Tuesday, May 14, 2013

THE BROKEN BLADE, by William Durbin

An individual responsible for curriculum in a Wisconsin school district wrote to ask me about The Broken Blade, by William Durbin.

Durbin's book is about a 13-year-old boy named Pierre. He lives in Montreal in 1800. His dad gets hurt and Pierre decides to join the North West fur trading company, which means he'll paddle 2400 miles to Grand Portage. The book is about his experiences going to and from Grand Portage.

There's only a few passages about American Indians in Durbin's book.

In some places, Indians are made out to be savages, but the narrative does not provide us with any context. Why, for example, would the Indians be fighting white settlers? Just because Indians are savages and that is what they do?! Or, is it because they were defending their families and land from encroachment? Without that context, and without foreknowledge about that period of time or a Native view of that time period, the reader is left with blood thirsty, less-than-human, men who murder white men. We know--right?!--that the reality was far more complex than that..

A couple of other things to note:

On page 124-125, Pierre is surprised at the attire of an Ojibwe chief (as described by Durbin, which may or may not be accurate). Pierre expected a chief to wear a headdress and buffalo robes. This chief is (for the most part) wearing Western clothing. One thing that gives me pause is that the story is set in the 1800s. Would a kid at that time period even have that stereotypical image of chiefs in his head? Maybe, but to me it sounds a bit more like something a kid of the present day would say.

More troubling, though, is the part of the story (page 130-131) where an Ojibwa family member has been killed. His family is gathered round, "drinking and crying." One woman is pouring rum into the dead man's mouth. When Pierre asks why, he is told that "Maybe they think the dead are just as fond or rum as the living." The entire scene strikes me as stereotypical drunk-Indian stuff... "firewater" and all that...

These concerns are enough for me to suggest that it not be used in a school curriculum anywhere.

1 comment:

Deborah Kelly said...

This book is used each year in the La Crosse, Wisconsin middle schools. In fact, the author visits these schools while it is being taught and the 6th graders are taken on a rendezvous as part of teaching this book. I just a few minutes ago came back from a field trip with the 6th graders, where the entire trip was focussed on this book. I did not know that until we actually got there. (I work as a volunteer in one of the middle schools.) A woman, whose is Anishiinabeg and who has two children who will soon be in middle school went to the curriculum director about this book and was completely ignored.