October 24, 2009

Stereotypes in Leigh Ann's Civil War

Educator Debbie Reese writes about another fatally flawed children's book:

Ann Rinaldi's LEIGH ANN'S CIVIL WARThe protagonist is Leigh Ann, a girl living in Georgia on a plantation. She is the youngest of four children. Her sister is named Viola and she has two older brothers, Teddy, and Louis. They all live with their father (Pa) who is going mad.

I think the reviewer at Kirkus (their reviews are unsigned) is dead-on:

“Veteran Rinaldi spins a tale that combines low melodrama, cringeworthy faux-Indian mysticism, a back story only the author could possibly understand, a saccharine depiction of slavery, two pregnancies of convenience and only a passing regard for historical accuracy for a nearly 300 page slog that seems to have enjoyed zero editorial intervention.”
Some quotes from the book...first, from Leigh Ann's point of view:I couldn’t lie to Louis. With his Indian powers he saw through lies.Pa on the Yankees:“They want the Southern lands,” he shouted. “First the Indians wanted it and now the Northerners. I’d rather give it all back to the Indians, though they didn’t have the courage to fight for it but let the white man take it from them!”Pa to Leigh Ann:“Don’t worry your pretty little head about Louis,” he soothed. “He acts like that because he’s part Indian.”Louis:“Come on Leigh Ann, before I come over there and scalp you.”

“I have the gift of hoodoo because I am half Indian. Do you want to know about it?”
Louis to Leigh Ann about a medallion:“I’d like to see anybody try to take it away from you. I’ve got these special Indian powers, remember. I can do some bad things with smoke and prayers.”Louis much later with his wife:Louis’s face had about it that Indian mask that you could not read. It was a long enough moment for him to contact his inner spirit.”(Excerpted from Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature, 10/19/09.)

Comment:  This isn't just faux-Indian mysticism. It's a whole set of stereotypes, both mystical and mundane.

Rinaldi could say she was just writing what people thought at the time. Pa apparently grew up with the Cherokee in Georgia and had children with one of them. Because he had personal contact with Indians, he'd talk about them more realistically. And he'd teach his children more than stereotypes about "hoodoo" and magical powers.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

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