Monday, October 19, 2009


Last week I made some preliminary notes about Ann Rinaldi’s Leigh Ann’s Civil War. I’ve finished reading the book and am sharing some thoughts.

The protagonist is Leigh Ann, a girl living in Georgia on a plantation. She is the youngest of four children. Her sister is named Viola and she has two older brothers, Teddy, and Louis. They all live with their father (Pa) who is going mad.

I think the reviewer at Kirkus (their reviews are unsigned) is dead-on:
“Veteran Rinaldi spins a tale that combines low melodrama, cringeworthy faux-Indian mysticism, a back story only the author could possibly understand, a saccharine depiction of slavery, two pregnancies of convenience and only a passing regard for historical accuracy for a nearly 300 page slog that seems to have enjoyed zero editorial intervention.”
As I slogged through the 300 pages, I thought Rinaldi's Leigh Ann is a lot like Scarlett O'Hara. Young, pretty, bratty. Some of the content surprised me. Jon, for example, and what he does to Leigh Ann. He is a man Teddy and Louis hire to look after Pa while they're away. Viola doesn't trust him. On page 82, the text reads: 
My sister had confided to me that she thought Jon wanted to "take liberties" with her, and told me never to be alone with him. "And if he starts anything with you, scream, kick him, bite him."

Apparently, Viola makes Leigh Ann promise that she will not tell Teddy about Jon's advances, because on page 91, Leigh Ann considers telling Teddy but, remembering her promise, she does not tell him. In chapter thirteeen, Leigh Ann is collecting clothes for the children who work at the mill. Teddy asks Jon to drive her. She objects, he wonders why, she drops her objection, and keeps her promise to Viola. Then as she's getting out of the carriage, Jon:
...put his hand on my bottom. I stomped on his foot.

"Ow! You little witch!"

"Don't you dare touch me! Ever!"

"Or you'll what? Tell your big brother?"
This dialogue continues with Jon telling Leigh Ann that if she tells him, he would kill Teddy in the likely duel, and that he'd killed someone that way before. So, Leigh Ann keeps quiet.

On page 113 (in chapter fifteen), Louis asks Leigh Ann why she does not want Jon to drive her somewhere. The text reads:

I couldn’t lie to Louis. With his Indian powers he saw through lies.

“He touched me.”


I blushed. “On my bottom.”

She goes on to tell Louis that Jon said he'd kill Teddy in a duel. Louis says only gentlemen duel, and that Jon is not a gentleman. Louis then takes him out to the barn and whips him. 

This child molestation thread stood out to me. So far, none of the reviews (professionals, bloggers, or customers at Amazon) have noted it. Another thread that caught my eye has to do with Leigh Ann's behavior towards boys. Teddy talks with Leigh Ann about proper ways for a young girl to behave around a boy she likes…  Twelve-year-old Leigh Ann meets a 16 year old boy and kisses him on the cheek. Teddy is angry with her for doing that. She doesn’t understand what is wrong with kissing a boy on the cheek. Teddy tells her (p. 135):

“About boys and how they become aroused. I got embarrassed, but he didn’t care. “That kiss was a sign,” he said. “It is not fair to give such encouragement to a boy unless you are willing to carry through with it. Do you know what I mean by ‘carry through with it’?”

Oh, sweet God in heaven, will he never stop?

He sighed. “It means to let him go further,” he said. “Much further. And touch you in other ways.”

Please don’t let him tell me the ways!

“Now, a young man of honor cannot act upon his impulses, but once aroused must suffer instead. And when a girl acts like that she is known as a ‘tease’ and there is nothing worse to be known as among boys than a tease.’”

Again, none of that is mentioned in reviews I've seen. But, back to the way that Rinaldi brings Native content into her story... 

In chapter one, Pa, referencing the Yankees, says (p. 16):

“They want the Southern lands,” he shouted. “First the Indians wanted it and now the Northerners. I’d rather give it all back to the Indians, though they didn’t have the courage to fight for it but let the white man take it from them!”

These words make Louis angry and he comes storming down the stairs. Leigh Ann bursts into tears. Pa pulls her onto his lap at the bottom of the stairs and says (p. 17):

“Don’t worry your pretty little head about Louis,” he soothed. “He acts like that because he’s part Indian.”

I just started up at Pa’s face. Was this part of his “madness” coming on?

“He most positively is,” he assured me. “Can’t you see his dark hair? And eyes? And how he’d rather ride with no saddle? And his high cheekbones? And how good he is working with silver?”

I saw only one thing. That if Louis was part Indian, he was not my brother. Mother’s hair was fair. Pa’s was white. Violet’s and mine was light brown and sun-streaked. Teddy’s hair was the same as ours.

Leigh Ann runs outside and hides under some trees, crying. Louis finds her there, and that closes chapter one. Chapter two opens with Louis saying (p. 18):

“Come on Leigh Ann, before I come over there and scalp you.”

They bicker back and forth, and then he says (p. 19)

“You’ve been told by Pa that I’m an Indian. Am I correct?” […] “And you’ve been shocked and hurt and you likely have come to the ugly conclusion that I’m not your brother. Am I right, sweetie?”

I looked at him. “What did you study at college? Hoodoo?”

Louis laughed and replied:

“I have the gift of hoodoo because I am half Indian. Do you want to know about it?”

The hoodoo thread is odd. I did not know what hoodoo was, so I looked it up. It is African American healing/folk medicine. I read Zora Hurston's "Hoodoo in America" published in October-December, 1931 in The Journal of American Folk-Lore.  Is Rinaldi confusing African American traditions with American Indian ones?

At the stream, Louis has a box with him. Leigh Ann asks what is in it. Louis tells her its contents are a secret that he will reveal shortly. The two walk towards the stream. Across the way, Leigh Ann sees two deer. She feels a sense of peace like she’s never felt before. Louis says (p. 20):

“Pa is a full-blooded Indian,” he said quietly. […] “A Cherokee,” he elaborated, just in case I needed to know.

He goes on (p. 21):

“It’ll take time,” he said, “for it to sink in. But not long. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

My first thought was, Do I look Indian? My hand flew to my face.

“No, you don’t,” Louis said, reading my thoughts. “You don’t look Indian at all.”

He tells her (p. 22):

“You should know that the Cherokees were the first American Indians to have an alphabet and written language. One of their chiefs, Sequoyah, was a talented silversmith. They had the first American Indian newspaper. They tried to get along with the white people. They had their own shops and businesses.”

“Where does Pa come in?”

“He was one of the Cherokees who was living with the white men. He worked for one named Hunter Conners, who had no children and who gave him a fine piece of land and, in the end, his name. Then gold was discovered and hundreds of settlers came and the government took the land back from the Cherokees.”

In chapter three, Louis opens the box. Inside are silver necklaces, bracelets, rings, and armbands. He gives Leigh Ann a medallion on a silver cord. On the medallion is a profile of  Sequoyah. Leigh Ann asks him if she can wear it in front of others, and he says (p. 27):

“I’d like to see anybody try to take it away from you. I’ve got these special Indian powers, remember. I can do some bad things with smoke and prayers.”

Rinaldi makes Louis more Indian than Teddy, Viola, or Leigh Ann. He looks different, and, he has powers. That is just, well, hokey. Or, as the Kirkus reviewer said "cringeworthy faux-Indian." He does "bad things" with smoke and prayers. This does not make sense at all!

In chapter four, Leigh Ann goes back to the house and talks with Teddy who tells her

“Look,” he said, “just because we’re half Indian, you’re not to confuse us with wild Indians out west. Even Pa’s generation removed themselves from that culture.”

Then, moving all the way up to chapter sixteen, Louis, now Mayor of Roswell, wants to rejoin the Confederate Army, but his ankle (it was shot while he was in the army earlier in the story) did not heal well, and he is persuaded not to go back. He is unhappy, though, and takes to spending a lot of time alone. One night, Leigh Ann and Teddy (who is now running the mill) look for him. They find him by the stream (page 126).

He had built a small fire. Four long logs jutted out on each side and in the middle of these were smaller pieces of wood. Cooking in the center were pieces of venison. A great deal of smoke curled up overhead.

His only clothing was a leather breechclout to cover his private parts. His legs, folded under him, were bare, as was his chest. Around his neck he wore a large silver medallion. He huddled in an old gray blanket. His hair was wet, as if he had just come out of the stream. He was moving his lips, praying.

And on his shoulder was a hooty owl. It stared at us out of yellow-green eyes. But it never moved.

I became frightened and moved closer to Teddy, who put a protective arm around my shoulder and said, “Don’t be afraid.”

But I was. This was my beloved Louis, my darling brother, whom I looked up to so. Had he gone mad? I looked up at Teddy.

“Eh, Louis,” he said, “you going to include us in your prayers?”

Louis nodded yes. He had heard.

“Look at that,” Teddy told me. “There’s wind around us. But none around him.”

It was true. The bitter February wind that whipped around us stopped in the line bounding Louis. My mouth fell open. Teddy grinned down at me.

“Damn, that venison smells good,” he said.

That Teddy was taking this all so lightly made me feel better.

“Is he going to stay here all night?” I asked.

“He better not. Or I’ll have Primus fetch him in. Well, good night now, brother. I’ve got to get to the mill. Can I trust you to tell the Indian powers good night and come in soon to see to the safety of our women?”

Louis looked at us placidly, first at Teddy, then at me. “Go in peace,” he said. It was in his regular Louis voice.

We turned and left. I felt a sense of peace come over me, as if everything was going to be all right and I would never have to worry again.

By the time chapter 22 rolls around, the war is not going well for the south. Louis is sending the women to a grandmother in Philadelphia. His wife, Camille, asks him if he wants her to go (p. 157).

“Everyone was silent for a moment.

Louis’s face had about it that Indian mask that you could not read. It was a long enough moment for him to contact his inner spirit.”
Contact his inner spirit?! No comment. Things continue to go downhill. Leigh Ann begins working as a bummer for the Yankees. She must search for food. On page 241:

I stopped to fill my canteen and in the distance saw what appeared to be a peach orchard. Beyond that I could have sworn I saw wigwams.

I stood up to better focus my vision. I was right! Just on the other side of the peach orchard were at least six wigwams that seemed to be built out of bark and evergreen boughs.”

She goes towards them. She’s surprised because she thought Indians had been driven out “ages ago.” She wonders if she’s dreaming, wonders if Louis had guided her there, She enters the camp:

The women looked up as I approached and smiled. And what I had feared, that they would be afraid of my rifle, did not happen.

Though they were all busy, either sewing beads on moccasins or ornamenting deerskin pouches or frying bacon, they looked up and smiled as I approached. They nodded their heads.

“You’ve come at last,” one said.

At last? Had they been waiting for me? Known of me?

“Yes,” I said. “I suppose I lost my way. But now I have found you. Have you been waiting for me a long time?”

“Long enough,” another said. “We were told by the owl that a little girl of our people would soon come and she would be in trouble and we were to help her. From where do you come, little one?”

So they knew I was a girl, in spite of my boys’ clothes. “Roswell,” I said.

They nodded to one another. They said something in Indian language. What language. Cherokee? Oh, why had I never asked Louis to teach me Cherokee?

And then, in the middle of the Indian language I caught his name. Louis.

So I was right. He had guided me here. They knew of him.

“Do you travel with the Yankees?” the one who was beading the moccasins asked me.

I told them yes, I traveled with the Yankees. I was being sent to Marietta with the other women who had been arrested.

“Well you are not to worry,” the one who was frying bacon said. “Your Father in heaven will protect you. And the two who travel with you. Last evening we saw it in the smoke of our fire. Now, how can we help you today?”
Your father in heaven?! What about Louis and his powers with smoke and prayer?! Leigh Ann tells the women that Mulholland has sent her to look for a turkey. They laughed and told her “Mulholland Bad Face” knows there are no turkeys and that he intends to whip her for not finding a turkey. The women tell her:

But we tell you now, that if you go to the other side of the bridge that goes over the stream that is pure, you will see one standing there and waiting for you. Shoot him. Then kneel over him and tell him you are sorry. And thank him for his life. And bring him back to Mulholland Bad Face.”

Leigh Ann embraces each one of the women. They “said some Indian prayers" over her. They give her a cake from the ashes. She leaves the camp, looks back, but they entire camp is gone. She still has the cake in her hand. She walked to the bridge and found the turkey. She shoots it and kneels, as she was told to do, and thanks the turkey for its life.Leigh Ann returns to the army camp and gives “Mulholland Bad Face” (her words, not mine) the turkey. He takes her into the forest, and tells her there have been no turkeys there for two years. He thinks she’s lying to him, so starts to whip her. Then out of nowhere came an owl---Louis’s owl. (What about her Father in heaven?!) It attacks Mulholland. Leigh Ann calls to it “It’s all right, Owl, it’s all right now. He won’t hurt me anymore. Thank you, thank you. It’s all right now.” The owl stops its attack and then goes to her, resting on her shoulder. Mulholland thinks she’s crazy, talking to birds.

I'm tempted to say that Rinaldi is crazy. Her editor must be equally crazy. How did this novel get published?! The Native-related content makes no sense.  Most children and young adults know very little about the Cherokees, and this novel doesn't help. What makes it more troubling for me is the blurbs on the back of the book. Titled "Praise for Ann Rinaldi's Historical Fiction, the blurb at top is from Kirkus. It reads:

"Readers will not soon forget these characters, whose actions and passions illuminate and enliven a historical era about which they may have heard much, but understood little. Vivid in the best sense of the word."

I've read the entire Kirkus review for Leigh Ann's Civil War, and those words do not appear in that review. In fact, the reviewer's last two sentences are:

Dialogue is breathtakingly wooden, character development arbitrary, sentiment sodden. A mess.

What book does the blurb on the back of the book refer to??? What are the people over at Harcourt trying to do? Isn't this false advertising? I haven't seen the Booklist review yet, but, the blurb says:

"Rinaldi's books are always impeccably researched, vividly detailed, and filled with very human characters; they are also about something that matters."

As the extensive review of Rinaldi's My Heart is on the Ground demonstrated, her books are not always impeccably researched. Why then, does Harcourt have that particular blurb on the back of the book? And, when did Booklist say that about Rinaldi's work?

My study (thus far) of this book is intriguing and raises many questions. Years ago, Rinaldi told me she'd never write a book about American Indians again. She obviously changed her mind, and, that change-of-mind was a mistake.

UPDATE: Tuesday, Oct 20th.
In this "impeccably researched" book, here's more of what the Kirkus reviewer had to say...

The painful trials endured by Southern civilians are given only perfunctory mention; the loving negroes (not called slaves) stay with the family even after the brother graciously frees them after the end of the war, in blatant narrative disregard of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The book is in the "Great Episodes" series. Wondering what that means...


Cairsten said...

Oh, my word. Between the cultural appropriation, the casual presentation of racial stereotypes as just-the-facts, and the horrible handling of sex and gender dynamics, I wonder if there's anything she didn't get wrong. Not that I'll be reading the book myself to satisfy that one point of curiosity. What a nightmare.

Debbie Reese said...

There is so much more to study in her novel... The way her protagonist thinks about their slaves (p. 251):

"All I knew of negroes were Cannice and Careen and Primus and the other house and field servants. We never called them slaves. Surely they had never had beginnings like this! I had never really thought of them as having been purchased anywhere. They had just always been there, around me. Friends. Part of the family."

Durable Goods said...

Wow, what a mess.

Just to clarify about the blurbs on the back... those are comments about Rinaldi's historical fiction (i.e. those quotes could have come from reviews of any of her [presumably] better books).

Debbie Reese said...

Yes, Durable Goods, the blurbs are about her historical fiction, but, that first line, of the first blurb on the back suggests it is a reference to LEIGH ANN'S CIVIL WAR.

That first line starts out with:

"Readers will not soon forget these characters"

I think a consumer in the bookstore will take that to mean it is about the book-in-hand.

This is all about marketing. Selling.

Anonymous said...



JCD said...

It is the common refrain that books like these are "impeccably researched" that makes me crazy. They're not! But people believe that they are 'impeccably researched' ESPECIALLY when they read that in a review they consider a 'trusted' source. My daughter had to read "Sign of the Beaver" last year in her 4th grade reading class. When I told her about the issues with this book she said basically "but Mom, the book was well researched! That's what we were taught. How could the author do all this research and get it all wrong" How indeed!

M. said...

Augh. I am horrified that this was written recently, and not 50 years ago! And those are some SPECTACULARLY creepy gender dynamics.

That quote, by the way, is from the Kirkus review of "The secret of Sarah Revere," which might be better because it's about white people. Or it might not and the reviewer had no discernment.