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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Still a Season of Gifts

Well, we were due to come back here at some point, and Six Boxes of Books’ post last week corresponded with my re-read and re-deliberation of this title taking all of Jonathan’s second-read arguments to mind. I think he’s on to something, framing this as a satire.  However, doing so only makes me more convinced of my original reaction.

I actually just reviewed the book for BayViews, a local review journal, and requested permission to reprint a section of the review here. It’s one of two signed reviews for the book that will appear in our November issue; we often print side by side reviews when there are major differences of opinion. I should say that I actually agree with all of the positive points made in Penny Peck’s excellent partnering review…but I go on to add:

The satirical use of racial stereotypes that ensues [with the introduction of the Kickapoo Princess] will offend some readers … Still, within the chapter “The Haunted Melon Patch,” this material is satirical: Dowdel banks on the racial insensitivity of the townspeople to scare them with their own misconceptions. 

However …Within the sermon, Peck’s satire reaches its point: the lesson is supposedly learned that the townspeople are the same as the Kickapoo, and even though there wasn’t really a Kickapoo Princess haunting the melon patch, if there had been she’d be more the “normal” gentle girl described in the sermon than the horrific vision imagined by the townspeople. 


But the lesson itself is full of racial insensitivities.  Phrases like “links in the chain,” ignores the fact that the Kickapoo were driven from Illinois through a series of devastating treaties. The use of the term “long forgotten,” suggests the Kickapoo no longer exist. The entire act of the sermon is evangelical, suggesting that a Christian burial is a good and progressive act to commit another culture’s remains to (however symbolic those remains be), and that the establishment of a church is a noble thing for an imaginary dead Kickapoo Princess to have lived and died for.


What is the point of utilizing such satire in this book? Who is its audience, and who will get it? Try to imagine the same satirical structure used with any other ethnic minority. Is Peck’s satire effective?


When satire uses pointed humor to reveal the shortcomings inherent in that humor, it can be difficult for a person who is the object of the humor to understand the full import of the satire … But … I don’t think that Peck does [understand]. He falls short in his satire, and in doing so, undermines the whole project of it. This does not make him a bad person. It does not make this a bad book. It does make it a seriously flawed book.

(If you want to read both full reviews; join ACL, or subscribe to BayViews insitutionally through EBSCO)

So you see I’m on the same page with Wendy at Six Boxes, who says:

But digging up American Indian bones and re-burying them in white Christian cemeteries?
Dude. That’s not something to joke about*. 
*Always allowing that I could find a joke about this really, really funny if it were done well and made an important point. 

That is: Satire has to actually be really funny and make an important point to work. Peck’s doesn’t.  

Wendy also suggests that the insensitivity in the book would be worse if the sermon was left out…but I’m not sure I agree with that. I think the sermon is insidious, because it let’s some readers imagine that this is sensitive.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Okay, so you don’t think they should have re-buried the bones. What do you think they should have done with them? Debbie Reese suggests that the most common alternatives were to (a) display them in somebody’s basement or (b) display them in some museum. Are those really better than the funeral she receives, which at least intends respect, however misguided you think it may be? What are the other alternatives? Throw them away? Re-bury them sans church funeral? Look up the Kickapoo tribe in Kansas? What do you think they should have done with the bones?

  2. …not have them in the book at all?

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    But is that really the answer? Simply remove something that is potentially offensive? Isn’t that sort of what Scholastic did with LUV YA BUNCHES? Some people will be offended by lesbian moms, so they pulled it . . .

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think you have to be really careful when you play the I’m-offended card because it’s highly subjective and once you play it, it’s hard to deny somebody else the right to play it from a vastly different frame of reference. Hence, my allusion to the recent Scholastic controversy that Wendy covered so thoughtfully on her blog.

    I guess, I’m still bothered, however, by the suggestion that authors (or white authors, at least) ought not write about something that happened in the past. People did (and do) uncover Indian remains and artifacts. It seems to me that if you’re going to write authentically about the time and place that Peck is writing in you’re going to be either displaying the bones or re-burying them, and to my mind, at least the latter option is easily the least offensive. If Grandma Dowdel had discovered the bones of a white trapper, I think they would have given him the same treatment, so I think the townfolk afforded the Kickapoo Indian princess the same treatment they would have given a white person’s remains. They certainly didn’t see her as subhuman or savage.

  5. As someone who worked as an archaeologist in the Midwest for many years, I’m all for the “donate the bones to a museum (but NOT display them)” option.

    As someone who also worked on museum inventories & repatriation for NAGPRA (Native American Graves Repatriation Act), I would have to say that if the remains were demonstrably Kickapoo, then Grandma D. should have found a local Kickapoo person to turn them over to – maybe an old man that lived near Aunt Puss Chapman? Maybe an American Indian professor at the local college? Realistically (as if any of this is realistic!), we couldn’t expect Grandma D. to contact the Kickapoo Nation in KS. Though maybe that would have been an interesting road trip.

    Given the fact that there probably *weren’t* real bones, this whole scenario rather falls apart. Then the question remains whether it was kosher (sorry, couldn’t resist) to pretend to appropriate someone’s grandmother’s body (who may or may not have actually have been Christian, depending on the date of the remains!) in order to boost Bob’s dad’s church attendance.

    It’s all still a bit…unfunny. Those two chapters really tainted the rest of the book for me. The only way these chapter really work are if you think like an inhabitant of a small town in IL in the 1950’s – if you have a casual, curious but not particularly respectful attitude towards archaeological remains (including human remains or other sacred objects), and if you see Native peoples as a kind of human buffalo – maybe not extinct, but long gone from your area, anyway. In short, you would have to think like my parents, who are about Richard Peck’s age and live in a small town in IL.

    Now, I love my parents, and part of the reason I love Richard Peck’s books so much is because his stories are so utterly authentic when it comes to small town life. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be very wrong about certain issues. And it’s not just an age thing, it’s an education and exposure thing.

    I agree that the sermon about the vanished tribe really just added insult to injury here.

  6. People did give Native remains to museums quite often in the 1950’s – but I’m guessing Grandma D. wouldn’t take much to turning the bones over to some big city scientist type. And many (but not all) Native peoples would probably be equally offended by this option.

    I’m stuck on what you’re supposed to do with “pretend remains”, though. It’s kind of like the people today who are upset about the Mormons baptizing their long dead ancestors in absentia.

    I guess I’m going to say the “pretend remains” or “symbolic remains” are going to have to be accorded the same courtesies that the real ones get, and that they’ll have to be turned over to the a representative of the appropriate ethnic group. Whom I shall hope is a Kickapoo archaeologist who has the full support of his community. 😉

  7. I’m sorry, but this is getting a little far fetched.

    Is Grandma D an archeologist? Does she have any ties to NAGPRA?

    What Jonathan said is right on the money. Peck is writing HISTORICAL FICTION. If you are offended by something Grandma D does in the novel, jump in a time machine, travel back in time, and take it up with people like her. Otherwise, I don’t see the point in tearing Peck’s work down because of this one scene . . .

    “The only way these chapter really work are if you think like an inhabitant of a small town in IL in the 1950’s – if you have a casual, curious but not particularly respectful attitude towards archaeological remains (including human remains or other sacred objects), and if you see Native peoples as a kind of human buffalo – maybe not extinct, but long gone from your area, anyway.”

    This, is precisely the point. You ARE supposed to read from the point of view of someone in a small IL town in the 1950’s. Not as an educated archeologist in the late 2000’s.

  8. While I love Peck’s books, I am sometimes uneasy that his humor comes at the expense of the rural generational poor who still exist as do the Kickapoo. So it doesn’t surprise me or seem out of character that he would use the Kickapoo Princess as a plot device.

  9. Jonathan asks what do I think they “should have done with the bones.”

    Huh? Um… first of all they aren’t real bones. Second of all, I’m not trying to figure out what story Peck “should have” written, I’m only interested in the one he did write.

    A Teacher asks us to look at it as historical fiction, as if we were someone in a small IL town in the 1950s. Well, yes, historical fiction asks you to imagine what it was like to live “back then,” but doesn’t ask you to leave the present. Historical ficiton gives you perspective. To me, the whole point of this scene is that it lacks perspective. I wouldn’t tear a book down for a single scene unless it’s egregious, and I think this one is.

  10. Jonathan, if this was a book about people who find Indian remains in the garden, of course it would be important to have that in the book. But it isn’t. The fake remains are a device to carry out the book’s theme about how generous and quirky Grandma Dowdel is. They aren’t an organic or necessary part of the story, and I don’t think they add anything important or valuable to the story, either. To say the book would be better without them isn’t whitewashing part of Illinois history. (It WOULD be whitewashing or revisionist to have Grandma Dowdel find remains and give them to contemporary Kickapoo. I would have been bothered by that.) There are LOTS of things that were true about rural Illinois in the 1950s that don’t appear in the book.

    Authors remove things that are “potentially offensive” all the time–in the editing process. I would never say that Peck should go back and take these chapters out of the book. The book is out there; it is what it is, and we can discuss it to our heart’s content. I can say that I think the book would be stronger without this incident (though it still wouldn’t be a Newbery contender for me).

    “A teacher”, why would you WANT children to read this book and be expected to think like 1950s residents of the town who have little respect for American Indians?

    My brother, who teaches elementary school and is a big Peck fan (but not an indiscriminate one), suggested the same thing–that rural white people could feel like they were being disrespected. I do think that was Peck’s point and purpose, to mock those people’s attitudes. But as I mentioned in my blog post, the townspeople do come out on top overall in the book. Plus, living in downstate Illinois as I do, I think a lot of people here could still use some shaking up.

    I basically agree that the townspeople didn’t see the “Princess” as “subhuman or savage”, though I do think they see her as lesser or not-really-a-person until they were turned around by that sermon. They continue to see her as an “exotic”, and that, too, is damaging.

  11. Yeah, but I don’t want my kids to think that that is a good point of view. When it comes to reading about something like lynching, I’m confident that they see the historical wrong in the character’s POV, but too many people today *still* think there’s nothing wrong with taking another group’s bones and doing whatever you want with them, and that Native peoples are extinct or not around anymore.

    I had a fairly long discussion with my 12 y.o. son (who enjoyed the book) about why these two chapters were controversial. He didn’t see anything at all untoward in it, and this is a kid who has had a lot of exposure to archaeology and the viewpoints of modern Native peoples.

    It’s subtle racism, which makes it very insidious. I don’t want the book banned, but I hope that all this controversy stirs discussion amongst teachers and kids about *why* a lot of us find these chapters of Peck’s so uncomfortable and problematic.

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Of course, the bones are fake, but you’ve taken them very seriously, Nina, so I just wanted to take that idea and run with it. I think it underscores that these characters and this setting are as impeccably authentic as ever. And I still can’t shake the feeling that Peck is being criticized, not so much for literary shortcomings, but for political ones.

  13. I take the fake “bones” very seriously because Peck uses them seriously: symbolically, and politically. That he uses them IS a literary device.

  14. Huh? That’s exactly what I’m criticizing him for, Jonathan. My feeling that the book isn’t particularly distinguished is separate from that, and I’ve tried to make that clear. If I DID think the book were distinguished from a literary standpoint, this would actually be a much more interesting and relevant conversation IMO, because then we’d have to discuss whether the incident could “rob” the book of its deserved Newbery or whether that is overrreaching the criteria.

  15. Jonathan Hunt says:

    A couple more things.

    1. This has repeatedly been called a Christian funeral, rite, ceremony, but what makes it so? The fact that it’s conducted in a church? By a preacher? There is no religion–no God or Jesus–in the sermon that Bob’s father preaches so I really don’t understand why Nina considers it evangelical. If Bob’s father was a museum director in the town, and Grandma had donated the remains, it would have had the same affect in the story, but without the religion, but we still could have killed Peck on this point, right?

    2. If Bob’s father really wanted to establish a church on this event, would he really have kicked the television reporters out of the building prior to the funeral? I don’t think so.

  16. The father is uncomfortable with the thing from the beginning, I think–not the Indian aspect, but the fakery aspect. He goes through with it, even though he knows it’s a complete sham, but isn’t willing to go so far as to let the reporters in.

  17. It’s Christian because it is a Christian ceremony performed by a Methodist minister, in a church…and the entire performance brings a congregation to the ministry.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    While it is performed by a Christian minister in a Christian church, the ceremony itself does not seem very Christian to me, curiously lacking religious allusions to God, Jesus, Heaven, etc. It reads more like a secular memorial service that you might find in a funeral home, for example. The point of my question is: What makes the sermon evangelical? I think that is the point where you’re losing me.

    Nina writes–

    The entire act of the sermon is evangelical, suggesting that a Christian burial is a good and progressive act to commit another culture’s remains to (however symbolic those remains be), and that the establishment of a church is a noble thing for an imaginary dead Kickapoo Princess to have lived and died for.

  19. Nina: “A Teacher asks us to look at it as historical fiction, as if we were someone in a small IL town in the 1950s. Well, yes, historical fiction asks you to imagine what it was like to live “back then,” but doesn’t ask you to leave the present. Historical ficiton gives you perspective. To me, the whole point of this scene is that it lacks perspective. I wouldn’t tear a book down for a single scene unless it’s egregious, and I think this one is.”

    How doesn’t it ask you to leave the present? Historical fiction attempts to depict “life as it was”. It’s not a knock on Peck’s writing if a reader in the “present” disapproves of something he (Peck) is trying to depict from the past.

    Wendy: “”A teacher”, why would you WANT children to read this book and be expected to think like 1950s residents of the town who have little respect for American Indians?”

    Why? The same reason you’d ask kids to read NUMBER THE STARS and put themselves in the shoes of the girls. Isn’t that ALL author’s big ideas? By doing so, you’re not telling kids to think like Nazi’s back then and condone what they did. It’s a learning experience. An opportunity. It’s one author’s interpretation of history. Isn’t that the point?

    Sandy: “Yeah, but I don’t want my kids to think that that is a good point of view.”

    Then talk about it with them. Have discussions with them about what they read and asking questions. It should be a learning experience. I don’t want kids to read DIARY OF A WIMPY KID and think it’s okay to be lazy like Greg. But I can’t force that upon them as a reader. I have to trust they will read it and see Kinney’s sarcasm. I don’t want students to read THE HUNGER GAMES and think an event like that would be exciting and fun to watch. I have to trust that they see what Suzanne Collins is trying to do and learn from it.

    Now . . . that does bring up the idea of age appropriateness that’s been discussed on here. If kids cannot understand what Peck is doing in this scene, that may be a knock against it when discussing the Newbery.

    Personally, I wasn’t crazy about the novel as a Newbery contender because I don’t think it stands on its own. The plot, sure. But I think the characters are rather thin and too much of the reader’s feelings toward Grandma D come from past readings and other stories. Not this book on its own.

  20. Well, I did talk about with my kid, but he still thinks Grandma Dowdel can do no wrong (and yes, this is based largely on the previous books).

    I think it’s “evangelical” because the funeral is used as an opportunity to evangelize – not because Bob’s dad’s denomination is what we would call evangelical (or fundamentalist?) today.

  21. Sandy, yes, that’s what I mean by evangelical…the funeral is used as a means to establish a congregation for the ministry.

    I also want to make a distinction, as we get further into this discussion, that my concerns I’m expressing have to do with the book as a Newbery contender…or, more general, as it stands in the running for any “best” books for the year. I’m not saying I don’t think libraries should collect it or kids read it.

  22. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I wasn’t thinking of evangelical in the denominational sense, but rather in the preaching the gospel and converting people to Christianity sense. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t think the gospel was preached at the funeral and I don’t think anybody was converted to Christianity. Some people obviously found a new church to attend, so if that’s what you mean . . . okay, I understand you.

    But I still don’t understand how an Indian princess lived and died for the establishment of a church, nor do I understand why the burial can’t be seen as an act of human decency, much better than the alternative of displaying the remains in the home and/or museum.

  23. Jonathan, there was no alternative of displaying remains in the home and/or museum. Grandma Dowdel produced the fake remains *in order to* help establish the church, through a provocative funeral.

    I see that all the characters involved, and Peck himself, saw the burial as an act of human decency. But they are shortsighted, as evidenced in the language of the sermon that Wendy and I each mention. It’s that shortsightedness–as unintentional as it may be–that makes the “satire” fail.

  24. I think it’s how the “Indian Princess” (a problematic stereotype in and of itself) is used to further the conquering people’s goals that is distasteful here. In this case, it doesn’t matter whether the bones are real or symbolic; it’s the fact that something private and religious to one group is exploited by another group.

    If the re-burial was private, I think that this would be less offensive than using the bones in a public ceremony, no matter how well-intentioned. I have no idea what Kickapoo burial rites involve, but I do know that what constitutes decent when it comes to human remains varies a huge amount amongst different cultures, and that religious people get very upset with what they consider sacrilege.

  25. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I disagree about the language in the sermon that you have cited above. I’ll discuss it briefly in tomorrow’s post, which sort of feels obsolete in light on the discussion that’s happened here today . . .

  26. Sandy, thanks, “exploited” is the word I’ve been looking for. I think the exploitation is subconscious, but that’s what it amounts to: Grandma Dowdel uses/exploits the cache of the fabricated bones to help her neighbors, by way of helping their church. The fake bones provide a “value”…a media draw. It may be “well intentioned”, but it’s still exploitation.

    Jonathan, I look forward to your post. I’d hestitated reposting on this, because I feared we’d only start running in the same circles…which is kind of what’s happening. I was curious to see if it would go somewhere else…

  27. The word is gratuitous. In these two chapters Peck stepped over the line and into gratuitousness. But instead of gratuitous sex or gratuitous violence, Peck was employing gratuitous ethnic bashing in the hope of generating some laughs.

    But it’s not always the case that these chapters would be seen negatively. If this episode was in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, no one would have batted an eye. That whole book was riddled through and through with ethnic innuendo, so within the entire context, this specific episode wouldn’t seem so missplaced.

    I think the emotional flow of a book must show some semblance of consistentcy in order to attain distinction.

    If Jerry Pickney does a picture book remake of Little Red Riding Hood, he may deem that Grandma must meet with a tragic end. But that doesn’t give him literary license to graphically show Grandma being disemboweled(ala BraveHeart) by the Big Bad Wolf.

    On the other hand, if this was a retelling by Clive Barker–the disembowelment of Grandma would be a requirement!

  28. It’s late to add this, but it didn’t strike me as gratuitous or phony, possibly because in 1962, ’63 and again in ’64, I was a young child who visited a great aunt who owned a farm in Kansas. A portion of her farm contained a Native American burial ground. Yes, she did find or dig up the bones on occasion and keep them in her cellar. She “displayed” them only to family. No, she shouldn’t have. Since we had no college-educated fellers in our family -before my generation- there was a lot of small townness left in my older relatives. I don’t remember them meaning to be disrespectful. But in our world, at least, burial remains were a reality. So gratuitous doesn’t jump to mind for me.
    I’m not defending a very small town, 70 year old farmer, just reporting.

  29. Here’s something a colleague and I discussed yesterday.

    ….which begs the question that occurred to both colleague and I: why didn’t Peck write about a white trapper, or pioneer girl, or some other presumably white Christian historical figure? Because that lacks the “exotic”-ness of a non-white person. The townspeople saw the supposed “Kickapoo princess” as a mysterious figure, different from they, dressed in moccasins and braids—their fascination had so much to do with the fact that this was not a white, Christian person. A white male trapper would not have been “sexy” in the way a Native American princess was to this audience.

    But including the lesbian moms isn’t offensive; what’s offensive is exploitation. If the lesbian moms in question were depicted in a manner based on stereotypes of lesbians, by all means, it should be pulled. The “Kickapoo princess” was a character built on stereotypes of Native Americans, not on realistic depiction.

    Finally: I would really challenge the notion that the townspeople’s reaction to Peck’s “Kickapoo princess” is historically accurate. I grew up in small-town Illinois three decades after this story took place, and I remember Native Americans talked about in much the same way as they were in this book. I really doubt that those attitudes would have been exactly the same in the 1950s. I think Peck’s depiction IS cleaned up with an eye toward cultural sensitivity. Which tells me that he was aware of the potential for controversy, and still chose to include the stereotypical depiction, which was such an egregious part of the story that he could have used another literary device and it would have worked.

  30. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. Yes, it’s clear that Peck is satirizing the white reponse to the exoticized nature of the American Indian. Whether it’s successful or not is what we’ve been debating. Peck *has* played fast and loose with the identities of white people in his previous books, however. Mrs. Dowdel is an equal opportunity offender.

    2. Lesbian moms don’t offend you and lesbian moms don’t offend me, but obviously lesbian moms offend somebody otherwise Scholastic wouldn’t have pulled the book. Was that the proper response to somebody being offended? Nope. People are always going to be offended, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the offending thing is racist, homophobic, or ungodly. It can be, but it doesn’t neccessarily *have* to be.

    3. You will find people today that are just as unenlightened about American Indians and you will likewise find people in the 1950s that were ahead of their time in terms of their thinking. I think you would be hard pressed to convince many people that the book is not historically accurate in its *general* depiction of the time.

  31. 1. *Is* it clear that he is satirizing? I don’t think so. I think he is *depicting* a rather ignorant white response to the exoticized nature of the American Indian. I do not think it’s a satirical depiction at all. “The purpose of satire is not primarily humour in itself so much as an attack on something of which the author strongly disapproves, using the weapon of wit.” I do not think Peck’s purpose is to attack ignorance of Native American cultures. He may be poking fun at the small-towny white folks, but he doesn’t include any information in the book that contradicts the townspeople’s viewpoints, either*. If it is an attempt at satire—and I’ve read the book, this whole discussion, and other bloggers’ takes, and I’m not convinced that it is—it’s a failed one.

    2. I’m not talking about whether the presence of lesbians moms offends you or me—I’m talking about a particular depiction of a lesbian mom offending someone who actually IS a lesbian mom. (I’m not, and I’m guessing you aren’t either.)

    3. Still disagree. I think the attitude in the 50s would have been far more harsh.

    *I have said that I’d feel a LOT better about this book if Peck included an afterword that discussed the stereotypes included in the book along with the reality of the Kickapoo people today.

  32. I wouldn’t. I am anti-afterword in most cases (especially anti-lengthy afterword); my theory is “say it in the book or don’t say it at all”. I think that would have been a weak and/or lazy move on Peck’s part.

  33. (And I’m afraid I oversimplified on my response to point #2; what I’m getting at is that there’s a big difference between someone being offended that a particular topic is included, because they object to that topic in general, and someone being offended because a particular topic is represented poorly. Of course, one does not have to be a lesbian mom to be offended by their negative stereotyping.)

  34. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. We’ve covered the satire angle extensively on the earlier flurry of posts on this book way back in September. I’m not going to rehash it here.

    2. If a portrayal of a lesbian mom offends a lesbian mom, is it homophobia? If a portrayal of an African American offends an African American is it racism? They can be homophobic and racist, but they don’t necessarily *have* to be.

    You’re missing the point, Amy, because you’re looking at things only from one viewpoint. To the people who are offended by lesbian moms, they *are* represented poorly because their mere presence in the text sanctions and approves of this “sinful” behavior. Is this an extreme form of thinking? To be sure! But look at the YEARS OF DUST thread. I think Debbie has some really *valid* points, but other points seem just as far outside mainstream thought as the offended-by-lesbian-moms stuff.

    3. I’m anti-afterword, too.

  35. I can see that you discussed the issue in September; however, you clearly did not settle it, since it’s December and I still don’t think it’s satire. But of course, the choice is yours to not revisit it.

    I’m afraid I’m still not making myself clear. Let me use an example. I see that you and I both live in California. There are quite a few people out there who dislike Californians on principle, and think we are contributing to the downfall of society. Now let’s say someone writes a book that portrays Californians as hedonistic, drug-addled hippies, who are in fact leading the rest of the country down a terrible moral path.

    The California-haters out there might object on the basis that they don’t want a book to exist that even mentions Californians. However, you and I and our fellow Californians might object for a totally different reason: we know that not all Californians are the same, that we are not contributing to America’s moral downfall by living in California, and we might not like the implication that we are all hedonistic hippies because we live in California.
    Hope that makes sense.

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