Saturday, December 19, 2009

STORY CHOICES: A Season of Gifts

Dear Allyson,

You brought up Mrs. Dowdel in your post about characters in A Season of Gifts. I can’t agree more with your assessment that actions speak louder than words: in everything she does, Mrs. Dowdel proves that she is larger than life.

Unfortunately, some of the actions of this fictional character have resulted in a real-world controversy. I know that the goal of StorySleuths is to find examples of great writing techniques in hopes of improving our own writing. However, I feel I must take a step away from craft to draw attention to something that gives most writers nightmares: the potential of inadvertently offending people through our writing.

The bloggers and readers over at School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal, a Mock Newbery blog, have been debating just such an issue in A Season of Gifts. The issue relates to a rumor about a Kickapoo Indian ghost.

Let’s start with what happens in the book (spoiler alert!):

  • Rumors circulate that a Kickapoo Indian ghost haunts Mrs. Dowdel’s property, which was built on an ancient burial ground.
  • When a group of teenage girls tries to steal squashes from Mrs. Dowdel, a ghost, wearing beaded moccasins and a feathered headdress, appears.
  • Bob, the narrator, realizes that his little sister Ruth Ann played the part of the ghost in Mrs. Dowdel’s charade.
  • Mrs. Dowdel profits from the ensuing excitement and publicity about the Kickapoo Princess ghost by setting up a roadside stand to sell her melons, preserves, and crafts.
  • A few days later, Mrs. Dowdel decides it’s time to put the Kickapoo Princess rumor to rest (pun intended). She comes to Bob’s father, pastor of the new and struggling Methodist church, with a box of “bones” and a request for a funeral.

Mrs. Dowdel says, “’You can’t get a church up and goin’ without a good funeral first… Any fool could tell you that. Without a funeral, you ain’t got a chance…’” She explains that she’s tired of the “’fussin’ and fumin’ about restless spirits and floatin’ princesses’” so she dug up the princess’ bones. She hands Mr. Barnhart a box wrapped in a blanket. “’This is all I could find of her, and it’s not much more than eye-teeth and gristle’” (pp. 71-72).

Mr. Barnhart reluctantly agrees to support Mrs. Dowdel’s plan. “’I’m not a showman,’” he tells his wife. “’It sounds like they won’t want a funeral. They’ll want a show.’” He shakes the blanket-wrapped box and adds, “’I don’t think there’s much of anything in this box…. Or anybody” (pp. 73-74).

Nina Lindsey at SLJ writes

“It’s mostly the digging-up-and-reburying of the ‘bones’ that really upsets me…. What Grandma Dowdel is doing is capitalizing on the publicity that a ‘Kickapoo Princess Ghost’ generates to insure the success of a Christian Church.”

Her blogging counterpart, Jonathan Hunt, contends that Peck’s writing is satirical.

“He is not making a comment on Native culture, but rather the white culture that finds it, by turns, fascinating, mystifying, and exotic.”

Were Mrs. Dowdel’s actions exploitative, as one Heavy Medal commenter said? Do her actions offend? Does the book perpetuate stereotypes? I encourage StorySleuths readers to look at the SLJ Heavy Medal posts and reader comments, as well as subsequent posts. The debate is fascinating on multiple levels.

Why do I bring this up? I must admit that when I first read this section in A Season of Gifts, I assumed the bones were as fake as the princess ghost. Mrs. Dowdel devised the funeral for two purposes, namely stopping people from visiting her property and helping the struggling church. Mr. Barnhart’s sermon (“Her communion the juice of the berry/And the loaf from this Illinois grain”), made me a little uncomfortable because of the mixture of references to nature and Christian symbols. I did not see any potential for offense. I merely saw Mrs. Dowdel’s hoax.

It is clear, though, that these sections do offend. Debbie Reese commented, “Disgusting lack of respect. Utter lack of shame.” (Read more at her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature).

Second, as a writer, I would hate to cause offense to readers through negligence or ignorance. I am a white, middle-class female writer who grew up in the United States. And yet, I cannot write about my neighborhood only. I live in a diverse, multi-cultural world. I write about characters who travel to places as near as California and as far as India. How do I portray their experiences authentically and sensitively?

If Richard Peck, a Newbery Medal-winning author, can get in trouble, then what about the rest of us? What can we as writers do? Should we only write about our own culture? How do we reflect the diversity of the world or, in the case of historical fiction, the realities of the past?

Debra McArthur, who is graduating this semester from Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children program, wrote her critical thesis about this subject. In a lecture this summer, she said,

We all have the responsibility to work our hardest to create non-rascist literature: to portray the characters who need to be in our stories in ways that represent them as people, not stereotypes.

Debra had a number of suggestions, including:

  • Be aware of predictable stumbling blocks (see guidelines from the Council on Interracial Books for Children)
  • Recognize our own limited view of the world
  • Be honest in our appraisal of our own work
  • Be willing to accept criticism and consider other viewpoints
  • Know that we will likely fail in some respects.

Returning to A Season of Gifts, I don’t know Peck’s intentions for this section. Maybe he meant it to be satirical. Maybe he meant it to be funny. One of Heavy Medal’s readers made an interesting comment about the princess bones. “They aren’t organic or necessary part of the story, and I don’t think they add anything important or valuable… either.”

This comment made me wonder: If Peck didn’t mean to write satirically, could he have found a different way for Mrs. Dowdel to help the Barnharts’ church?

Allyson, I am learning so much about craft from reading and rereading A Season of Gifts. Peck is a skilled writer who brings places and people to life. This issue with the Kickapoo Princess reminds me that we must bring as much attention to our story choices as we do to our craft. We need to be aware of what we are doing when we write outside our own culture or time period. We risk falling short of our intentions, as Debra McArthur noted, but we must do our best to tell our stories honestly and fairly.

StorySleuths Tip #35: Solicit feedback from others. If something seems potentially offensive or insensitive, ask whether the questionable part is integral to the story. Review the CIBC guidelines. Brainstorm other options for achieving story goals.