Saturday, September 17, 2016

Not recommended: GHOSTS by Raina Telgemeier

On Monday, September 19th, Raina Telgemeier will launch her new book, Ghosts, in Minneapolis. She's a much acclaimed writer with several best selling books. 

Anytime I see a book that has something to do with ghosts, I wonder if the author is going to be contributing to the too-high-pile of problematic books with characters who are haunted or inspired by the ghost of a Native character. One example (there are many) is Susan Cooper's Ghost Hawk. 

I think Telgemeier's Ghosts is one of those problematic books, but I don't think that Telgemeier is aware that she's doing that same thing. The story she tells, and the reviews of her story, demonstrate (yet again) an ignorance of history. I imagine some people defending the book by saying its audience isn't old enough for the complexity of that history, but that holds true only for a selected (possibly white) audience. Native children, and children of color, know far more history than one might expect, because history informs and shapes our daily lives, today. History, of course, informs the daily lives of White children, too, but in a way that means they're ignorant--and are taught ignorance--until they're deemed "ready" for that dark history. 

So, let's get started. Here's the synopsis for Telgemeier's Ghosts:
Catrina and her family are moving to the coast of Northern California because her little sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn't happy about leaving her friends for Bahía de la Luna, but Maya has cystic fibrosis and will benefit from the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea. As the girls explore their new home, a neighbor lets them in on a secret: There are ghosts in Bahía de la Luna. Maya is determined to meet one, but Cat wants nothing to do with them. As the time of year when ghosts reunite with their loved ones approaches, Cat must figure out how to put aside her fears for her sister's sake - and her own.

The ghosts in Bahía de la Luna (that is a fictional town) are primarily the ones they see at a mission. This starts on page 73, when Carlos (the neighbor boy who tells them about ghosts) takes them to the mission, "where the ghosts' world and ours mostly closely overlap." The three get separated on the way up there. Cat arrives, alone. The mission itself is run down. 




Nobody is there, which is interesting in itself because those missions are a key piece of California's tourism industry. There may be some that are like the one in Ghosts, but I kind of doubt it. After wandering around a bit, Cat sees a ghost. She follows it and finds Maya and Carlos in the courtyard:




Carlos opens a bottle of orange soda, hands it to Maya, and then one of the ghosts goes right up to her, smiling:




At first she's taken aback, but in the next panels, we see the ghost hug her, so she decides it is a friendly ghost. She says hi, but Carlos tells her that most of the people buried there were from Mexico, so, they like it when people speak Spanish to them. So, Maya calls out "Hola!"

That visit to the mission is the point where--for me--the story really starts to unravel.

The missions were there (obviously) for a specific reason: to turn Native peoples into Catholics and to claim that land for Spain. Some see missions and missionary work as a good, but if you pause for a minute and think about what they and that work is designed to do, and if you do a bit of reading, you'll learn that it was far from the benevolent character with which it is regarded by most of society.

At the missions, life for Native people was brutal. There was rape. Enslavement. Whippings. Confinements. And of course, death. Analyses of the bones at the mission burial sites that compare them with bones found elsewhere show that the bones of those who died at the missions were stunted and smaller than the others.

Some of Telgemeier's ghosts might have spoken Spanish, but it is far more likely that their first language was an Indigenous one. Did they joyfully want to be spoken to in Spanish, the language of their oppressors? Given the history, I think it is unlikely that these ghosts would be smiling as Telgemeier shows:



And I wonder, too, about those cemeteries. There are a lot of accounts that report that Native peoples were buried in mass, unmarked graves, elsewhere.

One might defend Telgemeier by saying that her ghosts are of the Spanish priests and maybe soldiers, and, maybe Native peoples who had been successfully Christianized, but the overwhelming evidence of the history is what I think should hold sway when we look at the missions, and when we give children stories about them.

I strongly urge people to read Deborah Mirandah's Bad Indians. Look, especially, at her chapter, The End of the World: Missionization. There, she presents an accurate version of what children across California are asked to do: a mission study. But Deborah's doesn't soft pedal or whitewash what happened. She describes items, like a cudgel (p. 15):
Wooden club used to strike quickly; alcaldes, soldiers, and sometimes padres carried these with them for spontaneous corrections throughout their day. The alcaldes used these during services in church to remind the Indians to be quiet, to pay attention, and to stay awake. A longer cudgel or cane was useful during Mass because the alcalde could reach far into a crowd without having to move very much.
Look, too, at A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions by Elias Castillo. He writes about treatment of Native people who tried to escape the missions. When caught, the friars at Mission San Francisco burned crosses into the faces of men, women, and children.

If you can't get Bad Indians or A Cross of Thorns right away, then read The Lesser-Told Story of the California Missions, which includes quotes from their books.

Above, I wrote that this brutal history is usually kept away from children--but I also noted that the children it is kept from is not Native children, or children of color. Indeed, Castillo's book includes a foreword, written by Valentin Lopez, Chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Costanoan/Ohlone Indians. He writes:
Until now, the true and full history of the California missions has never been told. When visitors tour the missions, they are usually presented with stories and images of peaceful, loving priests and soldiers who treated the Indians as adored children. 
These stories belie the truth of the missions, where Native Americans suffered under harsh and brutal conditions. As a young boy, I listened to stories from my elders about the cruelty of the missions. There were tales of how native women were captured— with their thumbs tied together with leather straps to form human chains— and marched forcibly from their tribal lands to the missions. If the Indians did not cooperate, the soldiers, at times, killed them. In one incident, more than two hundred women and children of the Orestimba tribe (living near what is now the town of Newman) were being taken to Mission San Juan Bautista. When, after passing the summit at the Orestimba Narrows, these women refused to go any farther, the Spanish commander ordered the women and children killed with sabers and their remains scattered. 
The oral traditions of our tribal band, the Amah Mutsun, taught us stories of how certain Spaniards would appear when the Indians were first brought into the missions so they could get their pick of the young girls and boys for their perverted appetites, always with the tacit approval of the priests.
I know most people don't want to read about such things, but for certain, we cannot go forward presenting the missions as Telgemeier does. Can you imagine what Mr. Lopez's response to Ghosts? Can you imagine how teachers will use this book in the classrooms? On a superficial level, it looks to be the perfect "diverse" book. It isn't. Head over to Reading While White's post about Ghosts and see the conversation and links there. In particular see what Yuji Morales and Patricia Encisco submitted in their comments about the book.

Published in 2016 by Scholastic, I do not recommend Raina Telgemeier's Ghosts. 

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Eds. Note: AICL will add links to additional reviews about concerns with the book.

Ghosts: Swing and a Hard Miss by Laura Jimenez

5 comments:

AnnPoet said...

Thank you for another excellent review.

"Anytime I see a book that has something to do with ghosts, I wonder if the author is going to be contributing to the too-high-pile of problematic books with characters who are haunted or inspired by the ghost of a Native character." Oh gosh. With some informed advice and thoughtful feedback, I recently changed that aspect in a middle grade novel I'm working on. The thing is, I didn't even consciously realize what a huge stereotype it is till I read this review. I sometimes think there is a white (racist) collective unconscious that keeps these tropes alive, and romantic, to us.

I have GHOSTS on hold at my library. I am concerned about the disability representation. Cystic fibrosis (CF) is hereditary; it is an ADA protected disability. There are comprehensive medical treatment plans for it based on severity of the condition. [I see from a preview of the book that Telgemeier shows and explains some of the treatments.] I was born in NY with deafness and a pulmonary disability. What doctor recommended cooler weather for Maya? I checked online and found people with CF discussing how cold weather exasperates CF. I'm also tired of books that represent kids as being inconvenienced, or put out, by their siblings' disabilities. I'll have to see, first hand, how the book handles these issues.

As far as teaching children the truth about the missions, I had an interesting reaction when I discussed this review with my much younger sister. She was outraged by how the missions are represented. I asked her how she knew about the atrocities against Native people at California missions. She told me she saw it on a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Thanksgiving (!) episode when she was quite young. Apparently, the characters unearth an old Spanish mission, and an 'avenging Chumash spirit' arrives and strikes them down with the same atrocities used against his tribe. She said the episode has many negative aspects. But the reality of the Spanish missions stayed with her from an early age.

I guess Telgemeier didn't see that "Buffy" episode. Maybe she's seen Hitchcock's Vertigo--high-romanticism about Spanish missions.

AnnPoet said...

I should always Google 'Debbie Reese and [fill in the blank]' before writing to Debbie Reese! I found your review of the Buffy Thanksgiving episode. It sounds dreadful. It's just as well Telgemeier didn't see it. I noticed you put the word atrocities in quotes. I regret using the term. I believe that GHOSTS will impress itself on young readers, with its deeply problematic view of Spanish missions and Day of the Dead. (Maybe also CF. Why are Maya's treatments funny? She runs around till she falls down wheezing. I learned at a very young age to restrict certain activities and control my breathing.) My sister and I are grateful for the book recommendations.

Debraj said...

Thank you for an in-depth critique of this book. As always, I learned valuable information by reading through the critique and the comments.

mclicious said...

Your post and RWW's together make for good reading, and I hope Disability in Kidlit takes a look at it as well. I like the idea of a kid with CF seeing themselves in a graphic novel, especially one that makes an intersectional nonwhite disabled character, because it's very rare to see that. And I've been hearing under the table criticisms for awhile as reviews have been churning. I love Telgemeier's work and really wanted to read this, and it's a shame she couldn't just make it a fun ghost story rather than throw a bunch of half-baked ideas from Day of the Dead in there.

Ellen Fleischer said...

I recall a trip I took under the auspices of my university's Russian department. It was "in the footsteps of Peter the Great," which meant travel to several Russian cities, as well as a visit to Talinn, Estonia. At the time, I'd been learning Russian for about a year and a half and most of us on the tour had some knowledge of the language, as well. None of us spoke Estonian. This was 1991, and the Baltic republics had been independent of the USSR for about a year. What I remember is our tour guide telling us that when in Estonia, not to start off speaking in Russian. She explained that although most people understood it, to them it was the language of their oppressors. They'd been forced to learn it, but most didn't want to speak it now that they were independent.

Our guide's advice? "Start with English and French. If you speak other languages besides those, try them too. Chances are they won't understand you, BUT if you then switch to Russian, they'll probably be a lot more willing to converse with you, because at that point, they'll understand that you're trying to find a common language for communication and that you aren't lumping them in with Russia/assuming that Russian is their language."

Would I be correct in thinking that the book would be less problematic if, say, Telgemeier had had Carlos giving a quick overview of the missions and then explained that the ghosts probably did know some Spanish, they might not want to speak it unless Maya explained that it was the only way they could communicate?