Tuesday, May 27, 2014

COPPER MAGIC by Julia Mary Gibson, or, an emphatic "Cut it out!" from AICL

In Copper Magic, twelve-year-old Violet Blake is digging by a stream near her house in Michigan and finds a "talisman" -- a copper hand that she comes to call "the Hand." Violet feels that this hand has some kind of power. She thinks she can use it to make wishes come true. Course, her first wish (for a new dress) does come true (actually she gets TWO new dresses), so she's thinking about how she'll use it to get her mom and little brother back home. Her mother is half Odawa.

Well, it turns out there was more than just that copper hand in the spot where Violet was digging. There's also a skeleton there that is dug up (another kid finds it), reassembled, and displayed as a curiosity in a local hotel.

Cue some fake Hollywood Indian music...

Can't be messing around in them Indian burial grounds, right?! We've seen THAT enough times in movies and TV shows to know that messing with bones and artifacts means bad things are gonna happen. And of course, bad things happen to the people in Copper Magic. Lots of bad things. A wicked storm. Lake water behaving in odd ways. Death. Before all that happens, Mercy (Violet's new friend) talks about how there might be a curse on the grave... Violet and her mother (remember--her mom is half Odawa) have special powers, too. They can see things other people can't.


Cut that fake Hollywood Indian music, that is, and an emphatic "Cut it out!" as my parents would say when I was doing something wrong.

Cut it out, Julia Mary Gibson! 
Cut it out, Susan Cooper! 
Cut it out, Rosanne Parry!

"Cut what?" you may wonder... Quit writing about Native spirituality! You mean well, but you don't know what you're doing. From a place of ignorance, you're adding to an already-too-tall pile of garbage that gets circulated as information about Native people.

A good many writers have a moment in their life that touched them in such a way that they feel they must write about Native people. Gibson's moment is described in her Afterword. When she was eleven years old, she and her family found some bones near their summer cottage in Michigan. "[A]n expert" said they were "most likely American Indian but not old enough to be archeologically significant" (p. 329), so her grandfather "pieced together a skeleton and mounted it on plywood." Her "superstitious" grandma didn't like it and insisted the bones be reburied. This took place in the late 1960s or early 1970s (my guess, based on Gibson's bio at Macmillan that says she was born "in the time of Freedom Rides and the Vietnam War").

Gibson goes on to say that her grandfather didn't know better.

In Copper Magic, Violet is Gibson. The person who puts the skeleton on display is Mr. Dell, a hotel owner intent on increasing his business. The superstitious person who wants the bones reburied? Well, that is Mrs. Agosa, an Odawa woman who tells Violet to "Watch out for ghosts out by you" because "mad ghosts can throw out curses" (p. 134).

Gibson, Cooper, Parry and many other writers poke around a bit and pack their stories with bits of info that make it sound like they know a lot about American Indians. Gibson does that in Copper Magic when she has some of her characters talk about grave robbing and why it is wrong. She also does that when she has Mrs. Agosa talk about the hotel owner burning her people's village and orchards because he wanted their land. In the Afterword, Gibson tells us that part of the story is true (p. 330):
"The real people of the Chaboiganing Band were yanked from their houses by a crooked land grabber and the local sheriff, who flung kerosene over homes and orchards and burned down the whole village, just as Mrs. Agosa tells it."
The burning of that village is important information. It is what major publishers like Macmillan (publisher of Copper Magic) ought to make known. I wish Gibson had made it the heart of her story. Instead, she chose to tell a story about grave robbing, curses, and mystical Indians. There's more to the "mystical Indians" theme... Interspersed throughout Copper Magic are pages about two ancient women: Crooked Woman and Greenstone. Those parts of Gibson's novel are presented in italics. They feed the mainstream monster of stereotypical expectations--where people love to read about "mystical Indians" and our tragic history.

In Copper Magic, Violet's dad is a steady voice saying that Indian graves deserve respect and ought to be left alone. Violet parrots some of what he says but doesn't really understand. Ironically, Gibson is more like Violet than she realizes. Her understanding is superficial. Violet wants to use the hand to get what she wants. Gibson uses the childhood story to do what she wants.

As you may have guessed by now, I don't like what Gibson has done in Copper Magic. And of course, I do not recommend it. Copper Magic is another FAIL from a major publisher (published in 2014 by Starscape, which is in Macmillan's Tor/Forge line.)


Anonymous said...

This line in your review says it all "Gibson is more like Violet than she realizes. Her understanding is superficial."

Unknown said...

Ah! The mystical Indian! Another harmful stereotype!
I don't know why people cannot write about First Nation without messing with New Age garbage! It is so offensive, and shows no cultural sensitivity!

Jean Mendoza said...

While reading about the WSJ's recent and much-maligned article about YA lit, I came across a wonderful metaphor that, for me, sums up the problem. Doing a little bit of research on something and then writing about it is like putting one toe in a river then claiming to know how deep the river is. Wish i could attribute that quote to somebody but i can't find it any more. It is perfectly applicable to non-Native writers bringing Native spirituality/religion into their fiction. If memory serves, Susan Power touches on that issue in Grass Dancer; one (young white female) character comes to a reservation hoping to study spirituality with an elder and gradually realizes that not only has she had a lot of mistaken ideas, but she is in far over her head.

Unknown said...

I don't know this author or the process she went through in getting her book published. But a part of me feels for her, in light of these comments/reviews, if she's had anything close to the kind of experience I'm having trying to get help from a Native American audience before my book goes to press. Lenape Nation won't help because it would be viewed as an endorsement (which they don't do). And when I reach out on other online forums, boards, etc. no one ever seems to want to step up. Does that mean as an author I shouldn't write my book because it contains a protagonist with Lenape roots, and I don't have Lenape in my blood lines? What does imply for any writer on any topic? And when writing fantasy, how do you straddle the line of making offense and creative licence? These are serious questions. The movie Noah is a good example. I've been a Christian my entire life, but it doesn't bother me that someone took creative license to tell the story, NOAH, in a way that isn't a replica of what's found in scripture. Yet so many people have chosen to be offended by it. This is a perplexing conundrum. I wonder how many writers are out there like me, trying to get feedback from key audiences, to get help where and when it is needed most and none is offered. As an author, this is a legitimate fear of mine - that my book will be torn down and picked apart after it's published. But it's not a fear that will stop me. Because I know how hard I've tried to do it right.

Debbie Reese said...

Ben--silence and lack of response is information. It isn't the kind of response you want, but it is information that you ought to think about.

It sounds like you're going to go ahead with your project. You can do anything you want. Nobody is going to stop you. Creative license, freedom of speech... all that stuff backs up your right to write what you want to. You're one in a very long line of writers who choose to write stories about Native people. Nobody stopped them and nobody will stop you. Indeed, I think just about everyone would defend your right to do that. This is America, after all, right?

That said, it seems to me that your empathy is with the author of COPPER MAGIC rather than with Native peoples who would rather your imaginings of our spiritualities not be part of your story.

Your serious questions do not exist in a vacuum. There is context. Your efforts to get help indicate that you're aware of the context. The silence you're getting is serious, too.

Unknown said...

Debbie -

I appreciate your thoughts on this matter. And I do understand, to some degree, what it's like to have others portray your spirituality or beliefs. HBO's show on Big Love included episodes that portrayed very sacred elements of my religion as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Things that we hold sacred enough that, as members, we don't speak of them outside the temple. And then more recently there's the Book of Mormon musical that's been a smash hit on Broadway and is now touring the nation. As a people, we do our best to stay away from foul language, immoral settings, etc. and here's a Broadway play immersing our name/culture that is laced with obscene language and compromising situations. If either of these groups had reached out, I would have loved to provide feedback, to help provide some guidance as to what I believe and what would or would not be appropriate. I guess that's where the silence surprises me. I had hoped--and still do--that more people would want to be part of the conversation. I continue to buy books, do online research, etc., but how refreshing it would be to have an actual conversation. A meaningful dialogue. Your comments are as close as I have gotten to this. So thank you.

Beverly Slapin said...


Debbie’s spot-on response to you—that silence and lack of response is information that you ought to think about—seems not to be something that you took to heart.

As a non-Native person who worked with Native and non-Native parents, students and educators for many years, I’d like to share a story with you. Maybe this will help, maybe it won’t.

Years ago, I read a young adult novel that took place on a reserve in Canada. Although the author was not affiliated with a Native nation, the book had the imprint of a Native publisher. I read it several times and really liked it. It read well, the characters were believable—there was nothing not to like.

So, curious, I called the publisher and spoke with the executive director, who was a citizen of the Native nation that was the focus of this book. We had a long talk, and she told me why they had decided to publish it.

Years before, a young man had come to this reserve to teach. Although his culture and the community’s culture were different, the young people liked him. He was a pretty good teacher. So about two years later, he decided to write a young adult novel about the community. The manuscript developed pretty fast, and he was satisfied that he had done a good job.

He went to an Elder, gave her a small gift and asked her to read his manuscript. She accepted the gift and manuscript and he expected that she would read the manuscript pretty quickly and give it her blessings. She put the manuscript on a high shelf somewhere.

About six months later, our young author politely asked the Elder if she had had time to read his manuscript. She went to the shelf, dusted the manuscript off, and handed it back to him. She said something like, “Nice try.” He thanked her and, a few months later, with revision in hand, returned to the Elder. Again, “Nice try.” No specific comments, no direction, just “Nice try.” This went on for years, and each time, our young author, frustrated but respectful, thought deeply about what this Elder wasn’t telling him. Revision after revision, this scenario went on—for about ten years.

Finally, one day the Elder gave him back his manuscript. She said something like, “This is pretty good. Go for it.” And the author knew all the things he had done wrong. He had learned them slowly, from living in the community, living with the people, looking out onto the land, praying, and thinking very deeply. Of course, he was not Native, and still he had written a very good book set in a Native community, with Native and non-Native characters.

Someone in the community recommended to him a Native publisher not far from the community. People there already knew of him (because stories like this tend to get around!). The people at the publishing house liked the manuscript. It needed some fixing, but nothing major. They published it, and it sold pretty well. Although the protagonist was based on several young people, the young people in this particular community saw themselves in this book.

If you’ve read this far, Ben, now you know about what it might take for a cultural outsider to write a good, honest, responsible young adult novel about Native people.

So here’s the thing. If you continue with your project, you will probably find a publisher, because, as Debbie has written for years, young adult books that feature cockamamie “Native American mythology” sell. You can join the ranks of the many non-Native authors who have appropriated Native spirituality with no understanding and less respect—in short, culture theft—and continue to claim the right to do so. Or, if you decide that what you have received from Debbie’s work is something you needed to know, you will continue on a different road. It is, of course, your choice.

Unknown said...

Beverly -

I did take Debbie's words to heart. The message was clear. But it's hard to walk away from something I've invested more than 3000 hours into. I recognize that the time spent does not make me an expert, by any stretch, and that what I have written could cause offense, while I certainly hope it does not. It's more a reflection of my choice not to give up on the work. I don't want to walk away. I recently found two Native people who have agreed to beta read the book. While they do not speak for all Native people or even for the tribe my protagonist is from, I hope to gain some insight. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. It is adding to the conversation. And that is always a good thing.