Monday, December 26, 2016


Way back in January or February, a reader wrote to ask me about Dan Gemeinhart's Some Kind of Courage. I put it into my "Debbie--have you seen" series and am glad to be able to return to it, today, with this review. 

First, the synopsis: 

Joseph Johnson has lost just about everyone he's ever loved. He lost his pa in an accident. He lost his ma and his little sister to sickness. And now, he's lost his pony--fast, fierce, beautiful Sarah, taken away by a man who had no right to take her.
Joseph can sure enough get her back, though. The odds are stacked against him, but he isn't about to give up. He will face down deadly animals, dangerous men, and the fury of nature itself on his quest to be reunited with the only family he has left.
Because Joseph Johnson may have lost just about everything. But he hasn't lost hope. And he hasn't lost the fire in his belly that says he's getting his Sarah back--no matter what.

Not a word, in that synopsis, about Native people, but if you look at the summary in WorldCat, you see this:
In 1890 Washington the only family Joseph Johnson has left is his half-wild Indian pony, Sarah, so when she is sold by a man who has no right to do so, he sets out to get her back--and he plans to let nothing stop him in his quest.
See? "Half-wild Indian pony." The story begins in 1890 in a place called Old Mission, Washington. As the synopsis and summary tell us, Some Kind of Courage is about a boy who is going to try to get his horse back. 

Here's how we first learn about Joseph's pony (Kindle Locations 302-303):
She’s half Indian pony, so she’s got some spirit, but she ain’t nothing but perfect with me.
Later, we'll read of her being a "half wild Indian pony" (Kindle 2043). Indian ponies appear in Westerns all the time. I've never figured out why they're "ponies" rather than "horses" -- and while I understand they had more endurance than other horses, I'm not sure why--in Some Kind of Courage--an Indian pony would have more spirit or be called "wild." That's a small point, though, so I won't go on about it.

Of greater interest to me is that Joseph has been taught, by his now-deceased mother, not to use or think "Chinaman" about Chinese people. That, he remembers, is wrong (Kindle Locations 210-216):
Chinaman. I heard the word in my mind, then my mama’s voice. I’d said it once, the year before, after we’d passed a group of Chinese on the road to Yakima. 
I’d been confused. Everyone called them Chinamen. I didn’t know there was another word for ’em. 
“It ain’t a curse word, Mama,” I’d argued. 
She’d pursed her lips. “Any word can be an ugly word if you say it ugly. And people say that word ugly, Joseph, nearly every time. It sounds hateful and I don’t like it. They’re people just like us, at the end of the day. In the Lord’s eyes, if not in His people’s.”
His mother, apparently, has awareness of stereotyping and racism. They're people, she tells Joseph. But she doesn't seem to have applied those ideas to Native peoples. In chapter six, Joseph and Ah-nee hear voices. They turn out to be two Indian children (Kindle Locations 527-531):
It was Indians. Two of ’em. A boy, older and taller than me, his bare arms taut with muscles. And a girl, five or six years old, with her arms around him and a terrified look on her face. The boy’s eyes narrowed. He bared his teeth like a wolf and snarled a word low and mean in his native tongue. A shaft of sunlight through the treetops gleamed on the long knife blade held in his hand as he ducked into a crouch and lunged toward me.
Bared his teeth like a wolf? Hmmm...

As we move into chapter seven, we read "the Indian" a bunch of times. When Joseph and the boy scuffle, Joseph thinks that he's in the grip of "an actual, real-life Indian" and he worries that he's going to get scalped. Is it realistic for him to think that way? Sure. Just like it was realistic for him to think "Chinaman" when he saw Chinese people. I wonder why his mother did not pass along any teachings about how to view Native people? Does it seem to you that she couldn't, because it wasn't plausible for her to think that way about Native people, but, that it is plausible she'd think that way about Chinese people? I don't know. That's a research question, for sure!

That Indian boy has a broken ankle. With Joseph and Ah-nee's help, the boy gets back to his family. They are, of course, grateful to Joseph. I like that, as Joseph looks at their camp, he sees kids chasing each other and playing. So often, Native children are absent from stories like this one! That little bit, there, is a big plus!

But, then, we're right back to stereotype land, when three Indian men approach Kindle Locations 603-604):
Their faces were deadly serious as they stood before us, looking like they were carved out of dark stone.
The Indian boy, it turns out, is the son of a chief! His name? "Chief George." We get "chief" and "scalp" and "the Indian" (lots of times) and stoicism... and no tribe--much less--a tribal nation.

People like Gemeinhart's story. It was part of the discussions at Heavy Medal (School Library Journal's blog where people engage in mock-Newbery discussions ahead of the actual announcements of who wins that prestigious award). I think it falls heavily into stereotypical depictions of Native people. Because people like it, it will be bought and read and assigned, too, to children in school.

People may defend it because of the way that Gemeinhart deals with "Chinaman." For me, that defense will signal another time in which Native concerns are set aside in favor of what an author has done to elevate someone else. When will that sort of thing end, I wonder?

In short: I do not recommend Dan Gemeinhart's Some Kind of Courage. Published in 2016 by Scholastic, it'll likely do quite well, which is too bad for everyone who will have stereotypical ideas of Native peoples affirmed by Gemeinhart's writing. And of course, completely unacceptable for Native kids who are asked to read it.

1 comment:

Hanna said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments on this, Debbie.

In conversation on depictions of Natives in this book over at Heavy Medal, one commenter remarked that the stereotypical depictions and assumptions are justified, because they are in fitting with the time period. I don't doubt that a white boy in 1890 would have racist attitudes toward Natives (and indeed, I found the novel's relatively more conscious dealings with Chinese people hard to believe).

Do you think there is an appropriate way to depict historical biases and ignorance without recreating those oppressions for contemporary children? Do you think there is a way that Gemeinhart could have fixed this flawed text?

I'm not asking because I think it's your job to do this, but because you have offered some simple and effective solutions for other titles that fall short, and I would love to hear your thoughts. This novel's frame, the perspective of a white boy in 1890, seems to create an extra challenge, and perhaps there is no easy fix?