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.