Monday, December 10, 2012

Russell Hoban's SOONCHILD

Ummm... Russell Hoban, author of some terrific picture books, wrote this on page 6 of Soonchild: 
John came from a long line of shamans. His mother was Stay With It and his father was Go Anywhere. His mother's mother was Never Give Up and her father was Try Anything. His father's mother was Do It Now and his father's father was Whatever Works. His mother's grandmother was Where Is It? and his father's grandmother was Don't Miss Anything. His mother's grandmother was Everything Matters and his father's grandfather was Go All The Way. 
John's full name, by the way, is Sixteen-Face John. His wife's name is No Problem.

Want some more excerpts from this novel based on Inuit stories? Did you say 'hell no'?! That's what I'm saying.

Say 'hell no' to Hoban's Soonchild.

Calling it playful, challenging, profound, and glib, the reviewer at Booklist gave it a starred review and categorizes it as appropriate for grades 9-12.

The reviewer at VOYA says the Native names (really, Voya? You think those are "Native" names?!) give the story "unexpected depth" and recommends it for readers who are 11 to 14.

The Kirkus reviewer says it is "based on paternalistic and romanticized notions about Native peoples." Quoting from the book, the Kirkus reviewer demonstrates that Hoban is addressing non-Inuit readers:
"Maybe…there isn't any north where you are. Maybe it's warm….There aren't any Inuit or dogsleds, nothing like that."
Some (obviously) think Hoban is clever. I think he is ignorant and insensitive, and I wouldn't recommend his book for anyone at all!


Debbie Reese said...

Beverly Slapin was unable to make the comment option work, so, she wrote to me by email and asked me to post this on her behalf:

"This is outrageous! Sounds like an "Eskimo" version of "Who's on First?" Except this is racist rather than humorous. If Russell Hoban is capable of any shame, now would be time for a public, heartfelt, apology--and a recall of this book. And it might be a good time for the major reviewers to start paying attention, instead of exacerbating the problem of racism in children's literature. One might think that, after all the work you and others have done in the field of critical multiculturalism, some of it would have sunk in. Maybe some of it has. It's not enough."
--Beverly Slapin

Debbie Reese said...

And, a follow up from Beverly Slapin:

"Sorry, Debbie. I hadn't realized that Russell Hoban is no longer capable of apologizing in this life. Still, Candlewick Press and the major reviewers could use a good education--not that we haven't tried. Don't know if shouting helps: THE PRACTICE OF TRIFLING WITH INDIGENOUS LIVES, HISTORIES, LANGUAGES, NAMES, AND BELIEF SYTEMS FOR THE PURPOSE OF PRODUCING GLIB AND FUNNY CHILDREN'S BOOKS IS RACIST AND OBSCENE. STOP IT!"

John H said...

While I am completely inexperienced in the world from which you lay these charges against Hoban, I think I understand their gravity. So please accept that my defence of Hoban, and of the story, is made with the greatest respect.

I don't know if my argument holds up for sure, but I do know that Russell Hoban was not racist, on any level.

The novel is not based on Inuit stories. That's the main problem with this critique. Of course non-Inuit readers (who are the expected audience of the book, as
you note) might make this assumption. In doing so, the risk of Inuit culture being defiled through such assumptions into careless parody, or any kind of simplification, is real. And I agree that with Soonchild, this risk is significant.

But in the broader context, I don't think it makes sense even to speak of such risk in this way. For surely it is self-evident that a culture should not be protected from stupidity by the negation of another culture. The negated culture here being Hoban's work - a product of his life in the US and UK in modern and postmodern times - and the stupidity being in the readers who think that Hoban's story has anything seriously to do with real Inuit culture. That stupidity has to be attacked, not this brilliant story of love, responsibility and enthusiastic engagement with the imagination, the world and all the mystery in between. The story itself, in the way its content sediments into form, is incompatible with cultural insensitivity in the world in which it is written. Those who, through ignorance, find a way to make it compatible, are the ones who need dressing down, not Hoban.

If the tables were turned and the risk placed on Hoban's culture, I would argue exactly the same thing (and I'm sure Hoban would too). I feel I can say so, and make this argument in general, even from my limited experience, because the connection between stupidity and lack of imagination is the one thing of which I'm sure. Boycotting or burning books like Soonchild is NOT the way out of this.

Mary said...

Like John, I believe you may have misjudged this book. I would suggest reading it before laying accusations of racism.

The characters in this book are, like all of us, sometimes brave, sometimes fallible, always human.

Calling for the banning of books is problematic at the best of times, but you are missing out on a gem here by relying on second-hand reports of racism.