Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Boxcar Children: Mystery of the Lost Village

In The Boxcar Children: The Mystery of the Lost Village, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny visit "a Navajo Indian reservation." Violet exclaims "A Navajo reservation!" (p. 2).

That is the first red flag as I start reading this story. There is only one Navajo Nation, and only one Navajo reservation. A Navajo child who pays attention to how Navajo people are portrayed will notice that error right away.

The Boxcar Children and their grandfather fly over the Mississippi River and the Grand Canyon. They land in New Mexico. When they land, they take a taxi to a group of houses on the reservation.

Several red flags there!

They fly over the Mississippi River. Fine. But the Grand Canyon? Nope! Not unless the pilot was lost.

Here's another thing. They land at the airport, which is probably Albuquerque International Airport, which is miles and miles and miles away from the Navajo Reservation... and they go there by taxi?! I know their grandfather is wealthy, so maybe cost is not a big deal, but goodness!

Check out this image. It shows the Navajo Reservation (it spans four states):

Point A is Albuquerque. Point B is Gallup. Distance? 140 miles.

At that group of houses the taxi pulls up to, the Lightfeather children, Amy and Joe, greet them. They get into the taxi, too, and direct the driver to their home. Once at the Lightfeather home, Amy shows Violet and Jessie where they'll sleep (Amy's room). They talk at length about the colorful Navajo blankets on the beds. They've got animal designs on them: an eagle, a deer, a turtle, a hawk, and a turtle. Amy tells the girls that each one, by design, always has a tiny mistake in the design because Navajo women believe that if it is perfect, it would offend the gods.

More red flags!

Navajo blankets being used as blankets on a bed? I'll have to do some checking on that... They're very expensive and are usually more like wall hangings than something you'd wrap yourself up in. And the way the kids talk about the animals on them... well, I can't imagine them. If you do an image search on Navajo blankets, you'll see what I mean. Birds--yes, but all those animals? Not so much. Possible, but not plausible.

Later that evening, the kids meet Kinowok, "the oldest man on the reservation" (p. 14). He's a storyteller. He tells them about a tribal village nearby, just off the reservation, that "the earth had swallowed" up when the people abandoned it during a drought.

To me, that sounds like the things said about Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon... all those sites that are the ancestral homes of Pueblo peoples.

Henry says "A lost village" and talks about archaeology. He wants to find that site and start digging. Mrs. Lightfeather studied archaeology in college and spent two summers working on digs, so she offers to give them some tips. She tells the kids that students have tried to find this particular village but so far, nobody has found it. Once they start digging, they find an arrowhead and a "bright orange" piece of pottery. Later, Mrs. Lightfeather tells them a real estate developer wants to build there, and that they only have two weeks to dig. If they can find the village, it will stop the real estate developer. Sites like that are protected by the law, she says.

The next time the kids dig, Violet finds an entire pot. The cover of the book is meant to show that part of the story, except the pot on the cover has a piece missing. The one Violet finds is in perfect condition. They take it home that evening. Mrs. Lightfeather congratulates her on the find.

More red flags!

If Mrs. Lightfeather is Navajo and has studied archaeology, she'd probably have a different response. Such finds are rare and must be handled with great care.

It is possible but not plausible, to find a perfect pot, and possible but not plausible for Mrs. Lightfeather's reaction, too. She sounds more white than Navajo!

One day, Amy takes the girls to the stable where her horse is. While they're there, a "tall blonde" man enters the stables and startles the girls. He tells them he's a genealogist and that the council has given him permission to look through their records.

Amy assumes this means he is Navajo and asks him about it. He says that yes, he is part Navajo but mostly white. He spots the necklace Amy is wearing and asks her if the stone is an opal. She tells him it is turquoise. After he leaves, she tells the girls that, if he is really Navajo, he would know the stone is turquoise, because of its significance to the Navajo people. There's a legend about it, she says. Violet wants to know what the story is, and Amy starts out with "I guess you'd call it a fairy tale."

With that line, I am going to stop reading. There's too much wrong. The Mystery of the Lost Village -- though a work of fiction, is so deeply flawed that I do not recommend it. According to WorldCat, it is in over 1200 libraries. It is available in Braille and as an e-book. Is it in yours? I hope not.


conuly said...

Amy tells the girls that each one, by design, always has a tiny mistake in the design because Navajo women believe that if it is perfect, it would offend the gods.

Man, that story gets around. I've heard it about Amish quilts, Shaker furniture, and Chinese paintings. To date, I've yet to see any evidence that it's true for any of those people.

Truth Unleashed said...

I always heard it about Muslims and Persian rugs. I've heard that several times from different sources, so it might even be true. As a Christian, I would be very surprised if it were true of Amish, Shakers, or any other Christian denomination or offshoot group. Deliberately doing less than one's best smacks of false humility to the Christian mindset.

Beverly Slapin said...

From what I've been told, traditional Diné (Navajo) weavers incorporate a small opening or break--sometimes a light colored piece of yarn woven into a border--as an acknowledgment that only Creator makes perfect things. It's also a reminder for weavers to keep their minds and thoughts open. And it's a constant reminder of why and how things are done.

There's some excellent, child-appropriate discussion of why spirit lines are woven into rugs in the beautiful photoessay for children by Monty Roessel, who is Diné, about his mother's teaching his daughter how to weave. It's called SONGS FROM THE LOOM: A NAVAJO GIRL LEARNS TO WEAVE.

In any event, weaving in a spirit line is not "deliberately doing less than one's best," nor is it "false humility."

Truth Unleashed said...

I'm not criticizing the custom or what it means to the culture or cultures that practice it. The spirit line, as you describe it, sounds mindful and meaningful, and to reduce it to "making a mistake on purpose" as the Boxcar Children book seems to suggest is a gross exaggeration. I was responding to conuly's comment in which this custom has been ascribed to any number of cultures, and offering an opinion that it seems unlikely in some of those cases. I'm not Amish or a Shaker, so I could be wrong, but it seems implausible based on the values Christians have traditionally held. I seem to recall reading a review here on AICL in which an obviously ignorant writer had a Navajo character refer to an owl as some kind of benevolent guardian spirit. This is problematic not because there's anything inherently wrong with owls, but because it's foreign to the Navajo way of thinking. (I apologize if I'm misremembering some of the details.) Likewise, the "deliberate imperfection" is something that, to my understanding, is foreign to the American Christian way of thinking. I mentioned my own religious affiliation to emphasize that I understand the mindset pretty well, but I don't subscribe to it uncritically, and I certainly don't expect anyone else to. My previous comment was clumsily written, and I promise to proofread next time before hitting the "Publish" button even if I'm short on time.