Thursday, September 20, 2018

Debbie--have you seen CODE WORD COURAGE by Kirby Larson?

A reader wrote to ask about Kirby Larson's Code Word Courage. Due out in 2018 from Scholastic, it is part of Larson's "Dogs of World War II" series. Here's the description:

Billie has lived with her great-aunt ever since her mom passed away and her dad left. Billie's big brother, Leo, is about to leave, too, for the warfront. But first, she gets one more weekend with him at the ranch.
Billie's surprised when Leo brings home a fellow Marine from boot camp, Denny. She has so much to ask Leo -- about losing her best friend and trying to find their father -- but Denny, who is Navajo, or Diné, comes with something special: a gorgeous, but injured, stray dog. As Billie cares for the dog, whom they name Bear, she and Bear grow deeply attached to each other.
Soon enough, it's time for Leo and Denny, a Navajo Code Talker, to ship out. Billie does her part for the war effort, but she worries whether Leo and Denny will make it home, whether she'll find a new friend, and if her father will ever come back. Can Bear help Billie -- and Denny -- find what's most important?

Kirby Larson is not Native. One of the characters in her book, Denny, is Navajo. With Code Word Courage she's creating words and thoughts of someone who is very different from who she is. Denny isn't a minor character. Code Word Courage is one of those books where the story is told in alternating chapters. Chapter one, for example, is Billie, and chapter two is Denny, then back to Billie for chapter three, and Denny for chapter four. Significant research has to be done in order for Denny's character to be an accurate depiction of a Navajo person of that time period. 

From what I can see via the preview at Google books, I'm having doubts about it.

In chapter thirteen, Denny is with eighteen Navajo radiomen. They're all Marines, and they've got to prove to General Vandergrift that their code is useful. "Can we provide it?" a sergeant asks. They reply, "Sir, yes, sir." Denny wonders if any of them feel like they're back in their boarding school. 
"He'd been a kid when he'd been taken from his mother and put with people who could see only skin color, nothing more." 
Skin color is not why Native children were taken from their homes and put in boarding schools. They were taken there as a way to destroy their identity as Native people of specific Native nations. The schools were designed to 'kill the Indian and save the man.' Skin color is not why kids ended up there. The government goal was to destroy Native identity and thereby, Native Nations.  

Elsewhere, Denny is talking with Tito, a Mexican kid who wants to become an astronomer. He shows Denny a book that has an illustration of Cassiopeia's Chair. Pointing to the North Star, Denny tells Tito: 
"In Navajo, we call that star Northern Fire."
That doesn't quite make sense. As written, it suggests he is going to tell Tito the Navajo word for that star. Instead, he tells him the English translation of the Navajo word(s) for that star. 

There are 34 chapters in Code Word Courage. Most of them alternate from Billie to Denny. If I get a copy of the book, I'll be back with a more complete review.


Ava Jarvis said...

Oh. That's... not the best start. At all.

I know some authors mean well, but many appear to underestimate just how little they know about the lives of people whose cultures are severely under-represented by own-voices authors. Many of us know about the middle-class white life in certain areas far too well, despite not being in that group, because that's what is on TV and in books and movies. There is no such analogue the other way around.

(There are darker reasons for this as well.)

Any writer who doesn't get this.... it will not end well. More's the pity that this is a truth rarely told in writer's workshops or in popular writing books.

Mia Wenjen said...

It's surprising that Kirby Larson did not get the reason why Native American children were forced to boarding schools in the United States and Canada. The reasons have been clearly conveyed in recent children's books. It was to wipe out their culture.

And we can't just hold Kirby Larson at fault. Why didn't the editor and editing team catch this? Why are only white people creating POC characters with no vetting? Where was the sensitivity reader? Why make this character Navajo in the first place?

The errors thus far make this a reject book for me.

And word to the wise to white authors ... DO NOT WRITE ABOUT NATIVE AMERICAN CHARACTERS UNLESS YOU ARE #OWNVOICES. You are trampling on their cultural heritage and THEY DO NOT WANT YOU TO DO THAT. Other POC cultures probably have less issue with you, a white person, writing in a character from their homeland.

Ava Jarvis said...

Mia - agree with you for the most part! However, I will point out that non-Native authors, white or not, should not write with Native characters as viewpoints and/or internal monologue, period.

It is very *definitely* the case that, for instance, a Vietnamese writer might get dragged ragged by their editor over writing Vietnamese characters that do not give off whatever special scent of "orient" that white editors often desire, but that same author would not get dragged over misrepresenting Native characters and cultures. It is... a really terrible kind of myopia that many white non-Native editors have, and also speaks to the complexity of intersectionality as it pertains even to "just" racism.

Also, I am a bit confused about the homeland reference with respect to PoC. Our homelands are not always what people think they are? (Also, not all Native folks identify as PoC). My homeland is what is currently called America, but my family came from Vietnam (in fact, as refugees from the American War). I would have incredible amounts of issues with a white author who wrote cluelessly about a Vietnamese character whether or not their homeland was Vietnam. And I would have a lot of issues about a Vietnamese author who never had to flee their country, who wrote about the experience of being Vietnamese diaspora, without actually doing their research.

However: it is very definitely true that my issues would be less than in the case of an author who wrote cluelessly about Native characters, but my issues would not be anywhere near non-zero, nor insignificant, nor not absolutely rage-inducing. At least to me.

Anyways, in the end, people who are not Native would do a lot better to not try to co-opt Native cultures and instead to do research on Native authors and promote those authors on their blogs or whatnot. It is much more helpful and saves time all around, so even those who do this kind of thing purely for self-interest ought to see the benefits.