Friday, November 20, 2009
A Season of Gifts and Racism: one more round
There's been tons and tons and tons of discussion about whether Richard Peck's newest book, A Season of Gifts, is racially insensitive. (I know many of you have heard a lot about this, but since I've discovered that a lot of my readers are not regularly blog people and -- gasp! -- don't know about every blog controversy that comes along, a summary: this book takes place in the 1950s; there's a new Methodist preacher in town who's having trouble getting people to come to his church; to drum up publicity, his neighbor Grandma Dowdel pretends to have found the skeleton of an "Indian princess" in her garden and gets the preacher to stage a Christian burial with accompanying media frenzy.)
Let's get one thing straight: yeah, the bones are fake. There's no doubt about it. Only a "but the bones are fake!" defense doesn't wash with me. I'm also not going to say it doesn't make a difference that the bones were fake. The difference is just that it would be WORSE if the bones were real.
Yes, Jonathan Hunt et al, I get that Richard Peck was making fun of white people and their obsession with all things "Native American". But digging up American Indian bones and re-burying them in white Christian cemeteries?
Dude. That's not something to joke about*. It's disrespectful to use something like that as a way to make this mild sort of point, especially in a book that is not ALL about the white obsession with Indian mysticism, because come on, it's not like the white people don't come out on top in this book. They're a little silly in their reaction to the "Kickapoo princess", but they're also down-home good people.
Okay, but what surprises me: in all of the discussions of this book I've read, I can't remember anyone mentioning the part where Richard Peck makes an effort to show that he knows this might come off as being disrespectful. Because the sermon the minister gives is all about how great the Indians who used to live on that land were. Yes, Debbie Reese, I'm using "used to" and "were" on purpose, because that's how they're presented here. "The stewards of this land that now we till" and "How lightly her people lived here/In the seasons' ebb and flow;/May we leave this land as lovely/When it's our own time to go."
He tries, Richard Peck does. He knows that American Indians are more than mascots and "princesses" and headdresses. But this sermon--it's nice. It could be worse. The insensitivity of the book would be worse if it were left out altogether. But what it does is make the people of the town, and the Caucasian reader, feel good. It's okay that the local Indians are gone; they lived a good life and now it's our turn. It was their "time to go".
When, you know, it actually wasn't.
Now, when I first heard about this issue on Roger Sutton's blog, I commented "oops, there goes A Season of Gifts's Newbery nod". But now that I've read it, I don't think this book is Newbery-quality, anyway. It's well-written stylistically, because Richard Peck is a writing master, but the plot and characters are most thin. I don't think it's distinguished or that it adds anything special either to this trilogy (the first two books are excellent; one is a Newbery Honor and the other a Newbery) or to children's literature.
*Always allowing that I could find a joke about this really, really funny if it were done well and made an important point.