October 09, 2008

Indians in Terabithia

Indians play a minor role in the children's book Bridge to Terabithia. As usual, though, this role suggests what most Americans think about Indians.

Bridge to Terabithia (novel)Bridge to Terabithia is a work of children's literature about two lonely children who create a magical forest kingdom. Written by Katherine Paterson, HarperCollins published the book in 1977. In 1978, Bridge to Terabithia won the Newbery Medal.Bridge to TerabithiaJess Aarons had to be the fastest runner at Lark Creek Elementary School, the best, but when he was challenged by Leslie Burke, a girl, that was just the beginning of a new season in Jess's life. Leslie and her parents were new comers to the rural community where Jess lived, and were thought to be a bit odd, for they didn't even own a TV, though their house was filled with books. Somewhat to Jess's surprise, he and Leslie became friends, and the worlds of imagination and learning that she opened to him changed him for ever. It was Leslie's idea to create Terabithia, their secret kingdom in the woods where they reigned supreme. There no enemy--not their teacher Monster Mouth Meyers, their schoolmates Gary Fulcher and Janice Avery, Jess's four sisters, or even Jess's own fears and Leslie's imaginary foes--could defeat them. The legacy that Leslie finally brought to Jess enabled him to cope with the unexpected tragedy that touched them all.Comment:  Toward the end of the book, Jess's favorite teacher Miss Edmonds takes him to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Afterward, Miss Edmonds suggests they go to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The reason? To see the "dinosaurs and Indians."

Right...because isn't that what you think of when you think of natural history? Sure it is. Does anything signify nature better than prehistoric animals and people? What could be more distant and removed from our modern, civilized world than dinosaurs and Indians?

[Spoiler alert]

In the museum, they see a diorama of a Plains buffalo jump, with animals plunging off a cliff. Jess associates this with the "nightmares" he sometimes draws in his pictures. Later, when he learn about Leslie, he thinks the buffalo jump was a premonition. He should've realized it was warning him of Leslie's tragic fate.

To sum it up:

Natural history => Indians => nightmare => death

Again, it's only a minor point in the book. But it's interesting that in such a sensitive and compassionate story, Indians are associated with death. The neutral act of procuring food efficiently gets twisted into a harbinger of doom.

Despite this bit, Bridge of Terabithia is excellent. So is the movie made from the book. I give them both an 8.5 (maybe a 9.0) of 10. Definitely check 'em out.

Below:  Indians kill buffalo because Indians are savage, destructive, evil?


Genevieve said...

I've seen the original movie, but I haven't seen the new one with AnnaSophia Robb. I really enjoyed that book when I read it, but the museum thing slipped past me as I debated with my aunt over whether Leslie was a suicide case or not. (I say not.)

Reviewing the book now, I'd say it's rather neutral in its ignorance, especially considering the setting; but at what point does the writer have a responsibility to their audience vs. to the perceived accuracy of their story? And should writers be penalized for ignorance? Should their characters be seen as racist if the author knows something that the characters do not know because of personal or cultural situation? And does the blame for being wrong about a group of people really rest on the individual's shoulders when they have been raised to believe through their culture's media and education system that these people no longer really exist? The other thing is, the book is semi-autobiographical; should someone be held accountable for (the interpretation of) their thoughts and feelings when they were at a young and conflicted age in an uninformed time? Especially with the other problems this person and their character are/were facing were more immediately pressing and relevant to their daily lives?

Would you say that kids when reading "Bridge to Terabithia" would come to those natural history -> indian -> death connotations? I'm not a good example myself, because I wasn't viewing Natives as nonpeople or a dead people or "ancient warriors", etc., but I'd never really bothered to ask other kids when I was in school what their impressions were of such issues.

Just musing, feel free to ignore this.

Rob said...

I meant the 2007 movie, of course. I didn't even know there was an earlier movie.

The Indian bit wasn't in the 2007 movie, by the way. Just the book.

The bit was probably too minor for readers to notice. To notice consciously, at least.

But it's one of the millions of bits of "information" that form our impression of Indians. Even if people don't pick it up consciously, they may pick it up unconsciously.

Therefore, I'd say it's worth noting. And it gives me a chance to recommend Bridge to Terabithia. ;-)

dmarks said...

"Miss Edmonds suggests they go to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The reason? To see the "dinosaurs and Indians."

They could always accomplish this also by playing a Turok game or renting the recent Turok cartoon movie.

Genevieve said...

Here's the first movie.

The book is definitely better than the old movie (watched for English class), but I have been hesitant to see the new movie version because of setting/character changes, the emphasis on the CGI and Terabithia being too literal a metaphor for the problems in the kids' real lives, etc. Also... Disney. Now I guess I have to check it out.

And I never meant to say that the Indian bit wasn't worth noticing; I think it's more that I'm just not used to your writing style? I thought that you were implying that the scene was a bigger deal than it was, but I think you were being more casual about it than I'd interpreted. I'm also coming from a very mixed-background household, so the unconscious messages that form people's ideas about different groups, and their significance, kind of goes/went straight over my head.

Rob said...

The only problem with the Turok scenario is that Bridge to Terabithia was published in 1977 and set in 1977 or thereabouts. There were a few references to the pop culture of the time (e.g., Star Trek, Jacques Cousteau) but no computers or consumer electronics.

I think the 2007 movie was pretty faithful to the book. The CGI effects helped rather than hurt. They made Terabithia seem more magical and thus more central to the story.

I'm a big proponent of extrapolating great truths from small details. For instance, when McCain called Obama "that one" in the second presidential debate. Was that a minor slip of the tongue or a major insight into McCain's feelings for his rival? Or both?

Clues about what we think of Indians are everywhere. And what we think of Indians is a clue to the greater issue of how we see ourselves. Is America a "shining city upon the hill" that can do no wrong? Or is it a sadly flawed nation that's striving to do better?

In short, I operate on William Blake's principle of seeing the world in a grain of sand:

Auguries of Innocence

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

A dove-house fill'd with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro' all its regions.
A dog starv'd at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.