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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Peck a Little, Talk a Little

I swear, the only thing worse than discussing politics and religion is discussing politics, religion, and literature . . .

I wrote: And I still can’t shake the feeling that Peck is being criticized, not so much for literary shortcomings, but for political ones.

Nina responded: I take the fake "bones" very seriously because Peck uses them seriously: symbolically, and politically. That he uses them IS a literary device. 

And Wendy: Huh? That’s exactly what I’m criticizing him for, Jonathan.

Peck does not use the bones symbolically or politically, nevertheless for some readers they do have political and symbolic significance. (I make this bold claim because there is not a single instance of Peck using symbolism in the entire trilogy aside from this purported instance.  It’s just too convenient for me to believe that he would use symbolism here.)  Who, then, is the final authority on the text?  The author or the readers?  And if the readers, then which ones?  In the multiplicity of readings, why does one reading trump all others?  Is one reading more important?  What are the beliefs and values that we hold that allow us to assign this importance?
 
Clearly we are set up to admire Grandma Dowdel for her cleverness.  She is a trickster, after all, both in this novel and in previous ones.  And here she does a classic bait-and-switch.  The townfolk come to the funeral out of fascination and curiosity, but they stay in the congregation week after week because of the preaching.  

I thought the sermon was pretty tame, reading much more like a secular funeral than a religious one.  The preacher knows what Grandma Dowdel is up to and his sermon is very respectful given the circumstance.  In order for me to be offended by it, I needed to read something like this: Jesus died for her sins and now she can leave those other bloodthirsty, hatchet-wielding savages in the Happy Hunting Ground and enter Heaven to be with her Lord and Savior.  But that’s not the sermon he preaches.  Here it is in all its insiduous, offensive glory.  

   
"We’re here to remember those who came before us," Dad said in his regular voice.  "The stewards of this land that now we till, the place where we make our homes and build our lives and hold our children in our arms."
 
The congregation edged forward.  He had a fine voice, Dad did.  They could tell he was a thoughtful man, and now they heard his thoughts, about how people, families, had always lived here.  How we were links in the chain. 
 
It wasn’t a long sermon, and the congregation stayed with him every word of the way.  He hadn’t mentioned the Kickapoo Princess, the Piatt County Pocahontas . . .
 
She was a child of these prairies,
Under these blue skies above,
And work-worn hands long forgotten
Buried her here, with love.
 
The creatures of ditch and burrow
Gave her pelts to keep the winter out;
The meandering streams and rivers
Gave her drink in the times of drought.
 
Her church was the sighing forest,
Her text was the endless plain,
Her communion the juice of the berry
And the loaf from this Illinois grain.
 
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.
 
What he does preach strikes me as somewhat hokey and sentimental, plus the whole notion of Indians being Oh, so close to nature! strikes me as stereotypical.  It’s the one point that bothered me during my rereading of the book, but shortly afterward, when reading Albert Marrin’s YEARS OF DUST, I came upon the following passage   
 
Chief Seattle, a leader of the Suqamish tribe, understood our place in nature.  In 1855, President Franklin Pierce offered to buy Suquamish lands in what is now the state of Washington.  Before accepting the president’s terms, Seattle is said to have reminded the American envoys of some basic truths.  "Will you teach your children what we have taught our children?  That the earth is our mother?" the chief asked.  Then Seattle answered his own questions.  "What befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth . . . The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth . . . All things are connected like the blood which unites us all.  Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it.  Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."  
 
Links in a chain  . . . web of life . . . blood which unites us all.  Hmmm.  Looks like the same imagery to me.  Why is it okay for Chief Seattle, but not Preacher Barnhart?  Also, the long forgotten hands?  I didn’t read that as an allusion to the entire Kickapoo tribe, but rather the specific hands that buried her there.  I feel like you’re stretching to make the language in the sermon problematic.
 
In YEARS OF DUST, Albert Marrin uses Chief Seattle’s words to remind us that environmental disasters like the Dust Bowl are bound to recur without dilligent effort on our part.  I think this same sense of responsibility and stewardship is conveyed in the sermon and particularly the last lines, and that is the sentiment that Grandma Dowdel approves of when she murmurs, "Amen." 
 
You may have noticed this by now, but Nina and I have irreconcilable differences on this book.  We could spend an entire Newbery weekend going back and forth on this single title and neither of us would likely change our minds.  If we were both on the Newbery committee this year, you can see how silly it would be to generalize about the committee: They hated A SEASON OF GIFTS; they loved A SEASON OF GIFTS; they hated historical fiction; they loved historical fiction; they hated sequels; they loved sequels.  It’s tempting to think of the committee as a single entity, but it’s a group of fifteen individuals.  Opinions converge, diverge, shift, and realign with every book the committee discusses.
 
So where do we go from here?  While I disagree with Nina, I can respect how strongly she feels about the book.  And, even so, she has acknowledged that, this one major issue aside, the book really is one of the outstanding fiction books of the year.  I would hope that she–and by extension all of you who agree with her–would honor that by not promoting inferior titles.  I also hope that the same sense of social consciousness that has pervaded our discussion will also pervade your Newbery ballots, particularly when it comes to CLAUDETTE COLVIN, MARCHING FOR FREEDOM, ALMOST ASTRONAUTS, and YEARS OF DUST.
 
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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. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Rather than give my political correctness diatribe (which really wouldn’t further the conversation), I offer the following Brock Cole quote (from the 2001 Spring Riverbank Review) for your consideration–

    There’s a great deal of pressure in young people’s literature to produce
    works that are tailored to meet certain ends that have nothing to do with
    literature. They’re political ends; they have to do with cultural values.
    I don’t feel that literature for young people should shape the reader in any
    particular way, any more than it should for an adult. That’s propaganda.
    I don’t want to write that. If you’re skilled you can express any ideas you
    want, but I think it’s a mistake for a writer to try to shape people or
    teach them lessons. Writing means being concerned with particular incidents
    in particular people’s lives. I want to write books where no one can
    generalize , no one can tell me what the moral is. I don’t want to be
    preachy or educational, but I want my books to ring bells with readers.

    I think of literature as a kind of meditation on the nature of life and what
    people confront. I want people to be thoughtful when they finish a book of
    mine. I want tthme to have experienced, in some faint way, what other
    people have gone through in life. You can’t learn how to act from that
    experience, necessarily, but you can learn how to think.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    You’ll have to forgive me for dribbling my opinion out in the comments, but I’ve had a difficult time articulating my own opinion forcefully and accurately, on the one hand, while respecting and valuing the opinions of those who disagree with me. It hasn’t been easy, as I’ve written, re-written, and deleted lots of thoughts over the past couple days. Then, too, I want to move the discussion forward, as Nina mentioned yesterday. I feel like we had lots of little skirmishes in that flurry of posts (and in the earlier ones), but that we still haven’t gotten to the root cause of our dissension. But I think the aforementioned Brock Cole quote may have given me the avenue to articulate it while striving to maintain a respectful balance.

    It’s not that I’m not unsympathetic to the political ideology that finds fault with A SEASON OF GIFTS (indeed, Nina and I, often agree on books that feature positive portrayals of ethnic minorities); it’s that, like Brock Cole, I don’t think it’s necessarily a measure of literary merit to view it through that lens.

    We’ve all acknowledged that the characters and their actions are authentically rooted in their historical era. The problem is that this view of the past does not acknowledge an Indian viewpoint in any way, shape, or form. It doesn’t acknowledge the political and cultural value that we currently place on minority viewpoints. While I think that it’s highly important for children to have these understandings, I don’t think literature is necessarily the place to accomplish it. Like Cole, I don’t want literature to shape the reader in any way (even when I happen to agree with a certain idea). For me, the Newbery criteria about presentation to a child audience does not include these political and cultural assumptions so they seem extra-literary. Hence, my frustration.

    Does that make sense? I think I have probably articulated this as well as I am able. I’m sure that many of you are weary of this discussion, and I can understand that, so this represents my last word on the subject. I’ll let Nina chime in with her final thoughts, and then we can move on to other books and other topics.

  3. Debbie Reese says:

    Jonathan,

    I wonder if Marrin is using Seattle’s actual words or the ones from the 1970s screenplay? Seattle’s speech was adapted in the 70s for an environmental flick…

    Debbie Reese

  4. Debbie Reese says:

    Take a look at a page on the National Archives page… That speech Marrin attributes to Seattle? Oops. It was written by a white guy… Just like Peck!

    I can’t post html code, so try this: after the usual www, dot archives dot gov backslash publications backslah prologue backslash 1985 backslash spring backslah chief-seattle dot html

  5. Debbie Reese says:

    Or, to find the page I referenced above, do a search on “Thus Spoke Chief Seattle: The Story of An Undocumented Speech”

  6. Debbie Reese says:

    Jonathan, you cite Cole, and it seems you (and he) think that literature as agenda-free, and that if it has an overt message, it is “political” or “propaganda.” It all depends on your viewpoint. I think LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE is a piece of propaganda.

  7. Debbie Reese says:

    Discussions of this book that suggest it reflects the 50s mindset are off base. I live in Urbana. Not far from what once was the Kickapoo grounds. The University of Illinois just got rid of its Indian mascot. The love of “Indian” things here is frightening. It isn’t a thoughtful embrace of actual American Indians. It is love of the white man’s Indian. White constructions of Indian. White images of Indian.

  8. Nina says:

    Jonathan, I just don’t see how you can separate cultural/political assumptions from the literature in which they’re portrayed. That’s not what Cole is advocating in that quote, I don’t think. He’s advocating good literature that makes you think rather than poor literature that preaches. That’s not been the basis of anyone’s argument here. Should we really be looking at literature as purely mechanical, moving us as readers along a path, without considering the path as well as the method of motivation?

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’ve been away from my computer for several days . . .

    1. Debbie, thanks for posting the link to the Chief Seattle stuff. This quote is from the letter rather than the speech. My copy of YEARS OF DUST is at school, and I’d like to see how he cites his source before further comment. It appears likely that these texts have been reconstructed, embellished, and/or fabricated. It’s more common than you might think. For example, Patrick Henry’s “If this be treason” and “Give me libery or give me death” speeches.

    2. Nina, you are right that the quote does not really address this dilemma very squarely. Cole is talking about writers, and we are talking about readers, albeit *gatekeeper* readers that provide some of the pressure that Cole feels. We as gatekeepers want to shape young readers and for this we need books that serve certain political ends and cultural values, namely *our* ends and values.

    As I previously alluded, I think Wendy unwittingly illustrates this point perfectly on her blog with her latest post on A SEASON OF GIFTS and a previous one about LUV YA BUNCHES. You’ll remember that Scholastic yanked the book because of, in large part, the lesbian moms. Apparently, some people would be offended, thinking this topic inappropriate for children. And who might these people be? The nefarious religious right, of course, who believes it has a monopoly on The Truth just as fervently as the liberal left does. Just as there is no acknowledgement of an Indian viewpoint in A SEASON OF GIFTS so, too, is there no acknowledgement of a contrary viewpoint on lesbian moms in LUV YA BUNCHES–or maybe Myracle should have just left them out altogether since they are not–as Wendy described the Indian bones–important, valuable, organic, or necessary (well, politically, yes, but not so much from a literary viewpoint). Now I’m not advocating for this kind of inclusion/exclusion, but rather the opposite. What I *am* saying is that you have to be consistent–you can’t say the worldview of the Native American child is more important than that of the conservative Christian child–otherwise you’re just determining literary merit based on your political ideology. You can’t say this book presents abortion in a postive light therefore it is a bad book, that book presents gay marriage in a negative light therefore it is a bad book. Those are political judgments, not literary ones. I know this is overly simplistic, but I think it makes the point . . .

    3. I apologize in advance for the offense that this post may cause. Going to shut up now!

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Hmmm. Not sure I like the way that comes across either. Let me take another stab.

    Katherine Paterson says, “When our chief goal is not to offend someone, we are not likely to write a book that will deeply affect anyone.”

    If you couple that with the famous collection development mantra–There should be something in your library to offend everybody–then you can clearly see that since the Newbery canon is all about picking books that deeply affect someone then it stands to reason that they will deeply offend, too. In fact, we might also say that there should be something in the Newbery canon to offend everybody.

    Okay, I’m playing the provacateur here again. What do you think?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Huh? Of all the non-sequiturs you’ve thrown at us in this discussion, Jonathan, this latest one is by far the worst! I have no idea how you can jump from Peck to Myracle–and what does a conservative Christian viewpoint have to do with anything? You really have to force it into the conversation. And even if it did fit–Hasn’t that viewpoint been overrepresented in our culture, to the point of dominance? Why begrudge a respect to Native peoples and cultures just so we can have more intolerance and oppression? Don’t we have enough of that already?

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yes, but that’s kind of my point. It *is* a big stretch to allow people to be offended by the lesbian moms and act accordingly. And yet Scholastic is taking us all hostage because of a vocal group that does not represent all readers. We’re not all from that religion, and even from the particular denominations of that religion, that would encourage that viewpoint, so however true they may feel their arguments are, they have no validity for many, if not most, of us because we don’t buy into that whole scheme of things. Why should I be bound by what somebody else’s religion holds to be morally reprehenisble, when I may find that religion equally reprehensible?

    We can clearly see that when we look at the other end of the political spectrum. They’re wrong so it’s easy to dismiss what they hold as morally right. But there is a mirror effect: they are looking back at us, thinking we are the misguided, unenlightened ones. What each of us holds as self-evident truths are not necessarily held in common with other readers.

    One of the great strengths of liberal thought is the democracy effect, that it seeks greater diversity in these self-evident truths, allowing for the emergence of historically undervalued viewpoints to have a spot at the table. But, as always, the challenge remains to–not agree necessarily with each viewpoint–but allow them a place at the table.

    So I bring up the Peck-Myracle comparison to illustrate these points on a concrete level. There are no conservative Christian characters in LUV YA BUNCHES. This book has nothing to do with them. They have no right to have this book display their sensibilities. The world doesn’t revolve around them. But similarly, there are are no Indian characters in A SEASON OF GIFTS and this book doesn’t revolve around them either. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be discussing these issues, but I can’t make literary judgements on the basis of what I find to be inherently political beliefs.

    So much for shutting up!

  13. Nina says:

    Jonathan, the comparison to Scholastic/Myracle is totally off-base: I’ve been trying to say, over and over, that I don’t think Season of Gifts is a “bad” book, and I’m not trying to keep anyone from reading it. Yet that’s what you’re comparing my argument to. I see you try to step back and focus on the Newbery: yes, there’s probably something to offend everyone in the Newbery canon already. But I’m certain that they were not selected because they were offensive.

  14. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Ack! No, I only meant to compare Peck to Myracle in terms of how the reader perceives the political messages of the book, not in terms of the recent censorship issues. And, yes, you have been very careful to note that you are just arguing against the book as a Newbery contender, not as a book to be read and enjoyed by anyone who pleases. Sorry if I appeared to suggest otherwise.

  15. Sandy D. says:

    I wanted to comment on this earlier but we were visiting my parents in small town, IL. And yes, it seems very much like the 1950′s there in many ways (at least compared to Ann Arbor, where I’ve lived for the last 25 years).

    Anyway, I see Chief Seattle’s “speech” has already been covered. I haven’t read “Years of Dust” yet, but very much want to now. As soon as I finish “Charles & Emma” :-)

    And yes, it really is Peck’s political views that tainted the rest of the book for me. But those chapters wrenched me out of Grandma Dowdel’s world – made me step back and say “whoa, that’s really tacky”, and worry that all the kids reading it will think that Indians are all one with nature (and that’s their only religion! – that “her church was the sighing forest” etc. really shortchanges Native cultures), and that they’re all gone and it’s ok to use their bones however – and that ruined the whole flow of the story. Even if it all *was* authentic for Grandma D. in 1950′s IL, and therefore fine historical fiction.

  16. Debbie Reese says:

    Jonathan,

    Did you get a chance to check the source Marrin used?

    Also—Jean Mendoza and I worked together on an article in which we discussed the Seattle speech and BROTHER EAGLE SISTER SKY. You can find the article (it is free, online) by searching with “examining multicultural picture books” (the first four words in the title).

  17. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Debbie, yes, I did check the Marrin source–we’ve continued the discussion on the “Team Nonfiction: The Second Wave” thread–and he got the quote from an Al Gore book on environmentalism. It’s unfortunate because he does go out of his way to acknowledge issues relevant to American Indians. I’m not sure if it has enough Indian content to hold your interest, but if you do read it, I’d love to hear your opinion.

  18. Amy M. says:

    I’m so glad to see someone else bring this up. Peck’s depiction is not of the 50s mindset. It’s of the CURRENT mindset.

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