Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Not-Recommended E-Book: THROUGH THE HIDDEN DOOR by Rosemary Wells

You know how kids can be cruel? Cruel kids are the opening for this novel. A group of cruel boys is throwing rocks at a dog that belongs to the headmaster of their ritzy private school in Massachusetts. Barney Pennimen, the novel's protagonist, isn't quit the bully the others are and yells at them to stop. They don't, of course. Their cruelty ends when a guy named Snowy charges through the bushes and helps the dog. The gang hopes Snowy, who has lost his glasses at that point, can't tell who they are. Course, the gang of boys is caught.

As you may have noted, the title of this post is "Not-Recommended" (and as you can see, I've put a 'not recommended' banner over the cover). As you read about the cruel boys, you might think that is why I've given it a not-recommended tag, but that's not why I'm giving it a thumbs down...

Through the Hidden Door was first published in 1987. It was a nominee for a prestigious award. I've read reviews online in several places, but haven't seen a single reference to the fact that Wells incorporates quite a bit of information about American Indians in the first chapters, let alone reference to the errors and biased information about American Indians in those chapters.

Through the Hidden Door is now available in e-book format, which is why I'm writing about it today, and because it is an e-book, I can't give definitive page numbers for the quotes I use below. I'm reading a copy of the e-book that I got from NetGalley.

Like I said, the boys get caught because Snowy heard Barney yelling. Barney is called to the headmaster's office. His name is Finney. While there, Barney sees an "Indian mask with a horsehair mustache" and wonders if it is real. As the son of an antique dealer, Barney knows a lot about old things.

Part of Barney's punishment is to write long research reports in the library (kind of twisted, eh?). Snowy is there every day, doing research, too, but not due to punishment... He's doing research on a bone that is "no bigger than a joint on one of his fingers." Snowy is trying to figure out what kind of bone it is.

Snowy shows the bone to Finney, who sends it off to the University of Massachusetts for testing. Turns out, it is over 50,000 years old! Who or what it came from is unknown. Finney thinks Indians carved it for some kind of ritual.  

Snowy finds out where the bone came from - a cave. By the time he takes Barney to the cave, he's moved in with Finney, but he hasn't told Finney much.

Once they descend into that cave, they find a tiny set of marble stairs, "each no more than half an inch high and two inches wide." Barney says:
"It must have been an Indian toy, a game, maybe an Indian ritual of some kind... Just like Mr. Finney and the guy at U. Mass. said. Maybe it's what kept the squaws busy when the braves were away hunting. Maybe they made sort of architectural models of things before they built them full scale." 
Squaws? Braves?! Both those terms are problematic because far too many people use them instead of women or men. Read that sentence again, substituting women for squaws and men for braves. It might seem inconsequential, but it goes a long way to humanizing American Indians. Words like squaw and brave only summon stereotypical images that frame Indian people as not-like-us-white-people. While there are differences, one fundamental similarity is that we are all human beings. It seems silly, doesn't it, to have to assert that fact, but for me---that is a starting point. So many children's books describe Native people in derogatory and animalistic ways. Too many have illustrations that show Native people in animalistic poses.

Snowy replies:
"Except Mr. Finney told me about the Indians who lived here before the white man came. They were Mohicans. They built wigwams. Nothing like this." 
The boys decide they have to dig to find out more. After many days of digging they find two stone figures that are almost two feet tall, tiles that form a miniature road, and carved markers along that road. Barney makes a rubbing of the carving on one of the markers.

By the time we get to chapter ten, Barney decides he's got to ask Finney about Indians who "were here long ago." Finney says there were:
Wampanoags, some Mohicans from the north. None of the more famous tribes like the Apaches or the Mohawks. These were peaceful people. They were hunters. They grew some corn, and they were set upon and lost everything to our white ancestors. That was a great shame because they were far ahead of our ancestors in some ways. They were not greedy, and they did not make war. It was the end of them. Our ancestors were greedy, and did make war, and that will be the end of us."
Did you notice all the past tense verbs in what Finney said? I sure did, and I'm guessing that any Wampanoags who read the book will notice them, too! We can also read what Finney says as anti-capitalism, which is fine by me, but "the end of them" is definitely incorrect. There are two federally recognized Wampanoag nations: the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

Barney asks Finney if the Indians wrote, and Finney unloads more misinformation:
"No. They did some painting. Animals on hides. But no native North Americans had written language whatsoever. They didn't need it. [Finney puffs on his pipe and then continues.] They didn't trade."
Finney is wrong about trade amongst American Indians and he's wrong about written forms of communication, too. He goes on to talk a bit about clay tablets, and that people learned to keep accounts, write history, etc. because of business. He says:
"The original occupants of this continent did not trade in volume, in other words run businesses like the Egyptians or the Greeks. They never started any written languages whatsoever, although some Missouri Mound Builders came very close."
Barney asks whether or not they did any stone carvings, and Finney says that other civilizations did that, but not Indians. Is Finney (Rosemary Wells?) really that ignorant?! Barney asks about roads, and Finney says:
"Roads! No! What on earth would they need roads for? They didn't have wheeled vehicles. No regular going from town to town. No towns." 
Sheesh! The more Finney says, the more his ignorance shows! Or, should we say arrogance! When Barney shows him the rubbing, Finney says
"This has nothing to do with Native American history, early, late, or in between. They did not make this. They did not know about roads. And this is a primitive language, hieroglyphics..."
The reference to hieroglyphics is the turning point for what Snowy and Barney have been exploring in that cave. Can't be made by primitive Indians, Wells tells us. She's wrong about all of that. The depth of her stereotyping is seen in the next part.

Finney points to the curly hair of the figure in the rubbing and says:
"This man or god has a curly beard. Every American Indian ever born had hair as straight as a die."
Imagine me sighing. Deeply sighing. As the synopsis for the book says, the boys find artifacts buried for centuries. And because of the character of the artifacts, Finney can't imagine them being created by American Indians. So---at this point---the story veers sharply away from anything at all to do with American Indians.

Readers are left with incorrect and stereotypical information. With this book, Wells has merely affirmed misinformation. Through the Hidden Door was first published in 1988. It came to my attention because it is now available as an e-book. Given the factually incorrect information, I do not recommend it. Spend your library resources on something else.



Lisa Jones said...

That's insane that there would be so much misinformation and nothing be written at the end saying that the character was misinformed in a novel written only 30 years old. It's something that I would think would be seen in the late 1800's instead.

Mary Kim said...

Your blog would make a great article for students to read, discuss and be able to cite evidence...all in line with the Common Core expectations! May I have permission to use it as such an example with teachers I am working with in Northeast New Mexico? Also, how do I subscribe to your blog? Every teacher in my specific area of New Mexico should follow your work and use it as a touch stone for rich material!

Debbie Reese said...


I started the blog because I wanted people to have easy and free access to my research and analyses. Please share it as much as you please, and, you don't need my permission to do it.

A subscription option is at the very bottom right of my site. I will look into putting it into the bar across the top.

Anonymous said...

How DARE somebody who wrote a book 30 years ago, in a setting even earlier than that, not anticipate what offends me today?

(Don't worry, Debbie. I know this'll never be approved. If an innocuous children's book offends you, this comment has absolutely no chance of making it onto your blog.)

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous at 3:02 on April 6,

Are you suggesting that scholars are wrong to criticize anything written.... when? In your question, you suggest that nobody can say anything about the things that say, Shakespeare wrote. Is that what you mean?

The author is very well known. Her name and books have sold in sufficient numbers, that this one was made available as an electronic book. You may see the book as "innocuous" if you choose, but it is precisely that choice--to dismiss stereotypes and factual errors--that keeps kids ignorant. You're choosing to keep kids ignorant. Why?