Thursday, September 20, 2012

Barbara Cooney's MISS RUMPHIUS: Take Two

Editor's Note: Back in 2009, I wrote up a short note about Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius. Because the book is on the We Give Books site, I decided to revisit that short post, add to it, and repost a cleaned up version of it here, today:

Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius

Though it is much loved and winner of an American Book Award, every time I think of Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius, the image that I recall is not the lovely lupines she walks amongst or the landscapes people adore. Instead, I remember this page:

(Source for image:

Here's the text for that page:

Now he worked in the shop at the bottom of the house, making figureheads for the prows of ships, and carving Indians out of wood to put in front of cigar stores.

"He" is Cooney's great grandfather. He's the one who carved cigar store Indians. So... what is wrong with that page?

Source: Oklahoma Historical Society

Noted Creek writer, Alexander Lawrence Poseysaid that the cigar store Indians "are the product of a white mans's factory, and bear no resemblance to the real article." Posey died in 1908.

Is Cooney wrong for including this information in her book? It is factual as Cooney wrote it--carvers of that time period did carve figureheads for ships and wooden Indians, too--but given that Miss Rumphius was published in 1982 and the information about these carvings being stereotypical is quite old, perhaps she could have inserted "stereotypical" in front of "Indians."

If she had done that, the text on that page would be:

"Now he worked in the shop at the bottom of the house, making figureheads for the prows of ships and carving stereotypical Indians out of wood to put in front of cigar stores."

Course, if Cooney did that, the story wouldn't be as charming as it is, but it would be more accurate, and it could prompt teachers, parents, and librarians to address stereotypes whenever they read the book to children. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I've always just quietly edited that part out when reading the book to kids. It's not really relevant to the story, even if it is accurate, and since he carved plenty of other things we can get a clear picture without knowing about the cigar store Indians.

Given the age range the book is geared for, not having included that particular detail in the first place might be a better choice than inserting the word "stereotypical" which, yeah, would detract from the otherwise mostly-charming book. (I also get hung up on the fact that in many parts of the country lupines are a highly invasive plant, and I worry that well-meaning but ignorant teachers and parents might try to link reading the book with broadcasting lupine seeds.)

mb said...

On the whole teachers and parents reading the book to children are not going to break the reading-together trance to turn it into a teachable moment beyond perhaps 'quietly editing' as the previous commenter said; and doing _that_ only if they themselves are already educated about the issue. To wish that Cooney had made different choices 40 years ago, and had amended her memory of her grandfather's workshop or inserted a klunky teaching word into her text, doesn't make much sense to me. I'm not with you on this one. (But I love the book--as reader, librarian, spinster and coastal person how could I not-- so I may be bringing irrelevant sensibilities to your question.)

Debbie Reese said...

I emailed this post to several librarian listservs. At one, a person replied:

"Oh bother. Debbie Reese is one of those bloggers that I usually delete without reading because she can find the most obscure reference to Indians and turn it into a big deal. She's the one who also hates Matchlock Gun."

Because I receive listserv emails in digest, I won't see any replies to this individual (if there are any). I'm sharing the reply here to note that there are different perspectives on books like MISS RUMPHIUS or MATCHLOCK GUN. Sometimes, they vary depending on what child-reader you have in mind. It could be the child's identity, or his/her knowledge base.

Because most children are more likely to see an image of an Indian in a popular, award-winning book like MISS RUMPHIUS than they are likely to see an accurate one in any other book, these "obscure" images matter a great deal.

Elsa Louise said...

Is it the word choices made or the perception/reinforcement of a cultural stereotype that’s offensive?

A cursory glance around the Web finds at least one newspaper account from the late 1960s noting the Indian figure’s use being linked to tobacco, with its introduction to white settlers by natives. That could make it a natural association, regardless of whether it’s a kind or thoughtful one.

The author is, after all, looking back and remembering her ancestor creating the sculptures. That is her reality, her ancestral heritage. Should she deny her own memory, her own roots?

Does she not have her own truth? The words chosen to depict it can reinforce the negative or promote something more positive. Such words may not always be inclusive, but absolutely, all truths can be more sensitively expressed.

Regarding Posey’s assessment: While his thoughts no doubt are perceptually accurate from his perspective, such figures indisputably existed. How then should they be explained in our own era? Who has the right to explain them?

Can’t all writers claim the right to use objects from the collective material culture in their work? These figures were not tribal artifacts; they were and continue to be statuary created (as fully acknowledged by Posey (thanks for the link)) by white folks, which most people today understand are primarily for advertising purposes.

Colonialism happened. It was ugly. It was deathly. It can’t be whitewashed, swept under the rug, or otherwise denied.

If writers expunge the reality of such statues (and they were used in the physical sense, so to ignore them creates holes in the fabric of U.S. material culture), bowdlerizing results. Some writers and historians find that choice akin to censorship.

Mitali Perkins has a post discussing this issue.

For example, the original could be amended to “Now he worked in the shop at the bottom of the house, carving wooden statues depicting beautiful women to adorn ships’ prows and handsome Indian men to grace cigar-store fronts.”


Debbie Reese said...

I didn't suggest that Cooney deny or remove the statues from her memory or ancestral heritage.

And of course, writers can and do depict material culture as they choose. I'm not suggesting they can't do that either.

I'm also not suggesting that colonialism be whitewashed or denied. It must be addressed, and it could have been addressed in Cooney's book.

Such things can, and should be explained, by anyone, but especially by teachers who are charged with educating the children in their classrooms.

In your suggested rewrite, you do not acknowledge the cigar store Indian as being a stereotype. Do you not think it matters? Aren't you, with that suggestion, expunging the reality of the statues as being stereotypical?

Debbie Reese said...

I recall Mitali's post on this topic, by the way. In the commets, she wrote (in response to people who said edits should not be done):

"I hear you guys, but I used to read widely and freely as a brown tween and teen without any adult assistance in interpreting such books as historical or understanding how and why things are different.

I also had classroom teachers who read us books without pointing out how times have changed, and perhaps they didn't even notice the racism that rings so clearly to me now as an adult.

Do the Little House books (Ma: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian), for example, have the power to damage an already marginalized kid growing up on a reservation who encounters them with or without an astute or informed adult shepherding him or her through the story?"

Earthling said...

I doubt that any child could be stupid enough to believe the grandfather carved actual people out of wood. He was an artist or craftsman, and not a contemporary one but one from generations past. Clearly, he only carved wooden representations of people as his own imagination dictated, which any passerby would have seen as a work of his own creative expression. I can't fault him for making less than perfectly realistic sculptures, and I doubt anyone else would, either. They're called "Folk Art" and we give their carvers some license. Rather than calling them stereotypical, I think readers would recognize them as crude or whimsical or idiosyncratic or what not, in accord with the grandfather's own visions.

If one reads the book to a child who asks questions about the carvings, then one should certainly explain and or discuss the idea, but with my children, we read right though that page without stopping. They all turned out free of racism.

My understanding is that in the day when people couldn't read, businesses used symbols for signage, like the saw over the hardware store door or the beer mug over the tavern door. I thought that people often made a connection between Indians and tobacco. Is there something offensive about that that I'm not getting?

Elsa Louise said...

The original comment questions a choice made by the author and asks whether she might, as an example, have inserted the word stereotypical to indicate awareness that many people consider certain aspects of her subject to be controversial.

Would a little white girl of that period have thought about stereotypes? Isn’t the narrative structured as if the little girl is reflecting on how she felt as a child, what she remembered from that time and place?

From the illustration, it looks as if it depicts a little girl around eight years old in the early decades of the 20th century, maybe earlier. Would an eight-year-old white girl 100 years ago have known about stereotypes?

An eight-year-old Indian girl, on the other hand, of the same period would’ve viewed the statue differently. And would’ve known that the statue did not represent every Indian.

In addition, were the figures acknowledged as stereotypes at that time by people other than, for example, the adult Posey observing and commenting. We’d want to see accounts about that from back then.

My suggested rewrite was merely a quiet attempt to align the male Indian figure to better correspond with the idea of the female figure used as a figurehead. No judgment of any kind meant for either one. Because females are often characterized as ships’ figureheads in the form of beautiful mermaids. That, too, is stereotypical.

And finally, I didn’t insert the word as an editorial suggestion, because I gather from the discussion that it likely wouldn’t have been in this little white girl’s thoughts.

However, the curious and sensitive modern editor would, it is hoped, query the author. If it turns out that this child might have had such knowledge, then by all means, it could be included, and should be. Something as simple as: But I knew that statues and carvings like that weren’t really the way women and Indians looked (if it’s first-person, or Miss R knew... etc.).

That way it’s incorporated into the narrative organically. It’s the author/child’s voice remembering, not an editor didactically imposing a word to right a cultural wrong.

Yes, I thought you might know about the post and comments by Mitali et al. It seemed as if the words there would’ve resonated with you and that your readers here might find them valuable, too.

Ms. Brandywine said...

Oh, for Pete's sake. Let a book be a book. Do you truly have no bigger fish than this to fry?

Isabel Espinal said...

I agree with Debbie Reese that Barbara Cooney could have said this differently. And I think it's not too late! Why not? why not ask for future versions to change this sentence? Yes, it is true that this represents a real history of a particular type of person, but how do we say that history to young children? This is a story for *today*'s children and we need to be very responsible and aware of what we are telling our young ones.

So how can we change this:

Now he worked in the shop at the bottom of the house, making figureheads for the prows of ships, and carving Indians out of wood to put in front of cigar stores.

Maybe something like:

Now he worked in the shop at the bottom of the house, making figureheads for the prows of ships, and carvings of what he imagined Indians looked like to put in front of cigar stores.

Or just:

Now he worked in the shop at the bottom of the house, making figureheads for the prows of ships, and carvings out of wood to put in front of cigar stores.