Sunday, December 03, 2017

Not Recommended: THE METROPOLITANS by Carol Goodman

Carol Goodman's The Metropolitans, published in 2017 by Penguin, includes a Mohawk character. I do not recommend her book. Here's the description:
The day Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, four thirteen-year-olds converge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where an eccentric curator is seeking four uncommonly brave souls to track down the hidden pages of the Kelmsbury Manuscript, an ancient book of Arthurian legends that lies scattered within the museum's collection, and that holds the key to preventing a second attack on American soil.  
When Madge, Joe, Kiku, and Walt agree to help, they have no idea that the Kelmsbury is already working its magic on them. But they begin to develop extraordinary powers and experience the feelings of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, and Lancelot: courage, friendship, love...and betrayal.  Are they playing out a legend that's already been lived, over and over, across the ages?  Or can the Metropolitans forge their own story?
As the description indicates, the setting for this story is 1941, on the day when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. There are four main characters. Joe is Mohawk, Kiku is Japanese American, Walt is a Jewish boy whose parents sent him to London from Germany, and Madge is White. The focus of my review is Joe.

Meet Joe

When the story kicks off, Joe has run away from the Mohawk Institute, a residential boarding school in Canada that students called the Mush Hole because of the food they were given there (more on residential schools, below). He's been in Manhattan a few days trying to find his older brother, Billie, who is a steelworker. Goodman gives a physical description of him as having "dark hair, and eyes the color of burnished copper. His skin was a lighter copper except where it was smudged with dirt on his sharp cheekbones" (p. 18). He's tall and apparently muscular enough that he's the one who is seen as the one that can get into physical fights when necessary. He speaks with a lisp and we learn that his special power will be one that allows him to read, speak, and understand any language. When he eventually knows his Mohawk name (Sose Tehsakohnhes) and some Mohawk words, we learn that his name means "he protects them" (p. 346) and Kiku thinks it is the right name for him.

Not all Native people have dark hair, dark skin, dark eyes, and prominent cheekbones, but that is the default physical description a lot of authors use. Overused, and done that way, it is stereotypical. So is the idea that Joe is the one who will do the physical fighting. And his Mohawk name treads very close to the stereotypical ideas that circulate in US society about Native naming. Most troubling for me, however, is his power. I'll say more about that below.

The Mush Hole

Joe is 13 and had been at Mush Hole since he was five. The first time he ran away, it was wintertime (we don't know how old he was). He remembered his "Tota" (grandmother) telling him that bears go into caves in the winter, so he does that but wants to get back to Akwesasne. The third day after he took off, the principle finds him and takes him back to school. He is beaten for running away and for wanting to speak Mohawk. The second time he ran away he made it home but his dad tells him he has to go back. His brother (Billie) tells him to tough it out till he's sixteen and able to work with Billie. Before he goes back to Mush Hole, his grandmother whispers his Mohawk name in his ear so that he won't forget it, but at the school, he's beat again and forgets his name and other Mohawk words, too. One day he is walking by the principle's office and hears him using the strap on someone. He hears a voice and recognizes it is his little sister, Jeanette. He goes into the principal's office, takes the strap from the principal, and hits him with it. The principal falls and hits his head. There's blood everywhere. Jeanette tells him to run, so, he does. This third time running away from residential school is what brings Joe to Manhattan. 

Some of you are aware that there's been an uptick of books that are about Native kids in boarding or residential schools. Some were/are run by religious denominations, some were/are run by the U.S. or Canadian governments. The schools were designed to 'kill the Indian and save the man' which meant they were one way in which the federal governments sought to eradicate Indigenous nations, our languages, religions--every aspect of our cultures. Anyone who follows Native news knows Canada established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Children's literature is one way that more people can learn about the schools--but the content has to be accurate and it must be handled with great care and respect. Too much of what I'm seeing is over-the-top exploitation. There's no care in that kind of writing. It is harmful to Indigenous people for whom the schools are part of their family experience. And it is harmful to everyone else when they walk away from a book thinking they've learned something about Native people or a particular nation or moment in history. 

Goodman's decision to create a Mohawk character who was at a residential school could have been a good thing, but the stereotypes I noted above demonstrate what I see as a shallow treatment of Joe. Goodman doesn't seem to know much, overall, and it causes missteps like that part in the book where Madge offers a cab driver "an Andrew Jackson." That line is meant to add to her edgy character but it is a powerful indicator that Goodman doesn't really know much about the things that are of concern to Native people. For some background on him see Adrienne Keene's article on Jackson in Teen Vogue.

It seems to me that Joe and the history of residential schools are playing on calls for diversity in children's literature. The way she's created Joe feels appropriative. She's exploiting that history for the sake of a story she wants to tell. She does that with other characters, too, whose people have similar genocidal and oppressive histories.

Joe's Dream--and the Manifestation of Evil

The night before Joe meets the other kids in the museum, he has a dream of Stone Giants who are (p. 27):
...a race of fearsome monsters that hunted the people of the Six Nations to feast on their bones and flesh. No arrow could pierce their stone skin. No matter where the people hid, the Stone Giants' eyes could see into the darkest places. That's what it felt like when the Stone Giant in his dream had looked at him--like he saw into Joe's darkest places and wouldn't mind snacking on his bones--and the Stone Giant had worn the face of the main the gray fedora.
The man in a gray fedora is a man in the museum. Joe and the other kids see him steal a manuscript page from a display case. They chase him but he vanishes, like a fog. Turns out, that man was in the dreams of the other kids, too. We're going to meet this figure again near the end of the book when it senses that Joe is the kid with the most anger and therefore the strongest candidate to be won over to its plan to poison the people of NYC, much like it poisoned the people in camps in Germany. That figure is Mordred.

As the description of the book indicates, it has a King Arthur thread, throughout, and while Goodman likely thinks she's been clever in weaving all this together, I find it utterly disgusting. It feels to me that she's transferring responsibility for genocide to a fictional figure rather than the human beings responsible for that genocide. And it feels that she's equating an figure in Mohawk tradition stories (the Stone Giants) with Mordred, making the Stone Giants a pure evil, too.

The Naming of Native People in Acknowledgements--and Who Can Tell These Stories

In the acknowledgements, Goodman writes that she talked with two Mohawk people. That might signal that we can rely on what she's done with Joe, but we don't know if the people she names read the book and gave her feedback on it. Would the two people Goodman named be ok with her use of "Stone Giants" in this story, in this way? What is the source for the Stone Giants Goodman depicts? Is it one of them? 

As noted earlier, Joe's power is that he can read, hear, and speak languages. One goal of the residential schools was to wipe out Indigenous languages. It feels wrong for a White writer to give a Native kid this particular power and I think a Native writer would have developed Joe's character and the rest of the story with greater care.

Not Recommended

Clearly, Carol Goodman's The Metropolitans is getting a Not Recommended tag from me. There's too much wrong in the small bits and the entire storyline is a huge step over the line of storytelling about peoples histories--with care and respect for those of us who are still here.


Ava Jarvis said...

Ye gods, just the description was awful, and it got worse from there.

I have so many questions. Here are just a few of the big ones.

1. Why would King Arthur be the first mythical figure integral to saving American soil? There are plenty of indigenous spiritual forces with a better vested interest (pretty sure his resting place of Avalon isn't on the West Coast of the US) and more knowledge and thus would be more effective in the first place.

2. Why would a Japanese-American kid be touched by King Arthur legends as opposed to plenty of Japanese spiritual forces who would, again, probably have a better idea of what was going on? Even some hokey "ghost of Tokugawa" would be better than King Arthur.

3. Why would a Jewish boy be touched by King Arthur legends as opposed to plenty of Jewish figures in Jewish legends? Like, there's tons of good stuff there. Way more than the legends of King Arthur to be frank.

Did... did the author just not want to do the research into anything other than Arthurian legend?

Like... Arthurian legend is also itself pretty complex. King Arthur wasn't an unequivocally good guy king—it was way more complicated than that. Even really bland King Arthur adaptations usually catch some fragment of this aspect. Framing King Arthur as a magical hero who wants to save American soil is... just... what?

I have a lot of other questions but will not bore folks with them.

Unknown said...

May I ask you to expand on why the "power of languages" is harmful and insensitive? I don't doubt you that it is, but as a white woman myself, I'm not understanding it, and I'd like to. I ask because I can see a white writer thinking "Oh, this will be a powerful rebuke to the idea that the school will erase his language." Is it about how that erasure could not actually be magically undone, so it feels like a glib glossing over?

Please only explain, of course, if it's not too painful and you have the time. I know you have plenty of work.

It feels to me that she's transferring responsibility for genocide to a fictional figure rather than the human beings responsible for that genocide.

THANK YOU. I HATE THIS TROPE. Modred, who in Arthurian legend had a fair point in my opinion, did not poison people at camps during WW2. Martians did not force the Germans to kill Jews, Romani, and disabled people. The devil didn't do it. Hades didn't make it happen (I did not like how Rick Riordan used WW2 in the backstory to The Lightning Thief). None of these entities are responsible for the genocide the US visited upon American Indians, either. And giving them responsibility for it lets the actual human beings who committed those atrocities off the hook.

Why would a Jewish boy be touched by King Arthur legends as opposed to plenty of Jewish figures in Jewish legends? Like, there's tons of good stuff there. Way more than the legends of King Arthur to be frank.

In all honesty, I can see this. German Jews were highly assimilated, and King Arthur stories spread across Europe in the middle ages. And this kid had family in and had spent time in London--particularly if the author had bothered to mention the uncle sending or giving him a book of King Arthur stories, there's no particular reason he wouldn't be. My mother, only a few years later, loved stories of King Arthur, though she loved Robin Hood far more (he robbed the rich of their ill-gotten gains and gave them to the poor!).

That said, King Arthur is so very identified with the very essence of Britain (The Matter of Britain) that I have NO EARTHLY IDEA what on earth he would be doing hanging around NYC. I assume some magical connection to this manuscript?


Unknown said...

Oh! Wait! I made it sound like my mother is a German Jewish Holocaust survivor! She's not! She's from Brooklyn! Sorry. That was unintentional.


Unknown said...

Although, let me add, if they invoke the Holy Grail part of the Arthur stories, then I do object to the Jewish kid buying into it...

OK, I'll be quiet now.