Thursday, December 20, 2018

NOT RECOMMENDED: WILD BIRD by Wendelin Van Draanen

This post started out as a "Debbie--have you seen" one but turned into a Not Recommended one pretty quickly...

A reader wrote to ask if I've seen Wild Bird by Wendelin Van Draanen. It was published in 2017 by Knopf. Here's the book description:

3:47 a.m. That’s when they come for Wren Clemmens. She’s hustled out of her house and into a waiting car, then a plane, and then taken on a forced march into the desert. This is what happens to kids who’ve gone so far off the rails, their parents don’t know what to do with them anymore. This is wilderness therapy camp. Eight weeks of survivalist camping in the desert. Eight weeks to turn your life around. Yeah, right.
The Wren who arrives in the Utah desert is angry and bitter, and blaming everyone but herself. But angry can’t put up a tent. And bitter won’t start a fire. Wren’s going to have to admit she needs help if she’s going to survive.

The description has no mention of the Native content that Kirkus noted in their review and that prompted AICL's reader to write to me. Kirkus noted that content:
Traditional tales told by Mokov, an elderly Paiute who visits the camp... 

Hmm. Sounds like Wild Bird has a Native elder imparting wisdom, doesn't it? Let's look a bit more. Using the Google Books preview, I see that Mokov comes into the story in chapter 24 (it starts on page 101). My comments are marked in italics following each summary I do as I take a look at Wild Bird.

It is nighttime, Wren is in her tent, the other girls are sitting around a campfire when one of them squeals "Mokov!" Wren sees a man come out of the darkness. He's got "two long silver braids" and is wearing a leather vest, a dark green shirt, and pants and hiking boots that are just like the jailers who guard these girls in this camp. But, something about him seems different. The girls get to their feet. He greets them, and Dvorka (one of the girls at the camp) comes to get Wren for "Legend time. He's Paiute." What, Wren asks, is that?

Debbie's comments: I gotta say--girls "squealing" when he appears is kind of unsettling. And that name: Mokov. Is that a Paiute word? And his purpose? It does look like he's there to use Native stories to teach these girls.

On page 102, Dvorka tells Wren: "It's a Native American nation."

Debbie's comments: I like that Wren asks that question. It is an accurate depiction of the level of ignorance many (most?) people in the US have. If, for example, Dvorka had said "He's Native American" instead of "He's Paiute" -- Wren would know what Dvorka was talking about, but the author's "He's Paiute" is a good move. It makes Wren ask a question that is followed by very important information: the Paiutes are Native peoples of a particular nation. 

The girls offer Mokov food and drink but he says that the land has nourished him. Then he "spreads his arms" and asks the girls to sit and tell him how they've been. They talk about using rainwater to wash their hair with yucca root.

Debbie's comments: He spreads his arms?! I'm getting snarky pretty quick but that snark reflects my frustration with these kinds of representations of Native characters. Think about that movement for a minute. Who does that, for real? Remember--this is a campfire setting. In the White imagination, wise Indians do that sort of thing. You can probably recall an image or two or three, of that very thing. The one that comes to mind, for me, is Grizzly Bob! He's a good example. Grizzly Bob, of course, is not a Native character. He's just playing one at camp. (And that bit about land nourishing him plays into the stereotype of Native peoples being one-with-the-land.)

Mokov nods his approval, and then asks them about their quests. They look away, or down, telling him it isn't easy. One says she is still so angry. Mokov nods, then says (102):

Anger is a dry riverbed. You should follow it only if it leads you to the springs of forgiveness.
Debbie's comments: I feared it would go that way... along with that holding up of the arms is this wise-Indian-speak. It is not a good thing. It is a term that describes the ways that White Writers imagine Native people's speech to be. It is romantic in style, and the opposite of the "heap big" sort of thing that some writers do, but done this way, either one is stereotypical. Both are misrepresentations that get in the way of seeing Native people as people. 

Then the girls Mokov for a story. Wren wonders if the girls are serious. Dvorka says (p. 103):
"There's nothing like a story told by Mokov." Then she adds, "Traditionally, the full legends were only told in the winter or fall, but he thinks there's value in sharing shortened versions with us." She lowers her voice even further as we watch the others. "Most Native American tribes have nature-centered spiritual traditions where everything has life and the power to direct its energies. The humans and spirits in their stories often take on the forms of animals." She zeroes in on me. "Storytellers were the ones who passed along the tribe's history and beliefs. These are sacred legends, told in a traditional way. They are not to be ridiculed." 
The girls hold their breath, waiting for him to speak. "Even the fire is quiet" and "the smoke rises straight up." Then he tells the story.

Debbie's comments: Is there an author's note in this book, I wonder? Do we get a source for what Dvorka says? Is there a source for these "sacred legends" that Mokov is telling? 

Later in the book, another Native guy is the object of their adoration. This time, it is "Silver Hair." Turns out that he is Mokov's grandson. The girls, as Wren says, are definitely fawning over him. She is too, by the way, but is more subtle about it.

Debbie's comments: This White adoration of Native men is unsettling and reminds me of the too-many romance novels that have a white woman on the cover, in the embrace of a very sexualized Native man. Will Wren and Silver Hair (that name, by the way, is another problem). I know a lot of you will object to a "Not Recommended" tag when I haven't read the entire book, but come on! You see the problems, right? I hope so. Books like this one -- published by one of the Big Five publishers -- do a lot of damage. 


Ava Jarvis said...

"If your 'exotic' character speaks like a fortune cookie generator, you've probably gone very wrong in your writing somewhere" is not, it looks like, the only advice the writer should have taken. I also don't understand why an elder would tell sacred stories to settlers who are very definitely not there to understand more about any Native American nations. Using the elder here as an exposition machine feels like colonialism in a nutshell: the idea that colonized peoples owe settlers the lifeblood of our cultures.

I don't like the basic premise of this book because these sorts of organizations can be, and have been, used by abusive parents. It cleaves too close to "conversion therapy camp" and "forced mental institution commitment" stories to me, and I'm kind of shocked this kind of story is still being written in 2017.

Sam Jonson said...

I have never heard of "wilderness therapy camps", but I have heard of "troubled teen homes" and the abuse rampant in them, as well as those two that you mentioned, Ava. reality, an Amerindian person telling these kinds of stories would most likely be doing it because it was the only reliable job offer they could get, and even then, it does not keep them safe from plagiarists and low wages, as Lois Beardslee recounts in her essay "No, You Can't Have My Firewood". And they wouldn't speak in fortune cookie metaphor talk, either. Speaking of which...I wonder what happens when somebody combines romantic metaphor talk and Tonto Talk, and if any white authors have done so yet. (I bet it would sound pretty ridiculous, and pretty offensive, too.)

Jamalia Higgins said...

Dr. Reese, I see a trend on your blog to hold the "Big Five" publishers more accountable to improve their editing and authorial choices with regard to Native issues. I think that's a laudable goal. But I do wonder if you are using shorthand here? Are you referring literally to Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster, or are there others that you include in this? One publisher that often receives poor marks on AICL, Scholastic, is not considered part of the Big Five, for example. There are plenty of other midsized publishers, too, which may have troubling track records on Native issues.

Thanks as always for your insights.

Debbie Reese said...

I don't think I expect them to be more accountable than others. Their errors have greater impact than books from small publishers because of their size and distribution capabilities.

And yes, those are the Big Five. For every book, I try to note the publisher and if it is an imprint, the larger entity it is part of. I use this chart:

And that is correct: Scholastic is not part of the Big 5. They're a unique entity because more than anyone, they have inroads to the schools, with their book fairs and book clubs.