Take Two: A Season of Gifts
October 4, 2009 by 8 Comments
I have now finished rereading A SEASON OF GIFTS and all of the posts and comments that we have written about it. I enjoyed my second reading and found it as distinguished as ever, but I hope that I have gained some insights into why Nina and I have diametrically opposed views on this book.
I think it’s important to acknowledge, first of all, that because Mrs. Dowdel started the rumors of the Kickapoo Indian princess and because Ruth Ann is playing her ghost that it’s a fairly short leap to infer unequivocally that the "bones" are fake. Becky Laney has a lengthy post which supports this point, and if you want to challenge it then I would be happy to lift additional evidence from the text. Furthermore, Nina acknowledges this point in her first post, although she downplays the importance of whether or not the bones are real or fake.
I strongly disagree; it’s a very critical point that changes the way I read the story. If the bones are real then Mrs. Dowdel is exploiting the culture and heritage of American Indians for cheap laughs and that is racially insensitive. I would agree with that wholeheartedly. If the bones are fake, however, it shifts the ridicule from American Indians to the morbid curiosity, the childlike fascination, and fanciful imagination of the townfolk.
So when Nina says something like–"He suggests to the reader that it’s a goodness and a kindness to dig up another culture’s remains and bury them in a Christian ceremony."–I would argue that since the Kickapoo princess is a complete and utter fabrication, and since the reader is so obviously privy to that information, I don’t feel that a kindness is being done to the nonexistent Indian princess, but rather that the kindness is being done to the Barnhart family, a point that is re-emphasized in the final conversation between father and son about how Mrs. Dowdel dispenses her gifts.
Moreover, my reading is more consistent with the characterization of Mrs. Dowdel, not only in this novel, but in the previous ones. She is ever the champion of the poor, the sick, the needy, the underdog. There are no Indian characters in this novel, but I feel quite certain that if there were, Mrs. Dowdel would be their champion, too. If anyone in this small town is capable of divergent thinking that breaks with small town mentality, of thinking ahead of her time, of being enlightened, then it is is Mrs. Dowdel. In many respects, she strikes me as the prototypical liberal.
This whole American Indian thread which reaches its apex in the middle section, "The Fall of the Year," is a satire on the aforementioned morbid curiosity, childlike fascination, and fanciful imagination of the townfolk. When you read sentences like this–"They’d changed the name of the team from "Fightin’ Farmers" to "Kickapoo Kickers."–can you really not see that Peck is taking a satirical jab at the modern controversy surrounding Indian mascots? Satire often professes to approve of the very thing the satirist disapproves of, and it is a very offensive brand of humor, especially when it is not recognized as such. (We’ve all heard of the people who either mistakenly read The Onion as a straight newspaper, or the people who find it funny–until their sore spot is satirized.) The Grandma Dowdel books have often been compared to Mark Twain, another gifted satirist. Can you really not see that Peck is writing in this vein?
So I’m afraid I still don’t buy the charges of racial insensitivity. They don’t hold up for me upon closer scrutiny, at least not in terms of plot, character, or style. You can, of course, convince me that satire is inappropriate for children, but then we have to start taking awards away from the people in the last post.