Monday, January 11, 2016

Kenneth Oppel's THE BOUNDLESS

A few days ago, I began to see Sujei Lugo's tweets about Kenneth Oppel's The Boundless. Intrigued, I got a copy from the library. Published in 2014 by Simon and Schuster, here's the synopsis:
The Boundless, the greatest train ever built, is on its maiden voyage across the country, and first-class passenger Will Everett is about to embark on the adventure of his life!
When Will ends up in possession of the key to a train car containing priceless treasures, he becomes the target of sinister figures from his past.
In order to survive, Will must join a traveling circus, enlisting the aid of Mr. Dorian, the ringmaster and leader of the troupe, and Maren, a girl his age who is an expert escape artist. With villains fast on their heels, can Will and Maren reach Will’s father and save The Boundless before someone winds up dead?
The country that train is crossing is Canada. In chapter one, Will ends up driving the final stake--a gold one--into the tracks, thereby completing the track in Craigellachie, presumably in 1885.

Let's step out of the book and look at a little bit of history.

The final stake connecting the eastern and western portions of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven into a railroad tie on November 7, 1885, in Craigellachie. Here's a map showing where it is, in British Columbia:

And here's a map from the website of the Canadian Museum of History, showing the route of the Canadian Pacific Railway:

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, all that land belonged to Native Nations.

In the US, the last spike of the Transcontinental Railroad was driven into the track in 1869. Train stories about railroads are popular. I read them with a critical eye, wondering if the author is going to provide readers with any information about what the railroads meant for Native people. They were, in short, a key reason land was taken from Native Nations. It is with that knowledge that I read books about railroads and trains.

The Boundless came out in 2014--the same year that Brian Floca's Locomotive won the Caldecott Medal.

The synopsis (above) for The Boundless doesn't mention anything about Native people, but the story Oppel gives us has a lot of Native content. Let's start with Mr. Dorian. We first meet him at the end of chapter one, when he captures a sasquatch. The year for that chapter is 1885. Chapter two picks up three years later (1888).

The next time we see Mr. Dorian is in chapter three, where, in his role as circus master, he talks to passengers about the train, saying:
Cut from the wilderness, these tracks take us from sea to sea, through landscapes scarcely seen by civilized men.
I was intrigued about Oppel's treatment of sasquatch in chapter one. The sasquatch Mr. Dorian captured becomes part of the circus (though it doesn't do anything in performances) and is on the train three years later. I wasn't keen on seeing that one captured and put in a cage because the sasquatch is in Native stories of tribes in the northwest. And, I didn't like reading "scarcely seen by civilized men" either because it suggests that the peoples of the northwest tribal nations were uncivilized. Reading that line, of course, reminded me of the grueling discussions about "civilized" Indians in The Hired Girl (those discussions took place on Heavy Medal and prompted me to do a stand-alone post, A Native Perspective on The Hired Girl).

Those two concerns jumped to a whole new level when I got to chapter seven and learned that Mr. Dorian is Native. The bad guy, Mr. Brogan, is looking for Will (the protagonist). Brogan thinks Dorian is hiding him and threatens to throw Dorian and the entire circus off the train. Dorian doesn't think Brogan has the authority to do that, and Brogan says (p. 124):
"You'd be surprised. And I don't take my orders from circus folk--especially half-breeds like you."
We're not supposed to like Brogan, so having him use "half breed" is supposed to provide us with a cue that the use of the phrase is not ok. Even so, I cringed when I read it. Such words--even when uttered by despicable characters--sting.

That said, it was hard for me to think of a Native person capturing a sasquatch and keeping it in a cage (he also wants to catch a Wendigo, which is also a problem), and it is hard for me to think that a Native person would say that Native homelands were "scarcely seen by civilized men." Would he think that? Maybe it is a script he uses as a circus ringmaster? A performance designed to stir up the imagination of the (white) audience? If so, Oppel should have given readers a clue about those words, but he didn't.

Either way, portraying Native peoples and our nations as "primitive" or "uncivilized" fits with white supremacy and ideas that we didn't know how to use the land (as Europeans used land), and therefore the land itself could simply be claimed by European nations and Europeans who knew what to do with it (by their definition, of course).

Back to the story...

Mr. Dorian doesn't like being called a "half breed" and calmly replies that he prefers the term Métis. Will overhears their conversation and thinks:
Having grown up in Winnipeg, Will is familiar with the Métis--the offspring of French settlers and Cree Indians--and the insults they endured, especially after their failed uprising.
Is what Will says accurate? Partially, but there's a lot more to it than that. And, is the "failed uprising" about Louis Riel? And... why use "uprising" to refer to that period of Métis activism? What image of comes to mind with the word "uprising"? Is it one like this? This is Riel and men who were, in the late 1860s/early 1870s, part of a provisional government he formed:


Other words in what Will says about Métis are odd, too. Uprising is one, but so is "offspring." Technically, it does mean children, but why not have Will use children, or kids?

Skipping ahead now, to page 145 (chapter 8) where Maren (she's a main character, too) is showing Will around the train car where the circus performers practice. Specifically, they're looking at the trapeze artists (the train is huge):
Both men are lean and muscular. Their heads are bald except for a tuft of long hair at the back, which is gathered into three braids. 
Will asks Maren if they're Mohawk. She says yes, and that they're fearless, that heights mean nothing to them. I don't know about those three braids, but Oppel is definitely using what he knows about Mohawk steelworkers. Fearless, though? Nope.

In chapter nine, Will is headed up to the "colonist" cars which are overcrowded. The person who takes them through the cars tells them that (p. 177):
"These people are fortunate to get passage on the Boundless at all," Drurie says with a sniff. "They're the poorest of the poor, and they've washed up on the shores of our country to claim our land."

They're German, French, and Italian. Mr. Dorian replies to Drurie (he's white):
"My mother's people are Cree Indian. Perhaps it's people like you who have washed up on our shores. A stimulating thought, don't you think?"
Drurie ignores him, but let's pause. Remember what I pointed out about Dorian's use of "civilized" in chapter three? Dorian is expressing a very political point here, but didn't do so earlier. That is an inconsistency in his characterization. Of course, I like the point he makes here. That line gets at current political discussions about immigration.

There's more I could note (like the brownface Sujei Lugo pointed out), but I'll end with a brief discussion of the buffalo hunting scene. It takes place in chapter 12. The train has a shooting car, in which passengers can pay to use a rifle (provided by a steward) to shoot at wildlife they pass. Just at the moment that Will and Maren are in the shooting car, a herd of buffalo moves over a hill and toward the train. Passengers start shooting at them. Will thinks it unsportsmanlike. He's right, of course, but that activity was common on trains during that time. Mr. Dorian says (p. 251):
"This is how you exterminate a people," the ringmaster says bitterly, "You kill all their food."
Then, passengers see Indians riding behind the herd, driving the herd away from the train. Some have rifles and some have bows. The steward tries to get people to leave the car, but they don't want to. One man shouts (p. 252):
"Damn redskins! They're steering them away from us."
Angry, that man then takes aim at one of the Indians on horseback. Dorian grabs the rifle and tells the angry man that the Indians need those buffalo for food and hides. The angry man says he's helping them by shooting the buffalo. Dorian points out that the man was shooting at the Indians, and the man says:
"What's one less Indian?"
He's killed an instant later, by an arrow, and Dorian murmurs "one less white man." The steward manages to get everyone inside, where Will hears a man call out how they "showed those redskins."

Earlier, I talked about a bad-guy using "half-breed." Here, the people using "redskins" are not likable either, and that's supposed to help readers know that what those men are doing is not ok. I think it does that, but as before, such language stings. In this case, it is even worse.

I don't like The Boundless. Like many of Oppel's books, it has sold well. It got starred reviews from the major children's literature journals--stars, in my view, it does not merit. Given its inconsistencies and use of troubling ideas and phrases, I cannot recommend Oppel's The Boundless. 


Leslie said...

The inconsistencies in the character of Logan is a very good point. And the sasquatch thing is ridiculous. There were a number of such traveling "exhibits," but none of them were likely anything other than the usual sideshow fakes.

The attitudes and the ignorant slurs were typical of the time. I think it's important for people to be aware of them--not just to establish a character as a "bad guy," but as a matter of history. Of course they sting, but readers need to feel that sting if they are going to have any understanding, awareness or empathy.
Reality is what makes literature compelling and powerful.

Debbie Reese said...


I think you have non-Native readers in mind when you say readers need such things to have understanding, awareness, or empathy. The readers I have in mind are Native ones.


Leslie said...

Native readers need to have context and awareness as much as non-Native readers, don't you think? Literature provides a way to connect in a personal way, and emotional hooks are essential--even ones that sting.

Shouldn't all children--Jewish and non-Jewish alike-- learn about and see pictures of the Holocaust, and learn the long history of European anti-Semitism--even if it stings?

Shouldn't all children--African-American or not-- learn about the degradations of slavery and Jim Crow?

Shouldn't Irish and non-Irish alike be aware of the "Irish Tactics" used by the British to subjugate them in the 16th century, and the fact that they worked so very well that British colonists used those same tactics against the Native Peoples when they came to the Americas?

Modern children of many races and cultures experience discrimination and prejudice on a daily basis. They need to know their own history in the context of the larger world, including the language of that reality. It obviously needs to be presented in a sensitive, age-appropriate way that creates empowerment.

In an excellent article, you write about common phrases such as "circling the wagons" and "off the reservation" and their origins. This helps foster the exact same understanding that I believe I am talking about.