Saturday, January 17, 2009

On Being Misled about Kanell's DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER

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[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.]

I regularly listen to Mark Kermode's film reviews on BBC. Recently he talked about promotional materials for Slum Dog Millionaire. He warned listeners that the promotional material did not accurately present the content of the film itself.

It reminded me of Beth Kanell's Darkness Under the Water. From the author and through promotional materials and reviews, we are told it is about the Vermont Eugenics Project.

Kanell publishes a blog called "Stories That Matter". In the blog's description, she says:

For her 2008 novel The Darkness Under the Water she wove together family stories of New England, the experiences of neighbors who knew what life was like here during the Vermont Eugenics Project, and a LOT of historical research.

And on May 6th, Kanell wrote:

Next week I'll be at the Vermont Library Conference in South Burlington, reading on May 13 and 14 in the author's cove, letting Molly Ballou tell you how it felt for her to be sixteen years old, living in a small Vermont village in 1930, when her Abenaki heritage -- which her parents had carefully turned into "being French Canadian," but which her grandmother still honors -- well, to make a long story short, Molly discovered that being Abenaki could mean being threatened by the Governor and Legislature of Vermont, and especially by the nurses being sent out into the communities to look for families who didn't match the ideal Vermont image.

The blurb on the publisher's website says

"This gripping, ultimately hopeful tale of an Abenaki-French Canadian girl in 1920s Vermont explores a dark history in New England history."

The reviewer at Kirkus says

"Kanell focuses on the Eugenics Project as it relates to the Ballou family, though she does make brief mention of this movement's overall impact in a note."

's reviewer says

"Readers will be drawn into this historical story to learn about a time of discrimination against Native Americans that is not widely known."

And School Library Journal's reviewer notes that

"Although the true history of the Vermont Eugenics Project looms in the background, the story really centers around Molly's coming-of-age."

The Library of Congress information says the book's subjects include "Eugenics --Fiction" and "Abenaki Indians --Fiction." The summary says

"In 1930, sixteen-year-old Molly lives under the shadow of a governor who wants to sterilize people "unfit to be true Vermonters," such as her Abenaki family, while the loss of her family home, her mother's pregnancy, her first love, and other events transform her life."

The book is not about the Vermont Eugenics Project. It's a melodramatic mystery set in the past that uses the Vermont Eugenics Project to, as the author said on child-lit, "create a climate of fear" for her characters to live within.

Create a climate of fear?!

That's a gross violation of the Abenaki people, what they endured then, and what they continue to deal with in the present day. I wonder if the Abenaki family Kanell references knows that she used their stories to "create a climate of fear"? She used that family, and she used that history to create a melodramatic mystery that is being marketed as historical fiction. She used them and she used it for her own purposes.

If you haven't read it yet, don't bother. If you plan to read it, stop reading now, because I'm going to give you the highpoints of the "story" Kanell tells... It strikes me, as I recount it, as a fast-paced TV reality show with lots of drama.

The star of this drama is Molly, a teenager.

Easter Sunday, 1930 (April 20th).
Molly finds out her mother is four months pregnant. From her visiting uncles, she learns that " is dangerous now to be an Indian..." (p. 27)

Sometime in June, on a Tuesday....
Molly finds her mother coughing and bleeding heavily "blood seeping through the skirt fabric...". Nurses are entering their yard (see the Dow and Seale essay for info about the nurses) and Molly asks them to help. Her mother tells the nurse that she is nearly seven months pregnant. Labor happens. The baby is dead. Smothered by the nurses? Stillborn? Kanell claims that the baby was stillborn and that the "handful of bleeding flesh" that the nurse "tugged... out of my mother's most private place" with the "sharp flash of a blade" was the afterbirth, but I'm not persuaded. Later, Molly says that her mother had died "...without pain, letting go of the lost babies, the shredded womb, the sorrows and pains." (p. 300) Why is the womb shredded?

On Wed and Thur...
Relatives arrive. Nurses come by, too, but Molly's father won't let them in.

On Friday...

Baby is buried.

On Saturday...
Molly goes to a dance. When she comes home her mother is gone. Molly, her father and grandmother find her mother at the river, crying, standing in a "small puddle" of blood.

Molly takes over her mother's work as a laundress. She's been doing laundry from death of baby till end of June, and now, into July she continues to do the laundry.

Early August
Molly's father say's they'll "move next week" to their house across from the school.

Saturday, August 16th
Molly and her family move. Her mother is carried to the wagon.

Monday, August 17th
Pre-dawn storms cause Molly's mother to have nightmares. Lightning strikes their house by the river. It catches fire.

A Tuesday in September
Molly's mother feels strong enough to go upstairs. She lays down to nap in upstairs bedroom. Molly goes for a walk. Molly's grandmother naps in kitchen. Molly comes back, hears a scream and thuds, goes inside, finds her mother and the nurse at the foot of the stairs. Henry and Molly's father arrive; Henry suggests they take the nurse's body to the dam, throw it over the spillway.

Early November
While inspecting the dam, state inspectors find the nurse's body. They think she fell, and build a fence so others don't also fall. Molly's mother dies in her sleep, never learned about the nurse's death.

So.... what happens to this family? They live in fear, the mother is pregnant, they lose the baby, they are forced to leave their home, the night of their move the house catches fire, the nurse falls down stairs in their new house and dies in the fall, they conspire to hide the death, the nurse's body is found, the mother dies. Possible, yes, but plausible? No.

There are other aspects of the story that are not plausible. The ways that Molly speaks and thinks about her identity, for example. I'll save that post for another day.

If you're a teacher or librarian, save your money. Teach your students about the Vermont Eugenics Project, but don't do it with Kanell's book. She's only used the project to create a sensational story. Don't be misled. The Abenaki people, your students, all of us (in fact) deserve better than this.


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


Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter if you are "persuaded" about the birth of the baby and events that follow. THe author said the baby was stillborn and the flesh was the afterbirth. Who are you to say that's not the case?

Debbie Reese said...


Whether or not I'm persuaded doesn't matter. That is my personal response.

My larger point stands. This book is not about the eugenics project in Vermont. The project was only a convenient device for the author.

Beverly Slapin said...

Hello, Anonymous—

You're right—"The author said the baby was stillborn and the flesh was the afterbirth." Problem is, Kanell said these things as answers to questions posed to her by teen readers, and to the ChildLit listserv in response to our critiques after DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER was published.

Kanell doesn't make these things clear in the book. Rather, she has her nurses implying that they've suffocated the baby and that they've cut out (or hacked away at) Mama's uterus, and she has her Indian characters saying just that.

Debbie's response is based on her understanding of what she read in DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER, not what Kanell later said.