(Forgive my extended absence from this blog; I’ve been spending the last few months preparing intensely for qualifying exams. I’m proud to say I passed with flying colors and am now a doctoral candidate!)
Historical fiction for children, specifically historical fiction that engages with marginalized persons and/or groups, inherently comes with the baggage of decades (centuries?) of problematic representation. So much is cringeworthy. I recently returned to Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn, for the first time as an adult, and was horrified. First, by the portrayal of Native people (who aren’t given a tribal identification, who are at one end or another of a savage/noble polarity, and who are consistently rescued or otherwise benefited by their relationship with the benevolent and somewhat condescending Caddie), and secondly, by my blindness as a (white, Jewish, middle class) child; when I read this book in girlhood, I never questioned any of these representations. I wish my mother, a feminist who gave me the book in hopes that I would enjoy Caddie’s “wildness,” had had the perspective to problematize some of these images for me.
I don’t suggest that these hurtful or reductive representations aren’t still present in the children’s literature that gets published today, but there are books that engage with historical marginalization, oppression and violence in potentially rich ways. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains (2008) is one of the latter, though by no means perfect (there are still anachronisms that jar). What fascinates me, though, is the way in which Anderson openly engages with the poetics of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, in her depiction of a young slave girl in 1776 New York City, refusing in large part the simplification of slavery for her young readers into a closed teleology wed to a linear temporality. This text privileges continual remembrance, particularly through deliberate destabilization, the foregrounding of a collective loss, and representations of a transatlantic diaspora suffused with mourning.
What makes Chains a remarkable book is in its refusal to make slavery something teleologically closed, and Anderson does this through evoking Morrison’s provocative term rememory, a word appropriated and put to work in many other works (scholarly and creative), but a word that startles when encountered in middle-grade fiction. Rememory hybridizes ‘memory’ and ‘remembering’ to suggest that memory itself can function independently of intentional, internal processing, that rememories are exterior, collaborating things. What I find most interesting about Anderson’s use of the term, though, is in its context – rememory is used not to evoke the slave’s relationship with her parents, in a thematic echo of Morrison, but in reference to Isabel’s former white owner: “He didn’t care that the neighbors would come around with cakes and platters of cold meat, and drink ale to the rememory of Miss Mary Finch of Tew, Rhode Island” (4).
Though this employment can be interpreted as a misuse or misappropriation of Morrison’s evocation, I think of it instead as a clarifying misdirection. Mary Finch is not the text’s mourning subject, but is, as Isabel’s owner, nevertheless implicated in the site of violence signified by rememory. In Chains, as in Beloved, rememories have dimensions beyond the individual, and while Morrison evokes this as a kind of productive interconnectedness, Anderson, in her reorientation of the term, suggests that a reckoning with memory and representation can’t exclude the violent institutions that create the necessity for these connections.
Filed under: children's literature | Tags: adult/child, little house on the prairie, race
Here’s a fascinating example of the complex, continually negotiated relationship in children’s literature between the adult writer and the implied child reader:
The wonderful Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature posted two years ago part of the text of a speech Laura Ingalls Wilder made in 1937. Wilder insisted that she “told the truth” in her books, but not the whole truth: “There were some stories,” she says, “I wanted to tell but would not be responsible for putting in a book for children, even though I knew them as a child.”
And what was one of those stories that Wilder wanted to tell but did not, for fear of infecting innocent minds? Apparently, her family’s encounter with the Bender family. Wilder recalls the Ingalls stopping at the Bender’s homestead on the trip between Independence and the Little House, seeing young Kate Bender in the doorway, but not entering.
The Bender family, also known as the Bloody Benders, were serial killers who butchered travelers who entered their and buried them in the garden. They killed approximately a dozen people, including a child.
When the bodies were uncovered, the Benders disappeared. Wilder: “The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa. Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, ‘The vigilantes are called out.’ Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been. For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, ‘They will never be found.’ They were never found and later I formed my own conclusions why.”*
Wow. Considering that a major prevailing theory holds that a vigilante group murdered the Benders, this would suggest that Charles Ingalls was involved in that massacre, right?
So Wilder was lying! Not about the Bender case – she gets the basic facts right – but about her involvement and her father’s involvement. Laura explicitly includes herself in this narrative when it’s totally unnecessary; she mentions the Benders as an example of a kind of frontier violence she could not include, and the anecdote would work if she framed it as something that occurred relatively near their homestead in approximately the same period of time.
Perry Nodelman cites the adult writer’s reticence to “tell all” a defining hallmark of children’s literature: “Texts for adults don’t usually presume to tell less of the truth than their writers know, as texts for children characteristically do. In telling less than their authors know, these texts represent a holding back, a reticence about saying too much in too much detail that might well leave its traces within the text” (143). And while I think Nodelman is dead on here, I wonder how we might deal with traces of this false subtext, created as an example of what could not be included, when the narrative was imagined in the first place.
Ultimately, this odd lie could be read, I think, as a placeholder for the real elided violence of the Little House series towards the Native populations: this is the story here for which Wilder does not want to be responsible.
*Take a look at this other telling of Wilder and the Benders, typed up by Rose Wilder for the Pioneer Girl manuscript, where Pa tells Ma in front of Laura that one of the murdered victims was “a little girl, no bigger than Laura,” buried alive.