Friday, February 27, 2009

Not Recommended: "The Ransom of Red Chief" by O. Henry

Note from Debbie on Dec 17, 2020: A reader wrote to let us know that "The Ransom of Red Chief" also includes the N word and that I did not note it in my review back in 2007. I am grateful to AICL readers who write to tell me when I miss something. Thank you for taking time to let me know. 


One of the questions I've received a few times is about O. Henry's short story, The Ransom of Red Chief. (Update on July 17, 2019: The story was first published in 1907 in The Saturday Evening Post. The illustration below is from that issue.)

Illustration from The Saturday Evening Post, July 6, 1907

In the story a ten year old boy named Johnny is kidnapped. His kidnappers think his father will pay $2000 to get him back. Turns out, though, that the boy is a handful. Of course, his dad knows this, and everyone else in town does, too. He's such a troublemaker that the neighbors are glad he's gone. His dad, knowing the kidnappers are discovering they've got more than they bargained for, says he'll take the boy back if the kidnappers will pay him to do so. The kidnappers, instead of gaining $2000, lose $250.

The story has "Red Chief" in the title because that's what Johnny calls himself once settled in the cave where the kidnappers hole up. He's put feathers in his hair, holds a stick and calls out to one of the kidnappers:
"'Ha! cursed paleface, do you dare to enter the camp of Red Chief, the terror of the plains?'"
Johnny is playing Indian. He utters war whoops, and tries to scalp one of his captors. He's having a great time and doesn't want to go home.

I've been looking around the internet this morning to see how the story is used. I've found it used to discuss acquisitions strategies in business journals. I've also found it being used in a study of anxiety in youths. In that study, the participants are asked to read it aloud. No further details are included as to why the researchers chose that book over something else.

Mostly, though, it is used in high schools to teach about irony, and that crime doesn't pay. Looking over the lesson plans, I find things like "Red Chief is a holy terror at the beginning of the story, and he is still a terror at the end."

This reminds me of that phrase "stop running around like a bunch of wild Indians" that some parents say when their kids are, from the parents viewpoint, out of control.

If you recall reading The Ransom of Red Chief in school, please share with us the way it was used in your school. If you're a teacher using it, or if you know of it being used somewhere, I'd like to hear about that, too.

Has anyone seen it used to teach about stereotypes?

What the story does is affirm stereotypes of American Indians as feathered creatures, wild, out of control, and terrorizing whites ("paleface", to use the word Johnny used). That he plays Indian adds another dimension to the problems with the depictions of Indians. Feathers give him further license to act out.

That, of course, isn't who we are as Native people. Not now, and not in the past either. Conflicts of the past that portray Native people as savage fail to place that past in context. Native people who fought white soldiers and settlers did so to protect their families, homes, and homelands.

If you're a teacher who uses this story, consider the lessons you teach if you do not address the stereotyping in the story. Consider its effects on all the children in your classroom. Are any of them Native? Do they become the butt of jokes in the classroom? Are they teased? Does anyone call them "Red Chief"?


Anonymous said...

Lately I've been reading a lot of short stories by Tom King -- some great ironic writing there, though maybe a bit darker overall than Ransom is. Oh, all right, mostly a lot darker. But really, really good, and most have Native protagonists. High school students could handle some of them.

Mai said...

"Has anyone see it used to teach about stereotypes?"

I've never seen ANY of the books discussed here used in that way. I'm currently fighting to get one book "The Sign of the Beaver" OFF the core reading list for our 4th grade students...or at least used in a different way.

Mantelli said...

It's interesting. I've been really blind to the racial stereotypes in The Ransom of Red Chief, which I first read when I was around 8 or 9, because all of my life, I've seen it as being about a really horrible little boy.

I never really thought about the slur and behaviors in the story at all. I just folded them into my idea of "Red Chief" as a monster, and thought that O. Henry was trying to teach us that acting that was was something that a monster would do.

Do you see that interpretation as valid in any way? Thinking about it, I feel it as going way back into my childhood.

Debbie Reese said...


I asked a dear friend if he remembered the story. He laughed and said it was about a little boy who was "Awful. Just awful." I asked him if he remembers how the boy was shown to be awful, and he couldn't remember.

You're asking, I think, if O. Henry wanted readers to equate Indians with Monsters? He was definitely making a point about unruly, out-of-control children. Some parents say "you little monster" when their kids misbehave.

I guess it doesn't matter what he wanted his reader to think. Savage or monster. Either way, it wasn't a good use of Native imagery.

Mantelli said...

I don't know that what I meant is that O'Henry meant that his readers were to think that Indians were monsters, or that anyone who chooses to play a game in which you pretend to kill other people is a monster.

When I was little, we did play "Let's pretend to be Indians" games, but often that consisted of stalking around the neighborhood pretending to hunt for deer and bears (silly in a St. Louis suburb) and forage for provisions, and making "pemmican" and stews and suchlike peaceful pursuits. I don't know how our energies got channeled in this direction, other from the books I read and my Dad's stories about having known Apaches when he was a boy.

Joye M. said...

I am currently starting the process to get this story off the curruculum for Northshore School District in Bothell WA. I am a full believer, supporter of free speeach, including the written word but when my daughter told the substitute this was filled with inaccuracies and made her feel uncomfortable, and refused to read it, she was stigmatized by that subsitute. The school principle is being helpful, but at the same time I know this is going to be a fight... I actually wouldn't care if it was used to show sterotypes, and the harmful effects it can cause and use it as a discussion jumping point into other appropiate written material but it is not and that is what worries me the most.

Carlos said...

Well OK, let's throw O'Henry under the bus. While we're at it let's get rid of Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allen Poe, and any other author who might offend someone with a chip on their shoulder. Let's offer up only vanilla politically correct pap to our little darlings. Yeah, that'll certainly help them develop critical thinking and writing skills.

Charles Hill

Laurie said...

The comment "Let's offer up only vanilla politically correct pap to our little darlings. Yeah, that'll certainly help them develop critical thinking and writing skills" reflects the exact opposite of what this post is asking us to do, which is "consider the lessons you teach if you do not take up the stereotypical critique." A "stereotypical critique," examining the time and place in which O. Henry was writing, and the contemporary portrayal of Native Americans in popular culture, would be extremely useful in developing critical thinking and writing skills. Much more than just presenting "Red Chief" as a funny story, which is how I recall it from my 1980s elementary school days.

John said...


You're being a little extreme. The stereotype in this story is, unlike Twain, gratuitous. Besides, the story isn't even that good. None of the characters are even slightly sympathetic, it makes light of a particularly heinous crime, and the reader has no reason to care about its outcome.

Gianna Uttaro said...

I read this story on an Indian reservation as a child. It was used as a lesson on how to not be what the white man portrays you. I was the daughter of a teacher allowed to go to kindergarten with the children of the tribe. It is still used as a warning about behavior and what others think of you based on skin color.

Unknown said...

I think the thing that we as adults are missing is that the little boy was "awful", even without the Indian costume. We cannot assume that he only terrorized his neighbors when "playing" Indians. He was "awful" on his own. Him wanting to "play" Indians, I do not see as stereotypical or offensive because that's what children do. They "play" cops and robbers. They "play" superheros. They "play" good guy vs. bad guy. Now if the child chooses to pretend to "get a do-nut" while "playing" cops and robbers, then that's stereotypical. And yes, I'm giving light examples. Cops and robbers is not a race or culture. But yes. The boy was "awful" with or without the pretend. And I feel, O'Henry only made him pretend to be an Indian because of the setting and it fit for the story. I wouldn't use this text to teach stereotypes because of that one thing. He was bad. Period. Whether he was pretending to be an Indian or not. He was bad. And that is proven through dialogue.

PaulW_ModelRR said...

I'm and old guy. I recall reading Ransom as a kid. I can't recall the circumstances but I'd guess it was an English class. I recall enjoying it as a funny, clever story about two sad sacks and a horrid kid. This was in the '60s. I don't think it affected my viewpoint of Indians at all. I think because of Bonanza and other shows, Silverheels, and other influences, I was inclined toward thinking of them as mostly good guys, which I think is pretty good generalization for the human race. I also found O. Henry to be impossible to read when I was going to school and then working. I couldn't figure out lots of the paragraphs, and there were too many words I'd never heard of. But now I'm retired and am going through an old collection of his stories, and I'm absolutely loving them. I'm a sucker for sentimentality, and his language and phrasing and crazy metaphors are wonderful - now that I have time to puzzle them out! And I have the time to look up three words per page that I've never seen before. Retirement is wonderful! I think authors like O. Henry should only be read by mature folk who can truly appreciate them, and who can deal with encountering the cringe-worthy words and sentiments that can be found in some of the stories.