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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Take Two: A Season of Gifts

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.
 
 
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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Nina says:

    Jonathan,
    I DO agree with your analysis of Grandma Dowdel and the satire inherent in her comments and approach. She’s both a product of her time…and the town liberal.

    I think it’s blatantly clear that the bones are fake.

    However, the chapter *Indian Summer,* in which the fake bones are given a funeral, is not satirical. The bones fakeness is still satirical, but the sermon is not. Grandma Dowdel’s *Amen* at the end is intended to be completely heartfelt, is it not? The last line of that chapter is, *And from this golden Indian summer day, we had us a church.*

    Although completely well intentioned, Grandma Dowdel is capitalizing on the sensationalism that anything seemingly-Kickapoo brings, in order to *make* a church. It doesn’t matter whether the bones are real or not in this reading, because it’s the public perception of the bones that is valuable, and Grandma Dowdel–being a product of her time–has no problem taking full advantage of this. Neither does Peck, as he capitalizes on this moment for an emotional charge, in which we are to feel that Gradma Dowdel has done something incredible clever and good. She is clever. Her intentions are good. But she treads all over any true respect for Native culture in doing so, and so does Peck.

    I see this capitalization as an appropriation similar to the Indian Image on *American Spirit* tobacco products, or some of the more seems-okay-to-white-people, sympathetic-looking-or-sounding Indian mascots such as the ones for the Redskins or Braves. These are, at their base, for monetary profit. Grandma Dowdel and Peck are trading in emotional profit, but the price is the same.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Mrs. Dowdel’s actions regarding the funeral are ironic and are not to be taken at face value. She engineers the whole thing from start (“I want a good church funeral for her so the public will know she’s not adrift around the back of my place.”) to finish (“Amen . . . Amen to that.”)

    Her Amen, murmured in front of the entire community, signifies not a heartfelt display of emotion for the Indian princess (or the appearance of one), but rather her approval of the preacher–and the rest of the town follows her lead.

    Still later in the novel, Mrs. Dowdel will decide that he also needs to perform a wedding to successfully grow his congregation, and she arranges one between Roscoe and Waynetta, and again more for the benefit of the preacher than the bride and groom. These are some of Mrs. Dowdel’s gifts to the Barnhart family.

    But back to the funeral. Because we know the burial is fake, it does not make a mockery of American Indian culture, but rather makes a mockery of the rites of the Christian Church, perhaps casting the preacher in a less than flattering light. Please go back and read Becky’s post about this.

    Further, Peck continues his satire of the Christian Church when both Mrs. Dowdel and Aunt Madge, neither of them churchgoers can cite chapter and verse the scriptures read from the pulpit. They might not have the outward displays of spirituality and religion, but you cannot judge a book by its cover.

    I maintain this is a satire of the white people and their culture. I don’t think we can carve out one piece–the piece that offends us–and say everything is a satire–but the part that offends us.

  3. faith--who still hasn't read the books says:

    *I don’t think we can carve out one piece–the piece that offends us–and say everything is a satire–but the part that offends us. *

    I don’t understand why not, Jonathan. Everyone has experienced a series of jokes that’s funny right up until one isn’t. That’t the risk of satire, isn’t it? That it overreaches, or it falls flat, or it offends more than it enlightens, or more than it amuses –and then people are offended. And just because some of a satire works doesn’t mean that ALL of it gets a free pass.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    But, Faith, I’m not questioning anybody’s right to their personal response, to find the book unfunny, to be deeply offended by it. What I am questioning is their right to claim that it is not satire simply because they find it unfunny and/or offensive.

    If you read the article on Satire at Wikipedia then you eventually read this portion under Misconceptions of Satire–

    Because satire often combines anger and humour it can be profoundly disturbing – because it is essentially ironic or sarcastic, it is often misunderstood. In an interview with Wikinews, Sean Mills, President of The Onion, said angry letters about their news parody always carried the same message. “It’s whatever affects that person,” said Mills. “So it’s like, ‘I love it when you make a joke about murder or rape, but if you talk about cancer, well my brother has cancer and that’s not funny to me.’ Or someone else can say, ‘Cancer’s hilarious, but don’t talk about rape because my cousin got raped.’ Those are rather extreme examples, but if it affects somebody personally, they tend to be more sensitive about it.”

    Common uncomprehending responses to satire include revulsion (accusations of poor taste, or that “it’s just not funny” for instance), to the idea that the satirist actually does support the ideas, policies, or people he is attacking. For instance, at the time of its publication, many people misunderstood Swift’s purpose in “A Modest Proposal” – assuming it to be a serious recommendation of economically-motivated cannibalism. Again, some critics of Mark Twain see Huckleberry Finn as racist and offensive, missing the point that its author clearly intended it to be satire (racism being in fact only one of a number of Mark Twain’s known concerns attacked in Huckleberry Finn).

    Me again: Do we insist that people who have been personally affected by rape and/or cancer find satire funny and/or inoffensive. No, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. By the same token, we would not require anybody to find A SEASON OF GIFTS funny and/or inoffensive. All the discussion in the world will not make it so. But it’s still satire.

  5. faith WSHNRTB says:

    But Jonathan, you seem to be saying that it is just political correctness to ask if Peck justifies his satire. That it IS satire seems to be enough for you to give him a free pass. Whereas Nina seems to be asking if it is reasonable to hold an author who uses hurtful material to a higher standard than you hold authors who are handling less risky material.

    If you tell a joke, it should be funny.
    If you tell a racist joke, it BETTER be funny.

    Given that this material will be exclusionary and potentially painful for the unwary (and unwarned–can anyone see this coming when they read the back of the book?) reader, is it well justified? Is there a good reason that the author didn’t get the same effect in some other way? Or does he just reach for whatever is handy to get a laugh out of the audience?

    I think it’s fine to ask all of these things. In terms of the criteria, I think that they reflect a double standard I can live with– holding potentially painful topics to a higher standard for *distinction*. Peck chose to handle dynamite. He had to know that he was going to risk turning off his audience. I think it will be a crapshoot whether he has judges who agree with you that the material is warranted, or with Nina that it isn’t. But hey, that’s the Newbery.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    But, Faith, satire by its very nature is risky. Somebody is always going to be offended by it, whether it’s rape, cancer, murder, racism, whatever.

    If it is satire then it means that Peck disapproves of the very things he is accused of supporting. It means that–gasp!–Richard Peck and Nina Lindsay are on the same team. It means that this whole debate has been not so much John McCain vs. Barack Obama as Hilary Clinton vs. Barack Obama.

    That doesn’t mean that Peck’s book will not offend, but I think it certainly knocks the moral force out of some of Nina’s arguments.

    What I originally objected to was the way that Nina acknowledged that the book was in fact satirical–except for the offensive parts!

    I think we acknowledged from the outset that A SEASON OF GIFTS would be hard pressed to earn Newbery recognition, not necessarily because of this issue (although it could be a contributing factor), but more because of ennui. Been there, done that. I actually thought Peck stood a better chance with THE RIVER BETWEEN US because it was a departure, but, well . . . I’ll let Nina talk about that one.

  7. Nina says:

    Jonathan, I just want to respond to this part for now:

    *What I originally objected to was the way that Nina acknowledged that the book was in fact satirical–except for the offensive parts!*

    I think that Peck doesn’t see beyond his own satire regarding the funeral. I read that scene differently than you: I don’t believe that the sermon and Grandma Dowdel’s *Amen* are intended to be satirical.

  8. Sue Cowing says:

    I read SEASON OF GIFTS as soon as it came out and didn’t blink at the section in question, so after seeing all this discussion, I reread the book to look for what I might have missed. I have to say my sympathy is still with the author. Anyone who knows Richard Peck knows he is humane and respectful to the core, so I hope he will not feel called upon to defend himself. This passage is not, I believe, stuck on. Yes, A SEASON OF GIFTS is historical fiction, but that’s not the point. Mrs. Dowdel, with her wry mastery and manipulation of human nature, is clearly perpetrating a hoax, and what the author is spoofing here is the gullibility and the herd instinct of the town characters (and by extension, of people in general). Peck is a passionate individualist, and his message to the readers of all his novels might be boiled down to “above all, think for yourself.” I’m only guessing (as are other commenters), but I can imagine Native American readers of this book having a good laugh at the townspeople for falling for the old Indian-ghost-in-the-graveyard hocus-pocus. If we truly love literature and imagination, let’s not get involved in telling authors what they “should” or “shouldn’t” write, but look at what they do write, then read it or not, recommend it or criticize, but value, always, their freedom to write by their own lights. And if we see something on the page that we think is truly distasteful or harmful and should not be rewarded with prizes, instead of spending our energy discrediting the judgment or character of an awardee, why not save our displeasure for the awarders?

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