Saturday, November 11, 2017

Not recommended: John Smelcer's KISKA

Published by Leapfrog Press, John Smelcer's Kiska was released in November of 2017.  I'll start by saying I do not recommend Kiska. Back in September when I received an advanced reader copy of Smelcer's book, I tweeted as I read it. Last week, Melissa S. Green sent me an in-depth review of his book. Rather than repeat what she said in her excellent review, I'm going to focus on a couple of things: the seal story and the dramatic character of Smelcer's story.

First, though some background.

My guess is that most people do not know that Native peoples of Alaska were removed from their villages during World War II. In fact, most people don't know much about the Indigenous people of Alaska.

As I began the background research to review Kiska, I wrote to colleagues and writers in Alaska to ask about the internment of the Aleut people. I learned that the preferred name for the people I was asking about is Unangan. One resource I was pointed to is The Alaska Native Reader (2009), edited by Maria Sháa Tláa Williams. Here's a paragraph (I highlighted the end of the last sentence (Kindle Locations 62-66):
The history of Alaska is often told from the perspective of outsiders and those who view the resources of Alaska as amazing treasures to exploit. There are stories of eighteenth-century Russian fur hunters, of the brave miners who came to Alaska in the late nineteenth century to discover gold, of the companies that developed salmon canneries, and, in the twentieth century, of the oil companies that worked together to build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, one of the engineering marvels of the twentieth century. These stories are often highlighted and even exalted, yet one must ask what was the impact on the indigenous people.
When I review a children's book, I consider impact. What will the content of a book do to Native children, particularly the children who are of the identity the characters are meant to be. Will it accurately reflect their people, past and present, and their experiences--good and bad? And, what will a book do to non-Native children? Will it give them reliable information about the people who are depicted in the book? The answers to those questions are why I do not recommend Kiska.


Let's start with the description (from Amazon):
Kiska’s home in the Aleutian Islands is a peaceful paradise until Japan invades in 1942. Soon after, a U.S. naval ship arrives to evacuate everyone in her village to an internment camp almost 2,000 miles away—where they are forgotten. Informed by true events, this is the story of a teenage girl who steps up when her people need a hero.
In chapter one, we meet Kiska as a grandmother who is telling her 13-year-old granddaughter what happened to her in 1942 when she was 13 years old. Kiska speaks to her granddaughter in a way that suggests that the granddaughter knows little, if anything, about being Aleut and nothing about 1942. Making the granddaughter ignorant makes it possible for the author (Smelcer) to write for a similarly ignorant audience of readers.

On page 16, for example, Kiska says that their word for kayak is baidarka. We can read that as her attempt to teach her granddaughter their language, but she only uses baidarka that one time. After that, Kiska uses kayak. If part of what Kiska/Smelcer are doing is to teach some Indigenous words using story, it would have been appropriate to use baidarka throughout, rather than revert to kayak.

Update, Nov 12, 6:00 AM--I shared this review on Facebook. There, I received an immediate comment that baidarka is a Russian word. That individual is correct. The Unangan word for kayak is iqyax. I consulted several sources, including Smelcer's Alutiiq Dictionary, published in 2011. On page 44, he writes that "the word baidarka is of Russian origin, while the Unangan (Aleut) word is Igyax." Why did Smelcer's character say baidarka is the Aleut word? He clearly knows otherwise. 

Right away in chapter one, the story moves from Kiska-the-grandma to Kiska-the-teen. There's one point where Kiska's uncle is skinning a seal. She pleads excitedly with him to tell her, again, "the story of the first seals" (p. 18). In his story, a beautiful young girl is of age to marry. Many of the men in the village want to marry her. One night a man goes into her room and "forced himself on her" (p. 18). Because it is dark, she doesn't know who it is. This happens several nights in a row. One night, she decides to scratch his face so she'll see, in the morning, who it is. It turns out to be her brother. "In her great shame" (p. 19) she throws herself in the sea and is transformed into the first female seal. Her brother, either because he loved her so much or because he was ashamed of himself, also jumps off the cliff and is transformed into the first male seal. "All seals thereafter came from the two of them" (p. 19).

Generally speaking, when Native people tell stories to children and teens, there is a purpose or context for the particular story they choose to tell. Native writers who incorporate Native stories into their books usually have a context for a character to tell that particular story. I read through these pages in Kiska several times and can't figure out why Kiska's uncle would have chosen to tell that story to her in the first place, and then why Kiska would ask for it again when her uncle is skinning a seal. It strikes me as an unusual story. It is about rape and incest, and the outcome of is the creation of all seals. Having seals is a good. But I don't understand how a good is the outcome of rape and incest. It doesn't make sense to me. What will readers come away with? I don't know. I do wonder, though, about the backstory for Kiska's uncle telling that particular story? What was he trying to teach her, and why?

In fact, Kiska wonders about that story, too. After her uncle tells her the story, Kiska thinks about how she's always been uncomfortable with the ending because it "seemed to me that the wicked brother got his desire to be with his sister." She'd heard another version, where the brother and sister become the first sea otters. What, she wonders, "was to be learned from such stories? That life is unfair? Our stories weren't like the fairy tales I heard at school with their tidy, happy endings" (p. 21).

True enough, Native stories aren't like English ones. They've often been misinterpreted by outsiders. As someone who says he's gathered stories from elders, it seems to me that Smelcer would take care in using them, especially when he's telling them (through his characters) to an audience that isn't Unangan.

Curious to see what I might learn about Aleut stories--and this one in particular--I started looking for it. In other tellings, the story is about sea otters who, once transformed, swim away from each other. Unangam Ungiikangin kayux Tunusangin • Unangam Uniikangis ama Tunuzangis • Aleut Tales and Narratives, has stories collected by Waldemar Jochelson in 1909 and 1910. Edited by Knut Bergsland and Moses L. Dirks, it was published in 1990 by the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Story #42 is "Aatluung." Story #58 is similar. There's a brief note that the stories are similar to others meant to teach that incest is unacceptable.

In #42, Aatluung's sister is having her menstrual period alone in a separate house. When darkness came, a man would go in her house and "play with her [sexually]" (p. 325). Trying to figure out who he might be, she tore his parka one night and the next day, learned that the only person with a torn parka was her brother, Aatluung. That night, after the man played with her and was leaving, she thrust her knife in him from behind. The next morning, she heard weeping and learned that people were weeping for her brother, who was dead. She bathed, put on her parka, cut it open in front, and went over to where her brother was lying. "Get up to see the two [vulva] that prevented you from sleeping!" When she said that, his foot moved. She said it again and he got up, took hold of her and went out, to the shore. Their mother, crying, followed them but before she could reach them, they were in the sea. The brother became a male sea otter and dove toward east. The sister became a female sea otter and dove towards west. Their mother died, right there. There is no mention that these otters are the first sea otters.

The story the uncle tells in Kiska is the same one Smelcer shared on the website for the Missouri Folklore Society. There, he says he collected it in 1987 but doesn't give any details there as to what the story means.

So... I come back to Smelcer's reason for having it in chapter one of Kiska. Was it initially told to her because of her brother, Peter, who is a bit older than she is? Was she told that story to warn her not to let him have sex with her? I suppose that is possible but there's nothing in the story that even hints at that concern on anyone's part. Without any context, it seems odd to include it.

When chapter one ends, the Japanese have bombed Dutch Harbor Naval Base in Alaska.

In chapter two, a ship with an American flag anchors offshore. Three smaller boats are lowered, men climb into them and head for Kiska's village. Most everyone runs down to the beach to greet them. On shore, the men climb out. Some have rifles. One says that everyone must gather to hear what he has to say. Boys run up to the village to spread the word, and within a few minutes, everyone is at the beach. The man pulls a piece of paper from his pocket and reads aloud from it. Here's the first part (p. 28):
By order of the Secretary of the United States War Department and by the Secretary of the Interior...   
I tried to find this order in government archives and books, but have not yet found it. Writers have a lot of flexibility in fiction but I think items presented as official documents must be accurate. Classroom teachers assign historical fiction in their classrooms, especially when studying history, and they assume that what an author includes is accurate. Here's the next part:
... you are hereby ordered to abandon your village immediately and to be relocated to a safer location where you will be interned for the duration of the war against the Japanese. Such orders are in the interest and security of the nation and for your own protection.
If I ever find that order, I'll be back to say so. Melissa Green didn't find it either. See "Official proclamation" in her review. After reading that order (p. 28):
The officer told us that we were to leave immediately, at that very minute with only what we had on. No one was permitted to go home to collect clothes or pots and pans, or to close house doors or windows. No one was allowed to leave the beach.He ordered us to board the three boats immediately, to be transferred to the gray ship anchored a couple hundred yards offshore. When some families disregarded the orders and started up the path to their homes, two soldiers ran in front of them and aimed their rifles at them.
Pretty frightening, but, I don't think it is an accurate telling of what happened. I found several resources (including a documentary, Aleut Story) about the evacuations. At some islands, people were given less than 24 hours to prepare, but they were able to pack one bag. All on its own--being forced to select what you'd put in one bag and preparing to move in less than 24 hours--is a horrible experience. Why did Smelcer make it worse than it was?

He does that, again, later when Kiska is on the ship and meets other Aleuts who tell her that the soldiers burned their villages and shot their pets. Hearing gunfire, Kiska runs to a window (they're in the hold of the ship, so she looks out through a small window) and sees soldiers walking through her village, shooting at dogs and cats (p. 31-32):
I saw my dog running up the path to the cliffs above our village, trying to escape. A soldier ran after him, shooting at him and missing him several times. Rocks and dirt flew up where the bullets struck too high or too low. But finally, the soldier knelt and aimed right and killed my dog. I can still see him rolling and rolling down the hill and lying in a clump of grass.
Horrific, right? But not true either. Many villages were pillaged by American military personnel--after the people were gone. One village was burned, and in one village, the cows were shot, but so far I've not seen anything about pets being shot. The soldiers tell the Aleuts that they'll be gone for a very long time, and that's why they are killing the pets. (For more details, see "Burning villages" in Melissa Green's review.)

The story that Smelcer tells in Kiska suggests a government that carried out a methodical and even diabolical removal. That, however, is not accurate either. According to the report Personal Justice Denied, "there was a large failure of administration and planning" (p. 318) for the removals. The ship Kiska is on, he tells us, is the Delarof. That, too, is an error. The Delarof evacuated people from St. Paul and St. George, but not from the Aleutian Islands. (See "Delarof didn't carry all evacuees" in Melissa Green's review.)

In the remaining chapters, there is considerable overlap in what I would include and what Melissa Green included. Rather than repeat what she said, I recommend you read her review in its entirety. I'll turn, now, to the discussion questions at the back of the book.

Many of you know that some teachers use children's and young adult books in classrooms with the intent of supplementing material in a textbook. Some publishers ask their writers to develop a list of discussion questions for the book. Those questions will help a teacher use the book--but I think this part of Smelcer's book falls short, too. This is especially true for the questions that are based on inaccurate events in the story. Here's a set of questions for chapter two:
Did the soldiers have to burn the villages and kill all the cats and dogs? Couldn't they have at least waited until the villagers couldn't see it? The colonel told them this was "for their own good." What do you think about that?
In answering them, children have to accept the story as true. What happens, however, if the child reading the book is Unangan and knows that what Smelcer wrote isn't accurate? How does the child answer that question?

Stepping beyond classroom use of books, it is important to know that some basal reading companies use literature in their packaged materials. If Kiska were used, its errors would then be presented as fact in materials teachers use in the classroom. If that were to happen to Kiska, kids who know the truth would be in a dilemma. They'd have to choose between answering a question with an answer they know is wrong, or answering it with what they know to be true--and then be in an awkward situation with their teacher.

Because literature is used to teach, it is vitally important that historical fiction about little-known events be accurate. The questions for other chapters of Kiska have similar problems. The answers are based on what readers are to believe is accurate information in the chapters.

As long-term readers of AICL know, I've written quite a lot about the ways that the US government and its actions have been harmful to the well-being of Native Nations. In my review of Smelcer's book, I'm in the odd position of defending the government against Smelcer's inaccurate telling of this history.

In short: I do not recommend Kiska, by John Smelcer. Published in 2017 by Leapfrog Press, I think they made an error in judgement.


Ava Jarvis said...

I hate it when outsiders rewrite a story to belittle and sensationalize a culture for the sake of entertaining an outside audience.

And in this case, I think the author was aware of what he'd done—else why provide zero source for that version of the folklore on a website? They're so easily searchable, after all...

Melissa S. Green said...

I really like this review. My review was based on questions of historical accuracy, but I didn't touch much at all on questions of how Kiska reflects (or does not reflect) the way that Native kids feel about themselves, or how their sense of themselves & their families & peoples are reflected in stories that they read (or hear).

I know that's a major reason for this AICL blog in the first place. It's so important.

I’m not Alaska Native, I’m not American Indian. —

…(For the record: on my mom’s side, Finnish; on my dad’s, German/English/Irish.)…

— But in some aspects of who I am, I & others like me have been misrepresented, seriously misrepresented, by historians, scientists, social commentators…it goes on.

To climb out of the harm of such misrepresentation is hard. Hard. Many (most?) aren’t able to climb out of that harm. It can become self-extinguishment — for some, lives lived in the misery of day-to-day self-harm; but for others, lives lost to suicide. I’ve worked for 27 years in a job that’s informed me: the rates of suicide among Alaska Native youth are high, way the hell too high.

I take seriously the matter of how children, especially, are represented to themselves. I want them to feel honored, respected, loved as who they are — not only for the sake of they themselves, but also for the sake of their families, their peoples. All of which is inseparable from who they are. Or, at least, who they come from. I want them to believe enough in themselves and who they come from that they will live.

So while the historical inaccuracies my own review focused on matter, they don’t matter anywhere near as much as the things that Debbie is writing about here (& has been writing about for years). The kids.

I wish all the adults who were once kids who were failed when they were kids...hadn't been failed. May they find their way. But even if they don't find their way — may what they do instead not harm the kids of now.