Saturday, January 17, 2009

On Being Misled about Kanell's DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER

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[Update: January 18, 9:45 AM, CST---A special welcome to readers from other nations, coming here from the livejournal community, where critical discussion of Kanell and her book is taking off.]

I regularly listen to Mark Kermode's film reviews on BBC. Recently he talked about promotional materials for Slum Dog Millionaire. He warned listeners that the promotional material did not accurately present the content of the film itself.

It reminded me of Beth Kanell's Darkness Under the Water. From the author and through promotional materials and reviews, we are told it is about the Vermont Eugenics Project.

Kanell publishes a blog called "Stories That Matter". In the blog's description, she says:

For her 2008 novel The Darkness Under the Water she wove together family stories of New England, the experiences of neighbors who knew what life was like here during the Vermont Eugenics Project, and a LOT of historical research.

And on May 6th, Kanell wrote:

Next week I'll be at the Vermont Library Conference in South Burlington, reading on May 13 and 14 in the author's cove, letting Molly Ballou tell you how it felt for her to be sixteen years old, living in a small Vermont village in 1930, when her Abenaki heritage -- which her parents had carefully turned into "being French Canadian," but which her grandmother still honors -- well, to make a long story short, Molly discovered that being Abenaki could mean being threatened by the Governor and Legislature of Vermont, and especially by the nurses being sent out into the communities to look for families who didn't match the ideal Vermont image.

The blurb on the publisher's website says

"This gripping, ultimately hopeful tale of an Abenaki-French Canadian girl in 1920s Vermont explores a dark history in New England history."

The reviewer at Kirkus says

"Kanell focuses on the Eugenics Project as it relates to the Ballou family, though she does make brief mention of this movement's overall impact in a note."

's reviewer says

"Readers will be drawn into this historical story to learn about a time of discrimination against Native Americans that is not widely known."

And School Library Journal's reviewer notes that

"Although the true history of the Vermont Eugenics Project looms in the background, the story really centers around Molly's coming-of-age."

The Library of Congress information says the book's subjects include "Eugenics --Fiction" and "Abenaki Indians --Fiction." The summary says

"In 1930, sixteen-year-old Molly lives under the shadow of a governor who wants to sterilize people "unfit to be true Vermonters," such as her Abenaki family, while the loss of her family home, her mother's pregnancy, her first love, and other events transform her life."

The book is not about the Vermont Eugenics Project. It's a melodramatic mystery set in the past that uses the Vermont Eugenics Project to, as the author said on child-lit, "create a climate of fear" for her characters to live within.

Create a climate of fear?!

That's a gross violation of the Abenaki people, what they endured then, and what they continue to deal with in the present day. I wonder if the Abenaki family Kanell references knows that she used their stories to "create a climate of fear"? She used that family, and she used that history to create a melodramatic mystery that is being marketed as historical fiction. She used them and she used it for her own purposes.

If you haven't read it yet, don't bother. If you plan to read it, stop reading now, because I'm going to give you the highpoints of the "story" Kanell tells... It strikes me, as I recount it, as a fast-paced TV reality show with lots of drama.

The star of this drama is Molly, a teenager.

Easter Sunday, 1930 (April 20th).
Molly finds out her mother is four months pregnant. From her visiting uncles, she learns that " is dangerous now to be an Indian..." (p. 27)

Sometime in June, on a Tuesday....
Molly finds her mother coughing and bleeding heavily "blood seeping through the skirt fabric...". Nurses are entering their yard (see the Dow and Seale essay for info about the nurses) and Molly asks them to help. Her mother tells the nurse that she is nearly seven months pregnant. Labor happens. The baby is dead. Smothered by the nurses? Stillborn? Kanell claims that the baby was stillborn and that the "handful of bleeding flesh" that the nurse "tugged... out of my mother's most private place" with the "sharp flash of a blade" was the afterbirth, but I'm not persuaded. Later, Molly says that her mother had died "...without pain, letting go of the lost babies, the shredded womb, the sorrows and pains." (p. 300) Why is the womb shredded?

On Wed and Thur...
Relatives arrive. Nurses come by, too, but Molly's father won't let them in.

On Friday...

Baby is buried.

On Saturday...
Molly goes to a dance. When she comes home her mother is gone. Molly, her father and grandmother find her mother at the river, crying, standing in a "small puddle" of blood.

Molly takes over her mother's work as a laundress. She's been doing laundry from death of baby till end of June, and now, into July she continues to do the laundry.

Early August
Molly's father say's they'll "move next week" to their house across from the school.

Saturday, August 16th
Molly and her family move. Her mother is carried to the wagon.

Monday, August 17th
Pre-dawn storms cause Molly's mother to have nightmares. Lightning strikes their house by the river. It catches fire.

A Tuesday in September
Molly's mother feels strong enough to go upstairs. She lays down to nap in upstairs bedroom. Molly goes for a walk. Molly's grandmother naps in kitchen. Molly comes back, hears a scream and thuds, goes inside, finds her mother and the nurse at the foot of the stairs. Henry and Molly's father arrive; Henry suggests they take the nurse's body to the dam, throw it over the spillway.

Early November
While inspecting the dam, state inspectors find the nurse's body. They think she fell, and build a fence so others don't also fall. Molly's mother dies in her sleep, never learned about the nurse's death.

So.... what happens to this family? They live in fear, the mother is pregnant, they lose the baby, they are forced to leave their home, the night of their move the house catches fire, the nurse falls down stairs in their new house and dies in the fall, they conspire to hide the death, the nurse's body is found, the mother dies. Possible, yes, but plausible? No.

There are other aspects of the story that are not plausible. The ways that Molly speaks and thinks about her identity, for example. I'll save that post for another day.

If you're a teacher or librarian, save your money. Teach your students about the Vermont Eugenics Project, but don't do it with Kanell's book. She's only used the project to create a sensational story. Don't be misled. The Abenaki people, your students, all of us (in fact) deserve better than this.


There are several posts here on this blog, about DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER. I'm arranging them here, chronologically. Be sure to read comments to each entry.

December 5, 2008 - Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
December 6, 2008 - A reader responds to Seale/Dow review
December 17, 2008 - Slapin's Open Letter to Kanell
December 18, 2008 - Kanell's Response to Slapin's Open Letter
December 19, 2008 - I read Beth Kanell's DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
January 3, 2009 - "Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments" by Beverly Slapin

Friday, January 16, 2009

Good book for a cold day

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Pointing, today, to Alan Sockabasin's terrific picture book, Thanks to the Animals. Beverly Slapin wrote a review of it; click here to read her review. And, I wrote about the companion audio for it. Click here to read that.

And... buy the book! For your classroom, your library, your son or daughter, granddaughter, grandson, niece, nephew.... Get it from Oyate.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Tim Tingle Storytelling at University of Illinois, Saturday, Feb 7

Posting today, an announcement from the Spurlock Museum, located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Tim Tingle is among my favorite writers. Top of my recommended list is his picture book,
Crossing Bok Chitto.

Winter Tales: Tim Tingle, Choctaw Teller

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Storytelling Concert

Join us for one of the Museum’s most popular annual events, a concert of American Indian tales, told during the winter months, the traditional time of telling. This year’s performance features Tim Tingle, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, a nationally renowned storyteller and speaker, and an award-winning author of Native American fiction and folklore. Winter Tales concerts are sponsored by an endowment from Reginald and Gladys Laubin and funded in part by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.

Location: Knight Auditorium, Spurlock Museum, 600 S. Gregory St., Urbana, IL

Time: 2:00 PM - 3:30 PM

Cost: $5.00

Pre-concert Workshop for Educators and Tellers

“Native American Storytelling for the Non-Native Teller”

Led by Tim Tingle; pre-registration required.

Location: Zahn Learning Center, Spurlock Museum

Time: 9:00 AM – Noon

Cost: $30.00

For further information, contact Kim Sheahan at (217) 244-3355 or

Saturday, January 03, 2009

"Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments" by Beverly Slapin

On Friday, January 2, 2009 , Jean Mendoza referenced a children's literature listserv. She is talking about child_lit. That listserv discussion group started in the mid 90s. I've been following it since then and am glad that Jean and Beverly Slapin are on it, too. It can be a contentious place when we voice objections to books that misrepresent or stereotype Native peoples. Below is a post Beverly Slapin submitted to child_lit, in its on-going discussion thread about Beth Kanell's Darkness Under the Water. As a work of historical fiction, the book provides opportunities for fact-based analysis of its content, theoretical discussions of historical fiction as a genre, and, variations in response to the story based on identity of the reader.

Below is Beverly's email to child_lit, posted there on December 31, 2008. She is responding to remarks by three specific individuals: Debby Edwardson, J. L. Bell, and Beth Kanell. One of the functions of this site (American Indians in Children's Literature) is to provide easy access to a resource that looks critically at the ways that Native peoples are portrayed in children's books. Posting Beverly's email here gives access to some of the child_lit discussion for people who are not subscribed to child_lit.


Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments

by Beverly Slapin

Debby Dahl Edwardson wrote (ChildLit, Dec. 29, 2008):

For better or worse, how readers perceive a book, how they "interpret one scene" carries far more weight than what the author intended. That the interpretation often says more about the reader than the writer is irrelevant. Trying to make sure that there is little room for misinterpretation is the writer's work, not the reader's.

I agree with Debby, exactly. A gifted writer can weave many levels of interpretation into a story, and may certainly leave readers with questions to ponder. Such readers may, after reading an especially well-written book, want to look back at a particularly beautiful and/or puzzling passage (or even the whole book) and think, “Wow! I didn’t get that the first time.” In Debby’s picture book, Whale Snow, the young reader is with young Amiqqaq, asking question after question, and being told at just about every turn: “You’ll see.” When Amiqqaq begins to understand that the “spirit of the whale,” the thing he is seeking, is “fat snow and strong wind…right here in my house, making people smile and laugh,” the young reader understands as well. In the case of Whale Snow, what writer intended is what the young reader perceives: Here is a little boy, secure and happy in the long arms of his extended family, learning what he needs to learn in a way that is appropriate for him and his culture.

In response to Debby Edwardson, J.L. Bell wrote (ChildLit, Dec. 30, 2008):

Here I think we're also discussing the critic's work, which is to read an author's creation with due care and respect. Ideally, a critic is more sensitive to alternative interpretations, creative challenges, and literary traditions than an average reader.

A critic may in the end judge that an author hasn't succeeded in any number of ways. A critic can find more layers of meaning in a work than the author intended, sometimes layers that undercut the surface and/or intended meanings. But critics who disregard parts of a work, or describe it or its history inaccurately, aren't being respectful to either author and readers.

As a critic, I give a book a thorough read. At least once, I read it at the level of the reader for whom the book is intended. If it’s a young adult book, I read it several times. If it’s historical fiction, I research the history. Often, the flaws in a book will jump out at me. I look at who the author is and what the author’s relationship is to the land, culture and community. I ask myself a lot of questions about a particular book, and I often communicate with friends and colleagues who may know more than I do about the land, culture, history and community in which the book is situated. Many of the reviews on which I work are collaborative. All of my friends and colleagues who critique children’s books do so with great care. We look at “alternative interpretations, creative challenges, and literary traditions,” and we look at much more.

Doris Seale, Judy Dow, and Debbie Reese are Indian women, teachers and scholars, and lifelong advocates for Indian children. We have collaborated many times together; they are at least as conscientious as I am, and, in many areas, far more knowledgeable. I’ve read Darkness Under the Water four times, and I know that Doris, Judy and Debbie have read it several times as well. Doris and Judy, as Abenaki women living in Vermont, are historians who have the lived experience of their families having been hunted down by the eugenicists. One can’t get too much more involved in a book’s subject matter than this.

In their critique of Darkness Under the Water, Doris and Judy verified their understanding of the historical events in the eugenics movement with historian Nancy Gallagher, who wrote Breeding Better Vermonters; I also consulted with Nancy, who gave me a deeper understanding of the history and “science” of eugenics. Based on a careful reading of Darkness Under the Water, consultation with a local nurse who gave me her interpretation of its medical aspects, more research, and further talks with Nancy and Judy, here are some questions and comments about the book and my analysis of Kanell’s post-publication interpretations of what she’s written.

Who were the nurses in Vermont?

Kanell writes (ChildLit, Dec. 12, 2008) that she based “the nursing visits in the story on those being made by the District Nurse, proudly supported by a local women’s club starting in 1912.” Nurses in Vermont in 1930 included those from the Visiting Nurse Association, the Red Cross, instructive district nursing associations and, of course, nurses in hospitals and institutions. Some of these nurses may have been knocking on people’s doors, but they were not in any way affiliated with the Vermont Eugenics Survey. There was never any connection between the VES and the State of Vermont. The nurses in Darkness Under the Water could not have been “state nurses.”

The women who interviewed Vermont residents for the Vermont Eugenics Survey were social workers, not nurses. They compiled the interpretive data that later were used by directors of institutions (including hospitals, prisons, reformatories, and training schools) to identify “degenerates,” “delinquents” and “dependents” as targets for sterilization. These social workers, who were welcomed into the homes of relatives of people they were investigating, pretended to be caring individuals while using bribery and manipulation to solicit the “information” they were charged with collecting.

What happened to Mama and her baby on the kitchen table?

In the context of the eugenics movement, Beth Kanell’s graphic, gory and sensationalized description of the medical procedure the nurses inflict on Mama would lead a reasonable middle reader (and this adult reader as well) to infer that Nurse Carpenter, with the assistance of Nurse Williams, “sterilizes” Mama after she gives birth. That Nurse Carpenter, with “eyes blazing,” says, “it has to be done,” reinforces this interpretation; as does Grandma’s assertion to Molly that “they cut her up on purpose. They don’t want Indian babies around here.”

A perusal of the Vermont Sterilization Law (1931) reveals some interesting, albeit abhorrent, information. It mandated that “idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded or insane persons” were to be examined by two “competent physicians and surgeons not in the employment of the state” who would certify as to their suitability for sterilization; and the actual surgeries were to be performed by a third “competent physician or surgeon not in the employment of the state.” It also mandated that the men were to be sterilized by vasectomy; and women, by salpingectomy, or removal of the fallopian tubes. Prior to 1931, sterilization was illegal; and after 1931, for nurses, even “state nurses,” to sterilize someone at home would have been illegal.

Kanell writes (ChildLit, Dec. 12, 2008, italics mine):

“[S]ince I saw no evidence that nurses in this region would have performed eugenic sterilizations, even though doctors may have, I presumed that the nurses in the story would attempt to bring out the placenta and could have also attempted a clumsy…dilettation and curettage procedure.”

So if the nurses are not sterilizing Mama, why does Kanell have them whispering conspiritorially to each other? Why are Nurse Carpenter’s “eyes blazing,” and why is she saying, “it has to be done” in a way that implies fanaticism? Where did Nurse Carpenter get her “blade” (“a sharp flash of a blade”), and why is she tugging on “a handful of bleeding flesh” and wrapping a “handful of bloody something into a towel, along with the blade”? Why does Grandma insist that the nurses sterilized Mama (“They cut her up. There’ll be no more babies…they cut her up on purpose. They don’t want Indian babies around here.”)? And why does Henry Laporte agree with Grandma?

If the nurses are performing a “clumsy dilletation and curettage procedure,” there is neither dilation nor anesthesia, yet Mama gives only one “cry of pain.” The baby was delivered, the nurses say, “stillborn.” There is neither a placenta previa nor a placental abruption. So why is Nurse Carpenter hacking away at the placenta? If the problem is that Mama is hemorrhaging, Grandma, as a traditional doctor and herbalist, would know what to do.

Did Mama have tuberculosis?

Kanell writes (ChildLit, Dec. 12, 2008):

“I base the likely stillbirth of the baby in the story on a medical article that tracked the effects of familial tuberculosis at that time.”

In Darkness Under the Water, Mama coughs three times: once, a “barking cough” (that could describe croup or pertussis), the second time, a “low rattling cough” (that could describe asthma or perhaps, tuberculosis) and the third time, while Mama is giving birth, she coughs spasmodically, which could have many indications. Grandma says that Mama has a “spring cough,” but the nurses quickly diagnose her as having tuberculosis and instruct Molly to bring her to the hospital in St. Johnsbury in a few days “to see the doctors about the tuberculosis.” If Mama indeed has latent tuberculosis, there would no connection with losing the baby. If Mama has active tuberculosis, she would be coughing spasmodically throughout the book, she would be coughing up blood and Molly and Grandma would been coughing as well. If Mama indeed had tuberculosis, how did she get it? Why does no one else have it? Why didn’t the family go to the doctor in St. Johnsbury? And why do Mama’s customers—who would have known that tuberculosis is wildly contagious—continue to bring their laundry for her to wash?

Does Nurse Carpenter smother Mama’s baby during the delivery? To this reader, it certainly seems so. Grandma says, “We’ll never know whether she smothered that baby, either.” Molly questions, “Had the nurse made sure he didn’t breathe?” Mama, after the final episode with Nurse Carpenter, screams: “She wants to kill my baby…She wants to kill my baby again. No! No!”

Kanell writes (ChildLit, Dec. 12, 2008, italics mine):

“My intent in framing the nursing presence in town and then the childbirth scene the way I did, with medical components that 16-year-old Molly struggles to comprehend, was to allow readers to see Molly’s and her family’s assumptions within the climate of fear induced by the Eugenics Project. Could the prematurely born baby have been smothered by the nurses? Could they have attacked Molly’s mother internally in an effort to make sure she would bear no more children? As I have acknowledged with teens who’ve read the story and asked ‘what really happened’ in this scene, I don’t think that the nurses were necessarily the evil and vicious agents of the Eugenics Project here—but I can’t fault Molly in thinking they might be.”

It appears that Kanell used the background of the eugenics movement to imply that there was sterilization, dialogue from the nurses that implies that there was sterilization, a gory description of a procedure that appears to be sterilization and infanticide, and dialogue from Indian characters who insist that there was sterilization and possibly an infanticide. But now, Kanell says that there was neither sterilization nor an infanticide. If this is the case, then what are the nurses—whose only purpose appears to be as the tools of the eugenics movement—doing in the story? There is no internal logic here. Rather, in her post-publication comments about the nurses, the medical procedure and the delivery, Beth Kanell appears to be backtracking. Or she appears to be purposefully manipulating young readers who cannot possibly be expected to work through this level of poorly written ambiguity.

Who’s being blamed?

Kanell shows an appalling lack of respect for her own Indian characters. Writing to ChildLit (Dec. 12, 2008), she implies that the nurses were innocent passersby who came to help and that Mama’s, Grandma’s, Molly’s, and Henry’s understanding of what the nurses did to Mama are “assumptions within the climate of fear induced by the Eugenics Project.” She further writes that it was Mama’s “tuberculosis” that causes the baby’s “stillbirth,” even though Grandma, who is a traditional doctor and herbalist, says Mama had a “spring cough.” So, in effect, she’s saying, “It’s not my fault that young readers may misunderstand what I wrote. It’s my Abenaki characters’ fault.” This is disingenuous.

Kanell writes (to “American Indians in Children’s Literature,” Debbie Reese’s blog, Dec. 7, 2008):

“Judy and Doris, I’m sorry that you’ve been dismayed by some misreadings of the story…perhaps you are not a frequent reader of ‘young adult’ fiction, where some suggestions of fear and horror are not always matched by the also presented facts. A reader needs to sort through what is being presented.”

So, in effect, Kanell’s saying, “It’s not my fault that the two Abenaki critics misunderstood what I wrote.” Point of information: Doris Seale, before her retirement, was a children’s librarian for over 45 years, and Judy Dow has been a teacher for more than 25 years. It’s more than likely that both Abenaki women know how to read and interpret young adult fiction, even poorly written ones such as Darkness Under the Water.

It may not have been Kanell’s intent to falsify the eugenics movement in Vermont in such an egregious manner; it may not have been Kanell’s intent to miseducate the children of Vermont; it may not have been Kanell’s intent to shame Abenaki people; I have no way of knowing. But when Kanell creates a melodramatic ghost story that distorts a piece of history that continues to strike the hearts of Abenaki families; when every single one of Kanell’s Abenaki characters misunderstand what’s happening to them; when Kanell condescendingly dismisses the words of Abenaki educators who point out what she has done—then her very intentions are suspect.

And so are J.L. Bell's. When he writes (see post, above) that “critics who disregard parts of a work, or describe it or its history inaccurately, aren't being respectful to either author and readers,” is this is a thinly-veiled accusation that Doris Seale and Judy Dow, Indian educators who put together a carefully researched review of a book that caused them great personal pain, lack integrity? Or that Debbie Reese, an educator who has made truthful depictions of Indian lives and histories her life’s work, lacks integrity? Or is he implying that Indian people don’t have the smarts to know a good book from a bad book? In any event, it would seem to me that, behind the screen of academic scholarship, there lurks both arrogance and white privilege.

—Beverly Slapin

Jan 18, 2009 - Note:

There are several posts here on this blog, about DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER. I'm arranging them here, chronologically. Be sure to read comments to each entry.

December 5, 2008 - Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
December 6, 2008 - A reader responds to Seale/Dow review
December 17, 2008 - Slapin's Open Letter to Kanell
December 18, 2008 - Kanell's Response to Slapin's Open Letter
December 19, 2008 - I read Beth Kanell's DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
January 3, 2009 - "Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments" by Beverly Slapin

Friday, January 02, 2009

Jean Mendoza essay: Paul Chaat Smith and children's books about American Indians

Earlier this week, my dear friend and colleague, Jean Mendoza and I were talking by phone about children's books about American Indians, particularly historical fiction. Jean recalled an essay by Paul Chaat Smith. I invited her to put her thoughts into a piece for this site. Paul Chaat Smith is an enrolled member of the Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma, and co-wrote Like a Hurricane: the Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, a book I recommended on Feb. 3rd, 2008.

Here's Jean's essay.

Hi, Deb,

On your blog and on the children’s literature list serv, the past few weeks have seen much conversation (and in some cases, apparent avoidance of conversation) about representation and misrepresentation of Native people and history. All of it has reminded me of Paul Chaat Smith’s essay, “Ghost in the Machine” in Strong Hearts: Native American Visions and Voices. It’s powerful – funny but moving in a way that kind of sneaks up and grabs you (me, anyway). He starts out talking about his great uncle Cavayo who in his time had the task of giving names to “the marvelous toys and dazzling inventions modern times brought to the Comanche in the latter half of the 19th century.” Among those inventions: the “Walker Colt” .44 caliber revolver – the first repeating pistol in the world -- which Chaat Smith notes (persuasively) was apparently invented to help Texas Rangers kill Comanches more efficiently than was possible with other guns.


But Chaat Smith manages (like many other Native writers) to connect an image from the American genocide to a more contemporary situation using irony and humor. He says the Comanches “frantically tried to acquire the new guns but had limited success – imagine a member of the Crips trying to buy a dozen Stinger rocket-launchers in the midst of the 1992 riots in LA: not impossible but really, really difficult.”

I wish there were some way for Ghost in the Machine to be required reading for every editor, writer, book reviewer, teacher or librarian whose work in any way touches on children’s books. And if there’s one section of the essay that I wish they would memorize, it’s this:

Paul Chaat Smith says,

“Heck, we're just plain folks, but no one wants to hear that. But how could it be any different? The confusion and ambivalence, the amnesia and wistful romanticism make perfect sense. We are shape-shifters in the national consciousness. We are accidental survivors, unwanted reminders of disagreeable events. Indians have to be explained and accounted for, and to fit somehow into the creation myth of the most powerful, benevolent nation ever, the last, best hope of man on earth.”

When otherwise intelligent and capable people scramble in defense of mis/representations of indigenous people in books by non-Native writers, it’s that quote that comes to mind for me. Few things can be more disagreeable to a person of conscience than the idea that one lives well on stolen resources (including land), enabled by a history of government-supported genocidal laws & policies and behaviors, and by the willingness of one’s cultural (if not familial) forebears to kill many times over in order to get the resources from the folks who were here first. The myth is essential; otherwise the non-indigenous person of conscience finds himself/herself in a psychologically untenable position.

At the end of “Ghost in the Machine”, Paul Chaat Smith comments, “We're trapped in history. No escape. Great-uncle Cavayo must have faced many situations this desperate, probably in god-forsaken desert canyons against murderous Apaches and Texans. Somehow, I know what he would say: Get the best piece you can find and shoot your way out.”

Smith is punning on “piece”, having talked about both guns and cameras throughout “Ghost”. When I think about what he has written in Ghost, a third meaning comes to mind: a “piece” of writing, a piece of art. His own essay, for example. Other essays and novels and poems and paintings and sculptures and so on that can set readers/viewers straight on how things have been, how they really are. Yes, and critiques of books that misrepresent Native lives.

I had a mental image of contemporary Native scholars and critics and authors hunkered down in that “god-forsaken canyon”, writing their way out (“power of the pen”); using contemporary technology (e.g., Internet) that allows them to “shoot from the hip” (or sometimes, “from the lip”). (The image doesn’t work all that well, really, though in my mind it is imbued with courage and tenacity and determination and resourcefulness….)

From what I can tell, very few, if any, fiction books by non-Native writers are real allies in Native people’s efforts to shoot/write their way out of the chronic misrepresentation.

I keep wondering: if non-Native authors who want to write Native-themed books (and their publishers) were to read this essay and the others in Strong Hearts BEFORE beginning those book projects—would they continue to look at their efforts to tell or make up Native stories with the sense that what they’re doing is necessary, honorable, or even okay?

If producers of children’s books read and understood Chaat Smith’s message, would we continue to see what the Cooperative Center for Books for Children consistently finds: that (for example) of approximately 3,000 children’s books published in 2007 that their staff examined, only 6 were created by American Indian writers or illustrators though 44 contained American Indian themes, topics, or characters?

The 1995 publication date of Strong Hearts (by Aperture) shocks me now; we’ve had the book since it was new. But the essays do not seem dated, and certainly the photography by indigenous photographers feels contemporary. The book is worth looking for. A version of “Ghost in the Machine” is on Paul Chaat Smith’s Web site, Fear of a Red Planet.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Today, Nadine (a librarian-in-training) wrote to me after she found my blog. We exchanged a few emails, during which I learned she's from Manitoba, Canada. She had some very cool news about In Search of April Raintree...

Written by Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, In Search of April Raintree is the book chosen for "On The Same Page: Manitoba Reads" --- a literacy project whose goal is to have 12,000 people (1% of the population of Manitoba) read the selected book between October 2008 through April 2009.

According to a review in CM: Canadian Review of Materials, it is widely used in junior and senior high schools, and university courses, too. The On The Same Page site includes a bio and among other things, an interview with her. One of the questions is

"Do you wish you could have read a book like In Search of April Raintree when you were young?"

Her reply:

"I have Metis people come up and tell me that In Search of April Raintree changed their lives. They grew up hiding their Aboriginal roots and with this book, they felt proud of April and proud of their roots. A lot of people, especially Aboriginal people, have told me that this story is their story because it's exactly what they went through: growing up in foster homes; alcoholism in the family, forced assimilation and racism is something that they can identify with."
I read the novel years ago. It should be more widely read in the United States. Thanks, Nadine, for the info!

(Note: The cover image and photo of Mosionier are from the On The Same Page website.)

Update, Dec 23rd, 2008---Oyate carries April Raintree. I asked Beverly Slapin if it is the same book as In Search of April Raintree. She said:

IN SEARCH OF APRIL RAINTREE and APRIL RAINTREE were published together as separate titles. APRIL RAINTREE was the one more accessible for high school students, so that is the one we chose. The only difference, really, seems to be the rape scene, which is a little less graphic in the high school edition.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Many people want to know what I think of Beth Kanell's book, now that I've read it. I am working on an essay, but for now, I can say that I do not recommend Beth Kanell's young adult novel, Darkness Under the Water.

My essay will center on the way the novel is described by its author, publisher, and reviewers. The novel is presented as "exploring a dark episode in New England history." That episode is the Vermont Eugenics Survey, but the novel doesn't actually do that.

Update: Dec 23rd, 2008---As I work on my review essay, I'm studying the Vermont Eugenics Movement. I came across a lecture that Nancy Gallagher and Judy Dow gave in March of 2007. The lecture is housed at the Center for Research on Vermont. Click here to view it.

Early on in the video, Gallagher says that she, as an academic, had done research on this eugenics movement, but feels that the stories need to be told strictly from the perspective of the families themselves, in their voices. I listened to her words and thought about how her words foreshadowed what has happened with Kanell's book.

Here's the description of the lecture:

The French-Indian people in Chittenden County lived in small neighborhood communities identified by names known only to them, and Moccasin Village in Burlington's Old North End was one of these. Despite repeated attempts at forced assimilation such as eminent domain, increased taxes, institutionalization, and eugenics, the Abenaki oral tradition of storytelling has allowed these communities and their ancestral traditions to endure beneath and within an external French-Canadian identity. Judy Dow, who has deep ancestral roots to Moccasin Village, and Nancy Gallagher, author of Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State, began collaborating in 2004 in an effort to document and restore to public memory the history of Abenaki culture in Winooski Intervale communities and in Vermont at large. In this program they present their findings on the various means of adaptation to social, political, environmental, and economic changes that enabled the Abenaki culture to survive.

Jan 18, 2009 - Note:

There are several posts here on this blog, about DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER. I'm arranging them here, chronologically. Be sure to read comments to each entry.

December 5, 2008 - Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
December 6, 2008 - A reader responds to Seale/Dow review
December 17, 2008 - Slapin's Open Letter to Kanell
December 18, 2008 - Kanell's Response to Slapin's Open Letter
December 19, 2008 - I read Beth Kanell's DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
January 3, 2009 - "Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments" by Beverly Slapin

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kanell response to Slapin's Open Letter

In response to Slapin's Open Letter (click here to read it), Kanell wrote to her webmaster (Alexie) saying:

Hi Alexis,

Beverly Slapin, copied above, has provided strong reasons for removing the original questions 10 and 11 from the discussion questions for The Darkness Under the Water, immediately. I suspect it works better for you to have the entire list at once, to replace the page -- yes? So I'm pasting a revised list onto here. Beverly, if you have time and energy to add to these, or adjust them, I'd value your experience in making the list both wiser and stronger. Thank you.

Appended to her note was a list of questions. The two that Slapin discussed in her Open Letter are gone from the new list.

Alexis posted the new list right away, and Kanell wrote to Slapin by email to let her know of those changes. She copied me on that email and followed it with another email, asking me to post her questions to my blog as a stand-alone post, giving them the same exposure that I gave to Slapin's.

I've given her request a lot of thought because one of the new questions is no better than the ones she took off. The new question reveals, to me, a lack of insight to the reasons Native people object to the ways that we and our histories are presented in children's books. She wanted to do good with her book, but she missed the mark. She's stated that her own Jewish history makes it possible for her to present a Native story. But, over and over, there are examples that her Jewish identity did not translate to insight to Native story.

Do I post her questions, as she requested, and address the new problem she created? If I do, am I being mean to her?

On the one hand, it feels mean and aggressive to keep pointing out that lack of insight. On the other hand, each new instance provides an opportunity for me to point out how lack of insight results in a problematic passage.

By 'each new instance' I mean each time she posts to the child_lit listserv. On that listserv, a contentious dialogue has been taking place for almost two weeks. Each time she posts to child_lit, her response contains errors.

For example, she has argued there that the state of Vermont has recognized the Abenaki. In fact, the state of Vermont has recognized the Abenaki as a minority. That's very different from being recognized as a tribal nation. I don't think Kanell understands the distinction. Native peoples across the country know the difference, and, I wish more citizens of the U.S. did, too.

This blog exists to provide my perspective on the words others write. My responsibility, as I see it, is not to any author, but to what he or she writes, and, to the readers of that author's words. My goal is not to beat up on an author, though it will feel that way to the author. My goal is to educate the author, the publisher, the reviewer, the teacher, parent, and librarian so that the entire field of children's books that have images of American Indians moves from one that is fraught with error to one that is does an accurate job of presenting who we are.

With that as my framework, here is question #11.

11. If you have studied World War II or the history of the Jews in the world, you know about an even more frightening and terrible project that began in the 1930s to eliminate one group of people and to make another group of people more powerful. Where did this happen? Do you think there is a connection to Molly's story? How could you find out more about this?

" know about an even more frightening and terrible project..." she wrote.

Hitler was defeated. As a result of that defeat, we know the horrors of the Holocaust. A lot of allies stepped in to stop what he was doing.

Nobody stepped in to stop what was happening to American Indians in what became the United States. There are no museums that document what happened to us in the way that Holocaust museums do.

I read question 11 and think back to my own history as a Pueblo Indian. Slaughter, persecution, efforts to "kill the Indian and save the man."

Though I'm sure it is not her intention, Kanell writes as though there are none of us left that would object to question 11. Surely she doesn't mean to do a hierarchical presentation of genocide. But just as surely, she doesn't understand how a Native person would read that question.

I object. And, we object. Thanks to electronic listservs and blogs--we can reach people we couldn't reach before.

January 18, 2009 - Note:

There are several posts here on this blog, about DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER. I'm arranging them here, chronologically. Be sure to read comments to each entry.

December 5, 2008 - Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
December 6, 2008 - A reader responds to Seale/Dow review
December 17, 2008 - Slapin's Open Letter to Kanell
December 18, 2008 - Kanell's Response to Slapin's Open Letter
December 19, 2008 - I read Beth Kanell's DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
January 3, 2009 - "Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments" by Beverly Slapin

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Slapin: Open Letter to Beth Kanell

Beverly Slapin (she includes bio info in her essay below) submitted this Open Letter as a comment to Seale and Dow's review essay of Beth Kanell's young adult book, Darkness Under the Water. Because her letter is about Ms. Kanell's companion website for the book, I'm also placing it here, with its own post.


Ms. Kanell—
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Beverly Slapin. I am Jewish. Many of my maternal relatives, along with millions of others, were murdered by the eugenicists who called themselves National Socialists, in the town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland. My paternal grandfather fought against the Czar in Russia and, for this reason, was one of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of revolutionaries who were murdered. My ancestors fought and died so that I could be here. And because I’m here, it is my obligation to speak for them. And because they were who they were, it is my obligation to combat racism wherever it exists.
I am co-founder and executive director of Oyate and I’ve taught in the area of critical multiculturalism, especially since it relates to Native peoples, since 1990. I am co-editor of Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children and A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, which won an American Book Award. I am a children’s content editor for and frequent contributor to Multicultural Review. I have read thousands of young adult books, including historical fiction, and have written more reviews than I can count or remember. I have read The Darkness Under the Water four times. Last, but certainly not least, having worked with them for many years, I consider Doris Seale, Judy Dow, and Debbie Reese, dear friends and colleagues. They stand by their words and I stand with them; not because they’re my friends but because they’re speaking truths.
At this point, I’m going address the discussion questions on your website. While discussion questions for young adult fiction, and especially young adult historical fiction, generally aim to encourage young readers to empathize with the protagonist or other characters, your questions serve only to distance young readers from the Abenaki characters in the story, and from the Abenaki peoples in Vermont. I will focus on questions 10 and 11, which I consider the worst discussion questions I have ever read anywhere.
Question 10: Many times in nature, animals seem to realize when another animal is “different.” Sometimes the animals try to make the different animal leave or they attack it for being different. Do people act the same way? How do the people in Molly’s story show this? Have you seen people do this? Have you also seen people who choose not to act this way? Describe them and give your opinion on why they react differently.
Question 11: The decision in Vermont to sort people out by whether they seemed like "good citizens" for the state was happening in many other places. More than half the states in America passed laws that allowed doctors to "sterilize" people who were "unfit" in some way. Do you know anyone who has sterilized a pet so it would not have puppies or kittens? Was there a good reason? Talk about the ways people are different from pets and whether there can ever be good reasons for choices like this for people. Is it different if the choices are forced on someone?
In comparing the criminal behavior of the eugenicists to a natural fear that “animals in nature” may have, you are excusing what they did and, by your analogy, blaming the Abenaki for being “different.” By comparing the Abenaki to pet dogs and cats—which is what you do—you are dehumanizing the Abenaki peoples. You are heaping shame on Abenaki people in general, and, in particular, you are shaming Abenaki youngsters who may read your book. And you are encouraging non-Indian young people to feel superior. This is racism, pure and simple. This may or may not be your intention; I have no way of knowing.
Now, Ms. Kanell, imagine you are, say, Jewish. And you are living in, say, Eastern Europe in the 1930s. And, in school, you are forced to answer “discussion questions” that compare you and your family to dogs and cats that need to be sterilized. Well, this really happened. I know this history. And now you, wittingly or unwittingly, are making it happen again. For Doris and Judy and all the other Abenaki people in Vermont and elsewhere who are now being forced to relive the pain, I’m asking you to remove your discussion guide from your website. If you have a shred of decency, you will.

Obama, Native American Rights Fund, and Ryan Red Corn

In the last few days, Native presses have published several stories of relevance to the focus of this blog.

John Echohawk is one of the authors of an excellent non-fiction book called Battlefields and Burial Grounds: the Indian Struggle to Protect Ancestral Graves in the United States. It was published in 1994 by Lerner. I wrote about the book in 2007. Echohawk is the Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). And, he's been appointed to President-Elect Obama's Transition Team. Read details about the appointment here.

A few days ago, I was chatting on Facebook with a friend, Ryan Red Corn. Ryan is Osage, and, a graphic artist. He's done a lot of work with NARF.

One of Ryan's designs will be used for the upcoming Inaugural festivities. His art has been used for the covers of Red Ink, a Native literary magazine I wrote about here (I suggested high school English teachers consider it for their lit courses).

Click here to read a REZNET article about Ryan and see a slideshow of his work, and here to go right to his website, redhandmedia. There you can see some of the videos he's worked on, like the 20-minute piece on identity of Native American youth.

Congratulations, Ryan, on your accomplishments, and thank you for the work that you're doing.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Looking for books as gifts this holiday season?

With the holiday season approaching (or, if you're already observing it) and are looking for a book for a child or teen, take a look at this list. Developed in conjunction with PBS for its upcoming series "We Shall Remain," each of the books is terrific. Each one has been discussed on this blog, too.

They've also compiled a list of books for adult reading circles. Click here to see that list.

Every writer on both lists is Native. Selecting only books by Native writers is a great decision. It thematically supports the title of the PBS series (We Shall Remain). In effect, it says, We Write, We are Still Here, and We Shall Remain. (Note: The only exception are two of the editors on the collections of stories and poems.)

This blog is on their short list of recommended resources, along with Oyate.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Reader responds to Seale/Dow review of DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER

The review I posted yesterday prompted a comment that I've decided to place here rather than as a comment. The person (writing as "Durable Goods") said:

While it is troubling that this author had resources available to get things right, most Americans and Canadians outside of northern New England and Quebec have never heard of this happening. What I would appreciate from these essays is at least some sort of nod to the fact that this book will at least inform readers, educators and librarians of the eugenics travesty! Instead, it simply reads as a nitpicking polemic against Beth Kanell.

Once again, what could be a very useful blog presents itself as an angry, spite-filled harangue of anything "outsider".

What this blog offers, in items written by myself (Debbie) or guest writers/reviewers, is a perspective not readily available in mainstream publications. I gather Durable Goods reads this blog, at least on occasion, because he wants to see what I (or a guest writer/reviewer) has to say about a certain book he is interested in.

I'm also guessing that he comes back because sometimes he finds the material here useful. Sometimes, though, he does not like what he reads. Hence, he says what could be a very useful blog presents itself as an angry, spite-filled harangue of anything "outsider."

He is feeling.... assaulted, perhaps? by the words Seale and Dow wrote? I invite him to imagine what it is like to be a Native child who too-often reads words in children's books that assault his or her self esteem and identity. And, imagine, too, the non-Native child whose misperceptions of American Indians are affirmed by those same words.

I am not sorry or sympathetic, Durable Goods, that you're upset by the review. I hope that, when you are less emotionally reactive, that you will revisit the review and consider what Seale and Dow offer.

I know some review journals rate books on the basis of the topic, and no doubt, this book will get a higher rating than it deserves because there are few books for children on this topic, but I suggest librarians pass on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER and get multiple copies of Joseph Bruchac's HIDDEN ROOTS instead.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER, by Beth Kanell

Note: This review is presented here with the permission of its authors and may not be published elsewhere without the written permission of Oyate.

**Please see Joseph Bruchac's note at the very bottom of this review, beneath the information about the reviewers. His remarks were posted on Sunday morn, Dec 7 as a comment, and for convenience of readers, I've copied it here as well. Update, 7:30 PM, Sunday, Dec 7: Bruchac's remarks were posted by Beverly Slapin.

[Update: January 18, 9:45 AM, CST---A special welcome to readers from other nations, coming here from the livejournal community, where critical discussion of Kanell and her book is taking off.]

Darkness Under the Water and the Vermont Eugenics Survey

Kanell, Beth, Darkness Under the Water. Candlewick, 2008, grades 7-up (Abenaki)

In the late 19th Century, there began to be an interest among scientists and sociologists in the possibility of improving the human race by controlled breeding programs. From 1925-1936, in an effort to “breed better Vermonters,” the Vermont Eugenics Survey campaigned to shape public opinion and social policy. The Survey targeted people it referred to as “degenerates” or “the three D’s: defectives, dependents, delinquents.” The Survey’s definitions were purely subjective and included poor people with large families, poor people who were dependent on public charity, poor people who were living off the land, poor people who may or may not have had certain physical or cognitive disabilities, poor people whose family relationships did not fit the social “norm” of the time, and poor people whose children were frequently absent from school. The Vermont Eugenics Survey played the race card and the policies that resulted from it—including institutionalization, sterilization, and removing children from their families—devastated the Abenaki communities. To this day, the wounds remain deep, cultural continuity has been disrupted, and there are now many Abenaki families who continue to “hide in plain sight.”

In Darkness Under the Water, Beth Kanell cites Nancy Gallagher’s landmark study, Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State (University Press of New England, 1999) as the inspiration for her young adult novel of one tragic year in the life of a family who falls victim to a fictitious state-sponsored sterilization program. Promoted by its publishers as a work of “historical fiction” for young readers, Darkness Under the Water is neither historically accurate nor culturally authentic. As such, it will confuse rather than enlighten young readers about the eugenics movement in Vermont. More important, the novel obscures the real tragedy and enduring legacies of the Vermont Eugenics Survey and the state social policies that it inspired.

As the story begins, it is 1930, and almost-16-year-old Molly Ballou and her French-Canadian Abenaki family are living on their traditional land in Vermont, in the town of Waterford, near the Connecticut River. They’re a hard-working hardscrabble family—Grandma and Mama take in washing and mending, Dad is an itinerant laborer, working on the river; and Molly helps when she’s not in school. There was another child, Gratia, who drowned at the age of five, just before Molly was born.

Every society has its mores and web of relationship and obligation. Every society has its cultural markers. Grandma is an elder who has not given up the Abenaki way of being in the world and tries to protect her family from the hazards of being Indian. Mama is pregnant and exhausted from the hard work she does together with Grandma. Yet, they and Molly show a culturally inappropriate lack of respect for each other. Grandma constantly harps at Mama or Molly and Mama or Molly snaps back.

Worst was the moment Me-Mere said to Mama, “You’re not a true Daughter of the People, or you would respect me!” And Mama replied, “If you want respect, you have to be respectable!”

Molly, for her part, is self-absorbed and immature in a way far more typical of modern American young adults than of a young woman of that time, place, and family. She would have had responsibilities to the family unit from childhood; that would be expected, without question. But, given her mother’s late pregnancy and the hard labor she must do to support the family while her husband is away on the river, Molly’s constant whining and resentment, and the idea that she would be glad to see her father because she was tired of being in “a house of women,” are just not believable.

And it is beyond possibility that an Abenaki girl—even one not being “raised “ to it—would grow up in a small town in the Vermont woodlands so totally ignorant of the connection to the land, the forest, and the animals. And a good French-Canadian Catholic Indian family such as this one would have had many more children, and aunties, uncles and cousins being near and helping out.

Then there’s the ghost of Molly’s sister, who drowned at age five, yet continues to haunt 16-year-old Molly (“What dark river shadow did her spirit cling to?....Something of Gratia moved as easily as water through me”) as a 21-year-old, advising her about, among other things, the application of makeup and how to deal with a boyfriend. How is it that the ghost of Molly’s sister is 16 years older than the five-year-old child who died 16 years ago? How is it that Molly doesn’t know that ghosts are unable to travel through water? Why is it that Molly doesn’t tell her parents, or any other relative, that she’s being haunted? In any event, it can well be assumed that Kanell uses this ghost as a literary device to highlight Molly’s dysfunctional interactions with her family, and/or to provide further scenarios for her teenage angst, and/or to provide a lot of water-ghost metaphors, and/or to move the plot, which it doesn’t.

In Henry Laporte, the young Abenaki basket seller whom Molly meets in the woods, Kanell has created the perfect white women’s fantasy Indian. He is a “real” Indian. He is mysterious. He moves soundlessly through the woods, and appears out of silence. He knows everything about the forest that Molly does not. He is gentle, intelligent, and respectful. He has a “cool and quiet outside.” And, oh, those dark eyes and high cheekbones. In reality, if anyone were to be a target of the eugenicists in the ‘20’s and 30’s Henry would have been—the way he lives, his deep understanding of the land and what it offers—these are the people whom the eugenicists targeted. Not those who were assimilating, going to school, and holding down “full time jobs” as Molly and her family were.

A brief digression about the relationship between Henry and Molly: Henry Laporte is more the product of Kanell’s heavy-handed attempt to portray the differences between “traditional” and “assimilated” Indians than it is of Indian realities in this time and place. In a long conversation between Henry and Molly, Henry asks probing questions about Molly’s family and explains to her that she’s not “really” Abenaki because, although she’s “born to be Abenaki,” she has not been “raised in it.” When Molly forces him to apologize, he asks her—to teach him about friendship (!).

And for a traditional Abenaki who gathers basketry materials for his female relatives, Henry (through the author), doesn’t know a whole lot about basketry materials. “Would you show me where you go to get the willow branches?” asks Molly, and Henry replies, “No, not the willow. I could show you the black ash on the mountain, some day.” There are over 100 varieties of willow in Vermont; every little kid around here picks pussy willows and knows that willows grow in the wetlands and on the sides of rivers. Molly, who lives on the side of the river, even if she were not “raised” Abenaki, would know where to find willows. Black ash grows all over the state; the best ash for pounding into baskets grows in the wetlands. Because the closer the trees are to sea level, the wetter the land is, the more water there is between the annual rings, the easier it is to pound and separate the annual rings for basketry material. Why would Henry go to the mountains to get ash, when that would be the most difficult ash to pound? Answer: So they could “cross a stretch of willows on the way” up the ridge.

A brief digression about the Comerford Dam: For millennia, our Abenaki family bands lived alongside the Long River, fishing in its waters, farming the fertile fields nourished by the river, and hunting in the woodlands nearby. And where our family bands lived, we buried our dead. In 1928-1930, a massive hydroelectric dam was built across what became known as the Connecticut River. The creation of the dam flooded our lands, submerging and destroying much of our woodlands, burial grounds, homes, farms and traditional gardens in the town of Waterford.

Although there was no resistance to this great upheaval in their lives, we can assume that our Abenaki families living in Waterford at the time saw the dam as a great tragedy, a great trauma to the land, the river and their lives. Yet, in Kanell’s book, there is little questioning, sorrow or regret and no action. Rather, there is only matter-of-fact comparison. Henry muses, “it was a lighter place when it was still an open river…. Deep waters are darker.” And, from Grandma: “Maybe the Long River will rest a bit longer in this place when there’s a lake. Without the falls, it will be quiet,” she says. “Still, a free river has the best voice.” All of which conveniently leaves opportunity for Molly to wax philosophical with yet another dreary water-ghost metaphor: “What good is a wild, free river’s voice if the voices of the dead braided themselves into the song?”

And speaking of braids: Throughout, there are numerous references to the unbraiding and brushing of hair to “make it look pretty.” Grandma tells Molly to “make it look pretty,” Molly tells Grandma to “make it look pretty,” Molly tells herself to “make it look pretty,” Molly tells her little girl-cousins, through their dolls, to “make it look pretty.” Even the cover illustration has ghost-sister Gratia unbraiding her hair—underwater. In truth, our Abenaki mothers and grandmothers would cut our hair short, or put our hair up in pigtails, or brush our hair out. They might tell us this was necessary to keep us safe, or they might tell us a story, or they might not say anything. We understood this because we know our parents did it to protect us. But who would belittle a child, wound a child’s spirit on purpose, by telling her that her braided hair is not pretty? Someone may have shared a story with the author about how painful it was to have had her hair—this important part of her being—cut or unbraided in order to avoid suspicion; but Kanell, once again, wittingly or unwittingly distorts the historical and cultural significance to the point that it was painful for us to read and it’s painful for us to relive.

Kanell, not one to let a sleeping metaphor lie, ratchets up the “hair-pretty” metaphor by having Molly ask her grandmother why they’re removing the bundles of dried sage hanging from the rafters in the hallway: “‘Brushing out the braids to make it look pretty.’ She echoed my words to the little cousins, with a half smile, a half wince.” Then, to make sure that not one reader misses that this whole thing is an allusion to assimilation, there’s this from Molly: “Brushing out the braids? She meant our home and its Indian-ness under the surface.”

There is little possibility of dealing adequately with the ramifications of the Vermont Eugenics Survey and the state sterilization law passed in 1931 in a work of historical fiction for young readers, and that, apparently, was never Kanell’s intent. Instead, she uses the Vermont Eugenics Survey’s 1920s investigations of some of Vermont’s “French-Indian” kinship networks as the centerpiece of her story of teenage angst. She introduces it early on through a brief adult discussion of a fictional 1930 newspaper article: “[T]his Perkins fellow, he’s already saying all our people are Gypsies, and at the statehouse, I read there’s a bill being considered to sterilize anyone with Indian blood.” In fact, such a newspaper article never appeared in 1930, nor did the biennial state legislature even convene in 1930. The Eugenics Survey’s family studies never referred to Native family bands as “Indians,” nor did the newspapers. Rather, we were referred to as “Gypsies,” French-Canadians, “pirates,” “feeble-minded,” “degenerates,” or “unfit parents.” While Kanell mentions Henry F. Perkins (the founder and director of the Eugenics Survey at the University of Vermont) only once as “this Perkins Fellow,” she fails to explain the relationship between the Survey and the complex network of social workers, town overseers of the poor, medical personnel, teachers, police and truant officers, courts, and state institutions, who assisted the Survey’s field investigations and promoted their legislative agenda, including the eugenical sterilization law passed in 1931.

Instead, Kanell creates a pair of nurses in white uniforms, cruising the countryside in search of—although this is never specifically stated—targets for the Eugenics Survey. The tension heightens; there is a sense of impending danger as these nurses, “required by the [governor and] legislature,” interrogate the teacher and take the children’s measurements. But it takes Kanell 209 pages to arrive at what she apparently considers the heart of her novel. Here, in a scene so brutal, so graphically described as to make the book unsuitable for the intended audience, Mama goes into early labor. The two nurses, who just happen to be stopping by for a “visit,” suddenly appear. They hoist Mama onto the kitchen table and, in the process of delivering the baby, smother him; then tell the family that he was born “too soon.” Then they cut out Mama’s womb:

A cry of pain from my mother made me run. My grandmother, still holding the wrapped dead baby, called out, “What are you doing to her?”…. “Cleaning,” said Nurse Williams quickly. “Cleaning out the afterbirth. So there won’t be an infection.”…. I stepped closer to my mother...and saw a sharp flash of a blade in Nurse Carpenter’s hand. “Stop it!” I called out. “You’re hurting her!” She turned her face toward me, eyes blazing. “It has to be done” was all she said, as she tugged a handful of bleeding flesh out of my mother’s most private place, and blood, too much blood, flew forth in a dark red wave onto the sheet-covered table. Swiftly wrapping the handful of bloody something into a towel, along with the blade, the nurse snapped to me, “Another towel, if you want to help her.”

In the obligatory scenes of grief and loss, Molly’s main concern remains for herself. Two days after the baby’s burial, she goes off to a dance with friends. She is distressed to learn that her parents could have wanted a son, and, now that she must take some real responsibility in the family, whines about the loss of her “freedom.” No surprise; Mama is terribly ill, and will never fully recover.

Time goes by, with a degree of healing for Mama, and some accommodation to her new circumstances for Molly. Although she’s “so tired…tired of bad things happening,” she thinks about going back to school because she has “little choice: gain a teaching credential or wash other people’s clothes for the rest of my life.” Her mother has been cruelly mutilated, her baby brother has been killed, her family is in constant danger, but again, still, yet, this is all about Molly.

The dénouement comes when the nurse who “had pushed a blade between [Mama’s] legs,” having suddenly reappeared out of nowhere while Molly is at the store, sneaks past the dozing grandmother and up to Mama’s room, and in a confrontation, is flung down the stairs. Her neck is broken. Molly’s father and Henry—who just happens to be around—take the body to the place on the river where the dam is being built, “the one place, where, if she fell, she’d be sure to break her neck.” Of course, there are no questions from the authorities.

Mama, having disposed of her enemy, quietly declines and peacefully dies. Molly will, in time, walk off into the sunset with her Indian “brave.” And no action is taken on the governor’s “demand for the sterilization of the strangers among us, the different, the weak, the ‘unfit’ among the plain New England family trees.” It’s all very neat and tidy.

In an author’s note, Kanell says that recently, “Vermont gave state recognition to the Abenaki people,” but that “their ‘disappearance’ for so many years has prevented the federal government from recognizing the tribe.” None of this is true. The Abenaki acknowledge and recognize many family bands (“tribes”) throughout Vermont, but the state government only recognizes us as a “minority group,” with none of the rights of a tribal entity. With the exception of one of our family bands that attempted and failed at federal recognition, we have not felt safe enough to come out in an organized way in order to prove the continuity of our cohesive family bands to the federal government’s satisfaction.

Kanell also writes that the Abenaki “now feel safe as they share stories of those days and people.” Not likely. In many ways, we are as much at risk as we have ever been; the threat is just different. It is, for the most part, more sophisticated and still difficult to counteract.

If indeed Kanell had read Nancy Gallagher’s book, one would not know it. Although the state of Vermont passed a sterilization law in 1931, the targets for sterilization were individuals who were deemed “feebleminded or insane” by physicians and psychologists, according to their subsequently discredited “science.” If there were any state senators or representatives who “found their own cousins in the scientific studies,” none of these people were ever under threat. Two-parent families who were employed full-time and whose children regularly attended school were not targeted. There were never any attack nurses roaming Vermont for the Eugenics Survey. What we had was bad enough.

And that’s the heart of the problem: What we had was bad enough. Our people were picked up as “feeble-minded” and institutionalized, sometimes for life. Our children were taken away from our families, and our families had absolutely no recourse. In these institutions both men and women were sterilized, because someone had decided that to let them reproduce would contaminate Vermont’s breeding stock. Whole families scattered across New England and never saw each other again. Some were captured in other states and then institutionalized. An old, old grief: broken families, lost futures, people growing up not knowing who they are because their parents will not tell them they are Indians—for their own protection. Not over. Not done. Now. Still. If you are Indian, there is no guarantee that you are safe.

This is the history, the legacy that Kanell has appropriated for her venture into young adult historical fiction. Such a sensational story obscures, ignores, and even functions to belittle the deep and enduring wounds that continue to poison our families and communities today. If Kanell had created characters who were authentic for the time and place and subject matter; if she had left out the graphic and gratuitous brutality; if she had chosen to make appropriate use of Nancy Gallagher’s material, whose work she cites; if she had understood—or cared—how tragic the Eugenics Survey has been for an entire nation of people; if she had shown any comprehension of what it has meant to be Abenaki in Vermont; even with her stilted, cliché-ridden writing, had she even chosen just to tell truths, she could have been forgiven.

As it stands, Darkness Under the Water is a travesty, a melodrama marketed specifically to young people in Vermont—including Abenaki young people—who will probably be told this is how it was. Since young adult historical fiction is often used to supplement textbook versions of history, Darkness Under the Water will probably turn up on Vermont reading lists, and will probably win awards. And our Abenaki mothers will probably continue to cut their daughters’ hair so they will be safe. And our Abenaki people will probably continue to “hide in plain sight.” And the cycle of hatred and denial will continue.

—Doris Seale and Judy Dow

Doris Seale (Dakota/Cree/Abenaki) is an activist, poet, writer and co-founder and former board president of Oyate. Before retiring to her ancestral family land in Vermont, she was a children’s librarian in Brookline, Massachusetts, for 45 years. Doris was honored for her life’s work with the American Library Association’s Equality Award in 2001, and in 2006, she received the American Book Award for co-editing A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children.

Judy Dow (Abenaki) is an activist, master basketmaker and educator who teaches ethnobotany at the kindergarten through college levels. A member of the board of directors of Oyate, Judy is the recipient of the 2004 Governor’s Award for Outstanding Vermont Educator. She has lived all her life on Abenaki land in Vermont.

In collaboration with Nancy Gallagher, Doris and Judy have conducted extensive research into the eugenics movement in Vermont, including the Vermont Eugenics Survey. Over several generations, Judy’s was the largest family specifically targeted by the Eugenics Survey, and Doris’s was caught in the aftermath a generation later.

For more information on the Eugenics Survey of Vermont’s studies and the state laws and policies they inspired, see “Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary History”.

We wish to express our gratitude to Nancy Gallagher for her time and persistence in her past and present search for the truths of our story—D.S. and J.D.


Update: Sunday, Dec 7, 2008

I understand that the book jacket carries a blurb from Joseph Bruchac. A response to that blurb was posted earlier today, in a comment. The response is from Joseph Bruchac, and I'm moving it here. [Note: His remarks were submitted by Beverly Slapin.]

Joseph Bruchac said...

When I read the manuscript of THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER well over a year and a half ago, I made a number of critical suggestions, such as making certain that the material regarding Abenaki tradition, including basketmaking, spiritual practices and family relationships, were more accurately represented. When I wrote the blurb for the book I assumed those corrections had been made. Apparently my assumptions were incorrect.

January 18, 2009 - Note:

There are several posts here on this blog, about DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER. I'm arranging them here, chronologically. Be sure to read comments to each entry.

December 5, 2008 - Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
December 6, 2008 - A reader responds to Seale/Dow review
December 17, 2008 - Slapin's Open Letter to Kanell
December 18, 2008 - Kanell's Response to Slapin's Open Letter
December 19, 2008 - I read Beth Kanell's DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
January 3, 2009 - "Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments" by Beverly Slapin