Thursday, May 31, 2007

The lesson of Sarah Noble

This started out to be a very innocent post about some of the little-girl books that the Squirrelings enjoyed during school time or on their own. I was thinking about how to write about Rumer Godden's wishing/fairies/nice-doll-evil-doll books, wondering if I could do that without offending some parents who don't like that sort of fantasy--and I thought maybe I should start with something safe instead, like The Courage of Sarah Noble, by Alice Dalgliesh.

Turns out I couldn't have started with anything more offensive. The Courage of Sarah Noble is popular with homeschoolers, but obviously not with the wider literary or educational community, because of its representation of Native life as being inferior to that of the European settlers. And that issue remains even if you try to make sure that the children do understand the irony of the story--for instance, that the white woman who reluctantly gives bed space to Sarah and her father is far less hospitable than the Natives that they meet. According to the discussion on that link--which goes on for pages--some teachers' experience is that children only pay attention to lines like "The Indians will chop off your head" and "skin you alive," even though these things are said by the most ignorant characters in the story. (Going by that rule, we would have to leave the Little House books aside as well, because Laura's Ma says equally ignorant things, and then there's that awful minstrel show. Louisa May Alcott is insulting to Chinese and German people, among others; Frances Hodgson Burnett has all those lascars and ayahs and "What! You thought I was a native. You--you daughter of a pig!"...and David Copperfield has a rather appalling dwarf character. You can insert your own least favourite examples...)

I found that online discussion (almost ten years old now) enlightening in a couple of other ways. One parent lauded a teacher who grabbed an opportunity for a discussion on stereotypes when a child suggested that they all sit "Indian style." (Never mind how that child felt about teacher turning a minor cultural molehill into a PC mountain.) That harks me back to a Sunday School class we had once when I was ten or of the older teachers (not our teacher) came into our class one day with a patch over her eye and sat down to "give us a talk." It turned out there was nothing wrong with her eye; she was concerned that we weren't "including" a boy with a glass eye who sometimes came to our church (and spent most of his time fooling around and hiding behind the blackboards). Now, you need to understand that we all knew this boy already from the neighbourhood and from school; if we didn't hang around with him, that had nothing to do with his eye (besides, he was a BOY). But we sat and listened politely as she told us all about this boy, and then she asked us to get up and take turns putting the patch over our eyes and try throwing a ball back and forth, to see how difficult things were for him.

When she got down the row to a girl named Tina, Tina seemed a little puzzled. She asked the teacher, "Which eye should I put the patch over?" Tina not only had no vision in one eye, she also had no hearing in one ear. (And Tina didn't hide behind the blackboards or otherwise act at all strange...)

That kind of put an end to the lesson.

So back to the online discussion. The other thing I noticed came right out of the original question, before the issue of Sarah Noble even came up. The poster described what sounds like a particular conservative book catalogue that is still familiar to many homeschoolers (although she couldn't remember where she'd seen it):
"Points were taken off a number of seemingly (to me, anyway) innocuous books (such as Elizabeth Enright's Goneaway Lake etc.) for such no-nos as: fantasy, certainly, but even any mention of luck, good or bad, because God, not luck, controls what happens to us; cases where children keep secrets from their parents; cases where children lie (really bad!); cases where children argue with or think they know better than their parents; cases where children are not punished for disobedience; any bad language (we're talking "damn," "hell," and "Jesus!" as expletives here); mentions of witches, devils, etc., even in fun. And these were books that the web site recommended with reservations; it did not review any books that it considered should actually be kept out of children's hands. Books were reviewed in detail so that parents could be "forewarned" and either skip over the offending material when reading with their children or discuss with them why the no-nos were bad....I found it very illuminating."

I'm sure she did, and I also find that kind of legalism very sad...but isn't that exactly what these same teachers are doing, only taking points off for books that don't fit their own definition of political correctness? The point was made in the online discussion that Alice Dalgliesh wrote Sarah Noble in the 1950's and from a particular personal background, and subtle points about the story (such as the fact that the Nobles are moving to the "wilderness") reflect that era's ideas about the superiority of Europeans (although the story itself may be seen as an attempt to contradict some of those ideas). And it was also suggested that Sarah Noble is just one book, even though it's by Alice Dalgliesh and it won an Newbery Honor award; it can easily be skipped and nobody will be much the poorer for it. Which is quite true.

These days, in fact, it's not likely that many people will care much anyway (see Melissa's and the DHM's posts about the store in Missouri that is burning books). As the Deputy Headmistress pointed out, in the novel Fahrenheit 451 people had stopped reading long before books were outlawed.

However, once I've fine-tooth-searched every book my children read not only for Christian acceptability (that might rule out Rumer Godden's dolls, along with the Bastable children and of course most of our fairy tales and talking animal books) but for every other conceivable point of offense to someone, somewhere, what's left on the shelf?
"Eustace Clarence liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card. He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools...."


Birdie said...

The problem with books is that they are written by human beings and reflect human nature in all its imperfection.

Queen of Carrots said...

So true. And I read a discussion recently that was indeed putting Little House off the list, also Caddie Woodlawn. (Because it doesn't help if the main character is best of friends with the Native Americans, if anyone anywhere in the book ever says anything Not Nice, the whole book is evil.)

Rather like a review I just read of the Little Mermaid that cautioned against it because her desires were "not based upon godly principles." Well, that was sort of the point.

There is no such thing as a story without something bad happening.

Shawna said...

We are becoming too politically correct for our own good! Sheesh1

Meredith said...

Oh, I just bought a re-read Godden's The Doll's House last month.

It was a barely read library copy. Wonder if that's why it was tossed from the stacks?

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