Thursday, April 09, 2009

"But that's what they thought back then"

When reading popular and award winning books historical fiction for children (such as Little House on the Prairie or Matchlock Gun), people defend those books by saying "but that's the way they thought back then."

It's a typical defense of said books and their ilk, but I want to push us all to think carefully about that statement. There's a range of possibilities. Here's three:

Some people said that Indians were savages, blood-thirsty murderers, etc, but did they believe it?

Some people believe it.

Some people did not believe it.

Let's fast forward to today and think about the war in Iraq. Certain segments of the media, and certain political leaders give us overly broad statements about Iraqi's. They collapse a lot of people into a single frame. Or they use fear in an attempt to convince us of the need for a certain action. They repeat these things again and again, enough so that polls tell us that, for example, most Americans believe things about the Iraq war that are not true.

Now let's skip ahead 50 years. What will 'historical fiction' of the present time look like in 50 years? How are writers going to tell children about the war with Iraq? Are they going to create American characters who say that all Iraqi's were brutal killers?

Maybe the placement of these two moments side-by-side doesn't work. I invite your comments.


Wendy said...

Well, I don't think that comparison does quite work, Debbie--the children's books you're talking about reflect on mid-20th-century views of long ago (19th century for LHOP, I think a couple of hundred years earlier for Matchlock). Anything that's written now about the Iraq War isn't and never will be historical fiction. I think a more accurate comparison would be to use the many books that are being written now about World War Two (how accurately will they reflect current beliefs about historical German and Japanese people?) or Vietnam.

When people say things like "but that's the way they thought back then", they can mean different things. It isn't always defensiveness. For one thing, some people use it when talking about the content--"this is how people thought about Indians in the 19th century"--while others mean that that's how people thought at the time the book was written. While neither is necessarily accurate, as you point out, I think there's a distinction there. For another, my feeling is that these books would not have been so celebrated at the time if lots of respected people had not agreed with the thoughts, or anyway not cared about the prejudice. They may not reflect the beliefs of everyone at the time they were published, but in my opinion we can assume that these beliefs were widely held.

Finally, I think there's something to be said about literary quality here. Many books containing racism have been long-since weeded from our public libraries because they had no redeeming qualities. Does the literary quality of the two books you mention mean we should keep reading them--with appropriate discussion--or not? Not that I've ever found many kids reading The Matchlock Gun these days, but I think the writing is really excellent.

Wendy said...

(I just reread your post and now I think we're in agreement on what I wrote in my first paragraph--but I think wondering how Iraqis will be depicted in 50 years is too esoteric, for me, anyway, to be very meaningful.)

jpm said...

What I always try to remind students of mine who will say, "But that's how people thought back then" is "It's not likely that [the people who are the target of the prejudice] thought that way about themselves. So let's examine our use of the term 'people'." Sometimes they feel defensive about this. Sometimes a light goes on.

Whether in the present or 50 years from now, Iraqis are likely to represent themselves as complete human beings in whatever they may write about the years of war and occupation. Nobody who was NOT "them" is likely to ever get it completely right no matter how much s/he reads primary or secondary sources as research (unless he or she provides a forum for Iraqis to tell what they experienced).

Wendy's comment about the writing in Matchlock Gun raises another interesting question for me -- What exactly is "good quality writing" in a situation like that? Though I did read Matchlock as a child and was drawn into the story, when I read it now I see it much the same way that I do "Education of Little Tree" -- the work of a skillful propagandist. Some propaganda is well written - it's supposed to be in order to catch, hold and persuade -- but must we consider it literature? And should it be included (as it is) in a National Endowment for the Humanities "We the People" collection given free to libraries?

Debbie Reese said...

Yes, we must remember who the "they" is. It makes a huge difference. I am so ME, which is not a THEY that I forget to be specific in my speech.