Friday, December 05, 2008

Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER, by Beth Kanell

Note: This review is presented here with the permission of its authors and may not be published elsewhere without the written permission of Oyate.

**Please see Joseph Bruchac's note at the very bottom of this review, beneath the information about the reviewers. His remarks were posted on Sunday morn, Dec 7 as a comment, and for convenience of readers, I've copied it here as well. Update, 7:30 PM, Sunday, Dec 7: Bruchac's remarks were posted by Beverly Slapin.

[Update: January 18, 9:45 AM, CST---A special welcome to readers from other nations, coming here from the livejournal community, where critical discussion of Kanell and her book is taking off.]

Darkness Under the Water and the Vermont Eugenics Survey

Kanell, Beth, Darkness Under the Water. Candlewick, 2008, grades 7-up (Abenaki)

In the late 19th Century, there began to be an interest among scientists and sociologists in the possibility of improving the human race by controlled breeding programs. From 1925-1936, in an effort to “breed better Vermonters,” the Vermont Eugenics Survey campaigned to shape public opinion and social policy. The Survey targeted people it referred to as “degenerates” or “the three D’s: defectives, dependents, delinquents.” The Survey’s definitions were purely subjective and included poor people with large families, poor people who were dependent on public charity, poor people who were living off the land, poor people who may or may not have had certain physical or cognitive disabilities, poor people whose family relationships did not fit the social “norm” of the time, and poor people whose children were frequently absent from school. The Vermont Eugenics Survey played the race card and the policies that resulted from it—including institutionalization, sterilization, and removing children from their families—devastated the Abenaki communities. To this day, the wounds remain deep, cultural continuity has been disrupted, and there are now many Abenaki families who continue to “hide in plain sight.”

In Darkness Under the Water, Beth Kanell cites Nancy Gallagher’s landmark study, Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State (University Press of New England, 1999) as the inspiration for her young adult novel of one tragic year in the life of a family who falls victim to a fictitious state-sponsored sterilization program. Promoted by its publishers as a work of “historical fiction” for young readers, Darkness Under the Water is neither historically accurate nor culturally authentic. As such, it will confuse rather than enlighten young readers about the eugenics movement in Vermont. More important, the novel obscures the real tragedy and enduring legacies of the Vermont Eugenics Survey and the state social policies that it inspired.

As the story begins, it is 1930, and almost-16-year-old Molly Ballou and her French-Canadian Abenaki family are living on their traditional land in Vermont, in the town of Waterford, near the Connecticut River. They’re a hard-working hardscrabble family—Grandma and Mama take in washing and mending, Dad is an itinerant laborer, working on the river; and Molly helps when she’s not in school. There was another child, Gratia, who drowned at the age of five, just before Molly was born.

Every society has its mores and web of relationship and obligation. Every society has its cultural markers. Grandma is an elder who has not given up the Abenaki way of being in the world and tries to protect her family from the hazards of being Indian. Mama is pregnant and exhausted from the hard work she does together with Grandma. Yet, they and Molly show a culturally inappropriate lack of respect for each other. Grandma constantly harps at Mama or Molly and Mama or Molly snaps back.

Worst was the moment Me-Mere said to Mama, “You’re not a true Daughter of the People, or you would respect me!” And Mama replied, “If you want respect, you have to be respectable!”

Molly, for her part, is self-absorbed and immature in a way far more typical of modern American young adults than of a young woman of that time, place, and family. She would have had responsibilities to the family unit from childhood; that would be expected, without question. But, given her mother’s late pregnancy and the hard labor she must do to support the family while her husband is away on the river, Molly’s constant whining and resentment, and the idea that she would be glad to see her father because she was tired of being in “a house of women,” are just not believable.

And it is beyond possibility that an Abenaki girl—even one not being “raised “ to it—would grow up in a small town in the Vermont woodlands so totally ignorant of the connection to the land, the forest, and the animals. And a good French-Canadian Catholic Indian family such as this one would have had many more children, and aunties, uncles and cousins being near and helping out.

Then there’s the ghost of Molly’s sister, who drowned at age five, yet continues to haunt 16-year-old Molly (“What dark river shadow did her spirit cling to?....Something of Gratia moved as easily as water through me”) as a 21-year-old, advising her about, among other things, the application of makeup and how to deal with a boyfriend. How is it that the ghost of Molly’s sister is 16 years older than the five-year-old child who died 16 years ago? How is it that Molly doesn’t know that ghosts are unable to travel through water? Why is it that Molly doesn’t tell her parents, or any other relative, that she’s being haunted? In any event, it can well be assumed that Kanell uses this ghost as a literary device to highlight Molly’s dysfunctional interactions with her family, and/or to provide further scenarios for her teenage angst, and/or to provide a lot of water-ghost metaphors, and/or to move the plot, which it doesn’t.

In Henry Laporte, the young Abenaki basket seller whom Molly meets in the woods, Kanell has created the perfect white women’s fantasy Indian. He is a “real” Indian. He is mysterious. He moves soundlessly through the woods, and appears out of silence. He knows everything about the forest that Molly does not. He is gentle, intelligent, and respectful. He has a “cool and quiet outside.” And, oh, those dark eyes and high cheekbones. In reality, if anyone were to be a target of the eugenicists in the ‘20’s and 30’s Henry would have been—the way he lives, his deep understanding of the land and what it offers—these are the people whom the eugenicists targeted. Not those who were assimilating, going to school, and holding down “full time jobs” as Molly and her family were.

A brief digression about the relationship between Henry and Molly: Henry Laporte is more the product of Kanell’s heavy-handed attempt to portray the differences between “traditional” and “assimilated” Indians than it is of Indian realities in this time and place. In a long conversation between Henry and Molly, Henry asks probing questions about Molly’s family and explains to her that she’s not “really” Abenaki because, although she’s “born to be Abenaki,” she has not been “raised in it.” When Molly forces him to apologize, he asks her—to teach him about friendship (!).

And for a traditional Abenaki who gathers basketry materials for his female relatives, Henry (through the author), doesn’t know a whole lot about basketry materials. “Would you show me where you go to get the willow branches?” asks Molly, and Henry replies, “No, not the willow. I could show you the black ash on the mountain, some day.” There are over 100 varieties of willow in Vermont; every little kid around here picks pussy willows and knows that willows grow in the wetlands and on the sides of rivers. Molly, who lives on the side of the river, even if she were not “raised” Abenaki, would know where to find willows. Black ash grows all over the state; the best ash for pounding into baskets grows in the wetlands. Because the closer the trees are to sea level, the wetter the land is, the more water there is between the annual rings, the easier it is to pound and separate the annual rings for basketry material. Why would Henry go to the mountains to get ash, when that would be the most difficult ash to pound? Answer: So they could “cross a stretch of willows on the way” up the ridge.

A brief digression about the Comerford Dam: For millennia, our Abenaki family bands lived alongside the Long River, fishing in its waters, farming the fertile fields nourished by the river, and hunting in the woodlands nearby. And where our family bands lived, we buried our dead. In 1928-1930, a massive hydroelectric dam was built across what became known as the Connecticut River. The creation of the dam flooded our lands, submerging and destroying much of our woodlands, burial grounds, homes, farms and traditional gardens in the town of Waterford.

Although there was no resistance to this great upheaval in their lives, we can assume that our Abenaki families living in Waterford at the time saw the dam as a great tragedy, a great trauma to the land, the river and their lives. Yet, in Kanell’s book, there is little questioning, sorrow or regret and no action. Rather, there is only matter-of-fact comparison. Henry muses, “it was a lighter place when it was still an open river…. Deep waters are darker.” And, from Grandma: “Maybe the Long River will rest a bit longer in this place when there’s a lake. Without the falls, it will be quiet,” she says. “Still, a free river has the best voice.” All of which conveniently leaves opportunity for Molly to wax philosophical with yet another dreary water-ghost metaphor: “What good is a wild, free river’s voice if the voices of the dead braided themselves into the song?”

And speaking of braids: Throughout, there are numerous references to the unbraiding and brushing of hair to “make it look pretty.” Grandma tells Molly to “make it look pretty,” Molly tells Grandma to “make it look pretty,” Molly tells herself to “make it look pretty,” Molly tells her little girl-cousins, through their dolls, to “make it look pretty.” Even the cover illustration has ghost-sister Gratia unbraiding her hair—underwater. In truth, our Abenaki mothers and grandmothers would cut our hair short, or put our hair up in pigtails, or brush our hair out. They might tell us this was necessary to keep us safe, or they might tell us a story, or they might not say anything. We understood this because we know our parents did it to protect us. But who would belittle a child, wound a child’s spirit on purpose, by telling her that her braided hair is not pretty? Someone may have shared a story with the author about how painful it was to have had her hair—this important part of her being—cut or unbraided in order to avoid suspicion; but Kanell, once again, wittingly or unwittingly distorts the historical and cultural significance to the point that it was painful for us to read and it’s painful for us to relive.

Kanell, not one to let a sleeping metaphor lie, ratchets up the “hair-pretty” metaphor by having Molly ask her grandmother why they’re removing the bundles of dried sage hanging from the rafters in the hallway: “‘Brushing out the braids to make it look pretty.’ She echoed my words to the little cousins, with a half smile, a half wince.” Then, to make sure that not one reader misses that this whole thing is an allusion to assimilation, there’s this from Molly: “Brushing out the braids? She meant our home and its Indian-ness under the surface.”

There is little possibility of dealing adequately with the ramifications of the Vermont Eugenics Survey and the state sterilization law passed in 1931 in a work of historical fiction for young readers, and that, apparently, was never Kanell’s intent. Instead, she uses the Vermont Eugenics Survey’s 1920s investigations of some of Vermont’s “French-Indian” kinship networks as the centerpiece of her story of teenage angst. She introduces it early on through a brief adult discussion of a fictional 1930 newspaper article: “[T]his Perkins fellow, he’s already saying all our people are Gypsies, and at the statehouse, I read there’s a bill being considered to sterilize anyone with Indian blood.” In fact, such a newspaper article never appeared in 1930, nor did the biennial state legislature even convene in 1930. The Eugenics Survey’s family studies never referred to Native family bands as “Indians,” nor did the newspapers. Rather, we were referred to as “Gypsies,” French-Canadians, “pirates,” “feeble-minded,” “degenerates,” or “unfit parents.” While Kanell mentions Henry F. Perkins (the founder and director of the Eugenics Survey at the University of Vermont) only once as “this Perkins Fellow,” she fails to explain the relationship between the Survey and the complex network of social workers, town overseers of the poor, medical personnel, teachers, police and truant officers, courts, and state institutions, who assisted the Survey’s field investigations and promoted their legislative agenda, including the eugenical sterilization law passed in 1931.

Instead, Kanell creates a pair of nurses in white uniforms, cruising the countryside in search of—although this is never specifically stated—targets for the Eugenics Survey. The tension heightens; there is a sense of impending danger as these nurses, “required by the [governor and] legislature,” interrogate the teacher and take the children’s measurements. But it takes Kanell 209 pages to arrive at what she apparently considers the heart of her novel. Here, in a scene so brutal, so graphically described as to make the book unsuitable for the intended audience, Mama goes into early labor. The two nurses, who just happen to be stopping by for a “visit,” suddenly appear. They hoist Mama onto the kitchen table and, in the process of delivering the baby, smother him; then tell the family that he was born “too soon.” Then they cut out Mama’s womb:

A cry of pain from my mother made me run. My grandmother, still holding the wrapped dead baby, called out, “What are you doing to her?”…. “Cleaning,” said Nurse Williams quickly. “Cleaning out the afterbirth. So there won’t be an infection.”…. I stepped closer to my mother...and saw a sharp flash of a blade in Nurse Carpenter’s hand. “Stop it!” I called out. “You’re hurting her!” She turned her face toward me, eyes blazing. “It has to be done” was all she said, as she tugged a handful of bleeding flesh out of my mother’s most private place, and blood, too much blood, flew forth in a dark red wave onto the sheet-covered table. Swiftly wrapping the handful of bloody something into a towel, along with the blade, the nurse snapped to me, “Another towel, if you want to help her.”

In the obligatory scenes of grief and loss, Molly’s main concern remains for herself. Two days after the baby’s burial, she goes off to a dance with friends. She is distressed to learn that her parents could have wanted a son, and, now that she must take some real responsibility in the family, whines about the loss of her “freedom.” No surprise; Mama is terribly ill, and will never fully recover.

Time goes by, with a degree of healing for Mama, and some accommodation to her new circumstances for Molly. Although she’s “so tired…tired of bad things happening,” she thinks about going back to school because she has “little choice: gain a teaching credential or wash other people’s clothes for the rest of my life.” Her mother has been cruelly mutilated, her baby brother has been killed, her family is in constant danger, but again, still, yet, this is all about Molly.

The dénouement comes when the nurse who “had pushed a blade between [Mama’s] legs,” having suddenly reappeared out of nowhere while Molly is at the store, sneaks past the dozing grandmother and up to Mama’s room, and in a confrontation, is flung down the stairs. Her neck is broken. Molly’s father and Henry—who just happens to be around—take the body to the place on the river where the dam is being built, “the one place, where, if she fell, she’d be sure to break her neck.” Of course, there are no questions from the authorities.

Mama, having disposed of her enemy, quietly declines and peacefully dies. Molly will, in time, walk off into the sunset with her Indian “brave.” And no action is taken on the governor’s “demand for the sterilization of the strangers among us, the different, the weak, the ‘unfit’ among the plain New England family trees.” It’s all very neat and tidy.

In an author’s note, Kanell says that recently, “Vermont gave state recognition to the Abenaki people,” but that “their ‘disappearance’ for so many years has prevented the federal government from recognizing the tribe.” None of this is true. The Abenaki acknowledge and recognize many family bands (“tribes”) throughout Vermont, but the state government only recognizes us as a “minority group,” with none of the rights of a tribal entity. With the exception of one of our family bands that attempted and failed at federal recognition, we have not felt safe enough to come out in an organized way in order to prove the continuity of our cohesive family bands to the federal government’s satisfaction.

Kanell also writes that the Abenaki “now feel safe as they share stories of those days and people.” Not likely. In many ways, we are as much at risk as we have ever been; the threat is just different. It is, for the most part, more sophisticated and still difficult to counteract.

If indeed Kanell had read Nancy Gallagher’s book, one would not know it. Although the state of Vermont passed a sterilization law in 1931, the targets for sterilization were individuals who were deemed “feebleminded or insane” by physicians and psychologists, according to their subsequently discredited “science.” If there were any state senators or representatives who “found their own cousins in the scientific studies,” none of these people were ever under threat. Two-parent families who were employed full-time and whose children regularly attended school were not targeted. There were never any attack nurses roaming Vermont for the Eugenics Survey. What we had was bad enough.

And that’s the heart of the problem: What we had was bad enough. Our people were picked up as “feeble-minded” and institutionalized, sometimes for life. Our children were taken away from our families, and our families had absolutely no recourse. In these institutions both men and women were sterilized, because someone had decided that to let them reproduce would contaminate Vermont’s breeding stock. Whole families scattered across New England and never saw each other again. Some were captured in other states and then institutionalized. An old, old grief: broken families, lost futures, people growing up not knowing who they are because their parents will not tell them they are Indians—for their own protection. Not over. Not done. Now. Still. If you are Indian, there is no guarantee that you are safe.

This is the history, the legacy that Kanell has appropriated for her venture into young adult historical fiction. Such a sensational story obscures, ignores, and even functions to belittle the deep and enduring wounds that continue to poison our families and communities today. If Kanell had created characters who were authentic for the time and place and subject matter; if she had left out the graphic and gratuitous brutality; if she had chosen to make appropriate use of Nancy Gallagher’s material, whose work she cites; if she had understood—or cared—how tragic the Eugenics Survey has been for an entire nation of people; if she had shown any comprehension of what it has meant to be Abenaki in Vermont; even with her stilted, cliché-ridden writing, had she even chosen just to tell truths, she could have been forgiven.

As it stands, Darkness Under the Water is a travesty, a melodrama marketed specifically to young people in Vermont—including Abenaki young people—who will probably be told this is how it was. Since young adult historical fiction is often used to supplement textbook versions of history, Darkness Under the Water will probably turn up on Vermont reading lists, and will probably win awards. And our Abenaki mothers will probably continue to cut their daughters’ hair so they will be safe. And our Abenaki people will probably continue to “hide in plain sight.” And the cycle of hatred and denial will continue.

—Doris Seale and Judy Dow

Doris Seale (Dakota/Cree/Abenaki) is an activist, poet, writer and co-founder and former board president of Oyate. Before retiring to her ancestral family land in Vermont, she was a children’s librarian in Brookline, Massachusetts, for 45 years. Doris was honored for her life’s work with the American Library Association’s Equality Award in 2001, and in 2006, she received the American Book Award for co-editing A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children.

Judy Dow (Abenaki) is an activist, master basketmaker and educator who teaches ethnobotany at the kindergarten through college levels. A member of the board of directors of Oyate, Judy is the recipient of the 2004 Governor’s Award for Outstanding Vermont Educator. She has lived all her life on Abenaki land in Vermont.

In collaboration with Nancy Gallagher, Doris and Judy have conducted extensive research into the eugenics movement in Vermont, including the Vermont Eugenics Survey. Over several generations, Judy’s was the largest family specifically targeted by the Eugenics Survey, and Doris’s was caught in the aftermath a generation later.

For more information on the Eugenics Survey of Vermont’s studies and the state laws and policies they inspired, see “Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary History”.

We wish to express our gratitude to Nancy Gallagher for her time and persistence in her past and present search for the truths of our story—D.S. and J.D.


Update: Sunday, Dec 7, 2008

I understand that the book jacket carries a blurb from Joseph Bruchac. A response to that blurb was posted earlier today, in a comment. The response is from Joseph Bruchac, and I'm moving it here. [Note: His remarks were submitted by Beverly Slapin.]

Joseph Bruchac said...

When I read the manuscript of THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER well over a year and a half ago, I made a number of critical suggestions, such as making certain that the material regarding Abenaki tradition, including basketmaking, spiritual practices and family relationships, were more accurately represented. When I wrote the blurb for the book I assumed those corrections had been made. Apparently my assumptions were incorrect.

January 18, 2009 - Note:

There are several posts here on this blog, about DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER. I'm arranging them here, chronologically. Be sure to read comments to each entry.

December 5, 2008 - Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
December 6, 2008 - A reader responds to Seale/Dow review
December 17, 2008 - Slapin's Open Letter to Kanell
December 18, 2008 - Kanell's Response to Slapin's Open Letter
December 19, 2008 - I read Beth Kanell's DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
January 3, 2009 - "Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments" by Beverly Slapin


Carys said...

I believe it is very important that our children learn about this horrific chapter in American history. I had no idea about this 'program' until last year when I read a review of Jodi Picoult's book "Second Glance". I have not read that book, and I can't speak to what it contains, but the review got me to do some research into this 'program'. How could it be I'd never HEARD about it?

A MUCH better book for children about this horrific is "Hidden Roots" by Joseph Bruchac. You discuss it here:

k8 said...

Thanks for posting this! My dissertation research sometimes touches on aspects of the Eugenics Movement during this period, so I'm interested in both accurate and inaccurate accounts of it.

My only quibble with the review is the comment about the unlikely-hood of so few children in the family. While I'm sure the author didn't intend this reason, it is possible for a woman to have trouble conceiving or carrying children. I only mention this because my grandmother, who came from a large family, wanted to have many children. She had one child (my mother) and many many miscarriages over the years. Eventually, my grandparents adopted a child, but this was after over a decade of trying to not miscarry after my mom was born (and I think there were miscarriages before that point, too).

Just a quibble specific to me. It just annoys me when people assume that a Catholic family (or any family during the past) would naturally be large.

Beverly Slapin said...

I understand your perspective, K8, but it's not the case in this story. One of the fears that the eugenicists had and frequently wrote about was that they were outnumbered by the large French-Abenaki families and they were concerned about keeping their Yankee bloodlines pure. One of the cultural markers the eugenicists looked for were the large French-Abenaki families. They were the ones who were targeted, not usually the small nuclear families like Molly's. In the records of the Vermont Eugenics Survey, more than 60% of the targeted names come from five families over many generations. This is just one more thing Kanell didn't get.

Beverly Slapin said...

Another thing just occurred to me about the eugenics movement and the size of Abenaki families at the time. The eugenicists used a formula called the "120 rule": If the woman's age multiplied by the number of children she had equalled or exceeded 120, her family became a target for the eugenicists. So in Molly's family's case, Mama's age (35) multiplied by the number of children (one, if we count only Molly; two, if we count Molly and her drowned sister; or three, if we count Molly, her drowned sister, and the baby whom the "nurses" killed) would equal 35, 70, or 105, respectively—still lower than 120. Of course, this formula did not apply to large "well-born" Yankee families.

k8 said...

Beverly - I'm well aware of how eugenicists would perceive these families. I've had the misfortune of reading far too many eugenicist tracts and reports of forced sterilizations. My dissertation deals with immigrants and americanization programs during this time period, so the eugenicists are always looming in the background. Anyway, I haven't read Kanell's book, but it certainly does sound like she doesn't get it at all.

My sole quibble was with the assumption that a woman is necessarily able/capable of becoming pregnant or carrying that many children to term, regardless of ethnicity/religion/etc. It felt like an off-hand comment along the lines of "Oh, they're Catholic, they have a lot of kids."

My comment really had nothing to do with the review as a whole - the books sounds fairly wretched. It had more to do with knowing many women who have/had fertility issues and coming from a family with a history of women having multiple miscarriages. Like I said, it's a personal issue that leads me to cringe when I read the first half of this line and lines like:

"And a good French-Canadian Catholic Indian family such as this one would have had many more children, and aunties, uncles and cousins being near and helping out."

The second half rings true for most families who aren't new to an area (recent immigrants) during this time period. The complete absence of any family (or even family-like neighbors) in the surrounding community sounds very strange.

Beverly Slapin said...

You're right, K8. Absent the context, the first part of the sentence you quoted ("And a good French-Canadian Catholic Indian family such as this one would have had many more children...") does seem to be a generalization about Catholic families being, by nature, large. But Kanell does not mention any miscarriages or still-births or any other reason why Mama would not have had more children, so in the context of French-Canadian Catholic Abenaki families in Vermont in 1930, it seems odd that there would have been only one living child in 21 years. Having the protagonist part of a small nuclear family more typical of this time seems to be Kanell's attempt to draw in the young reader who might not identify with very large families.

Joseph Bruchac said...

When I read the manuscript of THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER well over a year and a half ago, I made a number of critical suggestions, such as making certain that the material regarding Abenaki tradition, including basketmaking, spiritual practices and family relationships, were more accurately represented. When I wrote the blurb for the book I assumed those corrections had been made. Apparently my assumptions were incorrect.

Beth Kanell said...

I thank you, Judy and Doris, for your sustained and studied attention to my novel The Darkness Under the Water. I'm honored by your willingness to wrestle with both the story and the underlying history. As I explained to Judy in a phone conversation on another matter -- a phone conversation held before I saw this review -- there was a great deal of research behind this novel. Not only had I read Nancy Gallagher's research work multiple times, but I was the copyeditor for her book during the publication process, and when I finally met her in person and introduced myself as the freelance copyeditor, she thanked me for my detailed work and said it had been work well done and of value.

Also within the research, as Judy is now aware, I worked from the spoken history of a local (to me) Abenaki family, who read the chapters as I wrote the book and whose comments were always respected. I consulted Nancy. I spent time ensuring Abenaki witness to local archaeology. I consulted records. I even talked with a woman who had been a nurse during this period.

Judy and Doris, I am sorry that you've been so dismayed by some misreadings of the story -- Gratia's "ghost" is not an actual haunting, but a "voice" in Molly's thoughts, and is not 21 years old but only 5 and hence childlike, for instance; and there is no removal of Molly's mother's womb (it is the afterbirth); and the teens who have read the story have told me that they understand that the nurses in fact did not smother the baby, which was stillborn (please see medical research on the effects of tuberculosis on pregnancies). Perhaps you are not a frequent reader of "young adult" fiction, where some suggestions of fear and horror are not always matched by the also presented facts. A reader needs to sort through what is being presented.

I believe this novel will draw attention to the enduring injustice of lack of recognition to Vermont's Abenaki. I hope you will continue to write about your disagreements with the book, as our voices together will be a stronger force.

Finally, I regret to say that Mr. Bruchac, whose work I commend, has made a small but significant confusion in his reply: The critical comments that he gave to me were on a very different novel, written 2 years before this one, and led to my discarding that novel entirely and writing a new one; to that new version, Mr. Bruchac returned to me only positive and supportive praise and congratulations. I have here in my office a feather that Mr. Bruchac sent to me many years ago with a note of thanks for the care that I had invested in the copyediting of his own novels as they were reissued.

In short, I believe that injustice should be corrected, and I do indeed spend a great deal of time in research, as well as in crafting a story. I hope those of you who commented on the review, without first reading my novel, will pause to read it now.

Beth Kanell

Debbie Reese said...

I've just received an email from Beverly Slapin, which I am pasting below in its entirety. If you've read each comment on "Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER, by Beth Kanell," you've seen that a comment was posted by Joseph Bruchac. In fact, that comment was submitted by Beverly Slapin. Please see her email below.



When I posted Joe's words to your blog, I did not realize that it
would appear that Joe had posted those words. For clarity, I want you to know that Joe dictated those words to me, and he asked me to make them public.


Debbie Reese said...

Ms. Kanell,

I have not read your novel. Can you ask your publisher to send a review copy to me? My email is debreese at

I have some thoughts regarding your response to the review.

You have done freelance copyediting for Gallagher and for Bruchac. What does that have to do with the substance of the review?

In the 90s, Betsy Hearne wrote two articles about notes an author provides in his/her book. She described helpful ones with substance, and ones that provide little if anything, but as constructed, suggest there's substance where there is none. That's what your reference to the copyediting feels like to me, and your comment that Bruchac gave you a feather.

I'm also unsure as to what you mean by referencing your phone conversation with Judy Dow. You seem to be suggesting that you've straightened Judy out, and, somehow, that seems like an effort to discredit her review.

You also say that Judy and Doris "misread" parts of the story. Are we in a 'that's not what I meant' space? Are these passages up for interpretation?

I am dismayed, frankly, that you suggest that Doris is "not a frequent reader of young adult fiction" --- Doris Seale is a highly regarded retired librarian and critic who, with Beverly Slapin, wrote a book that won an American Book Award. And, the American Library Association recognized her for her work.

You say that teens who've read the story understand what is going on. What teens? How were they asked of their understanding?

What does this mean:

"I spent time ensuring Abenaki witness to archeology."

And what did you learn from the nurse? Was she a nurse who participated in the sterilizations? Does she express regret? Defense of her actions or of the program?

I recognize that you are defending your book, but you're trying to cast doubt on two women from the Tribal Nation that your story purports to be about, two women whose families were affected by the Eugenics Project. That is troubling to me.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

My understanding from reading DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER is that the baby was stillborn, and not smothered. The baby never cries (see pp. 206-207). On the other hand, the author clearly gives the impression that Nurse Carpenter sterilizes Molly's mother:
"Outside the door, [Me-Mere] bent close to me and whispered, 'Those nurses cut her up inside.'
"'No, Me-Mere, they just took the afterbirth out,' I whispered back. 'I asked someone. You have to take it out or you can die afterward.'
"'More,' my grandmother pronounced firmly. 'They did more. They cut her up. There'll be no more babies.' Anger and sorrow flamed in her eyes.
"'She's too old for more babies, isn't she?'
"'She wasn't too old for this one, was she? No, they cut her up on purpose. They don't want Indian babies around here'" (pp. 225-226).
Later on, Me-Mere says Nurse Carpenter "cut Caro to the point of terrible illness" (p. 296) and Molly refers to her mother's "shredded womb" (p. 300).

Wendy said...

This was a very interesting discussion to read, and I have to give the author props for being willing to come here and present her side; many authors would only do that in their own spaces. I am disturbed by [what the review has to say about] the book--as a nurse, I have some serious questions about the way nurses are portrayed here, along with the rest of the points--and I thought, at first, that I wouldn't be able to suffer through this book. After reading the author's comments, I agree that I have to read the book before speaking about it further. I learn so much from these intelligent discussions and challenges. Thanks to all.

Beth Kanell said...

Thanks, all, for your patience today; I was meeting with a group of teens, teachers, and librarians (yes, the librarians are aware of this ongoing discussion) and wanted to focus on that, first. You can see part of what was discussed at

It's a pity that e-mail is so clumsy for emotions; my earlier mention of Joseph Bruchac's kind letter is simply to assure you that at the time when this novel was finished and going into print, Mr. Bruchac had not in fact asked for any changes; his critical responses had been to a very different earlier work, and I hope I learned from his input. Now I'm learning, in my turn, from the Dow/Seale review and the questions it raises. I'll respond to a few of them here.

Why would I write a novel that speaks from the shadow of the Vermont Eugenics Project? I have little Native American heritage personally -- mine is a mingling of New England colonists, and European Jews -- so it wasn't an obvious direction for me. What I had been doing before this, in addition to my career of professional copyediting, was a labor of love with rewriting local histories for school use, and finding funding for local historic preservation groups. As a group of us began the restoration of Ben Thresher's Mill in Barnet, Vermont, we realized the soil around the mill would be seriously disturbed by the foundation repairs. On the advice of Vermont's state archaeologist, we invited people to collaboratively excavate the site, so we could keep track of the metal, leather, and wood items in the soil, map them, and save a few samples. John Moody, a scholar of the Abenaki, came at our invitation to teach the steering group about significance of the site to the Abenaki, and to give guidance before any work began.

As the "town archaeology day at the mill" approached, an Abenaki parent called and asked whether the family's teenage daughter could participate without her parents -- she had a career goal of archaeology, related to her desire to see return of remains to original sites, and she wanted the experience of working with the soil, using the sieves, and taking detailed notes and photos. We welcomed her, and over the ensuing months, I got better acquainted. She was and is an extraordinarily brave person, excelling in her field despite some serious personal challenges.

When her father told me how pleased he was with his daughter and her ability to take pride in her heritage, he also shared with me the tragedy of how his mother and grandmother felt compelled to hide theirs. I was startled to realize that his narrative reflected the local face of what I already knew from Nancy Gallagher's reference work, Breeding Better Vermonters, which I had copyedited for the publisher a few years earlier. I also had copyedited Mr. Bruchac's Abenaki novels in their reissue. I began to feel that a story was pushing into my own life -- particularly because my father's death in the preceding year had finally revealed how much of his heritage he had hidden and even denied. Molly Ballou as a character began to emerge, along with Henry LaPorte -- who was based on the many hunters and trackers and handful of Abenaki I'd come to know in helping with land use planning for the wildest areas of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. I like to walk without speaking in the woods; so do the best trackers that I know. Henry came from those men, and from the kind, calm man whom I married at about this time (5 years ago). Molly, on the other hand, is an amalgam of the 15-year-old who came to the mill that day, the stories her father told, and my own struggles at age 15. She is also rooted in my experience telling specialized stories for teens in substance abuse prevention retreats.

But while that's a good start to a novel, it's certainly not enough to responsibly craft a work of historical fiction. So I interviewed many people; drew on years of listening to and writing the stories of elders of the Northeast Kingdom communities; burrowed through books and archives; and sought wise counsel from members of the community. (I'll detail that further at another time.) Most important, I made sure that of the four readers who agreed to work with me through every chapter, the Abenaki dad was one, a teacher was another, a third was a lifelong Vermonter with family ties to the dam construction and to her husband's Native American heritage, and the fourth was a wise woman in her seventies who had been a victim of the European eugenics movement. And I listened, and continued to seek more information.

The Darkness Under the Water is my best effort to tell this story within a framework of growing up poor in Vermont's most rural region -- something that my sons had to do. I hope others will build on this and add their memories and histories to the body of work available to our teens. And I hope that librarians and teachers who consider teaching from or sharing this book will carefully consider the Dow/Seale review, the discussions on blog sites and the related listserv, and the words of the elders who lived through the Vermont Eugenics Project -- and teach from the whole.

J. L. Bell said...

In reply to Debbie Reese's comment:
You have done freelance copyediting for Gallagher and for Bruchac. What does that have to do with the substance of the review?

It's clear that Beth Kanell stated that fact to show that she had not only read a respected history of this movement, but had read it carefully. Anyone familiar with the publishing process knows that copyediting involves reading a manuscript with great care and scrutiny.

Kanell also mentioned additional reading and interviews, and asking an Abenaki family and Joseph Bruchac, who wrote his own book on this historical episode, to review the manuscript. He provided an enthusiastic pre-publication response. I don't know what else we can reasonably ask a historical novelist like Kanell to do.

You also say that Judy and Doris "misread" parts of the story. Are we in a 'that's not what I meant' space? Are these passages up for interpretation?

Lyn Miller-Lachmann's comment indicates that she interpreted one of those passages as Kanell expected her readers to do. There doesn't seem to be evidence for Dow and Seale's statement that the book depicts the smothering of a baby.

Debbie Reese said...

On this blog and elsewhere (on the internet listserv called child_lit), Ms. Kanell wrote that she spoke with Judy Dow before she (Kanell) saw Seale and Dow's review of DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER, and told Judy that she (Kanell) had done a great deal of research in writing this novel. She goes on to say:

"Also within the research, as Judy is now aware, I worked from the spoken history of a local (to me) Abenaki family, who read the chapters as I wrote the book and whose comments were always respected."

Earlier today, I (Debbie) returned a call to Judy Dow. She was with Doris Seale as we spoke. They stand by their review. Kanell's posts to this blog and child_lit do not sway them from their critique.

Reading the words of others (not Kanell), there's a sentiment that Kanell has told a story that needs telling, and there's defense of it as historical fiction (emphasis on fiction) that suggests that if she's got some details about the Vermont Eugenics Project wrong, that's ok.

It is not.

Seale and Dow's essay covers a lot. In its breadth, I think readers of the essay are missing the significance of their essay. We can go back and forth on interpretation of what Kanell has written with respect to the baby's death, and, Kanell can provide us with a lot of information about her research and people she has talked to.

As I deepen my understanding of this history, this is what I've come away with so far.

This Eugenics Project was a scientific project. It wasn't like Klan gatherings that took place under dark of night, with hoods that concealed identity. It was a matter-of-fact out-in-the-open project that, at that time, was not seen as harmful by those engaged in the sterilization.

Of course, the targets of that sterilization felt differently about it, and hence, it was in their best interest to hide their identity.

Because it was a scientific study, there is documentation available of all the names of all the people who were sterilized. The Abenaki family that Kanell spoke to is from a band who, according to the documents maintained by the scientists who carried out the project, was not part of this project. Terrible things happened to them, too, but they were not part of this project.

That is important, and that is where Kanell's work goes awry. That is where it veers from historical fiction into hurtful and harmful storytelling.

She is selectively using information to develop a very melodramatic story. She knows about the project because she read Gallagher's work. She knows an Abenaki family and elders in the Northeast Kingdom communities. And, she knows that a brutal story of oppression of American Indians will appeal to readers.

What she's done is cherrypicking in service of telling a story that fiddles with the truth. The problem is, readers don't know she's playing with the truth. Even many Abenaki people don't know this history because their survival meant they had to hide their identity.

So, we all read her book and think we've learned something, but we haven't! We've only gotten another story that messes with Native history. And in that messing, harm is done to efforts to bring the truth of that story to light. That's the confusion Seale and Dow refer to.

Kanell tells us she did a lot of research and that her copyediting work gives her knowledge to draw from as she wrote her story. I don't question that she did that research or gained knowledge from that copyediting. What she did not and does not get, is an understanding of why the actual history matters to those who were subject to the Project.

Instead of listening to Seale and Dow, she keeps telling us of her research. She keeps telling us to just read her book and make up our own minds. She is counting on our collective ignorance and our collective love of writing and children's books to say that Seale and Dow's objections are without merit.

She is wrong.

And, we are complicit in the miseducation of children if we agree with her dismissal of Seale and Dow and choose to use her book with children.

Beverly Slapin said...


Ms. Kanell—

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Beverly Slapin. I am Jewish. Many of my maternal relatives, along with millions of others, were murdered by the eugenicists who called themselves National Socialists, in the town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland. My paternal grandfather fought against the Czar in Russia and, for this reason, was one of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of revolutionaries who were murdered. My ancestors fought and died so that I could be here. And because I’m here, it is my obligation to speak for them. And because they were who they were, it is my obligation to combat racism wherever it exists.

I am co-founder and executive director of Oyate and I’ve taught in the area of critical multiculturalism, especially since it relates to Native peoples, since 1990. I am co-editor of Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children and A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, which won an American Book Award. I am a children’s content editor for and frequent contributor to Multicultural Review. I have read thousands of young adult books, including historical fiction, and have written more reviews than I can count or remember. I have read The Darkness Under the Water four times. Last, but certainly not least, having worked with them for many years, I consider Doris Seale, Judy Dow, and Debbie Reese, dear friends and colleagues. They stand by their words and I stand with them; not because they’re my friends but because they’re speaking truths.

At this point, I’m going to address the discussion questions on your website. While discussion questions for young adult fiction, and especially young adult historical fiction, generally aim to encourage young readers to empathize with the protagonist or other characters, your questions serve only to distance young readers from the Abenaki characters in the story, and from the Abenaki peoples in Vermont. I will focus on questions 10 and 11, which I consider among the worst discussion questions I have ever read.

Question 10: Many times in nature, animals seem to realize when another animal is “different.” Sometimes the animals try to make the different animal leave or they attack it for being different. Do people act the same way? How do the people in Molly’s story show this? Have you seen people do this? Have you also seen people who choose not to act this way? Describe them and give your opinion on why they react differently.

Question 11: The decision in Vermont to sort people out by whether they seemed like "good citizens" for the state was happening in many other places. More than half the states in America passed laws that allowed doctors to "sterilize" people who were "unfit" in some way. Do you know anyone who has sterilized a pet so it would not have puppies or kittens? Was there a good reason? Talk about the ways people are different from pets and whether there can ever be good reasons for choices like this for people. Is it different if the choices are forced on someone?

In comparing the criminal behavior of the eugenicists to a natural fear that “animals in nature” may have, you are excusing what they did and, by your analogy, blaming the Abenaki for being “different.” By comparing the Abenaki to pet dogs and cats—which is what you do—you are dehumanizing the Abenaki peoples. You are heaping shame on Abenaki people in general, and, in particular, you are shaming Abenaki youngsters who may read your book. And you are encouraging non-Indian young people to feel superior. This is racism, pure and simple. This may or may not be your intention; I have no way of knowing.

Now, Ms. Kanell, imagine you are, say, Jewish. And you are living in, say, Eastern Europe in the 1930s. And, in school, you are forced to answer “discussion questions” that compare you and your family to dogs and cats that need to be sterilized. Well, this really happened. I know this history. And now you, wittingly or unwittingly, are making it happen again. For Doris and Judy and all the other Abenaki people in Vermont and elsewhere who are now being forced to relive the pain, I’m asking you to remove your discussion guide from your website. If you have a shred of decency, you will.