Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Not recommended: VIVIAN AND THE LEGEND OF THE HOODOOS by Jennings and Saroff

A reader wrote to ask me about Vivian and the Legend of the Hoodoos, written by Terry Catasus Jennings and illustrated by Phyllis V. Saroff. Published by Arbordale Publishing, it came out in 2017.

Here's the synopsis:
Long ago, the Old Ones were bad. They drank all the water, ate all the pine nuts, and left nothing for the other creatures. Sinawav the coyote punished them by turning them into rocky hoodoos. Now when children misbehave, their Paiute elders remind them that they too could be turned into stone columns! Vivian has heard the stories, but this year as she and her grandmother climb the mesa to pick pine nuts, Vivian has something more important on her mind: basketball tryouts. When Vivian is disrespectful to the trees and the land, her grandmother must remind Vivian of the legend of the hoodoos and how nature has made it possible for her people to live.
My thoughts:

I specifically look for books set in the present day, in which a Native child and his parents or grandparents are doing something together, whether it is specific to their nation or not. I like to see traditional story brought into that story, in a natural way, with the characters speaking, in a natural way. 

And so, I like that Vivian and the Legend of the Hoodoos is set in the present day. If it was well done, it could have been a mirror for Paiute children who pick pine nuts with their families. If it was well done, it could have been a window for non-Paiute children to learn a little about Paiute people.

But, I don't think it is well done, for several reasons.

As the synopsis says, Vivian is out with her grandmother. They're going to pick pine nuts. As they set out, her grandmother reminds her that they should leave some for others. Vivian remembers a legend her grandma had told her, about "the Old Ones" who took everything. Others asked "the god" named Sinawav, or coyote, for help. 

Using "the god" to describe coyote bothers me. Do the Paiute's think of coyote as a god? 

In the story, Sinawav invites the old ones to a banquet, and then punished them by turning them into "rocky hoodoos." When Vivian was a little girl and out with her grandma, that story of misbehaving always made Vivian obey. But now that she's older, she knows it is erosion that formed the rocks that way, and not Sinawav. Here's that part of the story:



That bothers me, too. If the hoodoos are, in fact, amongst the stories the Paiute people tell about how their land came to be the way it is, would that story be spoken of that way? It is possible, of course, but I wonder. Would we see something similar in a story with a Christian grandmother and her grandchild about something important to how the Christian world came to be?

Vivian is impatient. Her grandmother reminds her to ask the trees' permission to pick their fruits, but she replies that she'd done that last year. Her grandmother harrumphed, and asked the trees' permission herself, and they got started picking the nuts.

At one point she starts treating the pine cones like basketballs, shooting them into her bucket. That makes her grandmother angry. She grabs Vivian's hand and takes her to a place where "the Old Ones had lived." This place, however, is different from others she's been to. At this one, Vivian nearly steps on a pottery shard. She picks it up and admires it. Her grandmother took it from her and put it back on the ground, saying
"Things from long ago are sacred. You shouldn't remove them."
Some things from long ago are sacred. Some pots from long ago might be sacred. Sacred or not doesn't matter. When you're on a reservation or at a national park or lands held by the US government, it is against the law to remove such things. For centuries, people have taken things like that. Some ended up in museums. Today, there is a federal law by which such things are returned to the tribal nations they were taken from. And, people who take them, today, are arrested and prosecuted for doing it.

Next, Vivian's grandmother tells her:
"Our legends say we have always been here."
That doesn't sound the way a grandma would speak to her grandchild in a natural, one-on-one conversation, and it doesn't fit with what Vivian already knows (the story about the hoodoos). I also don't think a grandma would use the word "legends" either, to refer to their stories. I can imagine a grandmother speaking that way to an audience of non-Native people in a storytelling format, but again, I don't think she'd say "legends." It is possible, of course, but it feels very much an outsider trying to speak as an insider, but not getting a strong sense of how we talk to each other. 

Vivian's grandmother goes on to tell her a story about "those who had lived on that mesa." Again--this doesn't feel right. Vivian knows that hoodoo story but not any of this cultural information about pine nuts, songs, drying meat, sewing skins, and making bows and arrows? As the two walk in the runs they find many of the things from the story Vivian's grandmother has just told her about (like an awl made of bone and a metate).

They return to picking nuts, but before she does, Vivian asks the trees' permission, and when she leaves, she thanks them for their fruit.

That's the end of the story but not the end of the book. One of its selling points is the four pages of information about Paiute culture and history, how water shapes rocks, and one about hoodoos. That last one is also a puzzle. If kids put a set of four paragraphs in proper order, they will learn "the name of the modern Paiute tribe." That is an oh-oh right away, because there's more than one Paiute tribal nation today. Do a search using "Paiute" at the list of federally recognized nations and you'll see what I mean. You'll get 37 hits, but about 20 (if I counted right) distinct tribal nations with Paiute in their name. Nonetheless (before doing that search), I tried to figure it out, and failed. So... I cheated. I looked at the answer, and thought, "that's not right! No wonder I couldn't do it." Take a look:


Did you figure it out? The answer is Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah. See why "the name" isn't quite right? The puzzle ought to be something like "an acronym for the Paiute bands in Utah."

In the book, Glenn Rogers and Clarence John, of the Shivwits Band of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, are thanked for verifying the accuracy of the information about Paiute culture and history. The problems in Vivian and the Legend of the Hoodoos are not about accuracy. They're about bias and voice. As such, I do not recommend it.

Not Recommended: THE SECRET PROJECT by Jonah Winter and Jeanette Winter

A reader wrote to ask if I've seen The Secret Project by Jonah Winter and Jeanette Winter. 

It was going into my "Debbie--have you seen series" but when I looked it up, I got a copy right away. Why? Because it has several starred reviews, and because its setting is so close to Nambe Pueblo (my tribal nation, and where I grew up is about 30 miles away).


The Secret Project came out in February of 2017 from Beach Lane Books, which is part of Simon and Schuster. It is a picture book for kids in grades K-3. 


Here's the synopsis:

Mother-son team Jonah and Jeanette Winter bring to life one of the most secretive scientific projects in history—the creation of the atomic bomb—in this powerful and moving picture book.
At a former boy’s school in the remote desert of New Mexico, the world’s greatest scientists have gathered to work on the “Gadget,” an invention so dangerous and classified they cannot even call it by its real name. They work hard, surrounded by top security and sworn to secrecy, until finally they take their creation far out into the desert to test it, and afterward the world will never be the same.
The Secret Project is getting a lot of starred reviews for its content and illustrations. Of course, I'm reading it from a Native point of view. Or, to be more specific, the point of view of a Pueblo Indian woman whose ancestors have been in that "remote desert of New Mexico" for thousands of years. 

The opening pages depict a boys school, all alone in the middle of a "desert mountain landscape":




That school was the Los Alamos Ranch School. The boys shown are definitely not from the communities of northern New Mexico at that time. In the Author's Note, the school is described as being an elite private academy (elsewhere, I read that William Borrough's went there). It was, and its history is interesting, too. What bothers me about those two pages, however, is that they suggest there was nothing there at all. It is like the text in Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. All through that area, there are ancestral homes of Pueblo Indians. Depicting the school that way adds to the idea that the site where the bomb would be developed was isolated, but depicting it that way also erases Native people. 


The government wanted the school and that area to do research, so the boys school had to close. The scientists moved in. We read that "nobody knows they are there." Who is nobody? It was, as the Winter's tell us, a secret project. But people who lived in the area knew it was there. They may not have known what was going on, but they knew it was there. If, by "nobody," we are meant to think "citizens of the world minus those who lived there" then yes, nobody knew (but again, nobody is relevant, even to them). 


We read that in "the faraway nearby" places, people didn't know the scientists were there. 


Artists, specifically, don't know they are there. The first image is meant to represent Georgia O'Keefe who lived in Abiquiu, which is about 50 miles away. It--I guess--is a "nearby" place. 


Then, there's this page:





The text on that page reads "Outside the laboratory, in the faraway nearby, Hopi Indians are carving beautiful dolls out of wood as they have done for centuries."


Hopi? That's over 300 miles away in Arizona. Technically, it could be the "faraway" place the Winter's are talking about, but why go all the way there? San Ildefonso Pueblo is 17 miles away from Los Alamos. Why, I wonder, did the Winter's choose Hopi? I wonder, too, what the take-away is for people who read the word "dolls" on that page? On the next page, one of those dolls is shown hovering over the lodge where scientists are working all night. What will readers make of that? 


On an ensuing page, we see the scientists take a break by going to "the nearby town" on what looks like a dirt road. That town is meant to be Santa Fe, and that particular illustration is meant to depict the plaza where Native artists sell their work (there's a Native woman shown, holding a piece of pottery). It wasn't a dirt road, though. By then, Santa Fe had paved roads. Showing it as a dirt road contributes to the isolated nature of where the scientists were doing their work, but it isn't accurate. 


Like many reviewers, I think the ending is provocative. The Secret Project ends with the test of the atomic bomb, at the Trinity site. As the bomb explodes, the scientists watch from a bunker, far away. The bomb's explosion fills the last page. That's it. No more story. I think some readers will think "AWESOME" and others will think it horrible. The author's note is next. It has information about the radiation that explosion left behind, how long it will be there, and that now, studies of the cancer it caused in citizens near there, are being done. 


I think children should have books about subjects like the development of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they ought to be inclusive of -- in this case -- Native peoples who lived and live in and around Los Alamos. As is, the book yanks those readers out of the book. And, it misleads readers who don't know the area or its history. 


I suspect that people will defend it, telling me or others that "it is important that kids know about the bomb" and that my concern over its misrepresentations are of less importance than knowing about the bomb. With that defense, however, it will be among the ever-growing pile of books in which this or that topic is more important than Native people. 


The irony, of course, is that this universe of books is one in which books are written and published by people who are occupying Native homelands. 


Published in 2017 by Beach Lane Books/Simon and Schuster, I do not recommend Jonah and Jeanette Winter's The Secret Project. 

Update, March 22 2017, 1:45 PM

Back to insert comments from Dr. Jeff Berglund, a friend and colleague who teaches at Northern Arizona University. He said, in part (read his entire comment below):


"I have another issue with the Hopi panel: the majority of Hopi men during the 19th and through the mid-20th century had cut hair with bangs, quite distinct and different from the carver depicted. This is a simplistic stereotypical rendering of a Native man."
Update, March 22 2017, 3:30 PM

Another colleague--actually, she's more of a member of my family--wrote to tell me about a 2015 Walking Tour document of Los Alamos. Take a look. Here's an enlarged piece of the document, showing item 9:




I looked around a bit and found this photo of it from a running and travel blog, whose post says it is right behind Fuller Lodge:





Update, March 23, 2017

The folks at All the Wonders asked if they could put my review on their page about The Secret Project as a "Second Perspective." That's a terrific idea! Readers there can listen to the podcast review, read interviews with the author and his mother--and read my critical review, too. Here's a peek. Go there and see it, and thanks, All the Wonders for adding it.





Saturday, March 18, 2017

Librarians Noting Problems in Nonfiction Series: First Peoples of North America, by Cassie Lawton

One of the more gratifying kind of emails I get is from librarians who are bringing a critical lens to nonfiction.

Recently I had an email from a librarian in Oklahoma who was looking over Cassie Lawton's First Peoples of North America. That seroes came out in 2016 from Cavendish Square Publishing.

The librarian noted problems that every librarian can keep an eye on as they look over nonfiction books.

One is tense. Are all, or most of the verbs past tense? If so, that's a problem.

Another is words used. This series has "costume" for the clothing the people in the books are wearing. Better words are regalia, or traditional clothing.

A third one this librarian noticed is about the photographs. She wonders if the photos match the particular tribal nation the photograph is supposed to be about.

I haven't seen the series. Given their price, I don't plan to buy them. If they turn up in a local library, I'll review one. I did look them up on the publisher's website and winced at the covers. Those old sepia-colored photos on the covers generate a nostalgic response in so many people that moves them to talk about "plight" and hold us safely in mind as a problem of the past, not present. It is a lot like how people view mascots.

Anyway. If you're a writer, or if you're an editor... no matter what kind of book you're doing: stay away from those sepia covers! Please!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Jokes and Riddles in Books for Kids

This morning on Twitter, I saw a tweet from a Native parent that included an image from a joke book her child was reading last night. The book is from their local library. I've asked her for more details, but in the meantime, it was easy to find at least one book with the "joke" in it:



That's from Biggest Riddle Book in the World, by Joseph Rosenbloom. Published in 1976 by Sterling Publishing Company, the copy at Google Books shows that it was reprinted at least 11 times:



A quick search of the book, using "Indian" as the search term, shows this "joke" is in it, too:



Rosenbloom's book doesn't have illustrations for those two "jokes," so that's not the one in question.

Based on the style of the illustration that was tweeted out, I think the book is Bennett Cerf's More Riddles, published in 1961. Here's the cover. I put the big red X there, with the hope that next time you see that book, you'll remember that red X, and remember that it has a racist "joke" in it.



And here's the image (adding it at 11:40 AM on March 17, with permission of the parent):



In American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children: A Reader and Bibliography, there's a passage about that book:
Cerf’s More Riddles (1961) contains an image and verse that epitomize the detached nature of “Indian” imagery from the reality of Native people. “What has . . . Two legs like an Indian? Two eyes like an Indian? Two hands like an Indian? Looks just like an Indian? But is not an Indian?” The questions are accompanied by a headdressed, buckskinned, dancing caricatured “Indian.” The answer to the riddle, on the next page, is “A picture of an Indian,” and is illustrated with a child holding a picture of the same caricature. The “Indian” image in this and other books has no reality except as a white-created caricature of Native people, true only unto itself, and the answer to this riddle unwittingly reflects that fact.
Cerf's book is old, but is popular, which is why it is still in that library. There are other joke and riddle books with that sort of "joke" in them. I noted Rosenbloom's book, above, but I recommend you get a copy of American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children: A Reader and Bibliography. I've got a hard copy of the first edition (published in 1982), but get the second one, which came out in 1991 (I have a hard copy and electronic copy of that one). The publisher is Scarecrow Press, and the book is edited by Arlene Hirschfelder, Paulette Molin, and Yvonne Wakim. Inside are chapters by them, and other writers, too. Here's screen captures of the Table of Contents for part one (part two is the bibliography):




I think American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children can be used as a collection development tool. As the Table of Contents shows, it has chapters about books, textbooks, toys, films, holidays... It is amongst the books I read early in graduate school, and that I use as a resource, now.

If the Native parent gives me permission to use the image she shared last night, I'll be back to insert it and the title of the book her child was reading. Obviously, these "jokes" aren't funny to those who are the subject of the joke.



Monday, March 13, 2017

Not Recommended: DREAMLAND BURNING by Jennifer Latham

See note below about the red X.
Jennifer Latham's Dreamland Burning is about racism in 1921, and racism in the present day. The story is told from two points of view. Published by Little Brown, Dreamland Burning was released in February. I finished reading it last night. It has starred reviews from major review journals that I don't think it deserves. 

Let's start with the synopsis:
When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family's property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past... and the present.
Nearly one hundred years earlier, a misguided violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what's right the night Tulsa burns.
Through intricately interwoven alternating perspectives, Jennifer Latham’s lightning-paced page-turner brings the Tulsa race riot of 1921 to blazing life and raises important question about the complex state of US race relations – both yesterday and today.
That description doesn't tell us much about Rowan and Will. We know they both live in Tulsa. Rowan is the present-day character. Will is from 1921. Let's take a closer look at the characters in this story. There's a whole lot packed into Dreamland Burning. Bear with me. I recommend you take a look at Pamela Penza's review, too. She hits on similar points. Her review may be more helpful than mine. 

Let's dig in.

Rowan's mother is Black. Her father is White. They're wealthy. He's a doctor; she's a lawyer. Rowan goes to a private school. Her sidekick is James. He's "part-Kiowa, part-black" (Kindle location 308). The house Rowan lives in (where the skeleton was found) was commissioned (to be built) by Will's parents, back in 1921. It, as Will describes it, is "more mansion than house" (Kindle location 363). The money to build it is not from his father, who owns a Victrola store, but from his mother. She's Osage. Here's some of what Will says (Kindle location 361-363):
Mama, you see, was a full-blood Osage Indian, and as such had been allotted one headright—one equal share—of all profits earned from oil pumped out of tribal land. She’d also inherited her brother’s headright after he died in the Great War, and her own mother’s not long after that. Mama was a woman of substantial means.
When I first heard that Will was Osage, I wondered if the story would have anything in it about the Reign of Terror. The answer is no, because Dreamland Burning takes place just before the Reign of Terror. Here's the first two paragraphs about it, from the National Museum of the American Indian's page about it:
One of the most dangerous places in the United States in the early 1920s was the Osage Indian Reservation in eastern north-central Oklahoma. During a two-year stretch beginning in 1921, at least two-dozen Osage Indians died in increasingly peculiar ways, from suspicious suicides to explosions. Among the Osage, it came to be known as the “Reign of Terror.” 
This black chapter in U.S. history is an incredible story of oil, greed and murder. The Osage Indians went from poverty to prosperity when huge petroleum reserves were discovered on a corner of their reservation. But the sudden wealth also brought great misery. Perhaps the most gruesome was the crime spree known as the Reign of Terror – one of the first homicide cases for the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation. By the Bureau’s own account, the investigation into the Osage Indian murders remains one of the agency’s most complicated cases.

As Dreamland Burning begins, we're with Rowan (remember--she's in present day Tulsa). She is at the courthouse. She's thinking about how history "loops past the same mistakes over and over again." She hopes to stop one of those loops, by meeting with the district attorney. 

See, a few days prior to this opening scene, she had been rear-ended by a white man named Jerry Randall. She was stunned by the impact. As she tries to make sense of what happened to her, the man who hit her is snapping his fingers in her face. He says "you people" to her. Arvin, a homeless Black man she knows from the clinic she works at, saw the accident and walks toward her car. She sees the white man shove Arvin and hears him call Arvin "Goddamned nigger" (Kindle location 2061). That shove sends Arvin into the other lane of traffic, where he is struck and killed. The next day, major media is covering the story. There is fear that Tulsa will be Ferguson, all over again. Though she told the police what Randall said, he wasn't charged with a hate crime. So, she's meeting the DA to talk with him about that. She's trying to interrupt that loop of white people getting away with racist acts. 

Admirable, yes. Plausible, maybe. But! To me, though, this reeks of white saviorism. Not from Rowan, but from the author. With her book, Latham is attempting to create awareness of the riots that happened in Tulsa in 1921. She's using present-day racism to do it. She's created a Black/White character as the device to accomplish her goal. In several places, however, things Rowan says or thinks sound way more White than Black. She's growing up privileged, and there's a part where her mom tells her that her father (remember, he's White) will never understand their lives, but none of the places where Rowan experiences racism ring true. And, the idea that Rowan can pull off something that thousands of African Americans have tried to do in recent years... strikes me as arrogant. It strikes me that way because Latham isn't African American. Overall, Rowan's identity and actions as a Black teen feel superficial. 

That's a problem with Will, too, in 1921. He's supposed to be Osage, but as I read about him, he doesn't sound Osage, at all. He sounds White. When he experiences racism (he is called a half breed), or when he thinks about how his dad's friends call his mom a squaw, it feels superficial. It is just a thing that happens. There's no real reaction in him to any of that. And when he and his parents go visit his mother's grave at Pawhuska, and then his mother's cousins.... That, too, feels like a nothing. There's nothing Osage about any of it. 

That's the case, too, with James (Rowan's friend). He's part Black and part Kiowa, and there's one part where Rowan remembers him going to powwows with his dad, where they'd drum together. That ends (not in the story itself) when James told his dad he's asexual. His dad, apparently, wants nothing to do with him after that. We come away from that part of the story thinking this Kiowa dad is not an okay dad. Plausible, I suppose, and handy, too, because it means there's no need to do anything with that Kiowa identity. It doesn't matter to the story. It isn't necessary to the story. So... why is it here? 

That, ultimately, is my big question about Dreamland Burning. Why do these characters have these identities? As-is, they feel like tokens in this time of diversity in children's and young adult literature. 

Rowan is a savior in present day Tulsa, and so is Will, in 1921. In her review, Pamela Penza noted that Will's actions start the riot that takes place a few days later. Early on in the story, Will has gone to a speakeasy. He's drinking. The girl he is sweet on is there. She's White. He gets up to talk to her, but before he does, Clarence, a Black man whose skin is "browner than boot leather" comes in and sits with her (Kindle locations 156-159): 
Hate balled up inside me like a brass-knuckled fist. And when he slowly, slowly ran his fingertip across her skin, every foul emotion in the world churned deep down in the depths of my belly. Glancing sideways at a white woman was near enough to get Negroes lynched in Tulsa. Shot, even, in the middle of Main Street at noon, and with no more consequence than a wink and a nudge and a slap on the back. And God help me, that’s exactly what I wanted for the man touching my Addie. I wanted him dead.
That is one passage (of many) that makes him seem White. An Osage might think that way, too, so I don't mean to suggest Whites own all racism. They don't. But within a few days, Will goes from wanting Clarence dead to being fearful about the well-being of a little girl named Ruby. She's Black. The night of the riot, he plays a key role in getting the family of their Black maid to safety, and then he sets out to help other Black people, too, including Ruby. Saving them. It doesn't work. One day his Whiteness makes him racist; the next day he's saving Black people.

There's more. A lot more. Like, the near rape of Ruby. And, the undocumented workers. And, the references to Choctaw beer and Muscogee land. Go read Pamela's review. It is more comprehensive than what I've shared here in my focus on Will. I might be back to say more at some point.

For now, though, I'll ask (again), that writers not use Native characters as decoration in their stories. Native readers deserve more than that. In Dreamland Burning, it feels like an index card with some notes on it was dropped into the story. The Osage parts of this story are a convenience.

As such, I do not recommend Jennifer Latham's Dreamland Burning.

________
Note about the red X on the cover: You know that old "a picture is worth a thousand words"? Brain research on image and the brain confirm that images are seared into our brain, while words trail far behind. I'm using a red X on book covers so that the image of that red X is in your brain. It will help you remember that the book has problems in it. I wish the words "Not Recommended" were sufficient.


Thursday, March 02, 2017

AICL's Best Books of 2016




Comics and Graphic Novels:
Board Books:
Picture Books:
For Middle Grades:
For High School:

Please share this page with teachers, librarians, parents--anyone, really--who is interested in books about Native peoples. As we come across additional books published in that year, we will add them to this list. If you know of ones we might want to consider, please let me know!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Recommended! Jordan Wheeler's JUST A WALK

A few years ago, I read--and laughed aloud, as I read--Jordan Wheeler and Christopher Auchter's Just A Walk. 

Those of you who like Numeroff and Bond's If You Give A Mouse A Cookie will enjoy this book, too. It is similar in style, with one thing leading to another, and at the end, circling back to the beginning. Along the way? Lot of humor, lot of rhyme.

Wheeler is Cree; Auchter is Haida. Regular readers of AICL know that I love to recommend books by Native writers and illustrators because teachers can use that all powerful two-letter-word, is, when they read this book to kids. That tiny word brings us out of the long ago past and into the present day.

The main character in Just A Walk is a little boy named Chuck. The book came out in 2009 from Theytus Books, a small publisher in Canada.

One day, Chuck decides to go for a walk. He's got no plan for this walk. He just sets out, walking. He looks up to the sky and sees a hawk. As he walks, he watches that hawk as it flies, across the sky. If you've ever watched a hawk, you know it can be mesmerizing as it floats, flaps its wings, dives, and darts! Well--because Chuck isn't watching where he is going.... he falls in a river.



But he can't swim! He grabs onto a fish and thinks it'll be ok, but that fish takes him over a waterfall. As he falls, his braids catch on a branch. He dangles there, but of course, the branch breaks, and down he goes. He'll encounter a badger, and a bear, and an eagle... and when he finally gets home, his mom gives him heck. Where have you been?! she exclaims. He grins and says he just went for a walk.

Like I said, this story is funny! Reading it aloud will invite the kind of rhyming word play teachers like at storytime. I recommend it, and am glad that Kateri Akiwenzi-Damm asked me about it yesterday on Twitter. She's Anishinaabe and a founder of Kegedonce Press.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Not recommended: THE LAST THING YOU SAID by Sara Biren

Earlier this year, a reader wrote to ask me about The Last Thing You Said, by Sara Biren. It is published by Amulet Books, and due out on April 4, 2017. The reader pointed me to the review in School Library Journal, which said that Biren's use of inuksuk (singular)/inuksuit (plural) in her story is an example of cultural appropriation.

Before going on, I want to point to something readers should know. The School Library Journal review is eight sentences long. At the Barnes and Noble website, you can see all eight sentences, including the one about cultural appropriation. Here's the last three sentences:
The setting, a small Minnesota town, is fully realized and gives added depth to the characterizations as well. However, the appropriation of an Inuit cultural practice, inuksuk, as a symbol for the two white teens' relationship is a poor choice. VERDICT Cultural appropriation mars an otherwise promising debut that's recommended for libraries with a high demand for romance.—Elizabeth Saxton, Tiffin, OH
Over on Amazon, however, you will find only one sentence from the SLJ review:
"Fans of Sarah Dessen and Huntley Fitzpatrick’s books will find much to love in this emotional romance."
From what I understand, publishers decide what goes on the Amazon site. They obviously didn't want you (Amazon users) to see that SLJ had a significant concern about Biren's book. This occurs quite a lot. My advice to people who buy online based on reviews: read Barnes and Nobles page(s) on whatever book it is you are considering.

Back to the reader who asked me about Biren's book.

I turned that reader's question into a post in my "Debbie, have you seen" series. Because inuksuit originate with Inuit people, I wondered about them being in Duluth (where The Last Thing You Said is set).

A day later I received a pdf copy of The Last Thing You Said from Erica Finkel. She is Biren's editor. She saw my post and said that SLJ's review was based on a galley, and that she wanted me to have the final copy. I assume that means there were some changes between the galley and the final--based on SLJ's review. I don't have the galley that SLJ had when they wrote their review, so I can't compare the two. If someone does send me the galley, I'll be back with an update. I think that being able to track revisions in a book is tremendously useful to writers, readers, editors... all of us.

Here's the description of the book:
Last summer, Lucy’s and Ben’s lives changed in an instant. One moment, they were shyly flirting on a lake raft, finally about to admit their feelings to each other after years of yearning. In the next, Trixie—Lucy’s best friend and Ben’s sister—was gone, her heart giving out during a routine swim. And just like that, the idyllic world they knew turned upside down, and the would-be couple drifted apart, swallowed up by their grief. Now it’s a year later in their small lake town, and as the anniversary of Trixie’s death looms, Lucy and Ben’s undeniable connection pulls them back together. They can’t change what happened the day they lost Trixie, but the summer might finally bring them closer to healing—and to each other.

So. Here are my notes/comments as I read.

In chapter one we meet Lucy. She lives in Lake Halcyon, a small town in Minnesota. She's at her summer job at a resort there. We learn about vacation cabins that Trixie's aunt and uncle have owned "for generations" and about the restaurant her own family owns. It, too, has been in the family for generations. That "for generations" framework is annoying because it conveniently obscures who that land belonged to, before any of these characters and their families built cabins and restaurants on it. At this point, this book is an All White Book. Written by a white person for a white audience.

In chapters two, three, and four, we learn that Ben is angry at Lucy, her brother, Clayton, and at himself, too. The summer before, Ben, Lucy, Clayton, and Trixie were out together on the lake. Clayton and Trixie went for a swim. At the moment when Trixie (Ben's sister) was dying, Ben and Lucy were flirting. Ben is angry at his mom, too, for her worry about how Lucy is doing.

In chapter five, we meet Hannah Mills. She's from Mitchell, South Dakota. Her mom has written over 20 best selling historical western romances. Hannah moved to Halycon Lake after Trixie drowned. She's who Lucy hangs out with now.

In Chapter twelve, Ben is in his room. He used to polish rocks. On his desk is an agate, which reminds him of one he gave to Lucy, and a lot of other rocks he's collected. This is the first mention of an inuksuk (p. 63-64):
I balance a few rocks into a small stack, careful to keep it from tumbling over. It reminds me of an inuksuk. Dad told us about them on our first trip to Duluth years ago when we saw a couple along the side of the road. They’re stone structures that the Inuit used as guideposts, to mark good hunting or fishing, to give direction—practical reasons, but spiritual ones, too, Dad said, as memorials or to mark a place of respect. Last summer, that last trip before Trixie died, we saw at least fifty of them at one of the rocky beaches. 
My tower is irregular, off balance, but the clink of the stones as I stack them is like a balm on my soul. I’ve created something.
But unlike an inuksuk, these rocks don’t tell me which direction to go.
I sweep my hand across the stack and the stones crash to the desk.
There are, in fact, inuksuit in Duluth. Biren isn't misrepresenting their presence. In that passage, Ben's dad tells him that they have a practical and a spiritual significance to the Inuit. There, I think, is the line that Biren crossed: they have a spiritual significance.

Think of your own religious denomination and things in it that are used to memorialize something. If someone not of your denomination were to take and use that thing, would that be ok? I think the ubiquitous nature of inuksuit is similar to a lot of items from specific peoples (Native and not) that someone thinks is cool, and then someone else does, too, and before you know it, everyone has the item. Its meaning and significance to those who it originated with are lost as that thing becomes kitsch. This is the case for dreamcatchers and kokopelli, too. 

I gather that in her story, Biren's characters are using inuksuit for healing. But, I wonder, what is Ben's own religion? I guess it isn't enough to help him with his grief. 

On page 82 in chapter 14, Ben goes to a place where he and Trixie used to climb trees. He gathers rocks and stacks them against one of the trees. They tumble as he does. Then, he rearranges them so they are balanced. 

On page 98 in chapter 18, we learn a bit about Ben's friend, Guthrie.  He is part Irish and part Ojibwe. Then on page 101, there's a bit more:
When he’s not fishing, he’s reading. He never knew his Ojibwe grandfather, and in fourth grade, he decided to learn everything he could about his ancestors. He didn’t stop there. He learned about other Native cultures and then moved on to German and Scandinavian immigrants, and French-Canadian trappers. He’s like a walking Minnesota history book. 
Interesting. Why didn't he know his Ojibwe grandfather? Why is he described as having this ancestry? Is it going to matter somehow? Or is it decoration?

In chapter 24, Lucy remembers the polished agate stone that Ben gave to her on a trip they'd been on, together, to Duluth. 

On page 138, Ben is remembering the trip, too, and the inuksuit they found on the shore of Lake Superior. There were at least fifty of them. Lucy had watched Ben try to make one, too. He realized, then, that he was in love with her. 

On page 159, Ben is with Guthrie at his house on the lake. There are rocks there, and as he talks with Dana on the phone (who he is dating but wants to break up with), he stacks the rocks. They keep falling over. After he gets off the phone with Dana, he looks for more rocks, pockets some, and makes a tower. Then, he makes another one. It falls over, onto the first one. He starts over, and rebuilds both of them, carefully, and then lets out a long breath (p. 160):
“Hey.” Guthrie is behind me. I turn to face him. “You are on the right path,” he says. 
“What?” 
“Those look like inuksuit. One of the meanings of inuksuit is ‘You are on the right path.’ A marker. It’s a way to let others know that you’ve been here, that this is the right path.” 
“Oh,” I say. “Right.” 
We go back to the fire and Guthrie rattles on about this new hot spot he found on Papyrus, but I can’t stop thinking about what he said. 
You are on the right path. 
Nothing feels right.
Hmmm... Remember Guthrie's reading about other Native cultures? He knows about inuksuit. 

Thought it isn't spelled out, my guess is that there's something going on with that passage. Ben wants to break up with Dana. As he talks to her, the tower he builds falls again and again. Once he hangs up, he is able to make a tower, and then another, next to it. There isn't any explicit mention of Lucy, but I think she's in the background. He is still in love with Lucy. He's able to build two towers that don't fall over. They're meant to be him and Lucy. He can make the two towers that represent him and Lucy; hence, he's on the right path. He doesn't get it, yet. 

In chapter 30, Lucy takes off (without her parents permission) with Hannah, Dustin (he's Hannah's boyfriend) and Simon (Lucy's current boyfriend) to a rodeo in Mitchell, South Dakota. She has sex with Simon hoping to forget Ben (it doesn't work, and when she gets back home, she's grounded for the rest of the summer).

When chapter 31 opens, Ben is with Guthrie. He learns that Hannah is missing. Guthrie knows where she is. Ben decides to go there, too, but halfway there he changes his mind and turns around. He is crying, at one point as he drives, and pulls over at a park near a lake. There, he looks for rocks and remembers the ones he got while he was at Guthrie's. He makes a tower and thinks about the many towers he has made, and where he's made them. Building them soothes him.  

In chapter 36, Lucy sneaks into town to the used bookstore. She remembers that she got a complete set of the Little House books there, and that her mother would read them aloud to her. Whenever I come across a reference to that series, I cringe. And I hope that the author is aware that uncritical references to that book yank readers--who are aware of the racism towards African Americans and Native Americans in the series--right out of the book. I would absolutely be ok with a character who says "hey, that series sucks" but I've not yet found it yet. (Have you?)

Lucy gets a text from Simon who has spotted her through a window. It is awkward, especially because Ben is there, too, at another store, and sees them. Lucy declines Simon's invitation for a ride home. She cuts through a park on her way home and stops to rest on a bench. She sees a stack of rocks at the base of a tree (this is the one that Ben made earlier) and remembers Ben stacking rocks at Lake Superior. 

In chapter 38, Ben's parents talk with him about Lucy and why the two aren't friends. They also bring up his drinking. All through the book, he's had beer, sometimes other liquor Sometimes he takes liquor out of his dad's liquor cabinet. He's clearly in pain over his sister's death. 

In chapter 41, Ben is drunk. Guthrie, who is now dating Hannah, picks him up. They go to Guthrie's house and watch The Outlaw Josey Wales. I wonder if Biren knows the author of the book that the movie is based on is "Forrest Carter" -- who masqueraded as a Cherokee when he wrote The Education of Little Tree. Probably not, but, for me, this is another reference that yanks me out of the story she's telling.

In chapter 42, Hannah has a birthday party at her house by the beach. Lucy is drinking (she's still supposed to be grounded), and Ben is drunk. Simon is there, and so is Dana (Ben's girlfriend). There's lots of tension and heated words. Lucy leaves the house and walks to the teach. All along the woods are stacks of rocks, like the ones she saw at Lake Superior, the ones Ben called inuksuit. She lies beside them and passes out. 

Ben (who had a fist fight with Simon) finds her there and carries her to the porch. Dana finds them and there's another argument. Lucy doesn't remember much of this the next day. Her parents are angry but think her being grounded for the summer wasn't a good idea because she needed friends to help her get through the summer without Trixie. 

Ben goes to a Watermelon Days carnival. So does Lucy. They end up meeting, there, and it seems they'll get together again but, nope. They end up arguing. She walks away; he gets in his car and drives off. 

Chapter 51 is one line, all alone on the page. It is Ben thinking "This is not the right path." 

In the next chapters, Ben sends Lucy a gift, telling her that he loves her. She breaks up with Simon. On the evening before the first anniversary of Trixie's death, Lucy tells Ben she broke up with Simon, but she's busy (remember, she works at her family restaurant) and can't say any more than that. The next morning, Ben resolves to tell Lucy he's sorry about all that has happened. 

Ben's day starts with him heading out to build an inuksuk for Trixie. For weeks, he's been gathering giant rocks. There are six of them. They're in the trunk of his car. When he's finished with it, it is nearly as tall as he is. He's made it by the lake, near where Trixie died. Then, he texts Lucy, telling her he's at the park and that he wants to talk. There, by the inuksuk, they talk about Trixie, and what has happened since her death. They hug, kiss, and hold hands as they walk to his car, to go wherever their paths lead them. 

 That's it. End of the story. 

In her Author's Note, Biren says that she became interested in inuksuit when she lived in Duluth during her college years (p. 303):
It was then that I became interested in the history of inuksuit, the stone structures of the Inuit. Although the Inuit are not native to the area, it is not uncommon to see rock structures or sculptures along the North Shore Scenic Highway, in parks throughout the city, or in art galleries.
She goes on to say that the idea of inuksuit as guideposts on life's journey came to her as she wrote The Last Thing You Said. 

As I noted above, Biren's representation of them as present in Duluth is not a problem. What is a problem, however, is that her characters don't question why they are there. I'd like to know why they're there. Finding out who first put them there, though, might be an endless pursuit that leads nowhere. In those instances, we can step away from that pursuit and have a character think critically about them. Daniel Jose Older did something like that in Shadowshaper. 

There isn't any critical thinking of that kind in The Last Thing You Said. There are many opportunities for doing that, with the inuksuit, or the references to Little House and Outlaw Josey Wales, or, in Guthrie not knowing anything about his Ojibwe grandfather. These are, however, missed opportunities. I agree with the SLJ review. There is cultural appropriation in Biren's book. It also feels like she's tacked on Guthrie's Ojibwe identity to meet the calls for diverse characters. When that is superficial, however, it doesn't work.

I'm glad that Finkel (Biren's editor) sent me the book. Finel and Biren missed a lot, and I hope this long look at the book helps them see things they missed. Whether or not they agree with my critique, I hope they talk about it and share it with others, too.