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.