Thursday, January 04, 2018


The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming by J. Anderson Coats came out in 2017 from Simon and Schuster. Here's the description, from the publisher's website:
High-spirited young Jane is excited to be part of Mr. Mercer’s plan to bring Civil War widows and orphans to Washington Territory—but life out west isn’t at all what she expected.
Washington Territory is just the place for men of broad mind and sturdy constitution—and girls too, Jane figures, or Mr. Mercer wouldn’t have allowed her to come on his expedition to bring unmarried girls and Civil War widows out west.
Jane’s constitution is sturdy enough. She’s been taking care of her baby brother ever since Papa was killed in the war and her young stepmother had to start working long days at the mill. The problem, she fears, is her mind. It might not be suitably broad because she had to leave school to take care of little Jer. Still, a new life awaits in Washington Territory, and Jane plans to make the best of it.
Except Seattle doesn’t turn out to be quite as advertised. In this rough-and-tumble frontier town, Jane is going to need every bit of that broad mind and sturdy constitution—not to mention a good sense of humor and a stubborn streak a mile wide.
Quite often books set in the past that ought to have Native characters have none at all, as if Native people did not exist. Sometimes an author includes Native characters but depicts them in ways that affirm existing stereotypes.

Sometimes an author includes them in order to serve the needs of the main character--who is White. That's what happens in The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming.  Jane dreams of going to school, but as the story unfolds, that doesn't work out until she meets the Norley's.


This story is about Jane, a 12-year-old girl who moves to Seattle in 1865 with her stepmother (Jane's father was killed in the Civil War) and her little brother (he's two). They'd learned about the opportunity to go to Seattle by way of a pamphlet that Jane refers to several times in the story. She's one of a large group who sets out from New York aboard a ship called the Continental. 

When they get to Washington Territory, Jane is surprised to see Indians. Another girl in the group, Flora, tells her (p. 95-96):
"Indians live around Seattle, lots of them, even though they're supposed to be on reservations. That's what the big treaty was about. But on the reservations there's nothing for them to do, and they go hungry. There's more than enough work to go around in Seattle for white people and Indians both. Not everyone is happy about it, but that's the way it is."
The treaty Flora is likely referring to is the Treaty of Port Elliott, signed by Chief Seeattl (commonly referred to as Chief Seattle) in 1855. Later in The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, Coats found a way to provide readers with a good chunk of information about languages Indigenous people speak (see below). I think that sort of thing was necessary here, too. What reservation in Flora talking about? Why was "the big treaty" and why was it necessary? Why is there nothing for the Indians to do on that reservation?

When Jane gets to Seattle, she sees (p. 138),
There are Indians everywhere in town. They paddle around in their canoes and sell things like fish and berries and work in the mill and sometimes go to church. 
Later, Jean is with Mr. W (he's the man her stepmother marries) to get supplies. He pauses and speaks to an Indian woman is sitting on a blanket next to some things she's got for sale (p 158):
"Ik-tah kunsih?" Mr. W kneels and points to a tidy pile of bright blankets, the kind that were on the beds at the Occidental Hotel. 
Jane is surprised to hear Mr. W "speaking Indian" (p. 158) to the woman. He then trades a handful of bullets for two blankets and says to her "Mahsie, klootchman." Jane asks him if his wife had taught him to speak Indian before she died (him having had an Indian wife is a story the women and girls in Jane's group gossip about). He tells her that he's never been married but goes on to talk about the woman the stories are about (p. 159):
She had--has--other names, but I knew her as Louisa. I loved her something fierce. She's an Indian. A Suquamish Indian. She lives on the Port Madison reservation now. I courted her. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I'm certainly not ashamed of her, like some people in this town think I should be. She's the one who's ashamed of me, and rightly."
Jane presses him on why they didn't marry. He says that he made mistakes and didn't understand how bad they were. He tried to make it right but the woman told him to go away and not come back. Coats doesn't fill in details and provide any hint that I can discern (if you find an explanation, please let me know what page it is on!). That is another instance in which I wish that Coats had provided more in-depth information. Without it, readers are left wondering what he did.

Jane asks him how he learned to "speak Indian" and he replies (p. 160-161):
"It's not Indian. Not Lushootseed, that is. It's Chinook. Everyone knows it around here. You have to. Don't worry, you'll learn soon enough."
"It's a mix-up of French, English, and several different Indian languages," Mr. W says. "Chinook sort of . . . happened after the Hudson's Bay Company started trading in the territory back when it was still part of Oregon."
I frown. "Indians speak different languages?"
"You've studied geography, haven't you? You know where Europe is, that it's made up of lots of different countries. Do all the people there speak European?"
"Of course not." I loved the big, colorful map Miss Bradley would have two of us hold up and the long pointer she'd use when we'd name the countries. "They speak French and Spanish and Italian and . . . oh."
"Just so with the Indians," Mr. W says. "Sometimes the languages are alike. Sometimes they're not. The nice thing about Chinook is that everyone knows some of it, so we can get what we need from one another. Come, let's help Mrs. Wright with the supplies."
I am glad to see that exchange between Jane and Mr. W and glad that Jane learns a few words, too. It is a bit clunky but fills a huge gap in what most readers likely know about Indigenous languages.

The part of the story that ultimately pushed it into "not recommended" space happens near the end of the book. By then, Jane's dream of going to school in town is not working out because she can't pay for it. On her way home she gets lost (she's in her canoe), sees two boys on a dock and calls out to them in Chinook. They wave her over to their dock (p. 252):
The taller boy is a little older than me, and he's got bronzy skin like an Indian but it's not as dark as most of the Indians I've seen. His hair is long and fluttery under his big hat, and he's grinning like it's Christmas morning. "You're a girl!" 
That older boy is William Norley. He's thirteen (a year older than Jane). The younger one is Victor. I understand that Coats is trying to include Native characters but I'm uncomfortable with the ways she (and other writers) describe skin color. I understand that White people would notice, but the noticing and writing of it into stories for children always unsettles me. I feel.... looked at. Studied. It is icky.

Anyway--the boys take her up to their cabin to meet their sister. On page 252, we learn that:
Their mama was an Indian and their dad was a white man and he got them this homestead claim and then both their parents died of a bad fever and Hannah [their older sister] had to be brought back from school to look after then." 
As readers, we're meant to understand that this Indian mother/White father is why the boys have lighter skin and fluttery hair, but still, it is awkward for me as a Native reader. And--what was their mother's tribal nation?

We don't know how old Hannah or the boys were when their parents died. We don't know what school Hannah was at. Without more information, readers are again, left in the dark. Did the mission school not want the boys when Hannah went there? Were they too young? At 13 and 10 (the time of this story), are they still too young? I'd also like to know more about that homestead. It is, after all, on what was Indigenous land. How did it come to be available to Mr. Norley?

All Hannah learned to do at the mission school, she tells Jane, is how to pray and sew. She wants her brothers to know how to read, and asks Jane to teach them. In return, she'll give Jane a goat, which Jane will use to make and sell goat cheese. That will provide her with money to continue with her own schooling.

It seems like a good thing. The boys -- who Jane thinks aren't able to go to school in town because townspeople object to Indian and White marriages -- will learn to read, thanks to Jane. Coats created the Norley's to help Jane meet her needs. They're a means to an end for Coats and for Jane, but we don't know enough about them, or about the Native people of Seattle. They're just... there. To be looked at.

As I read, I had hopes for this book, but there's too many gaps in what Coats provides to readers, I don't like how she describes Native people and the Norley's are just a there to help Jane get what she wants.

In summary: I do not recommend  The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming by J. Anderson Coats.

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