Monday, July 06, 2009

Gloria Whelan's AFTER THE TRAIN

Directing you, today, to Rebecca Rabinowitz's "Source fiction is no excuse for racism."

Her essay is about Gloria Whelan's book, After the Train. In it, Rebecca hones in on the play-Indian theme in the book.

Barbara Bietz, in her review in the Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter didn't note the play-Indian theme at all. Hazel Rochman's review in Booklist doesn't mention it. Neither does independent reviewer Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger, or the unsigned Kirkus reviewer, or Hope Morrison of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.

On page 108, Whelan writes:

We pool our money and buy a copy of a Western by Karl May, Winnetou, the Apache Knight. Karl May has written all these great books about the American West, and the amazing thing is he's never been there! You have to wonder how he can make it all seem real.

I wonder why all those other reviewers did not mention the Karl May book? Did they not see it? Did it not matter?

Thanks, Rebecca, for your essay and the link.


rebecca said...

Thank you, Debbie!

Holly Willett said...

Thanks, Debbie for the link and the perspective.

As a child in the late 1950s, I can barely remember playing cowboys and Indians. It was a long time before I became conscious of the ethnic prejudices that were expressed nearly every day by the people around me--and by my ignorant, childish self, too, I imagine, aping my elders. So, I suspect that the complete lack of awareness of American Indians shown by Whelan's characters is accurate for the time and place--Europe shortly after WWII. What is less intelligible is Whelan's apparent treatment of the Jewish character.

How do you think Whelan could have worked into her text a consciousness that was not present in the historical period and the place in which she's set her novel, without being anachronistic and without "breaking the surface" of the novel by pulling the reader into the present?

I am thinking about this because I'm currently reading Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. It's set in the late 12th c. and was written in the early 19th c. Scott makes much of how the Jews were abused in medieval Europe, constantly reminding the reader of the many evils perpetrated by Christians. At other points in the novel, however, he reveals his own stereotypes about Jewish people, some of which I still encounter among people I know. As I read, I'm constantly vacillating between perceiving Scott as far ahead of his time in his humanity and seeing him being absolutely mired in the prejudices of his time. As a relatively skilled adult reader, I muddle through this, of course, but I'm conscious of the barrier between myself and the story.

So, can we presume that Ms. Whelan is ignorant of the offensiveness of playing Indian? Could she perhaps be representing accurately the awareness of a white European child of the time and place, especially a character who narrates the novel in the 1st person? I haven't read the book, so I don't know if the children play Indian more than once or how the author ties the incident to her themes.

Like you, I want children to be knowledgeable, respectful, and appreciative, not just tolerant, of the world's cultures. As part of that, I'm leaning toward the idea that historical fiction needs to be as true as the writer can honestly make it to the time and people represented, warts and all. It is the reader's responsibility to be sensitive to what is happening, and it is adults' responsibility to ensure that child readers have the skills to navigate the treacherous shoals of literature.

Thank you for being one of those who helps children and adults be better readers and better human beings.

Wendy said...

Debbie, I basically agree with some of your points (and Rebecca's) here. I think the passage is poorly done at best, though when I read it I tried to give Whelan a bit of benefit of the doubt: she knew these books would have been popular among those boys and tried to imagine how that would have played into this boy's emotions. That doesn't make it okay, of course. But I don't think she's ignorant about "playing Indian" as Holly suggests; I think she tried and failed to do something meaningful there. I think, too, that she attempted some tongue-in-cheek humor with "how he can make it all seem real"--I'm pretty sure that Whelan would have known May's books are totally outlandish.

I'm assuming you haven't read the book? I think I can probably tell you exactly why the other reviewers you cite don't mention this part of it. I haven't read those reviews, but this is not an important part of the book, and there are a LOT of other things wrong with it. If I were writing a review for publication, I wouldn't have been able to focus on the offensiveness of the passage in question. This is one reason why I like book blogs; we can focus on whatever aspect of a book is important to us, personally. But I don't expect that in regular reviews.

tahnan said...

Hey there--

I don't have a definitive answer as to whether the various reviews "didn't see it" or whether it "didn't matter". But I do know that a friend of mine reviews for Kirkus--not the one who reviewed this particular book; I asked--has complained in the past about the fact that they get something less than 200 words per review. (If the reviews at this site are, as they say, "full text reviews", Booklist's review was 150 words; the Bulletin's was nearly 300; and those were probably also the maximum length allowed.)

Cutting a review down to that length means that there are always issues that have to be glossed over; when my friend complains, it's because there's something to say about a problem in the book that isn't the focus of the book, and sparing even a few words out of 200 makes it prominent.

I haven't read either the book or the review, but it wouldn't surprise me if the reviewers did notice the Karl May thing and wanted to talk about it, but felt they had to hit on other issues.

Debbie Reese said...


What does Whelan know about playing Indian? What does she know about American Indians? What does she know about American Indian history?

A BROKEN FLUTE has a review of her book THE INDIAN SCHOOL. It was published in 1996. The story is set in Michigan in 1839. In their review, Lois Beardslee and Beverly Slapin articulate several inaccuracies.

Whelan has written other stories with Native content. I wonder what we'd learn about her portrayals if we read all her books?

"accurate for the time and place" --- That is a standard explanation for stereotypical material. I'm not down with that explanation. The "fact" that such a depiction of Indians relies on is that Indians were primitive savages. We know that is not true.

At one time, the majority of books about the earth said "the earth is flat" but we know that is not true. How do we know that? What role do books play in our knowing that? If most of the books children have said 'the earth is flat' we'd be in trouble. Thankfully, that is not the case. But, with American Indians, the primitive savage is the norm. The "fact" that is given to children.

Debbie Reese said...


What if, instead of giving the writer the benefit of the doubt, we shifted over to thinking about what the book gives to the reader?

There's a lot of other things wrong with the book?

Barbara Bietz said it is "highly recommended."

Hazel Rochman's review doesn't say 'recommend' but she does say "There are many plot contrivances as Peter finds secret files his loving Catholic adoptive parents have kept, including a picture of his birth mother. But the intensity of the issues, the blend of personal conflict and historical facts, and the young teen's present-tense narrative will hold readers as Peter embraces his Judaism, attends synagogue, and confronts the prejudice that continues among classmates and adults." That, to me, sounds like a recommendation.

The Kirkus review is more qualified: "Reductive morality and characterizations muffle the meaningful core of this post-World War II identity crisis."

Hope Morrison of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books recommended it, and the Horn Book Guide gave it a 3 (Recommended, satisfactory in style, content and/or illustration).

Definitely, reviewers have to pick and choose what they'll include in a review. I'd love to see a concerted effort to hone in on the ways that American Indian content is presented in children's books. If we had an all-out "let's pay attention to this" for ten years or so, might there finally be a change in those portrayals?

Wendy said...

I wouldn't call the Rochman review a recommendation; rather a "sure, kids will read this" (though I see your point). Frankly, I'm surprised anyone gave it a high recommendation--I thought it was really bad.

I like your point about giving a concerted effort to how American Indians are portrayed in kids' books would be worthwhile. If I think about how gay people have been portrayed (one of my particular areas of interest), there's been a big turnaround in a short amount of time. I just don't think reviews are necessarily the place to do it--but what IS the place, and how? I'm always astonished that things like this get past multiple readers/editors at the publishing house. I'd be more interested in reaching those editors in the first place.

Rob said...

I read Winnetou, the first Karl Mays Western. It's similar to the Lone Ranger story in terms of theme and content. A brave white hero and his faithful Indian companion...a few good Indians and many bad ones...all problems attributed to isolated "bad apples" discussion of America's genocidal policies toward Indians. It isn't realistic, it's a white Christian fantasy about the "taming" of America.