Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Richard Peck's A SEASON OF GIFTS

I've had a flurry of email of late, asking if I've read Richard Peck's new book, A Season of Gifts. For my readers outside of children's literature, Peck is a much-acclaimed writer. His A Year Down Yonder won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 2000 and his A Long Way from Chicago was a Newbery Honor winner in 1998.

These emails were not the first I'd heard about the book. A few weeks ago, Roger Sutton mentioned it at his blog, saying something like "pass the popcorn" and that the PC police were not going to like the book.

I went out this morning and bought the book. I'm writing as I read...  If you have not read the book and do not want any part of it to be "spoiled" then you best stop reading right now. Come back to this page after you've finished the book.

Chapter One: Locked and Loaded

Bobby is the narrator. He is talking about the woman who lives in the "haunted house" next door. She's old and rather eccentric. People think she's got well-armed, with an arsenal of weapons behind her woodbox. That she has a woodbox is a clue to the time in which the book is set.

Bobby tells us there are many rumors about her. He says "One was that her property was on top of an ancient Kickapoo burying grounds, and that's spooky right there."

Ok! Two and a half-pages into the book, I see why people wonder what I think of the novel. These three books are set in Illinois. The Kickapoo are (note present tense verb, ARE) one of the tribes that was moved out of the state of Illinois. Not far from here (Urbana, Illinois) are their ancestral grounds. You can read about their history at the website maintained by the Kansas Kickapoo Tribe.

Note that Peck says it is "spooky" that the woman's house is on top of a Kickapoo "burying grounds." How many stories do YOU know about ghosts and Indian burial grounds? Its certainly a popular theme in ghost stories...  Hmm...  Is it equally popular with other people? And what about that phrase, "burying ground." Why say that instead of cemetery? Would it matter? Probably not.

The old woman next door does have a name - Mrs. Dowdel. In chapter six, "The Haunted Melon Patch," she gives an interview to a local newspaper. The subject? "Strange sightings" in her melon patch. This quote is from page 55:

However, the elderly landowner admitted that her property and outbuildings are built over an ancient Kickapoo burial ground.

"Oh pshaw," Mrs. Dowdel expostulated. "As kids we was forever digging up arrowheads and calabashes and all them ancient relics. Beadwork and such stuff. Once in a great while a skull would surface, or a dog would dig up something."

And the Unexplained Presence?

"Some used to say they'd seen the ghost of a girl in a feathered headdress and moccasins," Mrs. Dowdell recalled. "You know how people talk. They called her the Kickapoo Princess."

When our reporter inquired if she'd ever seen the ghostly Kickapoo Princess herself, the aged matron replied, "Me? I got enough aggravation from the living without messing with the dead."

As I read the words "Kickapoo Princess" and "feathered headdress and moccasins," I recalled that during World War II, a female student was chosen to portray the school's mascot, "chief illiniwek." She was called "princess illiniwek." She wore a feathered headdress. In available photos I can't tell if she has moccasins or not. For some odd reason, "chief illiniwek" has been barefoot for some time.  (NOTE: I was active in getting the university to get rid of its stereotypical mascot.)

Ghost stories and high school students... it is inevitable that Peck's story is going to have teens in the melon patch in the dark of night. Sure enough, that's what happens. On page 60, Edna-Earl (teen girl):

"clearly saw the Kickapoo Princess descending from a great height, probably heaven or the Happy Hunting Ground. Edna-Earl saw a pair of beaded moccasins dangling a good six feet above the ground. Maybe higher.

They wee all scared too speechless to warn Barbara Jean. But they all agreed on one point: The Kickapoo Princess was wearing a full feathered headdress and carried a pair of gourd rattles in her weirdly pale little hands. And they all said her hair was in braids."

Mrs. Dowdel fires her gun in the ruckus caused by these teen girls. The police come and Police Chief C. P. Snokes tells her it is a crime to discharge a firearm in city limits. Mrs. Dowdel says her property is not in city limits. Snokes points to a fence that marks the city limits, but Mrs. Dowdel say:

"You talking white man's law? I'd say this ancient Kickapoo burial ground was here long before the first so-called pioneers."

C. P. Snokes scratched up under his cap. "Mrs. Dowdel, are you telling me you live on an Indian reser---"

"I reserve the right to protect my property is what I'm telling you."

I wonder where Peck is going with all this?!

In chapter seven, "Fuss and Feathers," we learn that the story of the Kickapoo Princess is big news. People come from everywhere to see the melon patch. Mrs. Dowdel sets up a roadside stand and sells corn relish and apple butter. She also sells "Authentic Kickapoo Headdress Feathers" for 5 cents each, or, 3 for a dime.  She tells the reporters who turn up to

"go down to the southern part of the state, down there at Cahokia. I know it's the rough end of creation, but the old prehistoric people buried their folks in mounds down there. A good many has been dug up and put on display. Bones of course."

Through Mrs. Dowdel, Peck is telling his readers a little about Cahokia Mounds, and he's also telling readers that Indian bones were dug up and put on display. That certainly did--and DOES--happen.

Bobby's little sister, Ruth Ann, has taken to hanging out with Mrs. Dowdel and is starting to talk like her (p. 69):

"...this whole town is built where two old Indian trails crossed. The Kickapoos goin' one way, the Illini the other. Hoo-boy, no wonder they's restless spirits underfoot."

Indian trails. Just like in Little House on the Prairie! Illini? Is Peck/Dowdel referring to citizens of the state of Illinois, who, going back to the 1800s called themselves "Illini" or is he referring to American Indians who were part of the Illini Confederacy?

On page 72, Mrs. Dowdel goes to Bobby's house, carrying a bundle. She says it is the Kickapoo Princess. Out of respect for my readers, I will not quote from that portion of the book. I will not describe it either. In fact, reading that passage made me very uneasy. Peck has merrily constructed a scene that demonstrates his utter lack of respect for the dead.

It isn't funny. 

It isn't entertaining.

He, like so many authors, assumes that his readers do not include American Indians, much less Kickapoos.

He's wrong.

Why did this sail past his editors?! What about reviewers?!

I don't know what to say. I have stopped reading Peck's book.


Delux said...

This sounds like a hot mess.


Tina Dawley said...

I am glad to see this and will put it in my what not to read pile...and give the fyi to my children's school...martina

Megan said...

wow. thanks for bringing this to my attention debbie.

JCD said...

Right before I came over to your blog this morning, I was reading SLJ. At least one reviewer agrees with you:


Carole McDonnell said...

Indian reser---"

"I reserve the right to protect my property is what I'm telling you."

Oh MY!!!! ::shaking head:: Oh My! He did not make that pun, did he?

Jean Mendoza said...

Our niece, who is Muskogee Creek, recently married a Kickapoo man who has among other things, served two tours in Iraq. He's a great guy. Though I'd hate to inflict Peck's "Kickapoo Princess" stuff on him, I'm pretty sure I can guess his response to it, based on past conversations. Pretty similar to ours but perhaps even more gut-level. But wow -- the thought of him being snidely called "PC police" by Roger or anyone else is ... well, I'm not sure what word is.

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

Gee, maybe in the denouemant they take the "Kickapoo Princess" remains for a "proper christian burial" in a real cemetery instead of some savage burial grounds, thereby ensuring her soul is at peace.
Sounds as if that would be in line with his thinking. Grave robbery is called ghoulish when practiced on the graves of Europeans. This sounds repulsive.

Rob said...

I assume Peck dreamed up his notion of a Kickapoo "princess" who wears a chief's headdress. No doubt she's also wearing a buckskin mini-skirt. Add the burial ground and you have a trifecta of Native stereotypes.

JCD said...

Last week I helped set up the Scholastic Book fair for our upper elementary school (grades 4-5). This book was included. I've asked the librarian if she would consider not offering it for sale and gave her a copy of this review and the one from SLJ. I'll let you know what happens.

JCD said...

Update from the book fair:

The librarian didn't remove the book for sale, but it was not prominently displayed either. None of the children who visited the fair showed any interest in this book. One adult asked me about it because it was being considered for a mother/daughter reading group she's in. I spoke with her about the issues raised about the book both here and in the SLJ review. She decided, on balance, that if there were better books out there, she'd rather they read that and not introduce some of these issues to her daughter.

Thanks Debbie. Thanks a lot for all you do. It really does make a difference - in ways both big and small.

Anonymous said...

I'm an elementary school librarian in an ethnically diverse neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. I've read the passage carefully several times, and I have to disagree with the tone of this post.

I don't think Peck meant for the book to be funny or entertaining -- at least not in the traditional sense.

He IS giving us a window on how people of the place and time (remember, this is set in late 1950's Southern Illinois -- hardly the most progressive place nor the most progressive time anywhere in the United States) viewed Native Americans and other minorities.

The problem I see is that people keep trying to act as if these things never happened, that it's best to just sweep them under the rug in the name of political correctness or whatever, and when that happens, we're doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Sure, the passage IS offensive, but as long as it's presented IN CONTEXT, and with guidance, it could actually be used to further understanding of what is and is not acceptable.

Sue said...

Anon. wrote: "The problem I see is that people keep trying to act as if these things never happened, that it's best to just sweep them under the rug in the name of political correctness or whatever, and when that happens, we're doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past."

On the contrary. Debbie has succeeded in bringing this issue to people's attention, and there is now some discussion as how to approach this book. Reviewers from SLJ, Booklist, PW, Hornbook and Kirkus were all completely silent on the issue, with not one of them mentioning the bones, the "Kickapoo princess" or the burial ground. That, it seems to me, is "sweeping it under the rug," or perhaps not even seeing that it's there.

Anonymous said...

I love this book. I love teaching from this book. It is hilarious. To really appreciate this book, you need to read A Long Way to Chicago. In his first book, you get an opportunity to meet the character Grandma Dowdel- who is hilarious. I agree with the librarian who referenced the writer of this blog's tone. This book is consistent with what would have been said or done at that time or by that type of person. If I were you- I would make my own opinion by reading the book yourself. Anyone can be offended by anything- it makes life so much less enjoyable when we do that.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous . . . to get this book one should read it themselves. I can't tell you how many Christians I know HATE Harry Potter, despite the fact they have never read a page. Secondly, this is part of a series. Read the first 2 books,then this one . . . THEN decide if you feel the same.

Sam Jonson said...

Hey, Equa Yona, about that Christian burial thing...that's actually what happens. With a church and all. The narrator even says, "It was a brilliant fall day...Indian summer, in fact." And you thought Mr. Peck couldn't get more racist.
By the way, Debbie--I really hate to ask you this, but out of curiosity I went to Google Books to try to see that offending passage that stopped you cold, thinking it would have a lavish (and disrespectful, of course) description of a decomposing corpse. To my surprise, the narrator didn't even describe the body's look. Instead, only the onlookers' reactions were described. TVTropes calls that a "Take Our Word for It", where the author wants to show that the object in question is too scary to directly describe. Was that the tipping point for you? I mean, it seems so confusing to describe a racist "Take Our Word for It" scene by using one's own "Take Our Word for It" in one's critical review, without mentioning that the author used that particular trope and not a graphic description. Don't most reviewers only do that with scenes containing graphic descriptions? Still, I can see why you wouldn't want either kind of description in a book about Indians. Especially when Indian corpses have been displayed in museums to elicit just the kind of reaction one sees in a "Take Our Word for It".