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.


Kathleen McDade said...

Ouch. I haven't read it, but based on your description, WHY IS THIS BOOK EVEN OUT THERE? I guess no one wanted to tell Richard Peck NO?

Wendy said...

Oh, I don't think it's as bad as all that; I think probably Richard Peck and his editor thought they had things covered with the sermon at the end, plus astute people like Roger Sutton seem to think it's good (and I'm just, you know, a simple maid with mediocre references). And the burial stuff is only a medium-sized part of the book. I had gotten the impression from the discussion, before I read the book, that it was the biggest part of the plot, which seemed very strange to me.

Overall, it's sort of a throwback book, the kind of thing no one would have blinked an eye at in the sixties--in fact, it would have been cutting edge then with the solemn moments during the sermon.

Sandy D. said...

Yeah, pretty much what you said. I had a long comment with links and references but SLJ's blog ate it and I never got around to recreating it.

One thing about where Peck is writing about: in the 1950's, it was not uncommon for farmers who uncovered Native skeletal remains to put them on display in their basements (along with some arrowheads, grinding stones, and the like).

Until NAGPRA (Native American Graves & Repatriation Act) legislation in 1990, a lot of Native groups couldn't even claim known and *named* ancestral remains (like great-grandparents!) from museums.

Wendy said...

Sandy, that's why I was confused when Nina compared what happens in this book to "Picture a funny historical novel in which the bones of a Jewish ghost are dug up to create some advertising for the new local Methodist Ministry", and Monica responded "although I have to say the Jewish ghost analogy doesn't work for me --- too many reminders of historical situations in other parts of the world". As far as I can see, it's exactly the same thing--it's something that really happens. But maybe I misunderstood your comment, Monica (it didn't seem like the right place to ask).

Debbie Reese said...

Still working on the follow up to my first post...

A couple of years ago, there was a house put up for auction in a small town here in Illinois.

The person who bought it got the house and all its contents. Inside were skulls. Skulls of Native people, labeled as such. The house had belonged to a dentist. There were efforts to get them given to a tribe for reburial, but all manner of "who gets them" kicked in, and last I knew, they were in state office somewhere.

The tribe in SEASON is Kickapoo. The Kickapoo were moved out of Illinois. The burial ground in SEASON may be a joke to readers, but not far from Urbana, there is a Kickapoo historical village.

Given his research, Peck would know that. How much research did he do? Does he think Native people would not read his novel? Does he think we don't exist anymore? Certainly that's what a lot of people in Illinois think...

Wendy said...

Debbie, I suspect he honestly thought his story would not be offensive; in fact, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that it was inspired by an incident in his youth that struck him now as insensitive or racist. As Jonathan said, he was trying to make a point about the ridiculousness of the white response in this case. He just managed to be insensitive in the process.

Debbie Reese said...

I've lived here for 15 years. I am often astounded by what I hear people say about American Indians. I'm at the University of Illinois, remember, former home of "chief illiniwek."

Debbie Reese said...

Sandy D... Each semester, students in my course (American Indian Studies 101) talk about finding arrowheads on their family land, arranging them in trays... Nobody says they find remains, but very recently (until 1992), Native remains were on display at Dickson Mounds.

Nina Lindsay said...

Thanks for this post...and for mentioning the language from the sermon in particular!


Anonymous said...

Hmmm . . . Can you give me an example of a really, really funny joke about it that also makes an important point?


Wendy said...

Offhand, no, Jonathan; I'm just open to the possibility that anything can be funny in satire if it's done well enough. Like, normally hearing about "conversion therapy" for gay people makes me want to cry, but I howled with laughter over a Daily Show segment about it, wherein the purpose was to point out how ridiculous it is.

To think of a joke, if not an elaborate satire, that involves American Indians... in the movie Smoke Signals, the protagonist promises his mother he'll return from a road trip and asks if he needs to sign a paper to prove it. His mother says no--"You know how Indians feel about signing papers." Are betrayed treaties funny in and of themselves? Definitely not. Do people say offensive things about them? All the time. Is that a funny joke about betrayed treaties that made this white person think? Yes.