Saturday, January 03, 2009

"Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments" by Beverly Slapin

On Friday, January 2, 2009 , Jean Mendoza referenced a children's literature listserv. She is talking about child_lit. That listserv discussion group started in the mid 90s. I've been following it since then and am glad that Jean and Beverly Slapin are on it, too. It can be a contentious place when we voice objections to books that misrepresent or stereotype Native peoples. Below is a post Beverly Slapin submitted to child_lit, in its on-going discussion thread about Beth Kanell's Darkness Under the Water. As a work of historical fiction, the book provides opportunities for fact-based analysis of its content, theoretical discussions of historical fiction as a genre, and, variations in response to the story based on identity of the reader.

Below is Beverly's email to child_lit, posted there on December 31, 2008. She is responding to remarks by three specific individuals: Debby Edwardson, J. L. Bell, and Beth Kanell. One of the functions of this site (American Indians in Children's Literature) is to provide easy access to a resource that looks critically at the ways that Native peoples are portrayed in children's books. Posting Beverly's email here gives access to some of the child_lit discussion for people who are not subscribed to child_lit.


Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments

by Beverly Slapin

Debby Dahl Edwardson wrote (ChildLit, Dec. 29, 2008):

For better or worse, how readers perceive a book, how they "interpret one scene" carries far more weight than what the author intended. That the interpretation often says more about the reader than the writer is irrelevant. Trying to make sure that there is little room for misinterpretation is the writer's work, not the reader's.

I agree with Debby, exactly. A gifted writer can weave many levels of interpretation into a story, and may certainly leave readers with questions to ponder. Such readers may, after reading an especially well-written book, want to look back at a particularly beautiful and/or puzzling passage (or even the whole book) and think, “Wow! I didn’t get that the first time.” In Debby’s picture book, Whale Snow, the young reader is with young Amiqqaq, asking question after question, and being told at just about every turn: “You’ll see.” When Amiqqaq begins to understand that the “spirit of the whale,” the thing he is seeking, is “fat snow and strong wind…right here in my house, making people smile and laugh,” the young reader understands as well. In the case of Whale Snow, what writer intended is what the young reader perceives: Here is a little boy, secure and happy in the long arms of his extended family, learning what he needs to learn in a way that is appropriate for him and his culture.

In response to Debby Edwardson, J.L. Bell wrote (ChildLit, Dec. 30, 2008):

Here I think we're also discussing the critic's work, which is to read an author's creation with due care and respect. Ideally, a critic is more sensitive to alternative interpretations, creative challenges, and literary traditions than an average reader.

A critic may in the end judge that an author hasn't succeeded in any number of ways. A critic can find more layers of meaning in a work than the author intended, sometimes layers that undercut the surface and/or intended meanings. But critics who disregard parts of a work, or describe it or its history inaccurately, aren't being respectful to either author and readers.

As a critic, I give a book a thorough read. At least once, I read it at the level of the reader for whom the book is intended. If it’s a young adult book, I read it several times. If it’s historical fiction, I research the history. Often, the flaws in a book will jump out at me. I look at who the author is and what the author’s relationship is to the land, culture and community. I ask myself a lot of questions about a particular book, and I often communicate with friends and colleagues who may know more than I do about the land, culture, history and community in which the book is situated. Many of the reviews on which I work are collaborative. All of my friends and colleagues who critique children’s books do so with great care. We look at “alternative interpretations, creative challenges, and literary traditions,” and we look at much more.

Doris Seale, Judy Dow, and Debbie Reese are Indian women, teachers and scholars, and lifelong advocates for Indian children. We have collaborated many times together; they are at least as conscientious as I am, and, in many areas, far more knowledgeable. I’ve read Darkness Under the Water four times, and I know that Doris, Judy and Debbie have read it several times as well. Doris and Judy, as Abenaki women living in Vermont, are historians who have the lived experience of their families having been hunted down by the eugenicists. One can’t get too much more involved in a book’s subject matter than this.

In their critique of Darkness Under the Water, Doris and Judy verified their understanding of the historical events in the eugenics movement with historian Nancy Gallagher, who wrote Breeding Better Vermonters; I also consulted with Nancy, who gave me a deeper understanding of the history and “science” of eugenics. Based on a careful reading of Darkness Under the Water, consultation with a local nurse who gave me her interpretation of its medical aspects, more research, and further talks with Nancy and Judy, here are some questions and comments about the book and my analysis of Kanell’s post-publication interpretations of what she’s written.

Who were the nurses in Vermont?

Kanell writes (ChildLit, Dec. 12, 2008) that she based “the nursing visits in the story on those being made by the District Nurse, proudly supported by a local women’s club starting in 1912.” Nurses in Vermont in 1930 included those from the Visiting Nurse Association, the Red Cross, instructive district nursing associations and, of course, nurses in hospitals and institutions. Some of these nurses may have been knocking on people’s doors, but they were not in any way affiliated with the Vermont Eugenics Survey. There was never any connection between the VES and the State of Vermont. The nurses in Darkness Under the Water could not have been “state nurses.”

The women who interviewed Vermont residents for the Vermont Eugenics Survey were social workers, not nurses. They compiled the interpretive data that later were used by directors of institutions (including hospitals, prisons, reformatories, and training schools) to identify “degenerates,” “delinquents” and “dependents” as targets for sterilization. These social workers, who were welcomed into the homes of relatives of people they were investigating, pretended to be caring individuals while using bribery and manipulation to solicit the “information” they were charged with collecting.

What happened to Mama and her baby on the kitchen table?

In the context of the eugenics movement, Beth Kanell’s graphic, gory and sensationalized description of the medical procedure the nurses inflict on Mama would lead a reasonable middle reader (and this adult reader as well) to infer that Nurse Carpenter, with the assistance of Nurse Williams, “sterilizes” Mama after she gives birth. That Nurse Carpenter, with “eyes blazing,” says, “it has to be done,” reinforces this interpretation; as does Grandma’s assertion to Molly that “they cut her up on purpose. They don’t want Indian babies around here.”

A perusal of the Vermont Sterilization Law (1931) reveals some interesting, albeit abhorrent, information. It mandated that “idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded or insane persons” were to be examined by two “competent physicians and surgeons not in the employment of the state” who would certify as to their suitability for sterilization; and the actual surgeries were to be performed by a third “competent physician or surgeon not in the employment of the state.” It also mandated that the men were to be sterilized by vasectomy; and women, by salpingectomy, or removal of the fallopian tubes. Prior to 1931, sterilization was illegal; and after 1931, for nurses, even “state nurses,” to sterilize someone at home would have been illegal.

Kanell writes (ChildLit, Dec. 12, 2008, italics mine):

“[S]ince I saw no evidence that nurses in this region would have performed eugenic sterilizations, even though doctors may have, I presumed that the nurses in the story would attempt to bring out the placenta and could have also attempted a clumsy…dilettation and curettage procedure.”

So if the nurses are not sterilizing Mama, why does Kanell have them whispering conspiritorially to each other? Why are Nurse Carpenter’s “eyes blazing,” and why is she saying, “it has to be done” in a way that implies fanaticism? Where did Nurse Carpenter get her “blade” (“a sharp flash of a blade”), and why is she tugging on “a handful of bleeding flesh” and wrapping a “handful of bloody something into a towel, along with the blade”? Why does Grandma insist that the nurses sterilized Mama (“They cut her up. There’ll be no more babies…they cut her up on purpose. They don’t want Indian babies around here.”)? And why does Henry Laporte agree with Grandma?

If the nurses are performing a “clumsy dilletation and curettage procedure,” there is neither dilation nor anesthesia, yet Mama gives only one “cry of pain.” The baby was delivered, the nurses say, “stillborn.” There is neither a placenta previa nor a placental abruption. So why is Nurse Carpenter hacking away at the placenta? If the problem is that Mama is hemorrhaging, Grandma, as a traditional doctor and herbalist, would know what to do.

Did Mama have tuberculosis?

Kanell writes (ChildLit, Dec. 12, 2008):

“I base the likely stillbirth of the baby in the story on a medical article that tracked the effects of familial tuberculosis at that time.”

In Darkness Under the Water, Mama coughs three times: once, a “barking cough” (that could describe croup or pertussis), the second time, a “low rattling cough” (that could describe asthma or perhaps, tuberculosis) and the third time, while Mama is giving birth, she coughs spasmodically, which could have many indications. Grandma says that Mama has a “spring cough,” but the nurses quickly diagnose her as having tuberculosis and instruct Molly to bring her to the hospital in St. Johnsbury in a few days “to see the doctors about the tuberculosis.” If Mama indeed has latent tuberculosis, there would no connection with losing the baby. If Mama has active tuberculosis, she would be coughing spasmodically throughout the book, she would be coughing up blood and Molly and Grandma would been coughing as well. If Mama indeed had tuberculosis, how did she get it? Why does no one else have it? Why didn’t the family go to the doctor in St. Johnsbury? And why do Mama’s customers—who would have known that tuberculosis is wildly contagious—continue to bring their laundry for her to wash?

Does Nurse Carpenter smother Mama’s baby during the delivery? To this reader, it certainly seems so. Grandma says, “We’ll never know whether she smothered that baby, either.” Molly questions, “Had the nurse made sure he didn’t breathe?” Mama, after the final episode with Nurse Carpenter, screams: “She wants to kill my baby…She wants to kill my baby again. No! No!”

Kanell writes (ChildLit, Dec. 12, 2008, italics mine):

“My intent in framing the nursing presence in town and then the childbirth scene the way I did, with medical components that 16-year-old Molly struggles to comprehend, was to allow readers to see Molly’s and her family’s assumptions within the climate of fear induced by the Eugenics Project. Could the prematurely born baby have been smothered by the nurses? Could they have attacked Molly’s mother internally in an effort to make sure she would bear no more children? As I have acknowledged with teens who’ve read the story and asked ‘what really happened’ in this scene, I don’t think that the nurses were necessarily the evil and vicious agents of the Eugenics Project here—but I can’t fault Molly in thinking they might be.”

It appears that Kanell used the background of the eugenics movement to imply that there was sterilization, dialogue from the nurses that implies that there was sterilization, a gory description of a procedure that appears to be sterilization and infanticide, and dialogue from Indian characters who insist that there was sterilization and possibly an infanticide. But now, Kanell says that there was neither sterilization nor an infanticide. If this is the case, then what are the nurses—whose only purpose appears to be as the tools of the eugenics movement—doing in the story? There is no internal logic here. Rather, in her post-publication comments about the nurses, the medical procedure and the delivery, Beth Kanell appears to be backtracking. Or she appears to be purposefully manipulating young readers who cannot possibly be expected to work through this level of poorly written ambiguity.

Who’s being blamed?

Kanell shows an appalling lack of respect for her own Indian characters. Writing to ChildLit (Dec. 12, 2008), she implies that the nurses were innocent passersby who came to help and that Mama’s, Grandma’s, Molly’s, and Henry’s understanding of what the nurses did to Mama are “assumptions within the climate of fear induced by the Eugenics Project.” She further writes that it was Mama’s “tuberculosis” that causes the baby’s “stillbirth,” even though Grandma, who is a traditional doctor and herbalist, says Mama had a “spring cough.” So, in effect, she’s saying, “It’s not my fault that young readers may misunderstand what I wrote. It’s my Abenaki characters’ fault.” This is disingenuous.

Kanell writes (to “American Indians in Children’s Literature,” Debbie Reese’s blog, Dec. 7, 2008):

“Judy and Doris, I’m sorry that you’ve been dismayed by some misreadings of the story…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.”

So, in effect, Kanell’s saying, “It’s not my fault that the two Abenaki critics misunderstood what I wrote.” Point of information: Doris Seale, before her retirement, was a children’s librarian for over 45 years, and Judy Dow has been a teacher for more than 25 years. It’s more than likely that both Abenaki women know how to read and interpret young adult fiction, even poorly written ones such as Darkness Under the Water.

It may not have been Kanell’s intent to falsify the eugenics movement in Vermont in such an egregious manner; it may not have been Kanell’s intent to miseducate the children of Vermont; it may not have been Kanell’s intent to shame Abenaki people; I have no way of knowing. But when Kanell creates a melodramatic ghost story that distorts a piece of history that continues to strike the hearts of Abenaki families; when every single one of Kanell’s Abenaki characters misunderstand what’s happening to them; when Kanell condescendingly dismisses the words of Abenaki educators who point out what she has done—then her very intentions are suspect.

And so are J.L. Bell's. When he writes (see post, above) that “critics who disregard parts of a work, or describe it or its history inaccurately, aren't being respectful to either author and readers,” is this is a thinly-veiled accusation that Doris Seale and Judy Dow, Indian educators who put together a carefully researched review of a book that caused them great personal pain, lack integrity? Or that Debbie Reese, an educator who has made truthful depictions of Indian lives and histories her life’s work, lacks integrity? Or is he implying that Indian people don’t have the smarts to know a good book from a bad book? In any event, it would seem to me that, behind the screen of academic scholarship, there lurks both arrogance and white privilege.

—Beverly Slapin

Jan 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

Friday, January 02, 2009

Jean Mendoza essay: Paul Chaat Smith and children's books about American Indians

Earlier this week, my dear friend and colleague, Jean Mendoza and I were talking by phone about children's books about American Indians, particularly historical fiction. Jean recalled an essay by Paul Chaat Smith. I invited her to put her thoughts into a piece for this site. Paul Chaat Smith is an enrolled member of the Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma, and co-wrote Like a Hurricane: the Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, a book I recommended on Feb. 3rd, 2008.

Here's Jean's essay.

Hi, Deb,

On your blog and on the children’s literature list serv, the past few weeks have seen much conversation (and in some cases, apparent avoidance of conversation) about representation and misrepresentation of Native people and history. All of it has reminded me of Paul Chaat Smith’s essay, “Ghost in the Machine” in Strong Hearts: Native American Visions and Voices. It’s powerful – funny but moving in a way that kind of sneaks up and grabs you (me, anyway). He starts out talking about his great uncle Cavayo who in his time had the task of giving names to “the marvelous toys and dazzling inventions modern times brought to the Comanche in the latter half of the 19th century.” Among those inventions: the “Walker Colt” .44 caliber revolver – the first repeating pistol in the world -- which Chaat Smith notes (persuasively) was apparently invented to help Texas Rangers kill Comanches more efficiently than was possible with other guns.


But Chaat Smith manages (like many other Native writers) to connect an image from the American genocide to a more contemporary situation using irony and humor. He says the Comanches “frantically tried to acquire the new guns but had limited success – imagine a member of the Crips trying to buy a dozen Stinger rocket-launchers in the midst of the 1992 riots in LA: not impossible but really, really difficult.”

I wish there were some way for Ghost in the Machine to be required reading for every editor, writer, book reviewer, teacher or librarian whose work in any way touches on children’s books. And if there’s one section of the essay that I wish they would memorize, it’s this:

Paul Chaat Smith says,

“Heck, we're just plain folks, but no one wants to hear that. But how could it be any different? The confusion and ambivalence, the amnesia and wistful romanticism make perfect sense. We are shape-shifters in the national consciousness. We are accidental survivors, unwanted reminders of disagreeable events. Indians have to be explained and accounted for, and to fit somehow into the creation myth of the most powerful, benevolent nation ever, the last, best hope of man on earth.”

When otherwise intelligent and capable people scramble in defense of mis/representations of indigenous people in books by non-Native writers, it’s that quote that comes to mind for me. Few things can be more disagreeable to a person of conscience than the idea that one lives well on stolen resources (including land), enabled by a history of government-supported genocidal laws & policies and behaviors, and by the willingness of one’s cultural (if not familial) forebears to kill many times over in order to get the resources from the folks who were here first. The myth is essential; otherwise the non-indigenous person of conscience finds himself/herself in a psychologically untenable position.

At the end of “Ghost in the Machine”, Paul Chaat Smith comments, “We're trapped in history. No escape. Great-uncle Cavayo must have faced many situations this desperate, probably in god-forsaken desert canyons against murderous Apaches and Texans. Somehow, I know what he would say: Get the best piece you can find and shoot your way out.”

Smith is punning on “piece”, having talked about both guns and cameras throughout “Ghost”. When I think about what he has written in Ghost, a third meaning comes to mind: a “piece” of writing, a piece of art. His own essay, for example. Other essays and novels and poems and paintings and sculptures and so on that can set readers/viewers straight on how things have been, how they really are. Yes, and critiques of books that misrepresent Native lives.

I had a mental image of contemporary Native scholars and critics and authors hunkered down in that “god-forsaken canyon”, writing their way out (“power of the pen”); using contemporary technology (e.g., Internet) that allows them to “shoot from the hip” (or sometimes, “from the lip”). (The image doesn’t work all that well, really, though in my mind it is imbued with courage and tenacity and determination and resourcefulness….)

From what I can tell, very few, if any, fiction books by non-Native writers are real allies in Native people’s efforts to shoot/write their way out of the chronic misrepresentation.

I keep wondering: if non-Native authors who want to write Native-themed books (and their publishers) were to read this essay and the others in Strong Hearts BEFORE beginning those book projects—would they continue to look at their efforts to tell or make up Native stories with the sense that what they’re doing is necessary, honorable, or even okay?

If producers of children’s books read and understood Chaat Smith’s message, would we continue to see what the Cooperative Center for Books for Children consistently finds: that (for example) of approximately 3,000 children’s books published in 2007 that their staff examined, only 6 were created by American Indian writers or illustrators though 44 contained American Indian themes, topics, or characters?

The 1995 publication date of Strong Hearts (by Aperture) shocks me now; we’ve had the book since it was new. But the essays do not seem dated, and certainly the photography by indigenous photographers feels contemporary. The book is worth looking for. A version of “Ghost in the Machine” is on Paul Chaat Smith’s Web site, Fear of a Red Planet.