Thursday, March 31, 2016

Debbie--have you seen S.D. Nelson's SITTING BULL: LAKOTA WARRIOR AND DEFENDER OF HIS PEOPLE

Last year, I referenced S. D. Nelson's Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People in an article I did for School Library Journal. I hadn't read it then, and haven't studied it yet, but have had some questions about it (hence, it is now in my "Debbie--have you seen" category). I do have a copy and want to say a few words about it. (Update: It was published in 2015 by Abrams.)

I'm critical of books wherein the writer has invented dialogue for a real person. As a scholar in children's literature who works very hard to help others see biased, stereotypical, inaccurate, romantic and derogatory depictions of Native peoples in children's books, invented dialogue looms large for me.

In short: I need to know if there is evidence or documentation that the person actually said those words. This concern holds, whether the writer is Native or not.

In Nelson's Sitting Bull, the entire text is invented dialogue--and invented thoughts.

It is constructed as a first person biography. It is presented to us as if Sitting Bull is telling us his life story, after he's been killed. Along the way, we have some dialogue, but mostly we have what Nelson imagines Sitting Bull to have thought.

On February 1, 2016 in The Stories in Between, Julie Danielson wrote:
Increasingly, today’s readers also want to see dialogue attribution in the back matter of biographies. That’s because invented dialogue is still a touchy subject. You have those who think that it has no place and that any sort of made-up dialogue puts the biography squarely in the category of historical fiction. Then you have those who think such dialogue is acceptable, helps bring the story to life, and can still be considered nonfiction. In 2014, Betsy Bird wrote here about her changing feelings on the subject (“In general I stand by my anti-faux dialogue stance but recently I’ve been cajoled into softening, if not abandoning, my position”), which made me nod my head a lot.
Here’s where I (and many others) draw the line: if a biographer invents dialogue or shifts around facts in any sort of way, they need to come clean about this in the back matter. A great example of this is Greg Pizzoli’s Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower, the story of con artist Robert Miller, published last year and named a Kirkus Best Book of 2015. There’s a line in the starred review of the book that states: “The truth behind Miller’s exploits is often difficult to discern, and Pizzoli notes the research challenges in an afterword.” 
"Come clean" is, perhaps, a loaded way to characterize what Danielson is calling for, but I think it is an important call. I want to know what Nelson made up.

Clearly, this is not a hard and fast rule. If it was, Sitting Bull would not have been selected as an Honor Book by the American Indian Library Association.  And--this isn't the first time the field of children's literature has looked critically at invented dialogue. Myra Zarnowski's chapter, Intermingling fact and Fiction, published in 2001 in The Best in Children's Nonfiction, has a good overview.

If I do an in-depth look at Sitting Bull, I'll be back. For now, though, I am not comfortable recommending it, and I may revisit what I said about his Buffalo Bird Girl when I wrote about it, back in 2013. It, too, is a biography.

I anticipate questions from readers who wonder if S.D. Nelson ought to get a pass on invented dialogue because he is Lakota. My question is: did he work with any of Sitting Bull's descendants as he wrote the story? Did any of them read the manuscript? If they did, and they found it acceptable, I'd love to see that in the book. On the cover, in fact! If I do hear anything like that, I'll be back to update this post.

3 comments:

Nina Lindsay said...

Debbie, thanks for this. I am generally an "anti-faux-dialogue" person myself; I need to be convinced that it is necessary for the story's impact, and have it very clearly presented as faux.

It gets very sketchy when writing from secondary, tertiary, etc. sources, in which you are quoting "dialogue" from another source, but who knows where that source got it from, and their intention? I haven't had the time to investigate Nelson's Sitting Bull yet. Years ago I did a lot of back-tracking of sources for Albert Marrin's Sitting Bull, which I found to be a very problematic treatment, clearly inventing a lot of thoughts and feelings, and deriving "evidence" from inherently biased (though "authoritative") white scholarship.

Rachel Byington said...

I would love to see a full review of this book.

Beverly Slapin said...

Nina, we did an extensive review of Marrin's SITTING BULL AND HIS WORLD. It's in A BROKEN FLUTE, and it was also on Oyate's "Books to Avoid" page. Debbie, did you capture it from some other source? Rachel, some of us are working on a full review of Nelson's SITTING BULL: LAKOTA WARRIOR AND DEFENDER OF HIS PEOPLE. Stay tuned.