December 24, 2008

Stereotypes in James Rollins's novels

Correspondent DMarks can't stop writing about the Indians in James Rollins's novels:This unfortunate little bit in "Sandstorm" stood out for me:
A flash of bare skin drew Safia's eye in the other direction. Amid the clothed sailors, a half-naked figure ran from a foredeck door. Wearing only a pair of boxers, Painter stood out like some wild savage. His hair was a mess, as though he had just woken. The cries and crashing of the horse had plainly roused him from his cabin...."It's the only line like that, however, that I've found yet in reading five or so Rollins books. The character is also an expert tracker, but this is due to his profession and military training, not due to any innate part of his Pequot blood.

The character also had an alcoholic father:
"Once he'd vacated the suite, she raised a hand, vaguely pointing at the sofa. "I'd offer you a nightcap, but this bloody boat's as dry as all Arabia."

Painter crossed and settled in the seat as Kara shifted to one of the chairs and sat down. "Not a problem. I don't drink, myself."

"AA?" she asked.

"Personal preference," he said with a deep frown. It seemed the stereotype of the drunken Indian persisted even in Britain--not that it didn't have some truth. His own father had found more solace within a bottle of Jack Daniels than in family and friends.
Of the several Native characters I have encountered in James Rollins books, this is the second who has an alcoholic father. With the other one, the alcoholic father was one of the characters in the book, and the consequences (and overcoming) of his alcoholism are discussed in depth.

I think I'd also mentioned the evil Native priestess character in "Amazonia." This might be a problem with stereotypes of "exotic" Native villains, if there weren't 4 or 5 nuanced Yanomamo/Native etc. characters also featured prominently in the novel. "Amazonia" also includes some discussion of cultural differences with Yanomamo and related tribes with a view of understanding rather than judgment, a view you would probably call "multi-cultural."
Comment:  I don't think a half-naked Indian guy with long hair would strike me as a "wild savage." If he's the usual hunk in thriller-style novels, I'd probably think "male model," not "wild savage."

Painter is the half Pequot/half white detective mentioned before. He supposedly looks Native because of his Pequot ancestry. But this is unrealistic. With all the intermarrying the Pequots have done, I doubt any of them looks like a classic Native. Whether they have African American blood or not, I think most of them look like a mix of races.

Kara's assumption about Painter is also suspect. I don't drink myself, and no one has ever assumed I was in Alcoholics Anonymous. Nor would I assume that an Indian who doesn't drink must be a recovering alcoholic. That would be stereotypical.

Whatever I'm thinking, I wouldn't blurt out "AA?" as my first guess. That would be like interviewing Bush about invading Iraq and asking, "Why did you do it? Are you a moron?" It may be true, but it's rude to say so without a proper foundation.

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

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