Archive for the ‘Bebe Faas Rice’ Category

Rice, Bebe Faas.  The Place at the Edge of the Earth.  New York: Clarion, 2002.

This is a very earnest book, and very determined to be wise and moral and cathartic; but in spite of (or maybe even because of) that, I find it very distressing.  It is trying so hard to be having the right kinds of tolerance for a repressed minority, and it fails so miserably.

The book consists of two alternating narratives: that of Jonah Flying Cloud, a new arrival at an Indian residential school in the eighteen eighties, and that of Jenny Muldoon, a young girl in our present who moves to the army post that once housed the school.  Jonah has died by the end of his first section, and appears as a ghostly presence after that: he has been unable to move on, and haunts Jenny’s bedroom as well as a few other places with key significance in his life.   She sense his presence and then, as she learns more about the school and about him as she researches a school project,  interacts with him–and finally she helps him to understand what his problem is, and creates a change in him that allows him to move on.

She can do that mostly because she sees her own situation as similar to his–and so she can teach him what hard experience has taught her herself.   Having lost a father and often moved, she has become prickly and isolated, unloved and unwanted.  She has needed to learn how to allow herself to be open to change, to others, etc.   She has thought that her lack of friends was because of their inadequacy or meannness or her general unloveableness, but learns that she just had to make herself more open–it was her fault, because she herself keeping herself isolated.  And so it turns out that  she can teach Jonah that he, too, is causing his own inability to move on.  She frees herself and then she frees him.

And yet again: she also meets a boy, not a ghost this time, whom she thinks of as particularly nasty, discovers that he, too has serious problems (an alcoholic mother that he needs to keep hidden), breaks through is veneer of toughness, and helps him to move onwards, to help himself and his family.  She is, indeed, a miracle worker–and both the boy in the past and the boy in the present acknowledge that volubly at various points, as do just about all the teachers, parents, librarians, and others adults she encounters throughout the book.

That’s actually the major problem here.  The ever-so-wise white girl manages singlehandedly to make up for what is clearly described as all the insensitivity and cruelty and ingrained racial prejudice Jonah and the other aboriginal children experienced in being removed from their homes and brought to the school back in the past.  She not only shows Jonah how to move on, she does so in ways that suggest that others, too, can move on, know this tragic history and in knowing it and acknowledging its awfulness, purge the pain it caused.  Somehow, the book implies, we readers need to know about all this so that we too can then stop worrying about, being constrained by it, and can move on past it.

Well, as far as I know, most of the white descendants of those who ran the residential schools aren’t all that worried about it–perhaps because of ignorance of what happened, but I suspect that a lot of contemporary Americans (and Canadians, too, although the subject is certainly more widely discussed in Canada), if they did know more about it, would be happy to hear that knowing is enough, and that they no longer need to feel guilty about it.  So the message of letting it all go seems to resonate more strongly in terms of contemporary North American aboriginal people, who are all too often accused by those of European backgrounds of revelling in their victimhood, refusing to move past what happened ever increasingly long ago.   Purposely, or not, the novel plays into a mainstream North American insistence on marginalizing aboriginals by denying the ongoing significance of the past history of oppression.

Or maybe I can’t really say that, because one of the distressing aspects of the book is the insistence on keeping aborginality firmly in the past.  There are no contemporary native people included as characters in the book, and no glimmer of a possibility that any native people even exist at all in the world Jenny. occupies.  The contemporary world is apparently all white, and the only aboriginals who appear prominently in the story of the past have all died by the time the novel finishes with its descriptions of that past.  Even more, so is their culture.  It’s significant that Jonah has wanted an eagle feather on his grave to help him move on, but Jenny provides him with something she says and he acknowledges is better–a military badge from her new stepfather’s collection that depicts an eagle, the replacement of a presumably dead culture’s symbol with one form the powerful living culture, the erasue of aboriginality by Americana.

Okay, so the novel is very deliberately and consciously tryng to teach its audience about the horrors of the residential school story–Jenny’s research figures prominently, and it unveils racist horror after racist horror, including an ugly lynch mob that kills Jonah’s friend.  But while doing that, it does at least three things that suggest an unconcious racism:

1. It makes its white heroine into the perfect theoretically benevolent colonist, the wise person who can show the right and healing way to an aboriginal who cant figure it out for himself, poor dumb thing.

2.  It suggests that moving past the past is the way to healing, and that choosing to do that will make it happen.  Contemporary aboriginal people still faced with the horrific consequences of the European invasion might question the logic and likelihood of that ever really working.  But,

3. It erases the continuing existence of aboriginal people, and so erases the complexity of the ongoing problem. The solution to past mistreatment of aboriginal peoples is removing the only ones readers hear about out of this world altogether.

Beyond that, Jonah is presented, at least at the beginning of the book, as a sort of stiff, weirdly formal presence–a sort of almost inhuman noble savage stereotype.  He loosens up and seems more human as the book goes on, apparently because of his relationship with the wonderful Jenny, who succeeds in making him more like herself–more open to healing emotions, the book wants to suggests, but it also comes across as, less alien, i.e., less aboriginal as the book seems to understand aborginality.  Jonah (and all the other Indian characters) seem to be completely devoid of any sense of humour or irony, which to me in thel ight ofr my admittedly limited knowledge of North American native cultures seems distinctly unconvincing.  They’re too busy being noble and put upon to have much in the way of humanity.   There are also a number of ways in which the novelist specfically misrepresents the Lakota culture that Jonah supposedly came from; a discussion by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale on the Oyate website suggests what these are, and concludes, “Rice has written this book from a point of near total ignorance of Native lifeways and cosmologies, and has even gone so far as to do so in the first person. This is unacceptable.”

There’s also one other thing that intrigues me here.  The novel, as I’ve suggested, insists that the two stories of its two alternating narratives are variations of each other–that Jonah;s plight is parallel to or at least to be compared with and understood in terms of jenny’s (both are forceed to move to this new home, both lose contact with at leasto ne parent, both even have to deal with hotheaded angry friends).  The result is that the historical situation of an entire group of people is somehow subsumed in the personal and psychological.  Jonah’s plight, it seems, is his alone, and personal, even though it also somehow seems to be meant to stand for what ought to be done about this tragic history for everyone–the community Jenny now lives in needs to now about the lynching in its past so that it can move past it, too.  So the social and the communal are somehow absorbed into the personal, and what works for one person is offered as a solution to a communal history.  Pop psychology trumps historical consequence, and political action is never even considered as a possibility.

The Place at the Edge of the Earth is a perfect example of how so many novels for young people with alternating narratives subvert the possibilities that  alternating points of view offer for opening up alternative ways of understanding the world.  The novel appear to be dialogical–to offer two different but equal characters, narratives, and world views in an other-accepting dialogue with each other; but it is in fact thoroughly monological, constructed so that by the end, Jenny’s view becomes the one right one and the one right and proper solution to everyone’s problems.

This novel–that it was written at all by a non-aboriginal person willing to assume that she could understood a culture unfamiliar to her and wlling to make up details about it, and that it was published by a mainstream publishing house in support, as usual in books for young people,  of a supposed liberal tolerance–is a fascinating example of how a more or less unconsciously white hegemony preserves its power by a more or less unconsciously racist marginalizing and shutting-down of minority voices.  It preaches an old-fashioned kind of tolerance that is surprisingly uncomfortable with the ongoing possibilities of real difference and real marginalization, and that, despite its relatively recent publication date, is ongoing and all too familiar.