Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Thoughts on Patricia MacLachlan's THE HUNDRED-YEAR BARN (and my conclusion: Not Recommended)

On October 8, 2019, a reader wrote to ask me if I had seen Patricia MacLaughlan's The Hundred-Year Barn. Published by HarperCollins and illustrated by Kenard Pak, it came out recently.

Though the reader did not say why they were asking me about The Hundred-Year Barn, my hunch is that they read my article, An Indigenous Critique of Whiteness in Children's Literature (write to me and I'll send you a copy of it). The article is a published account of the remarks I made when I gave the 2019 May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture in Madison, WI.

In that lecture, I talked about the 2018 Caldecott Award winner, Hello Lighthouse (by Sophie Blackall) which I view as the epitome of Whiteness and the embodiment of the nostalgia we hear when we read the news ("Make America Great Again"). I said:
I have no doubt that people think books like Hello Lighthouse are "neutral" or "apolitical." That's Whiteness at work. From my perspective, the politics in Hello Lighthouse are front and center. Its nostalgia for times past is palpable. In Blackall's book, the life of a white family is affirmed and the lighthouse that they live in is on what used to be Native lands. There's no neutrality there. In fact, if we think about it, every children's book for which the setting is this continent, is set on what used to be Native lands. If we could all hold that fact front and center every time we pick up a children's book set on this continent, how might that change how we view children's literature? How might that shape the literature as we move into the future?

People did not (and do not) like me saying that about Blackall's book. That is, however, my sincere appraisal of it and my questions are sincere, too. What if we did think about the land every time we pick up a children's book like The Hundred-Year Barn?

Here's the description of The Hundred-Year Barn from the HarperCollins website:
One hundred years ago, a little boy watched his family and community come together to build a grand red barn. This barn become his refuge and home—a place to play with friends and farm animals alike.
As seasons passed, the barn weathered many storms. The boy left and returned a young man, to help on the farm and to care for the barn again. The barn has stood for one hundred years, and it will stand for a hundred more: a symbol of peace, stability, caring and community. 
In this joyful celebration generations of family and their tender connection to the barn, Newbery Medal–winning author Patricia MacLachlan and award-winning artist Kenard Pak spin a tender and timeless story about the simple moments that make up a lifetime.
This beautiful picture book is perfect for young children who are curious about history and farm life.

The barn was built in 1919. We aren't told where (geographically), but Lachlan's dedication to her grandparents suggests that she may have had North Dakota prairies in mind when she wrote this story. But, she was born in Wyoming and said that she carries a bag of prairie dirt with her, so it could be Wyoming rather than North Dakota. What was going on in those states in the early 1900s? North Dakota became a state of the US in 1889. Wyoming became a state in 1890.

I'll say this, just to be obvious: all that land belonged to Native Nations.

I wanted to read The Hundred-Year Barn to see if there was any mention of Native people. I wondered if there was an author's note that said a bit more about that land, that barn, that family. In short: no. I've got the book in front of me today and it is simply a white family and community. Not a single mention of Native people or communities. Its history starts in 1919 with a white family.

Now--I know some of you are saying "MacLachlan's book isn't about Native people!" and "Don't judge it for what it doesn't have in it." But those are thin arguments, aren't they? If we think back to children's books that, for decades, showed women in narrow ways, critics asked questions, right? Asking questions about the contents of books is one mechanism to drive change.

I'm pretty sure that, in 1919, Native people were watching White people building barns on what was once Native homeland. And that, in that hundred-year period, Native people watched more and more White people move on to Native homelands and build things.

I'd bet, as a matter of face, that there were lawsuits in federal courts, through which Native Nations were trying to get the US to honor treaties it made with them.

The Hundred-Year Barn is--to some--a lovely story. To a Native person--to me--it is one like so many others that erase Native people from existence. It denies truths to children. And it feeds a nostalgia for a time that never really was like what you see when you read MacLachlan's book. The Hundred-Year Barn is not a good that I would recommend, to anyone. All kids deserve better than that.


Ava Jarvis said...

Agree, 1000%.

The next person who wants to argue, "but we shouldn't let kids think about the genocide of indigenous people on the soil of what is currently called America," I would like to know if they would argue that we shouldn't let kids know about wars in history.

Because the only difference is the desire to avoid settler guilt.

(I'm saying "settler" here instead of "just" white because I'm extremely aware of a lot of non-white non-indigenous folks who have a lot of similar attitudes to white folks vis a vis the lands currently called America. *Kenard Pak.* Who I expected better from.)

Ava, retired reviewer and settler of Vietnamese descent

Linda said...

Thank you for stating what should be obvious so very well. Having been born and raised white in Montana in the middle of the 20th century this rings true to me now but as a child all the books to which I was exposed and all the thought that surrounded me ignored the native people who lived on reservations not more than 30 miles away. I remember finding arrow heads and even even beads when digging in the hills and being told what I now know are untruths about where the Native Americas "went" and why they "had to go". By simply pointing out that the land on which a story about a white family is set was once used, enjoyed, treasured, loved by Native people would not change history but would change our ability to make connections to the land and the people in ways that might start to heal wounds and open minds. As a school librarian, I will now consciously use this when sharing books with students, gentle reminders that the history of the United States must include the people who were here first and must talk about what the white people did to grab the land. So, again, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Debbie, have you seen NO SMALL POTATOES: JUNIUS G. GROVES AND HIS KINGDOM IN KANSAS (Knopf, 2018), by Tonya Bolden and illustrated by Don Tate. Set in rural Kansas in the mid-late 1800s, it may have some of the same problematic issues as THE HUNDRED-YEAR BARN. It got glowing reviews, and some stars. You can get a preview at Google Books.

Anonymous said...

"One of the cardinal sins of book reviewing is evaluating a book for what it is not. Perhaps it is not the book the reviewer would like to be reading, or is not about a subject the reviewer finds of value or interest, or does not take an approach to its subject that the reviewer would prefer."

"Reviewing the book that's in front of your face." Roger Sutton. Hornbook, last week. Well worth a read and considering this review as an example of what Sutton is talking about. Is it a cardinal sin, or has the meaning of cardinal sin lost all meaning in a post-truth world?

Debbie Reese said...

Anon at 4:35 PM on Nov 15,

Who decided that was a sin? Not Roger, but who came up with the idea it was a sin to ask questions like those I pose?

What interests are served by admonishments not to sin, in that way?

Unknown said...

And why should we all be interpolated into a Christian idea of "cardinal sin," anyway? I reject this notion; it is not a useful way of thinking about the issues.