, according to tribal leaders and elders in Alaska."

Hmmm... That gives me pause. Let' see... the article came out in 1994. HarperCollins published Touching Spirit Bear in 2001. Apparently the book wasn't vetted. Maybe they don't do that with fiction? MAYBE THEY SHOULD!!! Course, I know of two books that experts critiqued prior to publication, but the writer/publisher chose to ignore the suggestions (those two are Ann Rinaldi's My Heart is on the Ground, and one of those Indian in the Cupboard books by Lynn Reid Banks).

Course, the book reading world loved Touching Spirit Bear! It's on all manner of "Best Books" lists, it has gotten many awards and glowing reviews. The Horn Book Guide is the only major review journal that panned it, giving it a 5 (out of 6) and calling it "Marginal, seriously flawed, but with some redeeming quality." I'm not sure what the redeeming quality is. "Marginal" and "seriously flawed" are dead on, though.

If you're an editor, get fiction manuscripts reviewed by experts, and when the experts point out problems, listen to the problems. Do not assume that the research the author has done is sufficient. It is likely that he/she is ill-informed.

Be mindful of the sources that you use when creating/writing/reviewing a story with Native characters or content. Today, more than ever, it is possible to find material written by Native people. You don't have to rely on biased and outdated material to do your research!

I know---there's a lot of people out there who are huge fans of Touching Spirit Bear. Seems there's a strong feeling that this book helps kids who are bullies. It may do that, but it also helps everyone stoke their incorrect stereotypical ideas about who Native people are. For that reason, I cannot and do not recommend it.


(1) Touching Spirit Bear has been written about twice before on this website. See Beverly Slapin's review and a piece I wrote about comments posted to her review "Reaction to Slapin's review."

(2) Also see resources that can be used to evaluate the Tlingit content in Touching Spirit Bear.

(3) Read Ben Mikaelsen's response here.


Anonymous said...

Why do fiction books have to be read by "experts" before being published? It's not claiming to teach about Native culture. Why does everything have to be analyzed to death?

Debbie Reese said...

Dear Anonymous at 4:34 PM---

There are a great many works of fiction that teachers use to teach about this or that topic.

Can you list a few things you feel you "learned" about Native people by reading the book?

I know that's a bit of loaded question, but maybe you can ask your students that question, and then revisit whether or not you think experts ought to vet works of fiction about Native people...

Deborah Gussman said...

Thanks for this informative post (and for reminding us of it on the SAIL listserv). It prompted me to write a letter to the principal of my son's middle school, where "Touching Spirit Bear" is taught in the 6th grade. I have asked him and the faculty to read your review and those of other critics, and to consider choosing a less misleading and stereoptyed book.

Miriam said...

To echo what Debbie said in response to anonymous - I have asked my students (college students in Wisconsin and Texas) what they know about Native Americans, and the vast majority of what they know (or rather, think they know; most of it is wrong) comes from fiction and film. And unfortunately, most fiction and film underscores and promotes stereotypes. What's illuminating about having these conversations with students is that, once they learn some history and learn accurate information, they are shocked - sometimes even angry - at how much incorrect and even harmful information is out there, and how much of it they didn't know better than to believe. So it is really important to do this kind of analysis! (And thanks for doing it, Debbie!)

Rob said...

Why do fiction books have to be read by "experts"? Well, why do fiction authors have to research the history and culture they write about? Why not just make up everything?

For example, God created the earth in 4000 BC. Cavemen coexisted with dinosaurs. George Washington was a transvestite. Santa Claus is a pedophile. The pope is the anti-Christ. Americans long for another 9/11. Indians are merciless savages. Etc.

If accuracy in fiction doesn't matter, are all these things okay? In a grotesque parody or satire, perhaps, but not in a work based on reality. Reality demands a measure of accuracy.

So the answer to Anonymous's "why" is because accuracy is the right thing to do. And because parents, teachers, and librarians demand it. Publishers want to sell authentic books and readers want to buy them.

P.S. It sounds as though many of the criticisms of Touching Spirit Bear were about Mikaelson's stereotypical language. In that case, his defense that he researched everything doesn't apply.

Anonymous said...

If students get upset because they learned incorrect information from FICTION books then they should be mad at themselves, not the author's of these books. They should find factual information if they want to learn.

Anonymous said...

Debbie--Are there any books written for children that include Native Americans that are not written by Native American writers that you do recommend? I realize you point out a lot of books that you don't believe are good but are there any that you do approve of?

Debbie Reese said...

Dear Anonymous at 4:29:

Yes. I do recommend books written by non-Native writers. I like Marlene Carvelle's books (SWEETGRASS BASKET and WHO WILL TELL MY BROTHER).

I also like Diane Hamm Johnson's DAUGHTER OF SUQUA and Robert Munsch's A PROMISE IS A PROMISE. These are on my list of recommended books. There's a link to that list on the main page of my site.

LeAnne said...

Dear Anonymous:

You asked a good question about fiction: "Why do fiction books have to read by experts before being published."

Just because a work is fiction doesn't mean it shouldn't be absolutely true. What do I mean by that?

Great literature, [what all fiction aspires to be] attempts to represent "larger truths" at the core of the story.

For example, Moby Dick isn't just a story about a man and the whale, but rather it's a story of obsession. A truth.

In the case of fiction/stories written about American Indians, Alaska Natives, and other indigenous peoples, many rely on stereotypes, and therefore the core of the story is also a stereotype.

Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting people feel the tone Mr. Mikaelson took was disrespectful, when in Dr. Reese's earlier review, she used words like "garbage" to describe his work, as well as that "what he doesn't know, he invents". I also found the mentions of "teaching little white boys to 'play Indian'" disrespectful, so perhaps if we hold the author to respectful tone, the same should be done for Dr. Reese.

What would have been interesting would be addressing the core issue of "vetting" work by experts. I don't see proof that it wasn't vetted. And who decides who is qualified as an expert? That's interesting, of course, because often within academia, differing opinions are often villified by use of terms implying ignorance or misinformation. So vetting who the qualified "experts" is an area for further exploration.