May 10, 2010

Gaiman wrong on Graveyard Book

As you may recall, this controversy bubbled up a few weeks ago. In a speech, author Neil Gaiman explained that he set The Graveyard Book in England because, he implied, America was empty 250-plus years ago. Educator Debbie Reese criticized this presumption. Gaiman posted a response saying he meant America's graveyards were empty 250-plus years ago. Readers took umbrage with Reese's critique, saying she was being "politically correct" and hypersensitive to imagined slights.

I happened to come across The Graveyard Book at the library, so I "read" it (listened to it on CD). Now I can report authoritatively on the Gaiman/Reese contretemps. Reese and her supporters were right; Gaiman and his defenders were wrong.

The setup

You can learn more about The Graveyard Book here. But all you need to know about the story is this: A boy named Nobody "Bod" Owens is raised in an English graveyard by ghosts and a vampire.

Most of the cemetery's English inhabitants died within the last 250 years, but a few date to Renaissance times and one or two to the Middle Ages. However, the story doesn't require English ghosts older than 250 years. It would've worked about as well with American ghosts of that vintage.

As I noted before, there are cemeteries in New England and Virginia with four centuries of history. And cemeteries in Florida and the Southwest with more. There's no good reason for Gaiman's 250-year cutoff date.

But never mind. Even if it's not necessary, the English setting is arguably better. Bod can interact with a millennium of ghosts with the same language, culture, and ethnicity. There's no sudden break as there was in America in 1492.

Gaiman doesn't tell us where Silas the vampire was born. But he hints Silas may have come from eastern Europe, the "birthplace" of vampirism. It's possible Silas is supposed to be Dracula of Transylvania after he repented his evil ways. In any case, Silas and his Romanian associate Miss Lupescu are another reason to set the story in Europe.

The problem

The problem comes with two characters who are necessary to the plot: a Roman ghost who's 2,000 years old and an even older Celtic ruler, the Indigo Man, who's buried beneath a hill.

As far as I know, there are no English cemeteries that contain 1,000 years of English souls, the remains of a Roman soldier, and a Celtic tomb. I imagine such a site would be a national archaeological treasure--as valuable as Stonehenge and Westminster Abbey combined. Which is why I think no such site exists.

Of course, Gaiman was free to invent a cemetery built on top of Celtic and Roman grounds. But that's where the difficulty arises. He could've invented a similar cemetery in America. It could've had a 1,000-year-old Viking ghost who referred to a 2,000-year-old Indian tomb. Or a 2,000-year-old Indian ghost who referred to a 4,000-year-old Indian tomb.

Indeed, the Indian ghost could've referred to a stranger from the "Old World"--perhaps a Phoenician or Egyptian who managed to cross the ocean. The buried Indigo Man even could've been someone from mythical Atlantis.

I'm not actually advocating one of these alternatives. If an Indian were buried in the tomb, Gaiman would've had to invent a supernatural belief system about dark curses and demonic spirits. We've had enough of those stories without adding one more.

No, I think Gaiman made the right artistic choice. But we're talking about his justification for that choice in his speech. That's where he went wrong.

Britain full, America empty?

The point is this: America and its graveyards weren't empty. They were just as inhabited as their English counterparts. Considering how Europe was depopulated during the Black Plague, it wouldn't surprise me if America's eastern seaboard was more populated than the contemporary English countryside.

According to Wikipedia, Europe had an estimated 25-30 million people at the time of Charlemagne. England supposedly had a population of about 1 million in 1086. Meanwhile, the Americas had an estimated population of 10 to 100 million. Many of those lived along the coasts and waterways.

The population of the mid-Atlantic states (including New York) is roughly comparable to the population of Great Britain today. Both have about 60 million people. For all I know, the two populations have been roughly equal for 1,000 or 10,000 years.

Gaiman's use of Roman and Celtic characters proves he wasn't just talking about a single cemetery's confines. If he had been, he could've used Indian characters instead. He was implying that the whole continent was mostly empty. That England had a suitable history and prehistory for his story and America didn't.

To reiterate: Gaiman's assertion that he couldn't identify an American cemetery older than 250 years is flatly wrong. His implication that (civilized) people have inhabited Britain but not America for thousands of years is also flatly wrong. Gaiman made a mistake and Reese rightly called him on it.

Summing it up: Reese 1, Gaiman 0. Better luck next time you talk about Indians, Neil.

Rob's review

Despite the controversy, The Graveyard Book is a fine story. I don't know that I'd give it the Hugo and Newbery Awards, but I don't know that I wouldn't. I'd have to see the competition first.

Gaiman wrote it as a series of chapters paralleling Kipling's Just So Stories, and it shows. Some of the episodes seem more like diversions than integral parts of the story. And since it features murder and attempted murder, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for young children. But overall it's an enchanting story full of invention and imagination, just as the critics have said.

Rob's rating: 8.5 of 10.

For more on the "empty land" stereotype, see Europeans Keep Discovering Newfoundland and Vanished Mound Builders in The Prairies. For more on good literature, see The Best Indian Books.

Below:  Empty America, where the deer, the antelope, and the buffalo played without human intervention.


Dan Guy said...

Gaiman implied no such thing. Your initial claim is false.

He did not claim that America was empty, but that European-style graveyards did not exist prior to the immigration of Europeans.

dmarks said...

"He did not claim that America was empty, but that European-style graveyards"

What's the big difference, then?

Dan Guy said...

Saying America was empty prior to the arrival of Europeans is offensive. Saying America had no European graveyards prior to the arrival of Europeans is common sense.