Archive for the ‘John Smelcer’ Category

When I wrote my earlier post on John Smelcer’s The Trap, I accepted the truth of the description of the author on its dust jacket as being “of Ahtna Athabaska descent.”  In doing so, I’d forgotten an earlier discussion on the child_lit listserv in which Debbie Reese raised the question of whether or not this was accurate.  Debbie described how she posted a discussion of her response to The Trap on her excellent blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature: Critical Perspectives of Indigenous Peoples in Children’s Books, the School Curriculum, Popular Culture, and Society-at-Large, and then “began to hear from people in Alaska about his identity, that he is not Native. I was pointed to a series of articles in the Anchorage Daily News that quote the man who adopted him. I’ve followed up, double-checking the information in the newspaper articles, and all that was said there is confirmed.”  Debbie’s orginal posting on The Trap is here, and her discussion of Smelcer’s identity is here.  It’s followed by some interesting comments offering various takes on whether or not Smelcer’s genetic makeup should be an issue for his readers.

Having been reminded of these matters, I’m finding myself wondering if I would have had a different response to The Trap had I taken them into account.  I suspect I would have–and not because I don’t trust Smelcer’s ability to communicate aboriginal values in an authentic way; as someone who has appeared to live inside the culture, he doesn’t need to have actual Native blood to understand how at least some Natives–the ones he lived with–might think or act.  Even so, his apparently false claims to a background not actually his makes me suspicious about his motives in lieing, and in fact, about the novel generally.

In my earlier discussion of The Trap, I spoke of the possession of an aborginal background as an effective knd of cultural capital.  It’s instructive that the author’s apparent counterfeiting of the capital he then wisely spent suggests that he had a clear understanding of that, and a willingness to manipulate readers into assuming he possessed it.  Also, if he is not who he claims to be, what else might be deceptive here?  It’s suddenly, for instance, not so surprising that his young protagonist finds it so easy to act in ways that might bring success in the world of white men, even though he appears never to have lived away from this native village–he seems, strangely, and despite the history the novel provides him with, already adjusted to the white culture he hasn’t actually entered yet–to be already, under what now appears to be a veneer of aboriginal understanding, white.

And yet, saying that, I immediately worry that I’m assuming that whiteness is genetic more than cultural, which I’m fairly well convinced it isn’t–I think.  Perhaps the key issue is that the Native who adopted Smelcer told Debbie Reese that “‘in no way, shape or form’ was John Smelcer raised in a Native environment. ‘He was a middle-class kid who grew up around a military environment, with cars and television and everything else like that.'”


Smelcer, John.  The Trap.  New York: Henry Holt, 2006.

In alternating narratives, a grandfather and grandson in the cold winter of the Alaskan wilderness confront different kinds of traps.  The old man is your archetypal old Indian of book after book and movie after movie–a fairly placid and calm old man close to nature and full of the wisdom of age and of his people, who indeed represents that wisdom and that people generally in just being who he is.   (After reading about this kind of man so often, I find myself wondering about how old aboriginal men with excitable personalities or no sympathy with trees and wolves manage to live with themselves–or are there really none of them at all anywhere in North America?  Not one old aboriginal manic depressive or fussbudget?  Not one opera lover who hates hunting? not one who really isn’t all that swift?)

The old man is, of course, facing his death here, and does eventually die–as apparently he must, for as an allegorical representation of the old ways of his people, he must also or even primarily represent and personify their diminishing and extinction: see, for instance, Ketchum’s Where the Hawk Flies or Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth for other examples of the same conventional pattern.  His grandson is a little less archetypal and stereotypical.  He finds himself at odds with is community rather than merely representing it, in two different ways.  First, he looks backward and tries to preserve the old ways represented by his grandfather, and thus feels a connection to the grandfather that causes him to worry when his grandfather doesn’t return from his trap line.  Second, however, he looks outward, and is taking correspondence courses to prepare himself to leave this wild place and head off to college, civilization and, therefore, the white world and its values.  While the others in the village have adapted white machines and white ways, they represent a diluted and dangerous version of contemporary culture–they spend their time drinking too much and accomplishing too little.  And they have parted with the old wisdom represented by the grandfather as a result of that.  In both these ways, they represent a trap for our protagonist, Johnny Least-Weasel.  While that idea is fairly obvious throughout, Smelcer has Johnny make  it crystal clear towards the end:  “He thought about life in the village, how the place was like a trap, its sharp teeth forged from the fire of two worlds colliding” (169).

That symbolic trap, which Johnny is in the process of doing his best to escape, echoes the actual trap his grandfather catches himself in out on the trail.  The alternating narratives then act as variations of each other, one literal  and one symbolic story of being trapped, with resonances created in terms of the symbolic similarities of the two.   The grandfather’s actual trapping can be read as an allegory of the cultural trap that is working to capture his grandson, and indeed, his people.  As the book implies is true of his people, he has in old age lost some of his energy and quickness and awareness of danger, and so is more susceptible to the danger that has always been there (and so, his grandson–and young natives generally–must be on guard against the same loss of energy and awareness inflicting the village as a whole and his people as a whole).  The old man must use all his traditional wisdom and cunning and experience of nature and the trail to keep himself alive while trapped  (and so, too, must his grandson draw on the strengths of the past to confront to new problems of the present and not succumb to merely being trapped by them).

If all this was merely parallel, then the old man’s death at the end might suggest that his grandson’s ability to escape the dark forces encircling him is simply doomed.  But the novel doesn’t actually suggest that, for in deciding to go out and find his grandfather against the advice of less connected and more co-opted relatives, he signals a cleavage to traditional values and deep feelings that implies his ability to avoid the trap.  Just as his grandfather has revealed his true strength and courage in dealing with the real trap even while it kills him, Johnny reveals his in his own expedition into the wild in an attempt to retrieve and keep his grandfather and what he represents and what the others no longer value.  He will, presumably (for this is published as a novel for young people and its generic positioning implies an optimistic ending even if it doesn’t actually provide one) use what he knows of his tradition to confront and survive the dangers of the world outside.

As presumably, the author has, for the jacket tells me that Smelcer is of Ahtma Athabaskan Indian descent and has served as Executive Director of the Ahtma Tribe Heritage foundation as well as finding success in the white world on the faculty of a university creative writing program; and the novel itself uses “heritage” as cultural capital in the white world.  The novel melds the past and the contemporary in another way also, telling its made-up story but also introducing each chapter with what appear to be versions of native folk tales, so that it’s really alternating narratives in alternating chapters interrupted by yet another alternating narrative in italics at the beginning of each chapter; furthermore, there appear to be two separate stories told in these italicized sections over the course of the book, one introducing the grandfather’s sections and the other the grandson’s.  And they appear to be symbolic parable aobut those two characters.

This alternating narrative concerning aboriginals and, apparently, written by an aboriginal, is distinctly different from the novels on aboriginal topics by non-aborginals that I’m aware of.  In those there always seems to be one central aboriginal character and one central non-aborignal one, and the book is inevitably and always about disputes between them and an eventual resolution of the disputes in a friendship between them–a resolution and a friendship, that, in my experience, always involve some sort of surrender of aboriginal values or aboriginal land, sometimes in spite of a theoretical adoption of aboriginality for everybody.  Here, however, while the dispute is still between aboriginal values and white ones, both main characters represent more or less the same set of values as experienced by different generations, and both must confront the same enemy of white values.  It seems inherent in the structure of the alternating narrative novel that it be in some way about differences between two main characters and their eventual resolution; but here the difference are generational, about the past and the possibilities of its influence on the future, rather than being between two whole different and opposite ways of thinking and being.  It implies a quite different way of thinking about the white/indian issues, and with a quite different conclusion about how aboriginality can figure in the contemporary world in ways that work more positively for contemporary aboriginal people.  Aboriginality is neither dissipated nor absorbed into contemporary European-based culture here; it remains as a separate thread allowing a different and separate way of navigating the contemporary world.  And white values remain in the background in bnoth narratives as an ongoing enemy that will always need to be guarded against.