Saturday, November 04, 2017


Not Again! Boarding School Story Misses the Mark*

Last year, Debbie and I analyzed several picture books about children in Indian boarding school for a book chapter. We intentionally left out of our chapter a fairly popular 1993 book, Cheyenne Again, by European-American writer Eve Bunting, illustrated by Dine artist Irving Toddy. I recently saw it in a display of children’s books about Native people in the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument bookstore (which also featured several good books created by Native people.)

Young Bull, the narrator of Cheyenne Again, is 10 when the story starts. It’s apparently set in the late 1800s, when boarding schools began to proliferate. A white man and a uniformed, fully assimilated Native man come to Young Bull’s community and tell his family that he must go away to school.

The boy doesn’t want to go. But his father tells him he “needs to learn the White Man’s ways”– and there will be food for him at school. How the father can be sure of that is not explained.

So Young Bull rides the train to an unnamed school. School officials cut his hair, take his clothes, make him wear a scratchy uniform, disrespect his heritage. With dozens of fellow students, he marches in formation, goes to church, and helps repair the school dormitories. He learns to read, and notices that the school’s history books say nothing about how Cheyenne and Sioux (sic) defeated Custer at Greasy Grass. He cries for home in his bed at night.

Then one night he runs away -- into a blizzard. He’s caught and shackled for a day as punishment. A sympathetic teacher then encourages him to “Never forget that you are Indian inside.” He finds that drawing scenes of home and of Cheyenne heroism at Greasy Grass helps him feel that he is “Cheyenne again.”

In her review of this book for A Broken Flute: the Native Experience in Books for Children, Beverly Slapin comments that Irving Toddy’s illustrations vividly express the depressed, desperate boarding school ambience, in contrast to the bright golden scenes of Young Bull’s early boyhood and the heroic events he imagines. I agree: the illustrations feel psychologically “true,” which makes sense, given that Toddy himself attended a boarding school.

The historical record confirms elements of Bunting’s story: parents who were misled but hoped for the best, unpleasant or hostile school environments, children’s loneliness, the harm deliberately inflicted on students in service to the goals of conquest and/or assimilation.

Historical accuracy is essential but goes only so far in supporting authenticity. I wondered why Young Bull doesn’t seem to interact with peers. Boarding school survivors have reported social relationships and friendships among children, despite efforts at some schools to squelch such relationships (to reduce the chance of organized resistance to their regime). And would school officials have tolerated ledger book drawings of Cheyenne military glory? If not, Young Bull’s drawings are acts of resistance, and the author should make that clear to readers!

But Young Bull’s escape attempt feels especially out of touch. Many children ran from boarding schools. Some were caught and punished. Some died of hunger or exposure. Some made it home.

It makes sense that Young Bull wants to escape. He’s been there long enough to learn to read history books in English. But instead of carefully planning his get-away, this otherwise seemingly cautious character, from a region that has severe winters, seems to ignore everything he knows about blizzards and walks into one, barely clothed, at night, apparently on impulse.

This lack of clear motivation, for me, undermines the protagonist’s credibility and misses a chance to bring an important dimension to the story. An adult reader is likely to think, “Sure he hates it there, but he should know better than to run NOW!” Child readers/listeners may imagine themselves as more sensible: “I’d take food and a blanket and I’d wait for a warmer night.” It’s just hard to avoid the sense that the kid made a dumb move.

Bunting has depicted affronts to Young Bull’s dignity and well-being that might lead him to plot an escape. But running into a winter storm -- from a place that, for all its awfulness, at least provides shelter – suggests extreme, immediate fear and desperation. What could make death by hypothermia preferable to “staying put” a moment longer? What threat or actual harm has pushed Young Bull to run, after so long at the school? Was he assaulted or threatened by a teacher? Unfairly and cruelly punished? Humiliated once too often to bear? The story would be a clearer window on boarding school experience if it showed readers why fear/loneliness/anger overpower the boy, making him forget his own safety.

I feel that Toddy’s evocative illustrations are worth a look. But I don’t recommend Cheyenne Again as historical fiction for children about boarding schools or Native kids.

Try these instead!
Home to Medicine Mountain by Chiori Santiago (ill. by Judith Lowry)
When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton (ill. Gabrielle Grimard)
Shin-chi’s Canoe by Nicola Campbell (ill. by Kim LaFave)

* "Not Again" was submitted by Jean Mendoza. 

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. 

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Debbie--have you seen Eric Gansworth's GIVE ME SOME TRUTH?

I've been waiting for Eric Gansworth's Give Me Some Truth for some time now. Due out next year, a copy of the ARC was in my mail two days ago! 

Here's the synopsis:

Carson Mastick is entering his senior year of high school and desperate to make his mark, on the reservation and off. A rock band -- and winning the local Battle of the Bands, with its first prize of a trip to New York City -- is his best shot. But things keep getting in the way. Small matters like the lack of an actual band, or the fact that his brother just got shot confronting the racist owner of a local restaurant. 
Maggi Bokoni has just moved back to the reservation from the city with her family. She's dying to stop making the same traditional artwork her family sells to tourists (conceptual stuff is cooler), stop feeling out of place in her new (old) home, and stop being treated like a child. She might like to fall in love for the first time too. 
Carson and Maggi -- along with their friend Lewis -- will navigate loud protests, even louder music, and first love in this stirring novel about coming together in a world defined by difference.

I recommended Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here a few years ago. Still do! Every talk I give features that book.

I'll be back with a review of Give Me Some Truth, later, but wanted to take a minute, today, to say that I highly recommend it! Pre-order a copy. The hardcover will be available on May 29, 2018.