The Grinch Who Stole Christmas
September 29, 2009 By 12 Comments
First of all, I do think the previous books affect A SEASON OF GIFTS in a negative way as much as a positive one. Sure, some readers will already have a comfortable relationship with Mrs. Dowdel, but I think that the first book, A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO, is clearly the superior book of the trio, and, too, both A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO and A YEAR DOWN YONDER have both already won Newbery recognition. Both of these factors make me inclined to pass this one over–until I actually compare it to the books published this year.
And, yes, I do think this book will appeal to adults, perhaps even more so than to children, but there is nothing in the Newbery criteria that excludes this, nothing that says a book must appeal to children more than adults. On the contrary, children merely need to be a "potential audience" for a book. I’m sure we can all think of recent Newbery winners with limited child appeal, say this one or that one, but that doesn’t make them any less distinguished. I don’t find arguments against the child appeal for A SEASON OF GIFTS very convincing.
Now I am certain that some Native children will find A SEASON OF GIFTS painful; others may find it funny; others, interesting; and others yet, boring. It may even have more appeal to Native adults than Native children. In short, I expect the range of responses among Native children to be just as rich and varied and complex as they are among white children.
Let us say, however, for the sake of discussion, that I have grossly underestimated the monolithic response of Native children, that many, if not most–if not all–of them would find this book a painful reading experience. What then?
Well, I certainly don’t think their pain could be any greater than that of the African American child that reads ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY and finds the use of the n-word painful, and yet I would not wrest the Newbery Medal away from Mildred Taylor (and I’m quite certain that Nina wouldn’t either).
Pain alone should not unravel a book’s Newbery chances. Nina argues that we can tolerate the pain if there is context for the child reader to understand it, and I’m sure she finds that context present in ROLL OF THUNDER (as do I), but that still does not diminish the pain of the child reader, does it?
Now, clearly, A SEASON OF GIFTS is not the stinging repudiation of racism that other recent books have been, say OCTAVIAN NOTHING, but neither is it the ringing endorsement that Nina suggests. Peck aims for the middle ground. He is not making a comment on Native culture, but rather the white culture that finds it, by turns, fascinating, mystifying, and exotic. He is not disparaging Native culture, but rather mocking white culture. Since our twelve-year-old narrator is white himself that is the only culture that we can expect him to expertly observe, either in the moment or in hindsight.
Given the prevalent views on Native culture in that time and place, how can we reasonably expect our narrator to be enlightened? He obviously needs some kind of encounter with a wise white adult (preferably one plucked out of the 21st century) or better yet a member of the Kickapoo Indian tribe–and not just any encounter, but a didactic one. This would take the book in an entirely different direction.
While I understand Nina’s reservations, I’m not sure that I see any Newbery criteria that specifically reference them. And here, dear readers, is where Irony chooses to reveal not only her hand, but her wicked sense of humor. Remember our discussion of WHEN YOU REACH ME? How I huffed and puffed and tried to blow the house down? I employed arguments that were not specifically grounded in the Newbery criteria, but rather my own personal assumptions. Surely, anybody who has read more than a handful of mystery and science fiction novels could spot the inherent aesthetic weaknesses in WHEN YOU REACH ME. And, similarly, Nina argues for a moral weakness in A SEASON OF GIFTS. How can anybody in this day and age perpetuate such an insensitive portrayal of Native people?
Now I see some of you out there in cyberspace shaking your head, wondering how I can equate X with Y when they are really not the same thing at all. But it’s not me that’s equating them, it’s those cold, hard, unfeeling Newbery criteria. They don’t care about your agenda, they don’t care about Nina’s agenda, and they sure don’t care about mine.