Thursday, July 21, 2016

Does Lane Smith's RETURN TO AUGIE HOBBLE tell us anything about his THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS?

A reader who was following the conversations about Lane Smith's There Is A Tribe of Kids wrote to ask me if I'd read his Return to Augie Hobble. Here's the synopsis:
Augie Hobble lives in a fairy tale―or at least Fairy Tale Place, the down-on-its-luck amusement park managed by his father. Yet his life is turning into a nightmare: he's failed creative arts and has to take summer school, the girl he has a crush on won't acknowledge him, and Hogg Wills and the school bullies won't leave him alone. Worse, a succession of mysterious, possibly paranormal, events have him convinced that he's turning into a werewolf. At least Augie has his notebook and his best friend Britt to confide in―until the unthinkable happens and Augie's life is turned upside down, and those mysterious, possibly paranormal, events take on a different meaning.
The synopsis doesn't say, but as I started reading about the book, I learned that it is set in New Mexico, which could (for me) be a plus. It could be a plus for kids in New Mexico, too, including Native kids.

But, the person who wrote to me told me that Return to Augie Hobble has some Native content in it, so I started reading the book itself, wondering what I'd find.

Scattered throughout are illustrations of one kind of another, all done by Smith. In chapter four, the main character, Augie, is out after dark in the woods nearby and has a fight with a wolf-like creature. The next morning Augie feels like his face has tiny splinters on it. He uses his moms razor to shave them off. As the illustration on the next page tells us, he's got bits of toilet paper on his chin and neck because he's nicked himself with that razor.

Augie gets to work early, so is sitting in the break area reading a comic, waiting for his shift to start. Moze, another employee arrives. Augie gets up, but (p. 68-69):
He [Moze] pushes me back down. He calls me an Indian. I ask why and he says cause my face is under "Heap big TP." I say that doesn't even make sense so he hits me in the arm and says, "Teeeee Peeeeeee. Toilet paper, twerp." He goes, "Woo, woo, woo," and does a lame version of an Indian dance with an imaginary tomahawk. I say that's not very PC. He says "PC, Mac, who cares?" and hits me again. 
Interesting, isn't it? Let's look at that passage, in light of the discussions of his There Is a Tribe of Kids. The discussions are about some of the illustrations in the final pages of the book. Here's three:

Some wonder if Smith meant to depict kids playing Indian. Some say these kids aren't playing Indian. Smith hasn't responded (as far as I know) to any of the discussions. Some wonder if--as he drew the illustrations--he was aware that they could be interpreted as kids playing Indian. That wondering presumes that he is aware of the decades long critical writings of stereotyping, and in this case, stereotyping of Native peoples.

With Return to Augie Hobble, we know--without a doubt--that he does, in fact, know about issues of stereotyping.

How should we interpret that passage in Return to Augie Hobble?

Amongst the recent threads in writers' networks, is that if a writer is going to create a character who stereotypes someone, there ought to be some way (preferably immediately) for a reader to discern that it is a stereotype. One method is to have a bad-guy-character make the stereotypical remarks, because with them being delivered by a bad-guy, readers know they're not-good-remarks.

Does Smith do that successfully? I'll copy that passage here, for convenience (so you don't have to scroll back up):
He pushes me back down. He calls me an Indian. I ask why and he says cause my face is under "Heap big TP." I say that doesn't even make sense so he hits me in the arm and says, "Teeeee Peeeeeee. Toilet paper, twerp." He goes, "Woo, woo, woo," and does a lame version of an Indian dance with an imaginary tomahawk. I say that's not very PC. He says "PC, Mac, who cares?" and hits me again. 
In the passage above, it is Moze (a bad guy character) who is speaking. From "hits me again" the narrative leaves this whole Indian thing behind as they talk about other things.

I find the passage confusing. It feels like there's something missing between "Toilet paper, twerp." and "He goes, "woo, woo, woo," and does a lame version of an Indian dance with an imaginary tomahawk." What do you think? Is something missing there?

Confusion aside, I think the passage doesn't do what, I assume, Smith meant it to do. Moze is delivering remarks in that humorous style Smith is praised for using.  Will kids pick up on his message (assuming he meant to use Moze to teach kids that dancing around that way is not ok)? Or, does his "PC, Mac" get in the way of that understanding? With "PC, Mac" the focus is on computers, not stereotypes. That kind of word play is a big reason people like Smith's writing.

Back when I taught children's literature at the University of Illinois, I selected Smith's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs as a required reading (Smith is the illustrator; the text is by Jon Scieszka). It is a terrific way to teach kids about differing points of view. When I think about that book, I know that Smith understands different points of view and how they matter.

I think it fair to say Lane Smith is a master at conveying the importance of that all important point of view. As his Augie Hobble tells us, he's aware of problems with the ways that Native peoples are depicted. That is part of why I find his There Is a Tribe of Kids disappointing.

What are your thoughts? Knowing he is aware of issues of stereotyping, what do you make of what he did in There Is a Tribe of Kids? And, does what he did in Augie Hobble work?


From time to time I curate a set of links about a particular book or discussion. I'm doing that below, for There Is a Tribe of Kids. The links are arranged chronologically by date on which they were posted/published. If you know of ones I ought to add, please let me know. I will insert it below (as you'll see, I'm noting the date on which I add it to the list in parenthesis).

Sam Bloom's Reviewing While White: There Is a Tribe of Kids posted on July 8, 2016 (added to this list on July 21, 2016).

Debbie Reese's Reading While White reviews Lane Smith's THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS posted on July 9, 2016 (added to this list on July 21, 2016).

Debbie Reese's Lane Smith's new picture book: THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS (plus a response to Rosanne Parry) posted on July 14, 2016 (added to this list on July 21, 2016).

Roxanne Feldman's A Tribe of Kindred Souls: A Closer Look at a Double Spread in Lane Smith's THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS posted on July 17, 2016 (added to this list on July 21, 2016).

Roger Sutton's Tribal Trials posted on July 18, 2016 (added to this list on July 21, 2016).

Elizabeth Bird's There Is a Tribe of Kids: The Current Debate posted on July 19, 2016 (added to this list on July 21, 2016).


Unknown said...

I've been thinking about this since I read it, and I just don't know. Part of me wants to say, yes, kids will pick up on it, I would've picked up on it. I think I would have. But I also grew up in a very political family with a mother who made great efforts to make me aware of history and issues about American Indians (and even so, did not do so perfectly), so I'm not sure how representative I would have been. And on the other hand, even with my upbringing, I managed to read Peter Pan repeatedly at the ages of 11-13 and not pick up on the glaring, appalling racism that underpins that book (I did understand that the musical was racist), and I read the "Bad Tuesday" chapter of Mary Poppins repeatedly as a child and didn't pick up on the racism there either. So maybe I wouldn't have.

In this case, there are multiple cues that he's a jerk--the hitting, for instance. But the objection--"Not very PC"--is so very feeble. I don't like to underestimate children's capacity for reading and understanding. But I'm just not sure.


Debbie Reese said...

Yeah--what do people notice, or not, is on my mind this morning.

Last night I started to watch CRAZY EX GIRLFRIEND. In the first episode, there's a character named Darryl Whitefeather. He tells Rebecca (she's a lawyer and the star of the show) that he's 1/8 Chippewa. He wants her to call him Chief. She thinks that's a bit odd.

His office (they go there in episode 1) is full of things that made me hit the pause button. There's goofy mystical prints on the walls. Wolves howling, an End of the Trail print, etc. There's skulls attached to the walls, too, and a dreamcatcher (well, sort of a dreamcatcher). There's an end table that looks like a Pueblo drum...

Anyway, the guy is getting a divorce and hopes Rebecca will be his lawyer (there's a custody issue, too), because his wife has a Jew lawyer. Rebecca tells him she is a Jew. He's surprised, saying that her nose is small. Rebecca gets a notification on her phone, so gets up to leave and as she's walking out the door, she tells him they have to circle back to talk "about the Jew thing."

Clearly the writer(s) are tending to Jewish stereotypes, but, so far (I watched another episode) there's not been anyone pushing back on the Native stereotyping. I wonder if it is seen as stereotyping or not?

Unknown said...

God, I hope so, but the only way I can see that not going poorly is if they're trying to send up white people who claim to have a "Cherokee princess" great-grandmother or something and really don't know what they're talking about. But if they were doing that, surely they would've...made that point in the episode instead of leaving it hanging.

Also, I find something quite distasteful about putting anti-Semitism in the mouth of someone from a different oppressed/marginalized group. It smacks to me of trying to off-load the problem from white gentiles onto people who have not historically been the ones persecuting Jews.

I'm sorry.

Pamela said...

I really didn't like Return to Augie Hobble at all as a whole, and I totally forgot about this interaction. The book was just very odd and confusing, and I think that the disjointedness of the narrative is really indicative of the book. I'm not saying it's right, but I'm just not surprised.

I also found the treatment of trans people in Augie Hobble to be problematic, but that's an entirely different situation.