Thursday, February 12, 2015

THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY, by Adam Rex

Note on 2/20/2015: Children's literature scholar Perry Nodelman submitted comments that I am inserting in the body of this post, below the book list. Please read his thoughts on The True Meaning of Smekday. (See review of Smek for President, posted on May 7, 2015.)

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In 2007, Disney Hyperion published The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex. Years ago, someone wrote to tell me it has Native content and wondered if I'd read it. I had not, but today I see that it is to be a movie. So.... here's my analysis of the book (note: I'm reading an electronic copy and using the copy/paste function on Kindle for Mac for page numbers I provide). I provide summary of the book in regular font, and use italics used to indicate my thoughts/analysis.

Let's start with the synopsis posted at Amazon:

It all starts with a school essay. When twelve-year-old Gratuity (“Tip”) Tucci is assigned to write five pages on “The True Meaning of Smekday” for the National Time Capsule contest, she’s not sure where to begin. When her mom started telling everyone about the messages aliens were sending through a mole on the back of her neck? Maybe on Christmas Eve, when huge, bizarre spaceships descended on the Earth and the aliens - called Boov - abducted her mother? Or when the Boov declared Earth a colony, renamed it “Smekland” (in honor of glorious Captain Smek), and forced all Americans to relocate to Florida via rocketpod? In any case, Gratuity’s story is much, much bigger than the assignment. It involves her unlikely friendship with a renegade Boov mechanic named J.Lo.; a futile journey south to find Gratuity’s mother at the Happy Mouse Kingdom; a cross-country road trip in a hovercar called Slushious; and an outrageous plan to save the Earth from yet another alien invasion. Fully illustrated with “photos,” drawings, newspaper clippings, and comics sequences, this is a hilarious, perceptive, genre-bending novel about an alien invasion.


As the story told in the school essay begins, it is Moving Day, 2013. We learn (later) that everyone is being relocated to Florida by the Boov (aliens), taken there in Boov rocketpods. People are behaving in crazy ways. Tip (the main character) sees a lady running down the street with a mirror as if she was chasing vampires. Then (p. 4),
I saw a group of white guys dressed as Indians who were setting fires and dropping tea bags down manhole covers.
Debbie's thoughts: I don't get why they're setting fires. Maybe that will make sense as I read further. They're dropping tea bags, too. Definitely a reference to the Boston Tea Party, but why are these white guys doing this? If people are behaving in crazy ways I could see individuals doing odd things, but a group of guys doing the same thing? 

A few paragraphs later, we learn that aliens called Boov arrived on earth on Christmas Day of 2012. By June they have taken over and decided that "the entire human race" would have happier if they were all moved to an "out-of-the-way state where they could keep out of trouble" (p. 6).

Debbie's thoughts: This is definitely a colonization story. It parallels the invasion (yeah, I know some of you don't think it was an invasion) of the Americas and subsequent decisions to remove Native peoples from our homelands to Indian Territory or onto reservations. I wonder if there is an interview of Rex, somewhere, wherein he talks about why he chose colonization of the Americas as the basis for this story?

In The True Meaning of Smekday, the initial place for removal is Florida. Tip decides to drive there instead, taking her cat, Pig, along. Recall from the synopsis that her mom was taken on Christmas Eve, so, Tip is traveling alone.

Tip meets up with a Boov alien named J.Lo who becomes her sidekick. He tells her that they've named the planet Smekland because “Peoples who discover places gets to name it” (p. 28). When Tip tries to tell him it is called Earth, he smiles condescendingly. He also tells her the aliens don't like humans celebrating their holidays, so they (the aliens) replaced them with new ones. Christmas is now Smekday. The alien leader is Captain Smek, who discovered this "New World" (p. 30) for them. Hence, places and holidays are named after him.

Debbie's thoughts: I'm wondering how Rex is going to wrap all this up. He's making intriguing parallels to history.

The letter that Tip is preparing for future readers is supposed to tell them what it was like to live during the invasion. In her account of how the Boov conquered the human race, Tip describes a message from the Boov:
A. The Boov had discovered this planet, so it was of course rightly theirs.
B. It was their Grand Destiny to colonize new worlds, they needed to, so there really wasn't anything they could do about that.
C. They were really sorry for any inconvenience, but were sure humans would assimilate peacefully into Boov society.
Debbie's thoughts: Note the use of "discover" and that discovery means ownership, the use of "Grand Destiny"--which is otherwise Manifest Destiny, and the use of "assimilate" which for Native peoples, took the form of "kill the Indian and save the man." So far in Rex's story, no killing or war or disease either, which is a considerable departure from the parallel he's constructed so far.

When the Boov move into the towns, they praise Captain Smek "for providing so many pretty, empty houses in which to live" (p. 60).

Debbie's thoughts: Use of "empty" echoes a lot of writing and stories that characterize the Americas as empty, virgin, plentiful land that nobody was using. You see that a lot in Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. What makes Rex's book different from Wilder's is that in her book empty land was presented as a fact, while the colonization theme in Rex's book implicitly tells us that this emptyness had prior owners and was being taken.

On TV, Smek calls humans "the Noble Savages of Earth" (p. 63) and shows footage of the Boov making treaties--not with world leaders--but with ordinary people.

Debbie's thoughts: Rex using "Noble Savages" --- readers get that the humans are not really savages, but I wonder if Rex's use of it has enough weight for readers to see the use of "savage" to describe Native peoples, or Iraqi's as savages is also wrong (see my post about American Sniper)? Regarding treaties, this is definitely intriguing! People who know Native history know that there are many "treaties" that were made with people who had no authority to make treaties.  

When Tip and J.Lo get to Florida, they don't see anyone. Tip recalls (p. 92)
"people in concentration camps in World War II, told by Nazi soldiers to take showers, and the showerheads that didn't work, and the poison gas that tumbled slowly through vents until every last one was dead."
Debbie's thoughts: Because this is a humorous story, some of the references to history--like that one--are jarring. If you read only the paragraphs before and after that passage, you won't find the humor that characterizes the tone of the book. 

In Florida, there is a Mouse Kingdom. Tip finds other kids there and learns from them that the Boov decided they wanted Florida for themselves because the aliens found out they like oranges. They chose another state to send humans to: Arizona.

Debbie's thoughts: Again--if you know Native history, you'll recognize that decision, too. The oranges are a parallel for gold or other resources that were/are on Native lands. Learning of the resources prompted the government to take aggressive action against Native peoples. 

Tip and J.Lo head to Arizona. J.Lo is wearing a ghost costume to disguise his alien identity, thereby protecting him from the Gorg, another alien race that wants the earth and seeks to displace the Boov. On the way they pass a sign for Roswell. Tip notes that it is known as a site where a spaceship crashed. J.Lo wants to go to Roswell to see the spaceship, even though Tip tells him people think it isn't true. Then J.Lo tells her that maybe it was a Habadoo ship and moves right to telling her a joke about a Habadoo, a Boov, and a KoshzPoshz. But, Tip's mind drafts off and she doesn't laugh at the joke. J.Lo asks her (p. 204)
"You are not a fan of ethnical jokes, ah? Look, is okay if I tells it, I am one-sixteenth Habadoo--"
Debbie's thoughts: J.Lo thinks that Tip finds the joke inappropriate, but J.Lo thinks it is fine for him to tell it because he is of one of the groups in the joke. This is, of course, the on-going debates about ethnic jokes and who can tell them, but it also strikes me as relevant to this story overall. If Rex was Native, might I be responding differently to the humor and tone he uses?

When they get to Roswell, New Mexico, they meet a group of people. A woman introduces herself as Vicki Lightbody. Tip introduces herself as Grace, and J.Lo as her little brother, JayJay (who, through Tip's quick actions is disguised as a ghost). They head to Grace's apartment, which is across the street from a UFO museum. Others they meet include adults named Kat, Trey, and Beardo.

Tip tells the group she plans on continuing to Arizona. She's seen lots of abandoned cars they could borrow if necessary (theirs was in need of repair). In particular, Tip mentions a turquoise truck someone was driving (p. 228):
"You saw Chief Shouting Bear," said Beardo. "He's a...he's just an eccentric old junkman that lives around these parts. He's kind of a town legend."
"Ha--yeah. The Legend of the Crazy Indian," said Vicki. Then she looked sideways at J.Lo and me and added, "No offense."
"For what?" I asked. "We're not Indians. Or crazy."
I am one-sixteenth Habadoo," said J.Lo.

Debbie's thoughts: First, I don't much like that name, "Chief Shouting Bear." Naming and names are important to people, no matter their heritage, but there's quite a few examples of white writers using Native and Asian names as fodder for jokes. Second, why does Vicki say "no offense" after saying "legend of the crazy Indian"? Did she think Tip is Indian because of her dark skin? Remember--Tip is biracial. Third, J.Lo's response is intriguing. He uses a fraction and a word. The way that sentence is constructed could easily be spoken by someone who is claiming Native identity, not as a way of life, but as a piece of who they are. But why would J.Lo--the alien--say that? What does he know about Native identity and the blood quantum terminology he uses?

The legend they are talking about is this: in 1947, Chief Shouting Bear found a flying saucer. According to the legend, he had been in Roswell in the Air Force during WW2 and was kicked out of the military for believing in UFOs. Now, he keeps that flying saucer in his basement, runs a junkyard, and uses the flying saucer as a way to make some money.

Tip sets off to find Chief Shouting Bear's house because she wants to see the flying saucer. His house is in the midst of a junkyard. When she and J.Lo get there, she is peering over a fence surrounding the junkyard when she hears "That's where the UFO stopped" and looks down "to see a thin, dark man, like a strip of jerky--the Chief" (p. 252). He is wearing a red cap with flaps and a strap (p. 252):
"He otherwise wore the same clothes as anybody else--no buckskin or beads or anything. I'm probably an idiot for even mentioning that."
Debbie's thoughts: I like what Rex did there, acknowledging a stereotypical expectation and pushing back on it. Here's the illustration of the man.

Rex's drawing of "the Chief" in shirt and jeans


Chief Shouting Bear takes Tip and J.Lo to see the spaceship. Tip sees it is made of papier-mache and not really a spaceship but pretends it is, thereby occupying Chief Shouting Bear so that J.Lo can go look for the telecone booth they've been looking for. She snaps a photo of the spaceship, and Chief Shouting Bear looks at her, puzzled that she seems to think it is an authentic spaceship.

While Tip, J.Lo and Chief Shouting Bear are looking at the telecone booth (the Boov are also searching for it), Vicki Lightbody and Kat show up, prompting Chief Shouting Bear to call out (p. 261):
"DON'T STEAL MY LAND, JERKS!" 
and
"YOU PALEFACED DEVILS!" 
Debbie's thoughts: There isn't any context (yet) for the shouting that he does. I've read a lot and don't recall any Native character calling a white person a devil. I've certainly seen white characters use that word to describe Native ones. I'm not sure what to make of Chief Shouting Bear using that word.

As Tip gets get ready to leave, Chief Shouting Bear asks Tip to come back tomorrow with her car so they can trade it for the telecone, but Vicki says that Tip and J.Lo were going to spend the day with her. Chief Shouting Bear says
"LET 'EM COME, INDIAN GIVER! I WON'T KEEP 'EM ALL DAY." 
Debbie's thoughts: Why is he using that phrase, "Indian giver" in his remarks to Vicki? 

Vicki replies, argumentatively, that it is dangerous for them to be around rusty junk. Chief Shouting Bear says that rusty junk will be all that is left soon, and then shouts (p. 262):
"HAWOOOO WOO WOO WOO." 
His dog, Lincoln, sits at his feet and "howled with him." Chief Shouting Bear says "JERKS" to Vicki and Kat, and Vicki tells him he could have a more positive outlook.

Debbie's thoughts: "Howled" bothers me. And the dog howling with him? Also not cool. This is war whooping straight out of Hollywood, and though we might see a dog joining its owner in making noise, this particular person and his dog howling are problematic because of the long history of characterizing Native people as animal-like. It seems to me that Rex takes two steps forward in this book and then one step back. 

The next day, Tip and J.Lo head to Chief Shouting Bear's place. They talk about people who seem to be crazy. Tip says that maybe Chief Shouting Bear wants people to think he is crazy. When they get to his house and are visiting with him, Tip asks about his shouting, saying (p. 273):
"You didn't raise your voice once when it was just the three of us. [...] But then Vicki and Kat show up and you're all 'GO AWAY, TREATY-BREAKER! DON'T...UM...DON'T--"
Chief Shouting Bear cuts her off:
"I never said 'treaty-breaker."
Their conversation continues:
"Yeah, well, that was the basic theme, anyway."
"I only usually shout at the white people," he said. "Tradition. I've got no beef with you."
"I'm half white," I said, folding my arms.
"Hrrm. Which half?"
I blinked. "Uh...dunno. Let's say it's from the waist down."
Chief Shouting Bear nodded. "Deal. I only hate your legs."
Debbie's thoughts: It is Chief Shouting Bear's tradition to shout at white people? That strikes me as inadvertently making light of actual Native traditions, none of which include shouting at white people. Chief Shouting Bear asking Tip "which half" is akin to the things I've heard a lot of Native people say in response to someone who claims they are part Native. It is a cynical response because Native identity doesn't work that way. Nobody is of this or that identity in a partial way. I should probably re-read the parts of Alexie's book to see how he handles that "part time Indian" in the title of his book.  

The two shake hands on that deal (that Chief Shouting Bear only hates Tip's legs). Tip introduces herself using her real name (Gratuity) and Chief Shouting Bear tells her his name: Frank. She is surprised by that name (p. 274):
"Oh," I said. "I thought...I heard..."
"You heard my name was Chief Shouting Bear," he said. "It doesn't matter. You can call me whatever you want, Stupidlegs."

Debbie's thoughts: I love that Rex is giving us a real name: Frank. Having the character introduce himself with that name humanizes him. With it, he seems to be distancing himself from the name that others call him (Chief Shouting Bear). That isn't a name he acknowledges as his own. With his "call me whatever you want" remark, he also seems to be telling us that such names are easily--but not appropriately--used as a means of belittling someone.

J.Lo hands "the Chief" a card that explains he is in costume as a show of solidarity with his Boovish cousins in their fight against the Gorg.

Debbie's thoughts: There aren't quotation marks around the words "the Chief" in the book. I'm using them there and throughout the remainder of my summary, because rather than call him Frank, or Chief Shouting Bear, Rex defaults to "the Chief." Why? I would have loved it if whenever Tip thinks or speaks about him, she uses his name (Frank). Using "the Chief" moves him back out of a real person and to a dehumanized entity. 

The "Chief" read the card aloud in a monotone voice and then hands it back, saying (p. 275):
"Nothing wrong with that," he said. "Hell, I wore a feather headdress for a while in the sixties."
Debbie's thoughts: Here, I infer that Frank is calling the headdress a costume that he wore in the 60s. It makes me wonder what tribe Frank belongs to. If he was of a Plains tribe, he wouldn't call the headdress a costume. 

While "the Chief" looks over Tip's car, the Gorg arrive, hunting for cats (the Gorg are allergic to cats). "The Chief" scoops Pig up and heads to the house, telling Tip and J.Lo to hide under the car while he runs off to hide Pig and the telecon booth. A Gorg finds Tip and J.Lo and asks where the telecon booth is. Tip plays dumb, and the Gorg asks her (p. 278):
"ARE YOU LOUD BEAR CHIEFTAIN?"
When she says "who" he replies:
"CHIEFTAIN LOUD BEAR MAN!"
Debbie's thoughts: More play with Native names. No doubt, readers find that hilarious--but that hilarity is less likely to be shared if it is your people or culture whose names are mocked like that.

The Gorg grills her until Chief Shouting Bear appears, telling it to leave her alone. The Gorg swung one of its arms, striking "the Chief" and knocking him out. Then he tears "the Chief's" house to the ground, looking for the telecon booth. It finds the basement door, enters, and when it reappears, it takes off, into the sky. Chief Shouting Bear is still knocked out. Tip sees he is bleeding. He needs more than she can do for him, so they get him into the car and go to Vicki's apartment which is next to a UFO museum. There, Kat and Trey ease "the Chief" out of the car. He comes, too, but his speech is slurred. Vicki asks if he had been drinking.

Drinking? Is that a realistic response to someone who has a bleeding head wound? 

Tip is furious with that question and glares at Vicki. Beardo tells Vicki that Chief Shouting Bear got hit by one of the Gorg, and she replies (p. 285):
"Don't you look at me like that. I was just asking is all. Indians drink--I saw a special about it."
They carry Chief Shouting Bear into the museum where he asks them for ice and whiskey.

Debbie's thoughts: Indians drink? A special? This idea, affirmed by a special--interesting that Rex brings forth that "drunken Indian" stereotype, but having Chief Shouting Bear ask for ice and whiskey affirms the stereotype. Disappointing. 

Leaving Trey to care for Chief Shouting Bear, Tip and J.Lo head back to the junkyard and figure out that "the Chief" really did have a spaceship, but that he had put papier-mache all over it to conceal it.

Tip and J.Lo resume their trip to Arizona, ending up in Flagstaff, where Tip tries to find her mom at the Bureau of Missing Persons. During this time in Flagstaff, they live in their car on the outskirts of town and use shower and bathrooms on the university campus.  Everyday, Tip goes back to the Bureau to talk to a guy named Mitch to see if they've found her mom. One day nobody is there because everyone is at a meeting where Boov representatives are speaking to people that have gathered on the campus quad. Tip and J.Lo head over there. J.Lo points out Captain Smek. He's one of the Boov reps, and is talking about the Gorg (p. 317):
"They are a horrible sort," Smek was saying, "and will not show the Noble Savages of Smekland the respectfulness that you have enjoyed from to the Boov. The Gorg are known acrosst the galaxy as the Takers, and they canto only take and take and take!"
He continues:
"We knows of the Gorg and Smekland leaders yesterday," said Smek. "The Gorg have probabiles made for you some fancy promises. Do not be believing them! They lie! They will enslave your race, just as to they have done so many others! They will destruct our world!"
The speech ends with:
"In closing," said Captain Smek, "the Boov are beseeching you: do not give up to the Gorg our world because of petty grudgings! Fight with us--" [...] "Fight alongside us," Smek said, "for a brighter, shiny Smekland!"
Then he repeats the speech in Spanish.

Debbie's thoughts: The occupier that has forced all the people to relocate is now telling them that another occupier won't respect or treat them well. 

Tip hears people around her grumbling about what Smek has said. Smek and the other Boov leave the stage, and Mitch, tries to get them to show respect to Smek. But he also then tells Tip that the Boov are on their way out and that they ought to ally themselves with the Gorg. Then he tells her that a Native American gentleman was looking for her at the hospital. She takes off for hospital and when she runs into his room, shouts "Chief!"

Debbie's thoughts: Again, why isn't she calling him Frank? 

Once in his room, "the Chief" tells her (p. 321):
"Mr. Hinkel," said the Chief, jerking his head toward the sleeping man. "He thinks Indians like me ought to live somewhere else. Likes to tell me about it a lot."
Tip replies that maybe he'll be leaving soon, but "the Chief" says he doubts that, because Hinkel was badly beaten by someone who thinks gay people like him ought to live somewhere else.

Debbie's thoughts: I am trying to sort through Rex's decision to make one oppressed people, embodied by Hinkel, be the one that is being racist towards another oppressed people. It is, of course, plausible, but it doesn't sit well with me. 

Tip realizes that "the Chief" had greeted her as Stupidlegs, and had called J.Lo "Boov." She had thought that "the Chief" believed J.Lo was her little brother.  J.Lo tells her that "the Chief" found out the truth when they were trying to hide the telecloner (back in Roswell). Tip is afraid that "the Chief" will tell someone that J.Lo is a Boov, but he shrugs and says (p. 322):
"When you're Indian, you have people tellin' you your whole life 'bout the people who took your land. Can't hate all of 'em, or you'd spend your whole life shouting at everyone."
Debbie's thoughts: With that, "the Chief" is saying that the Boov are just like the white people, but that he can't let hate consume his life. I need to think about that some more.

Tip realizes that his shouting (we also learn that he is 93 years old) was a way to make people think he was crazy so they wouldn't keep looking for the real spaceship.

While "the Chief" is in the hospital recovering, Tip reads to J.Lo. One of the books she reads to him is Huckleberry Finn. 

Debbie's comments: I wonder if, in the back story for this part of the story, Rex noted that Twain used "injun"?

When "the Chief" is better, he is moved to an "old folks' home" where Tip continues to visit him. On one visit, he tells her he had been sent to New Mexico after World War Two and that he had hated it because of where he was sent (p. 325):
"To a training ground in Fort Sumner. Didn't like it there--lot of bad history for my people. You know I grew up near here? On the res."
"Yeah, you said. So you're...Navajo, then?" I'd been learning a bit about the area.
"Prefer the name Dine, but yes."
Debbie's thoughts: So here, finally, we learn his tribe and what their own name for themselves is (Dine). But what is that bad history? Will kids who read the book wonder enough to look it up? And, a note to writers: the spelling we use is rez (with a z) not res. 

Unhappy being at Fort Sumner, "the chief" asked to be transferred, and that is how he ended up at Roswell. There, he learned the city wanted to build a water tower on a parcel of land, so he bought that land, which meant that the city would pay him rent for building the water tower on his land. The UFO crashed into that tower, but on its way down, it also crashed into a scientific balloon (p. 326):
The tower was totaled, and the city abandoned it--they never much liked our arrangement anyway. Somethin' about paying an Indian for land that rubs white folk the wrong way."
Debbie's thoughts: This sounds about right. Far too many people think that the U.S. government "gives" Native people things, not knowing (or disregarding) that these things (education and health care, for example) were negotiated between Native heads of state and U.S. heads of state during treaty or contract negotiations. I'll also take a minute to note that a LOT of people think we don't pay taxes. We do! Thus, I can imagine people not liking their tax dollars going to pay rent to an Indian landowner. 

"The chief" tells Tip that people knew about the balloon crash but the government was being hush-hush about it because it was top-secret. "The chief" tried to tell people he had a flying disk and an alien in his basement but people thought he was nuts. When they finally came to investigate, he was tired of them and played "the crazy Indian bit."

Tip learns that her mother is living near Tucson in a casino. Mitch passes on this info (p. 335):
"She's living in the Papago lands south of Tucson, in the Diamond Sun Casino."
Debbie's thoughts: Oh-oh. Papago? Hmmm... The people who were known by that name have, for a long time now, been known as the Tohono O'Odham. 

Tip learns that the description Mitch has been using in the search for her mom is wrong (p. 336):
"She's thirty," I offered. "Dark hair. Daughter named Gratuity."
"Black," said Mitch.
I coughed. "Black?"
"I'm sorry," said Mitch. Do you prefer African American?"
"Uh, no, I prefer you call her white, actually, because that's what she is."
"The file says she's black."
"Are you really arguing with me about this?"
Mitch looked tired. "I wrote down 'black,'" he said.
"I didn't tell you to write that," I answered, and then I could see the whole thing. "Have you been telling everyone to look for a black woman this whole time?"

Debbie's thoughts: I like seeing that conversation. Biracial kids and their parents are familiar with assumptions like the one Mitch made. Mitch doesn't answer Tip's question. He moves on. 

Mitch looks up the Diamond Sun Casino and finds it is in Daniel Landry's district (p. 337):
"Daniel Landry's district is far south of here," he said, "on some former Indian land."
"Indian land? Like a reservation?"
"That's right."
"Is this Dan guy an Indian?"
"I don't think so, no. I'm pretty sure he's white. He wasn't a governor or anything before, but he's really rich, so I imagine he's a good leader."
"Uh-huh. But he's white," I said "The Indians elected a white guy?"
"Well...I don't know. I imagine all the other people elected him. It's mostly white folks living on the reservation now."
I frowned. "And the Indians are okay with this?"
"What do you mean?" 
"Well...it was a reservation," I said. "It was land we promised to the Native Americans. Forever."
Mitch looked at me like I was speaking in tongues. "But...we needed it," he said.
Debbie's thoughts: Wow. Where to start?! Glad that the issue of land, and land being taken, is raised. But the way that conversation is laid out is a bit problematic. The way it is presented suggests that the reservation land was taken from an unnamed tribe. At one time in history, all of that land was Indian land. Today, a lot of reservations are what we call "checkerboard(s)" due to encroachment on reservation lands. See page 39 of Matthew L.M. Fletcher's article, Reviving Local Tribal Control in Indian Country for an in-depth look.  

As they head south to Tucson, Tip thinks (p. 340):
We all gained Arizona by coming here, but for the people who already lived here, we could only take something away.
Debbie's thoughts: I am glad Tip thinks this; I wonder how much readers of the book sit with that thought? 

Once they get to the casino, Tip and J.Lo go inside a tent where Tip's mom is supposedly leading a meeting. Inside, they see a redheaded man on stage with the microphone (p. 344):
"I have the stage! All I'm saying is, now that we've all had to leave our real homes, we got a chance to get America right! There can be a place for the Saxon Americans, and a place for the coloreds, and a place for--shut up!" 
Debbie's thoughts: His 'shut up' is in response to the boos coming from the audience. His hate-filled words are ones we hear, today, spoken aloud. It is good that he is booed. 

Then, Tip sees her mom take the stage. Her mom says (p. 345):
"I know, I know," she was saying. "You have every right. Just like he has the right, right? You don't have to like what he says, but letting him say it makes us Americans, and treating people the way we'd like to be treated makes us human, doesn't it? That's how I was raised, anyway."
Debbie's thoughts: Tough to read what she says. Yes, of course, we defend freedom of speech, but "makes us Americans" sounds like American exceptionalism, and "makes us human" sounds kind of like the golden rule (turn the other cheek), when I think we have the responsibility to call out hate speech. 

While inviting people in the crowd to speak, she spots Tip. Reunited, the three leave the tent and enter the casino where slot machines were pushed together to make walls for peoples homes. Tip learns that her mom was among political leaders who met with the Gorg to talk about the Gorg's demands. The Gorg plan to rid the planet of the Boov. They'll let humans have Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, but if the humans were found anywhere else, the Gorg would shoot them. Further restrictions include not using air vehicles and they can't have cats.

Debbie's thoughts: Most people may be unfamiliar with the fact that, when reservations were created, many of them were heavily policed. To leave, you had to get permission from the reservation agent. If you left without permission, you were "off the reservation" and could be shot. I wonder if Rex knew that history when he wrote that part of the book? 

Tip's mom introduces her to Daniel Landry. They'd just come from the airport where Landry needed her to translate for the new settlers who are Mexican families.

Debbie's thoughts: I'm curious about the Mexican families. He didn't say Mexican American. Remember--Tip is now in Arizona, down near the border, so maybe they are Mexican families being relocated to Arizona, but I don't recall the relocation plan including people in Mexico. 

Tip and J.Lo learn that the Gorg are taking over. J.Lo tells Tip that the Gorg "will take peoples for slaves and furniture and kill the rest." The Gorg had done this to the Voort.

Debbie's thoughts: Slaves. Hmmm... I wonder if Rex knows that many Native peoples from the eastern tribes were enslaved? Is that information the source of his reference to slavery? Or, is it specific to African peoples and enslavement of them? Is he mixing behaviors of oppressors?

Tip goes to visit Landry in his office. He tells her the Gorg have a lot to offer to humans. Tip mutters "Nothing that wasn't ours already." But Landry tells her the Gorg are driving away the Boov and that the Gorg "are giving back the whole Southwest." He tells her that humans are fighting Boov and Gorg, but the best thing is for everyone to be good and obedient to the Gorg, and that they'll leave soon anyway. He says (p. 374):
"Their whole society is based on paying and feeding old Gorg by making new Gorg and conquering worlds. They have to keep making more and more, sending them out in every direction. They're stretched too thin. Sooner or later they'll have too many Gorg and not enough resources, and the whole operation will implode."
Tip doesn't buy it. Back home in the casino, J.Lo tells her that the Gorg aren't stretched thin, and that because they can do telecloning, they won't run out of resources. The two keep talking and figure out that the Gorg clones are less-stable than the ones from which they were made. When her mom gets home, Tip asks her about the clones sneezing, but her mom doesn't recall any of that. And, her mom tells her that the Gorg are going to give them a cure for cancer, to be presented as a surprise at a big gathering.

There's a knock at the door, and it is "the Chief." Tip introduces him to her mom, saying "His real name is Frank." They invite him to eat dinner with them. After dinner, Tip walks "the Chief" out to his truck, where he tells her that some of his friends and cousins are "comin' down from the res" (p. 380).

Debbie's comments: I don't think 'from the res' is necessary. It is implied. And I'll note again, that it ought to be 'rez' (with a z) rather than res (with an s).

Chief Shouting Bear tells Tip that he is getting people together, people that they can trust. Tip asks (p. 380),
"Do you know some of the Papago Indians around here?"
"Tohono O'Odham," said the Chief. "The Tohono O'Odham Nation. Papago is derogatory. Means 'bean eaters.' And yeah, I know a few."
Debbie's comments: Glad to see that response to Tip's use of Papago! 

When the Gorg take Tip's mom, Tip and J.Lo note that they are sneezing and figure out that the Gorg hunt and kill cats because they are allergic to cats. They come up with a plan to fight the Gorg using that information.

They finally drive the Gorg away, and Tip, J.Lo and her mom head back to the casino. There, they (p. 419):
...find the Chief sitting atop his truck with Lincoln, looking out over the southern horizon at the big red ball that was slowly sailing away.
"Ha!" I heard him shout. "That's what you get, jerks."
Debbie's thoughts: The big red ball is the Gorg. He's shouting at them now, too. In the end, the Native character shouts at Gorgs and White people.

In the closing pages, some time has passed. Tip reports about stories from around the world, about people that had fought against the Gorg. Among them are "the Israelis and Palestinians, who managed to work together, for a change," and, "a group of Lost Boys living under Happy Mouse Kingdom" (p. 421).

Debbie's thoughts: Wondering how Israeli or Palestinian readers read that line, and, wondering how the Lost Boys are dressed... 

Here's what Tip says about "the Chief":
Frank Jose, the Chief, died this past spring. He was ninety-four. He said it was his time and mine had overlapped more.
Debbie's thoughts: Rex dropped Papago in the story early on and came back to it later, correcting its use. I wish he'd done that here, dropping "the Chief" from Tip's way of thinking about him. Nowhere do I see backstory or story itself that says Frank Jose was a leader of the Dine (Navajo) people; hence, calling him "the Chief" is incorrect. As I read this book, there were times when I thought that Rex seems to know so much! He critiques so much, and yet, leaves this and other things intact. Why? His character knows better, doesn't she?

Update: Feb 14

And... the Native character dies?! With that ending, we're definitely in that space where Indians are gone, extinct, etc. In the story, Rex names two different Native Nations, but without an individualized presence, I think they're invisible to the reader. 

(A bit more to say about the end of the story.)

The Gorg are gone, but the Boov remain for a year, relocating people and signing treaties and then they leave, one year later.

Debbie's comments: Relocating people to their original homes? Who are they signing treaties with? They leave? The colonizers leave?! That is definitely a departure from what actually happened with Native peoples. Check out this video that shows you what happened:






~~~~~~~~~~

Some current thoughts. I may add more, later.

As I reflect on Adam Rex's book, I think of it in layers. At the top is the words on the page and the ways Rex succinctly addressed things like names of tribes.  Beneath that top layer is one that constitutes what the characters know, or don't know, about Native peoples, nations, and history. There's so much misinformation out there. Rex bats down a lot but leaves other things as-is.

And beneath that layer is the premise for the story. Invaders come to the earth and start doing to humans the very things that European invaders did to Native peoples. A lot of what happened is not included in the story Rex tells. Warfare, bounties, disease, death... None of that is in Rex's story. All of that was devastating. Rex's story is not. The True Meaning of Smekday is viewed by readers and critics as funny and entertaining. Should it be? Should the colonization of a people--any people--be used as humor? Personally, I can't see similarly horrific historical events being turned into a funny story. Would we do that to the Holocaust? To slavery? But---I wondered---are there such books?

I asked that question on several listservs. Thus far, people are unable to offer a title in which this occurs. On child_lit, Tad Andracki offered some words that I found helpful. There are books for young readers where an individual's suffering due to oppression has moments of humor, but there aren't any where a peoples suffering is treated with humor.

We are, of course, talking about what is/is not appropriate content for a children's book.

One last thought: I think the ethnic joke J.Lo tells has a far broader application than its role within the story. Who can, with humorous tones, tell a story about a peoples suffering? If a Native writer had done this book, might I feel different about the tone?

This is a very long post, and if you've made it all the way here, thank you. I'm walking away from the book for now but will, no doubt, be back with updates and corrections to typos, etc. There's so much more to address than the notes I've shared thus far.

Update

In my request for similar titles, I received the following suggestions. Ones marked with an asterisk are characterized as problematic because they aren't serious enough, rather than ones whose tone is humor.  I'm grateful to all those who suggested titles. Though I haven't read most of these books, synopsis/reviews of them indicate that while some suggestions are about a serious topic, they aren't meant to be funny in tone.

*Boyne, John. The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas

Briggs, Raymond. The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman

Briggs, Raymond. When the Wind Blows

Clark, Henry. The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens

Dallas, Sandra. Tallgrass

De Brunhoff, Jean. The Story of Babar

Hardinge, Frances. The Lost Conspiracy

Houston, James D. and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. Farewell to Manzanar

Innocenti, Roberto. Rose Blanche

Jinks, Catherine. Pagan's Crusade

Marsden, John. The Rabbits. Illustrated by Shaun Tan.

Oppenheim, Joanne. Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference

Spiegelman, Art. Maus

Stewart, Trenton Lee. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma. Illustrated by Diane Sudyka

Twain, Mark. Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer

*Wild, Margaret. Let the Celebrations Begin! Illustrated by Julie Vivas

Yansky, Brian. Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences

*Yolen, Jane. The Devil's Arithmetic


On 2/20/2014, I added Perry Nodelman's insightful comments here, in the body of the post. They were submitted in two parts as indicated:


Thanks, Debbie, for getting me interested in this book, which I hadn’t read before you alerted me to it. For the most part, i enjoyed reading it, and I have lots to say about it––enough to go past the number of characters allowed in a comment, so I’ve divided my response into two comments.

Part 1: I think that Rex does some very clever things in terms of paralleling the alien invasion with what happened between imperialist invaders and Indigenous people in North America and elsewhere. I think, though that Rex's main interest throughout appears to be in exploring the humor of the situation, and while that means there’s often clever and funny satire that emerges from the colonialist parallels, that doesn’t happen consistently. Sometimes the novel is a colonial satire, and sometimes it isn’t.
For instance, it seems that the appearance and character of the alien Gorg has satiric implications: they have the uniformity, the self-centered self-importance, and the obsessive single-mindedness of totalitarian overlords, like Hitler or the British raj or the European settlers of North America. But there is no satiric implication that I can find in the fact that the other aliens, the Boov, have a sizeable number of feet. It’s just a joke, just something that defines them as alien.
Similarly, i think, what happens sometimes resonates in terms of the history of relationships between Indigenous North Americans and European colonists and sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes, much worse, it resonates in what I see as negative ways that I suspect Rex wasn’t even aware of.
I think that happens, for instance, with the portrayal of Chief Shouting Bear. Aspects of it are cleverly satiric. I like how the Chief slyly manipulates stereotypes of angrily politicized Native Americans in order to keep people from interfering in his life. He creates a safe space for himself by pretending to be something that confirms other people's negative stereotypes and makes those other people want to avoid him. But while the distance between the stereotype and the real, clever, kind man who hides behind it seems to imply the falsity of the stereotype, it also in an odd way also confirms the stereotype: the novel never suggests that there aren’t a lot of angry Native Americans who shout too loudly about their land and their rights, etc. Nor does it suggest that the anger is justified and even necessary, or that is anything but just silly and laughable. Indeed, the novel seems to be sending up the supposed silliness of politicized Native people who want to make others aware of their rights at the same time as it seems to be expressing concern about how powerful outsiders oppress people and deprive them if their rights. The novel is just too interested in making jokes and being funny to be consistent enough to be effective as satire. As a result, it undermines its own satire. 
Part 2: My main concern with the novel, though, is that while it makes significant points about how colonizers oppress others, points that seem modeled on the history of European settlers and Indigenous North Americans, it finally seems to want to dismiss the significance of that history and invite readers of all sorts to believe that the past is the past, what’s over is over, and that since we’re really all alike we should be forgetting our differences (and apparently the history behind those differences) and just treat each other as equals and get along. Gratuity, the protagonist who is telling what happened, implies that sort of tolerance message when she says, “The Boov weren’t anything special. They were just people. They were too smart and too stupid to be anythng else.” And the Chief agrees: “When you’re Indian, you have people telling you your whole life ‘bout the people who took your land. Can’t hate all of ‘em, or you'll spend your whole life shouting at everyone.”

The novel also undermines its colonialist satire by identifying a number of other forms of oppressions of weaker people by more powerful ones: women by men, children by adults, etc. Even Gratuity herself has to acknowledge at one point that maybe she’s too bossy and should stop oppressing others. As a result, the specific history and issues of Native Americans become just one example of a more general attack on mean bullies who take advantage of weaker people; and the solution to that particular situation as well as all other situations and relationships is just being nice to others and treating them all as equals.
To me, that reads like a massive copout, a way of avoiding the important political and historical issues that still control and limit far too many lives. And like, for instance, a lot of multicultural rhetoric, it works to erase the ongoing significance of the specific history of Indigenous peoples—what makes their situation different from those of all the other groups who now live together in countries like the US.
One final point: for someone who spends a lot of time attacking and making fun of imperialists blind to the equal humanity of people they see as different and inferior to themselves, Rex himself, quite unconsciously, I suspect, makes a hugely imperialistic mistake. He asserts that the Boov force all the inhabitants of Earth to move to Florida, and then, changing their minds, to Arizona. But he then says nothing about how the Earthlings from, say, Europe or Africa, are going to manage to get to Florida. And when Gratuity arrives in Arizona, there is no mention of people who speak Swahili or Chinese, no mention of there being disputes involving people from different countries or continents, no mention of orders given in any languages other than English and Spanish. In fact, Rex has simply assumed that the Earth = the USA. All the humans who are not American are simply erased. It’s only in one sentence towards the end that Rex hints that maybe the Boov had rounded up other people in other parts of the world in different detention areas closer to where they live--a weird thing to suddenly tell readers about when we’ve been asked all along to assume that all humanity had ended up in Arizona. This is unconscious American imperialism at its finest, and as a Canadian, I found it exceedingly annoying.
All things considered: I think that The True Meaning of Smekday is often a very funny novel, and often a cleverly satiric one. But while it certainly has the potential to give readers of all ages a lot to think about, I find myself saddened by the ways in which it sets up parallels that allow for shrewd commentary on American Indian history and politics and then squanders the opportunity to pursue that commentary in favor of jokes and a kind of obvious and dangerous message of thoughtless universal equivalence and tolerance. 

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Could be a reference to War of the Worlds, also. I mean, that can be read to be a criticism of English colonization in Africa, in Asia and in America.

mclicious.org said...

I do think Rex was aware of the allegory he was making, and that for someone (as far as I know) who is a resident of Arizona (he's from Tucson, where I'm from) but not a member of any native group, he does a pretty damn good job of knowing a lot and acknowledging things in subtle ways.

The unwillingness to address deep wounds with humor is a very American thing, I think. When I was studying in Prague, I took a course on European perspectives of American literature, and one of the things my professor pointed out was that because it is ILLEGAL to deny the Holocaust (Europeans think we are absolutely crazy for allowing for complete denial under the umbrella of "free speech") and the Holocaust is openly acknowledged, studied, mourned, etc, it is also common for there to be Holocaust jokes. There are obviously appropriate and inappropriate times to make them, and like any humor, the real kind still pokes fun at the powerful, not the oppressed, but you do indeed apply humor to difficult and incredibly painful memories. So while it feels weird to you as someone living in the US, it's not an entirely taboo or even inappropriate thing to do, and I think using humor to address such things, especially with younger audiences, may very well make certain things more accessible. I would be interested to know if anyone teaches Smekday in a 7th grade class, for example.

Gabriele Bianchetti said...

@mclicious.org
That's true, here in Europe we can't deny the Holocaust, and several movements inspired by Nazism are illegal. But I think the issue is different. Here in Europe, when talking about the Holocaust, unless you aren't in Germany, you're talking about another country, while the genocide of American Indians is at the roots of American 'civilization'. I hope I have not offended any American here, I'm just saying that in Europe the Holocaust is often an another country's issue. Obviously, I'm not saying that in Germany the historical episode isn't widely acknowledged and studied.

Anyway, the book seems interesting, and I love how it mocks some episodes of America's invasion. Too bad it has some problematic elements!
For anyone who wants to read about Columbus and his action I recommend 'A Coyote Columbus Story' by Thomas King.

Perry Nodelman said...

Part 2: My main concern with the novel, though, is that while it makes significant points about how colonizers oppress others, points that seem modeled on the history of European settlers and Indigenous North Americans, it finally seems to want to dismiss the significance of that history and invite readers of all sorts to believe that the past is the past, what’s over is over, and that since we’re really all alike we should be forgetting our differences (and apparently the history behind those differences) and just treat each other as equals and get along. Gratuity, the protagonist who is telling what happened, implies that sort of tolerance message when she says, “The Boov weren’t anything special. They were just people. They were too smart and too stupid to be anythng else.” And the Chief agrees: “When you’re Indian, you have people telling you your whole life ‘bout the people who took your land. Can’t hate all of ‘em, or you'll spend your whole life shouting at everyone.”

The novel also undermines its colonialist satire by identifying a number of other forms of oppressions of weaker people by more powerful ones: women by men, children by adults, etc. Even Gratuity herself has to acknowledge at one point that maybe she’s too bossy and should stop oppressing others. As a result, the specific history and issues of Native Americans become just one example of a more general attack on mean bullies who take advantage of weaker people; and the solution to that particular situation as well as all other situations and relationships is just being nice to others and treating them all as equals.

To me, that reads like a massive copout, a way of avoiding the important political and historical issues that still control and limit far too many lives. And like, for instance, a lot of multicultural rhetoric, it works to erase the ongoing significance of the specific history of Indigenous peoples—what makes their situation different from those of all the other groups who now live together in countries like the US.

One final point: for someone who spends a lot of time attacking and making fun of imperialists blind to the equal humanity of people they see as different and inferior to themselves, Rex himself, quite unconsciously, I suspect, makes a hugely imperialistic mistake. He asserts that the Boov force all the inhabitants of Earth to move to Florida, and then, changing their minds, to Arizona. But he then says nothing about how the Earthlings from, say, Europe or Africa, are going to manage to get to Florida. And when Gratuity arrives in Arizona, there is no mention of people who speak Swahili or Chinese, no mention of there being disputes involving people from different countries or continents, no mention of orders given in any languages other than English and Spanish. In fact, Rex has simply assumed that the Earth = the USA. All the humans who are not American are simply erased. It’s only in one sentence towards the end that Rex hints that maybe the Boov had rounded up other people in other parts of the world in different detention areas closer to where they live--a weird thing to suddenly tell readers about when we’ve been asked all along to assume that all humanity had ended up in Arizona. This is unconscious American imperialism at its finest, and as a Canadian, I found it exceedingly annoying.

All things considered: I think that The True Meaning of Smekday is often a very funny novel, and often a cleverly satiric one. But while it certainly has the potential to give readers of all ages a lot to think about, I find myself saddened by the ways in which it sets up parallels that allow for shrewd commentary on American Indian history and politics and then squanders the opportunity to pursue that commentary in favor of jokes and a kind of obvious and dangerous message of thoughtless universal equivalence and tolerance.

Perry Nodelman said...

Thanks, Debbie, for getting me interested in this book, which I hadn’t read before you alerted me to it. For the most part, i enjoyed reading it, and I have lots to say about it––enough to go past the number of characters allowed in a comment, so I’ve divided my response into two comments.

Part 1: I think that Rex does some very clever things in terms of paralleling the alien invasion with what happened between imperialist invaders and Indigenous people in North America and elsewhere. I think, though that Rex's main interest throughout appears to be in exploring the humor of the situation, and while that means there’s often clever and funny satire that emerges from the colonialist parallels, that doesn’t happen consistently. Sometimes the novel is a colonial satire, and sometimes it isn’t.

For instance, it seems that the appearance and character of the alien Gorg has satiric implications: they have the uniformity, the self-centered self-importance, and the obsessive single-mindedness of totalitarian overlords, like Hitler or the British raj or the European settlers of North America. But there is no satiric implication that I can find in the fact that the other aliens, the Boov, have a sizeable number of feet. It’s just a joke, just something that defines them as alien.

Similarly, i think, what happens sometimes resonates in terms of the history of relationships between Indigenous North Americans and European colonists and sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes, much worse, it resonates in what I see as negative ways that I suspect Rex wasn’t even aware of.

I think that happens, for instance, with the portrayal of Chief Shouting Bear. Aspects of it are cleverly satiric. I like how the Chief slyly manipulates stereotypes of angrily politicized Native Americans in order to keep people from interfering in his life. He creates a safe space for himself by pretending to be something that confirms other people's negative stereotypes and makes those other people want to avoid him. But while the distance between the stereotype and the real, clever, kind man who hides behind it seems to imply the falsity of the stereotype, it also in an odd way also confirms the stereotype: the novel never suggests that there aren’t a lot of angry Native Americans who shout too loudly about their land and their rights, etc. Nor does it suggest that the anger is justified and even necessary, or that is anything but just silly and laughable. Indeed, the novel seems to be sending up the supposed silliness of politicized Native people who want to make others aware of their rights at the same time as it seems to be expressing concern about how powerful outsiders oppress people and deprive them if their rights. The novel is just too interested in making jokes and being funny to be consistent enough to be effective as satire. As a result, it undermines its own satire.

Sarah H said...

Came back to read Perry's comments-- thanks for them! And thanks to Debbie for this thoughtful post.

Don't want to sidetrack the conversation, but just to respond to comments about the Holocaust above: the Holocaust was of course not limited to Germany. People from countries all over Europe were murdered (including my Hungarian relatives.) Auschwitz, for example, is in Poland. I understand the comparison is meant to evaluate relative distance from historical events, but maybe there is a shared desire by some to feel more distance than is warranted. Also definitely agree that satire and humor vary between cultures and countries, but I'd be interested to know *who* exactly in Europe is joking about the Holocaust. My European family members who are survivors certainly don't.

erica said...

I really appreciate this effort to "unpack" the plot, the characters, and the language in this book. Sometimes it seems as if authors don't take their books as seriously as readers do. I say that because the author (Rex) seems to simultaneously hold varying degrees of consciousness about history, sensitivity to the issues of colonized people, and his own intentions/goals.

You posed the question: Is it appropriate to write books for children that deal with serious, heavy topics, but do so in a superficial, humorous way? Is it appropriate to set up a metaphor for a specific historical event, but leave out the aspects that were devastating & horrific?

My observations of children reading books is that most of the time they don't mind if the author spells out exactly how they should understand & interpret a story. They are used to this at home, in school, & in literature (the didactic or obvious or historically relevant kind). For example, The One & Only Ivan (by Applegate) and Wonder (by Palacio) are well-loved by many students who read them in class with their teachers milking the discussion for lessons.

But if the author doesn't clearly specify which story elements are negative (stereotypical names or descriptions, the acceptance/dismissal of violence) and which are positive (authentic, multi-dimensional, diverse characters), then readers are left to their own devices. In my observation (as a parent & a children's librarian in a public library in a city) children's personal life experiences deeply affect how they interpret ambiguity. People can "hear" entirely different messages. It would be harder for a teacher to conduct a discussion about this, because kids would have to figure out for themselves what things mean, and whether or not they parallel real life.

Will young readers assume it's fine to use "Cheif" as a nickname for any American Indian person? Will they assume that bad colonizers are unsustainable (& leave on their own accord), but good colonizers can reach an acceptable & happy equilibrium with the native population?

What if different children get different messages about this book? Do all books need to be the kind that spell it out clearly?

If the author had flawlessly presented a plot & characters that paralleled an American Indian perspective (embedded in a story about a mixed-race girl befriending an extra-terrestrial while simultaneously fighting an invading colonizing army), then we would have had a cohesive metaphor, instruction-ready, conclusions drawn. Nobody would miss the point. That would have been an entirely different book.

As a children's librarian, I have recommended & would still recommend this book to readers - but readers see Gratuity as the voice of reason, the trusted narrator in this story. We need her to understand why using Frank instead of "Chief" mattered, like she saw through Frank's charade (& that of her school's namesake), and like she taught J-Lo why the invasion was wrong.

Thank you for the long article that sparked many thoughts about the book.