Monday, February 15, 2021

An Ojibwe Mother's Thoughts on James Bird's THE BRAVE

Editor's Note: AICL is pleased to host Allie Tibbetts's review of The Brave. She is a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and an early childhood educator at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School. She lives in Duluth, Minnesota, with her daughter, Zaagi. It joins the review that Dr. Janis A. Fairbanks did, reflects on the strength of Ojibwe women, and provides an important perspective on stories of their people. 

See related posts:


Would Ojibwe People--Who Live Off of Fish--Practice the 
"Catch and Release" Method of Fishing?
by Allie Tibbetts

The Brave is a story about a boy named Collin who grew up in California living with his father. Collin faced difficulties in school due to his obsession and compulsion with counting the words people speak. Collin’s alcoholic father decided it was time to send Collin home to his mother, who dwells on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Minnesota. That is my rez. Hearing my rez was the setting of the story piqued my interest. So I obtained a copy and started reading. 

I tried to read with an open mind, but I know for me, whenever indigenous people are featured in the media, a critical eye emerges, scanning for any discrepancy, any hint of a betrayal or diminishment of who we are. And in "The Brave", I found many. But also as an avid reader and lifelong fan of the young adult genre, I also found aspects of his writing I thoroughly appreciated. The author James Bird is a good writer for the young adult genre. What I love about young adult books, good ones anyway, is the ease of falling into the story and automatic interest in the characters. A good young adult novel will have you wanting to turn the page to read what happens next. And James achieves that, but not without some moments that left me, as an indigenous, Anishinaabe woman from the setting in the story, with some pause and quite taken aback. 

I attempted to read detachedly, just filing away such instances, one of the first the reference to Collin’s mother’s "fireskin". I’m not sure I like that description or have seen any I would describe as having such in the spectrum of hues on my rez. There were immediate stereotypical mystical Native tropes embodied within some of the character development. I suppose some of that could have been Collin subconsciously looking to have his personal stereotypes reinforced, which people do, and they find them where they can, whether they exist or not, but most weren’t really challenged throughout the book. 

Something that made it difficult for me, as someone from this area, who knows it intimately, was the complete lack of connectedness to the environment the book is set in. Geographically it did not make sense. Collin noticed mountains with snow. There are no mountains here. There are hills. Duluth is on a hill. There are no mountains, but there is the largest freshwater lake in the world in Duluth, a lake that I imagine our ancestors coming upon thousands of years ago and feeling at home as they were by the ocean before they left to travel here. Because that is where our people first came from. So, to me, the lake is significant to this area and to Duluth. But it must have escaped both Collin’s eyes and the author’s. I felt bamboozled in the story because it was said Collin would be going to his mother, who lived in Duluth, Minnesota, so I was excited. I don’t live on the rez. I live in Duluth. So I thought, “Oh! She’s from Fond du Lac living in Duluth, like me!” But that wasn’t the case. I’m not sure if the author thought the rez was in Duluth. Of course this is all ceded territory around here, but the only part of Duluth that is tribal land is where the casino sits downtown. There were several other discrepancies with the environment in the story and the reality of this area. Sadly, I had to imagine the book was in a different place to continue reading as unbiasedly as I could, lest I be interrupted by all my inner protestations regarding the mistakes. 

However there were two moments where I couldn't hold back my dismay. Maybe it was a culmination of all the wrongness and absurdities up until then, but when the main character's mother, an Ojibwe woman, stated to her son that when they fish, they "catch and release" because "fish have families too", I set my reader down, rolled my eyes, and sighed. 

From childhood, Ojibwe children (photo is of Allie Tibbetts)
learn to fish, much like their ancestors did. 

NO OJIBWE FISHERMAN OR WOMAN IS GOING TO CATCH AND RELEASE. We live off of fish. Still. To this day. Fishing, netting, and spearing are vital parts of our way of life. Not only for sustenance, but for connection to our ancestors and those to come and our community. Our ancestors didn’t think of us when signing those treaties so we could catch and release. Across Indian Country, we fight for the treaty rights our ancestors negotiated for us and that environmentalists and hippies try to take away from us. Unfortunately, this type of hokey hippie idea of being indigenous appears throughout the book, tainting the story. 

The second moment I threw my hands up in exasperation was finding out the Grandmother (who was probably the most obnoxiously stereotypical character, which stinks because Ojibwe Grandmothers are cool in their own right) was dead all along. I thought that was unnecessary. The ceremonial scenes also gave me pause and had elements unrecognizable to me, though considering I’m not an expert or even close to one, I will not delve much into that. I’m not sure how I feel about ceremony being written about in such a way, to be honest. 

There were times I felt I was reading a book written by a white person about us. But the author is not white. I came to the realization that perhaps the author is embodied in the main character, a boy alien to his people and homeland, looking for the magic he’s been told Indian people have. To some degree, I do think people are magical, not just indigenous people, but people, and life. There were moments in the story that were really moving to me. Spoiler alert here, but when Collin dreams of his newfound love Orenda turning into a butterfly as she talks about throughout the book, but then awakens to find her surrounded by loved ones, dying in bed, that was perhaps my favorite moment in the book. There were a lot of layers there with his dream juxtaposed against the harshness of the reality, but maybe the dream was real. Orenda’s father certainly thought so, as he embraced Collin after he related the dream to them at the bedside. I think there is enough beauty and magic in what is real without having to make things up. There is enough beauty and magic in my people and in the place I live without having to make things up. Unfortunately that was a missed opportunity. 

As an adult reader I am able to detach from the inaccuracies in the story. I know the truths about my people and homeland. But other people don't. Now they will think they know us, when they still don’t. I wish the author would have either chosen a made up place or chosen to do more research. I do think this book could have been really good, and there were moments where I saw it, but it was obscured by untruths. The truth is we are a real people and a real place, and the story did not resonate with me as being us or being here.


Miss Emma said...

Thank you so much for this insightful review. When I read a book written by an indigenous author that features a community that really exists, I expect that what I will read in the book will be accurate. Your review is helpful in that it highlights inaccuracies so we can be more aware of what is truth, and what is fiction.

Emma @ejclibrarian

Thompson McLeod said...

Interesting from Miss Emma but it's one point of view. Here's another a post about Bird's book from another Native American Robert DesJarlait

Erika said...

Thank you so much for this review! I actually almost sent a "Have you seen" email to Dr. Reese a few months ago about The Brave, but got star-struck/shy :) I saw some glowing initial reviews of it and was excited/curious about a book set in my region, but I didn't buy it right away because parts of the book description made me nervous. The one character sounded an awful lot like a "mystical/magical Indian" stereotype. I just saw it on SLJ's "Best of 2020" list and thought maybe I was crazy for hesitating, but now I feel much more sure about my decision not to purchase it for my library.

zinnia said...

Also “catch and release” must cause suffering to the fish—because you enjoy the “sport”. Ugh.

Unknown said...

What a beautiful review, a really thoughtful, beautifully written piece in its own right. Thank you for it.