Friday, January 18, 2019

Not Recommended: Two Roads, by Joseph Bruchac

Two Roads: A Creek Boy in Search of His Place in the World by Joseph Bruchac (Penguin Random House, 2018)

Several months ago, Debbie (and others) wrote about problems that can arise when Native people write as outsiders about other Native peoples. Like white writers, they may be participating in cultural appropriation. They may perpetuate misinformation or disclose matters that should be kept "behind the curtain" (see page 390-391). Since then, I've been working on a detailed post about portrayals of Mvskoke Creek people in recent children's literature -- including stories by Native authors who aren't Creek. Today's post uses part of that larger project.

My husband and children are Mvskoke Creek and I am white. I'm always on the lookout for books about Creek people to share with them and our grandkids. When Bruchac's Two Roads: A Creek Boy in Search of His Place in the World came out in 2018, I looked forward to seeing how he represented Creek lives. Bruchac is not a citizen of the Muscogee nation; he's from the northeastern US and has written about his Abenaki heritage.

The story structure of Two Roads is such that the main character, Cal (age 12), has no idea that he's Creek until several chapters in. As far as he's concerned, he and his dad (a veteran who was wounded in WWI) are just "knights of the road," hoboes cut loose from their everyday lives by the death of Cal's mother and the loss of their farm to the Great Depression. They live by a code of ethical conduct; they watch out for each other and for those who might be victimized by thieves, racists, and other bad folk. Then Cal's father decides to get involved in a movement to force the government to pay WWI veterans some money they were promised. He can't take Cal with him. He decides to place Cal in the Indian boarding school where he spent many years himself, giving the protagonist a lot to deal with. Cal's going to be separated from his dad. He's going to live at a boarding school. He's "Indian," not white as he always assumed. And what is that supposed to mean, he wonders.

Two Roads has been getting a mostly favorable reception. But reading it raised some questions.

It appears that the author did his research into hobo life during the Depression, Indian boarding schools before and after World War I, and the “Bonus Army” that Cal's father joins. Bruchac also addresses some important issues like passing for white, surviving assimilationist policies, and discovering relatively late that your (racial/ethnic) identity isn't what you thought.

But amid that valuable food for thought were some things that were hard to swallow. I'll focus on two.

First: language issues. Both the Abenaki's language and English differ a lot from Maskoke, the Creek language. That might not have been a problem if the author had prepared adequately.  But several times when Bruchac's characters spoke Maskoke, my "I-know-10-Creek-words" self thought, "That doesn't seem right!" I took my questions to two relatives who have studied, spoken, (and in one case, taught) Maskoke for a long time. I also consulted our Creek dictionary and listened to the Muscogee Nation language app. (Download it for free!)

I found that Bruchac gets one word right:  stahitkey refers to a white person (that’s more or less a phonetic spelling). But he gets several others wrong. A word that means black person is pronounced, approximately, staluhstey, not "staluskey," as Bruchac has it multiple times. A typical Maskoke greeting is generally pronounced something like hens-chay or hess-chee -- not "hers-key," as Bruchac has it. A word for thanks is pronounced muhDOH, not mu-to, as in the book. And when Cal's friend shouts to begin a stomp dance, let's just say that Cal doesn't hear those words quite right, either.

The author mentions that he knew the Mvskoke poet Louis Oliver (Little Coon) and modeled/named a character in Two Roads after him. Maybe Mr. Oliver taught Bruchac some Creek words years ago? But Bruchac could easily have double-checked his memory of those words with a quick visit to the Muskogee Nation language program Web site, or that free language app.

Second concern: Bruchac’s description of the Creek boys' stomp dance leaves out some key information. He correctly has Cal distinguish the Creek ceremonial dance tradition from what he calls the more "dramatic" dances of some western Native nations. Stomp dance involves singing and stepping to a rhythm maintained by women wearing rattles on their ankles made of pebble-filled turtle shells (or more recently, empty evaporated milk cans). The women's role in the dances is essential.

Granted, Creek girls would have had a hard time getting out of their boarding school dorm to join the boys for secret night-time stomp dances, especially carrying shell-shaker ankle bracelets. The eyes of the staff were trained much more on them than on the boys, evidently. Still, the Creek boys who befriend Cal never say a word about missing the shell shakers. Yes, they're doing their best to keep up traditions under difficult circumstances. But some of Bruchac's Creek characters grew up knowing about stomp dance, and the absence of the women and their rattles would be significant enough that surely somebody would mention it to Cal -- something as simple as "At home, we'd have the shell-shakers." But in Two Roads, they don't acknowledge the absence. 

The inaccurate language and inadequate perspective on stomp dance give a sense that the author's understanding of the specifically Creek content is ... thinner than it would be if he were Mvskoke Creek. Thinner than it should be for a book about Creeks.

Also noted: some glaring inconsistencies in the storytelling, and some plot points that called for too much suspension of disbelief. But the central concerns about Creek language and ceremony are what really pulled me out of the story Bruchac seeks to tell in Two Roads. It probably wouldn't pass muster with readers on the Creek side of our family.

When our two younger sons were kids, we shared several of Bruchac's books with them. I had high hopes that this would be one I could recommend to the next generation. But no. And that’s a major disappointment.

-- Jean Mendoza

NOTE: An earlier version of this blog disappeared due to technical difficulties.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Not Recommended: WHAT I CAME TO TELL YOU by Tommy Hays

A reader wrote to ask if I've read What I Came To Tell You by Tommy Hays. It was published in 2013 by Egmont, and it has some Native content that the reader is concerned about.

This post started out as a "Debbie--have you seen" but as I looked at it, I quickly changed its title to Not Recommended.

What I Came To Tell You is doing quite well, in part, because Hays created a passage where one character uses the word "Hillbilly" to hurt another. More on that in a bit.

First, the book description:
Since his mother died earlier this year, Grover Johnston (named after a character in Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel) has watched his family fall to pieces as his father throws himself into his work rather than dealing with the pain. Left to care for his younger sister, Sudie, Grover finds solace in creating intricate weavings out of the natural materials found in the bamboo forest behind his North Carolina home, a pursuit that his father sees only as a waste of time. But as tensions mount between father and son, unlikely forces conspire to help the Johnstons find their way. 
The new tenants in the rental house across the street who have come from deep in the Carolina hills seem so different from the Johnstons, but become increasingly intertwined with them in unexpected ways. Classmates, neighbors, teachers, and coworkers band together, forming a community that can save a family from itself. 

What I Came To Tell You is told from the point of view of Grover. One of the new tenants who moved from "deep in the Carolina hills" is a girl named Emma Lee.

The "hillbilly" scene unfolds in chapter 4, in school, in the classroom. The teacher, Mrs. Caswell, is delivering a lesson on Cherokee Indians. Caswell, we learn later, has asked the other kids to make friends with Emma Lee.

At recess, Ashley invites Emma Lee to play foursquare with her and her friends. Then, Ashley leads the group over to where the boys are playing basketball and tells them they want to play a new game. What game, the boys ask. Instead of HORSE, Ashley says, looking right at Emma Lee, she wants to play H-I-L-L-B-I-L-L-Y.

Quick as can be, Emma Lee slaps her. Of course, she gets in trouble for hitting Ashley. In class, Grover tells their teacher what happened and they have a discussion about the word. Ashley is embarrassed and ends up apologizing to Emma Lee. 

In chapter 10 is this scene where Grover is out in the forest, engrossed in his weaving. Suddenly he realizes he's not alone (p. 121):
Emma Lee was sitting on the sycamore stump.
"How long have you been sitting there?" he asked, his heart racing.
"A while," she said.
"I never heard you," he said.
"We're one quarter Cherokee. We know how to sneak up on people." She smiled. 
Now--it'd be great if Hays would push back on that stereotype, wouldn't it? But, that doesn't happen. Hays has his Cherokee character uttering a stereotype about Native people. It isn't the first time he does that, though. Way back on page 24, Grover sees Emma Lee, reading. Reading is fine but ...
She sat like he'd often seen her, with her legs crossed Indian style, her elbows on her knees and her head bowed over a book in her lap. 
Indian style? Oh dear! (Honestly, I uttered something other than "oh dear" when I read that.)

Course, these two are the main characters, so a friendship does develop. Later in the book, Grover and Emma Lee are sitting in a room that is lit only by candlelight. The room is cold, so Emma Lee goes to get some blankets:
She came back in, carrying blankets, gave him one, then she wrapped herself in the other. In the flickering candlelight, she looked like an Indian princess sitting in front of a campfire.
Indian princess?! (Imagine my reaction to that.... not a good one, for sure.)

All the good that Hays does in that passage about the word, hillbilly, is undone by these stereotypes of Native people! He's created a Cherokee character to push back on a hillbilly stereotype, and he's used stereotypes of Native people to do it. That is messed up, right? Please say right.

What was Hays thinking? His book was chosen for several distinctions, including a Fall 2013 "Okra Pick" by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association. What were they thinking?! So much ignorance... still. What can you do to interrupt it? Speak up.

If you know Mr. Hays personally, talk to him about it. He definitely needs to hear from people because he teaches creative writing. Folks, we can be creative but need not stereotype anyone. Especially in writing for children.

Published in 2013 by Egmont, What I Came To Tell You, by Tommy Hays, is not recommended.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Highly Recommended! "Don't Pass Me By" by Eric Gansworth, in FRESH INK (edited by Lamar Giles)

Eric Gansworth's story in Fresh Ink: An Anthology, edited by Lamar Giles, is one of those that makes my heart ache for Native kids and what they experience in school.

The story is titled "Don't Pass Me By." Four words, packed with meaning. They're never used in the story itself, but they are very much a part of what we read in the story.

Don't pass me by, Doobie could say to Hayley. They are Native kids in the 7th grade. They're from the same reservation but Hayley's dad is white and she can pass for white. Doobie can't. He's the target of harassment that she doesn't get. She can--and does--walk right by Doobie. Though they know each other, she doesn't acknowledge him until they're on the bus back to the reservation.

Don't pass me by, Doobie pretty much says to Mr. Corker. He's the Health teacher. For this particular lesson, the boys stay with Mr. Corker and the girls go with Ms. D'Amore. The lesson? Parts of the body. The activity? Label the body parts on the first worksheet. For the second worksheet, Mr. Corker hands out two boxes of colored pencils. One box is flesh; the other is burnt sienna. He expects the boys to color the boy on the worksheet with the flesh pencil, and to use the burnt sienna pencil to draw underarm and pubic hair. Other Native boys in the class do as expected, but Doobie uses the burnt sienna pencil for the body and his regular pencil for the hair. He's added a long black sneh-wheh, like his own. When class is over he turns in his worksheet after everyone else has left. Mr. Corker looks at it and says (p. 52):
"I see. Hubert. But you know, the assignment wasn't a self-portrait."
"It was," if you're white," I said.
And, he continues (p. 52):
"Your pencils only allowed for one kind of boy," I said. 
As he's telling Mr. Corker all this, he thinks about older siblings and cousins who didn't make trouble with assignments like this. His stomach is in knots as he talks with Mr. Corker. He begins to understand why those siblings and cousins chose
" be silent, to think of yourself as a vanished Indian. Everywhere you looked, you weren't there."
Native kids are in that position every day in school... asked to complete assignments that don't look like them, by teachers who don't see them... Who refuse to see the whiteness that is everywhere.

See why this story makes my heart ache? Gansworth's story is one that will tell Native kids like Doobie that they are not alone. And it has a strong message for teachers, too: Don't be Mr. Corker.

And if you're not a Mr. Corker, I'm pretty sure you know plenty of teachers who are... and you can interrupt that. You can be like Doobie.

Get several copies of Fresh Ink. I reviewed Gansworth's story, but its got twelve others from terrific writers: Schuyler Bailar, Melissa de la Cruz, Sara Farizan, Sharon G. Flake, Malinda Lo, Walter Dean Myers, Daniel José Older, Thien Pham, Jason Reynolds, Aminah Mae Safi, Gene Luen Yang, and Nicola Yoon. I highly recommend it. Published in 2018 by Random House, it is one you'll come back to again and again.