Thursday, November 02, 2017


Red x is mine, a visual signal that
I do not recommend this book
Back in July, I wrote (a little) about Greg Pizzoli's The Quest for Z: The True Story of Explorer Percy Fawcett and a Lost City in the Amazon. 

Published in 2017 by Viking/Penguin, I disagree with the starred and positive reviews it is getting from mainstream journals.

See that red x over the cover of the book? For some time now, I've been using that red x to provide people with a visual signal that I do not recommend a particular book. You've heard that "a picture is worth 1000 words." My red x conveys a great deal.

A picture is, indeed, worth a thousand words. Below, you'll see that Pizzoli created an image of one of Fawcett's crewman, dead, with 42 arrows in his body. A few pages prior to that image in The Quest for Z, we read that Fawcett had planned for encounters with "hostile" tribes.

A few days ago, I was talking with Dr. Thomas Crisp about that image in Pizzoli's book. He told me about a scene in the recently released movie, Ghost Story. It depicts a pioneer family, dead, with arrows in them.

Update, on Nov 10, 2017:
I saw the trailer for a new western. Titled "Hostiles" here's a screen cap from the opening scene:

Whether in a picture book for children or a feature film for adults, images of someone with arrows in them tells us a lot. It creates and affirms a strong sense of "good guys" and "bad guys."

That image -- this book -- leave me with many questions. Why did Pizzoli create this book? Why did the publisher think it ought to be published? Does anyone, anywhere, need this book?

What I mean with those questions is this: all of us (adults and children) need books that accurately depict Indigenous peoples of the past and present. Pizzoli's book affirms enduring stereotypes.


Here's the description for The Quest For Z:
British explorer Percy Fawcett believed that hidden deep within the Amazon rainforest was an ancient city, lost for the ages. Most people didn’t even believe this city existed. But if Fawcett could find it, he would be rich and famous forever. This is the true story of one man’s thrilling, dangerous journey into the jungle, and what he found on his quest for the lost city of Z.
Pizzoli's biography of Fawcett starts on page 5 with a legend of an ancient city in Brazil that had been "forgotten." He tells us that "no one" knew where it was. That centers the story--and the reader, too--in a British point of view. The British didn't know where that city was. 

Let's assume there was, in fact, a city. If you centered the story in an Indigenous point of view, would we be reading "no one" knew where it was? I doubt it. For various reasons, Indigenous people who knew where it was might withhold its location from the likes of Fawcett. By the time Fawcett was traipsing about, the Indigenous people of South America had been fighting Brits for literally, hundreds of years. British expeditions were all over South America, looking for riches and enslaving Indigenous people to work on plantations and in mines. My point: British people didn't know where it was; saying "nobody" means that the only people who count, in this book, are British. 

An aside... 
In chapter 20 of Exploration Fawcett, I read Fawcett's descriptions of many different Indigenous people, some that he calls "wild people" (p. 324) or cannibals, and others that he thinks are highly intelligent and skilled. That chapter also has information about Fawcett choosing to call that city he was looking for, "Z" (p. 332-333):
"On many occasions the early explorers of the interior reported glimpses caught here and there of clothed natives of European appearance. They were glimpses only, for the people had an almost uncanny knack of disappearing. These reports have not so far been substantiated, but they cannot be airily dismissed. Our destination on the next expedition—I call it ‘Z’ for the sake of convenience—is a city reputed to be inhabited, possibly by some of these timid people, and when we return the question may finally be settled."
What interested me about that passage, is the idea that a magnificent ancient city was (is?) being spoken of as if Europeans had something to do with it. I see that sort of thing from time to time, in writings where someone says that Indigenous people weren't smart enough to do this or that. Sometimes a theory is put forth that aliens helped them, or Europeans.  

The next pages in The Quest for Z tell us that every since he was little, Fawcett had dreams of traveling the world and exploring new places. On page 6, we see an illustration of him as a baby, holding a globe. On page 7, there's this one, too, showing him as a little boy, a teenager, and then as an adult: 

Overall, he looks harmless. Some might even say he looks endearing. You're supposed to see him that way. You're supposed to cheer for him. You're supposed to like him. You're supposed to want to go on his adventures with him. 

Percy Fawcett's first trip to South America was in 1906. When preparing for that trip, Pizzoli tells us that Fawcett took "gifts for any potentially hostile tribes he might encounter" (p. 12).

That's all we get. Tribes who might be hostile.

Why, though, might they feel unfriendly to Europeans? Do children who are reading this book have the knowledge they need to process why Indigenous people are being characterized as "hostile"? Pizzoli does nothing to tell children (or adults) why they might be hostile. If a book like this is going to be done, I think it is important to contextualize things like that. Leaving them simply as "hostile tribes" affirms and feeds ignorance.

A few pages later, Pizzoli tells us about an expedition down the Rio Negro. The river got rough, so they had to get out of the water and carry their canoes through the forest to find safer waters. One of the crew went off to look for a route they could go on and didn't return. They found him, dead, "with forty-two arrows in his body" (p. 19).

We aren't told who shot those 42 arrows, but we know who it was. Someone from those hostile tribes. We're supposed to feel bad for that fellow, there, with those arrows in him. Count them if you wish; Pizzoli made sure there are 42. Because this whole story is being told to us from a British (White) point of view, we're meant to see that man as courageous as he tried to find a better route. The account of his death is in the Exploration Fawcett, too. In it, Fawcett writes that the river was "infested" by "the dreaded Pascaguara Indians" (p. 115). Infested? Again, I wondered why this picture book for children was written. Fawcett was clearly racist but in Pizzoli's book, none of that comes through. We get lots of images of Fawcett as a jolly and courageous fellow.

Turning the page, we learn that on another of his trips, Fawcett was warned to stay away from a certain area because "the natives who lived there would attack outsiders" (p. 20). The use of "outsiders" is the closest we get to a reason why the Native peoples there would respond as they did but I think it is far from sufficient. We already know that Fawcett is not one to turn away from danger. He goes on, despite the warnings.

Soon, poison-tipped arrows fell from the sky.

Fawcett and his crew were surrounded. He gave a bizarre order.

The order? He told his crew to sing.

They sang British songs. One guy played an accordion.

It worked.

The arrows stopped, and, "the two groups parted as friends."

That account--about singing--is in the "Good Savage" chapter of Exploration Fawcett. Again, I wonder why this book was written, published, and why it is getting such rave reviews?

What we have, in Pizzoli's book, is this:

  • hostile tribes
  • a British man killed by some of those hostile tribespeople
  • natives who would attack outsiders but who were won over by British music. 

Readers are not shown any of the Indigenous peoples in the places Percy Fawcett went. Instead, we have words about them, and illustrations of their poison-tipped arrows in and all around British men. In short, we have biased and stereotypical content.

The "hostile tribes" in The Quest for Z are a stereotype. They are the Indians who attack, apparently without provocation or reason. We're meant to understand them as savages. But were they? In fact, they were attacking outsiders because those outsiders had been taking family members into slavery.  Let's be real about what was going on! They were fighting to protect their moms. Their kids. Their dads, grandparents, and their siblings. Some of those "hostile" Indians are simple minded, lulled out of their aggression by British song.

I noted above that I read Fawcett's writings as I reviewed Pizzoli's picture book. In the chapter titled River of Evil, Fawcett wrote about how construction of a railroad had driven Indigenous people from their homelands in Madeira. He shares a story told to him by a "half-caste" who described finding two Indigenous people who went on a hunger strike to protest what was happening. One died, but the other? "We strung him up to a tree by the heels and had a little rifle practice on him. He died at the eight shot. It was great fun!" (p. 123).

During those trips, Fawcett continued to hear about that lost city. In April of 1925, he set out to find it. Newspapers carried reports of his progress. In his last report, he wrote that he expected to find the city in August.  But that was, in fact, his last report. He didn't return. Since then, Pizzoli tells readers in the final pages of his book, many treasure hunters, fame seekers, and movie stars have tried to find out what happened to him. As many as a hundred of them have gone missing, too.

On the last page (p. 40), Pizzoli tells us that Fawcett is famous--not for his success--but for his failure. His "amazing adventures" and his "unparalleled passion" give him a place in history. With his book, Pizzoli adds to this racist man having a place in history. But with this book, Pizzoli also adds to, and affirms, stereotypes of Indigenous people. He's made colonialism a good thing. It was not.  

So--again--why did this book get published? What does it offer?  

Obviously, I do not recommend Greg Pizzoli's The True Story of Explorer Percy Fawcett and a Lost City in the Amazon. In the first paragraph of his Author's Note, Pizzoli writes that, as he worked on this biography, he felt like he had lost his way, but he kept on working on this book because, he writes in the fourth paragraph, "we all hunt for unknowable answers, and dream of places where the problems of our lives will dissolve away." He's right. Many of us do that, but I wish Pizzoli had set the manuscript aside--or that he'd written it in a way that was critical of racism, stereotypical ideas, and colonialism. He didn't do that, though, and so--we've got another book for children that denigrates Native peoples. This vicious cycle, continues, and we're all the worse for it. 


Beverly Slapin said...

Excellent review (as usual), Debbie. Thank you.

Forty-two arrows? Really? This doesn't make sense on any level, even in an over-the-top, racist children's book. Seems like this publisher doesn't employ an editor, much less an acquisitions editor.

Anonymous said...

If the author is of European descent, why wouldn't it be centered that way? There are always many points of view of a situation. Yours is not the only way to view a story.

Amy Cheney said...

Thanks for the review. It is simply astounding that this could have gotten starred reviews. Ugh. I'll be sure to let all the librarians I work with know.

sgoodman said...

Thank you for the work you do. As a librarian I depended on your work to educate me. In this review your comments around “no one knew” where the lost city was struck home. It’s way to easy for those of us of the dominant culture to forget the limitations of our perspective. It is so deeply ingrained, it is truly hard to get outside of ourselves. I’m currently reading Gary Moulton’s edition of the Lewis and Clark journals. There in Lewis and Clark we can find exactly how deeply attitudes are ingrained and assimilated.

Unknown said...

As a person in a place of privilege, it is incumbent upon the author of European descent to consciously not carry forward stereotypes and narratives that continue to misrepresent and harm the minority group.

Megan said...

To Anonymous:

Debbie did not say hers was the "only" way to view a story. The point is that this book ONLY centered the European perspective and it did so in a way that was slanted and offensive. When the only viewpoint you come away with from a book involves ONLY stereotypes of indigenous peoples, then that centered viewpoint is flawed and inaccurate.

Beverly Slapin said...

You're right, Anonymous at 7:33: "There are always many points of view of a situation." When a situation involves, say, an auto accident on a freeway, what people witness depends on where they were when they saw the crash, and many witnesses may have different "points of view." History, depending on who's telling the story--the conquerer or the conquered--may have different "points of view" as well, and the publishing industry almost always favors the narrative of the conquerer. It almost always centers the point of view of the Europeans, while stereotyping the Indigenous peoples. So there are, in the world of children's books, many more falsehoods than truths. Wouldn't you agree that, as educators, it's our responsibility to our children to sift out the falsehoods--as Debbie does every day--and put forth the truths?

Anamaria (bookstogether) said...

I'm also deeply troubled by this book. I had been curious about it because I like Greg Pizzoli's design sense, but not in the service of this story. The 42 arrows image is a good example. Thank you for the careful review.

Anonymous said...

"We're supposed to feel bad for that fellow, there, with those arrows in him."

Isn't it basic human empathy to feel sorry for someone who's died?

Debbie, please, consider what you're saying here. I don't know if you intended it to sound this way, but it does sound as if you're advocating readers not feel sorry for a human being who died because he was a white explorer making forays into Indigenous lands. That is an incredibly disturbing path to go down. The implications are horrific.

I admire what you're trying to do with this blog, but lately, I feel as if you're taking it too far in a very dangerous direction. Please. Reconsider the implications of what you write.

Beverly Slapin said...

Yes, Anonymous at 11:19, it is "basic human empathy to feel sorry for someone who's died." And Pizzoli's riddling someone's body with 42 arrows is designed to heighten young readers' empathy. But. This dead guy and his colleagues were not simply "white explorers making forays into Indigenous lands." They were not simply uninvited tourists. By the time this white guy got riddled with arrows, the Indigenous peoples had been fighting the British for their lives and lands for hundreds of years. Indeed, the Brits were invaders who arrived in floods, pretending that this land was "terra nullius," there for the taking. And the Indigenous peoples--grandmas and grandpas, mothers, fathers, aunties and uncles, children--were there for the taking as well, or destroying if they happened to be in the way of what the "white explorers making forays into Indigenous lands" happened to want.

You're right, Anonymous, "the implications are horrific." The reality is horrific. And illustrating a guy on the ground, riddled with 42 arrows--in order to continue to perpetuate a racist, colonialist lie to innocent little kids--is horrific.

Thank you, Debbie, for your careful review and for continually exposing the implications and laying bare the lies.