MyAmericanFuture

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Friday, October 20, 2017

October 20, 2017: Children’s Histories: The Boneshaker



[This coming weekend I’ll be at a book signing for an excellent new young adult historical novel, Dori Jones Yang’s The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the histories within and behind a handful of children’s books and authors, leading up to a special post on Yang’s book.]
On more overt and more subtle lessons from a tale of historical horror.
More than five years ago (ah, how time flies when you’re AmericanStudying!) I wrote a post about young adult novelist John Bellairs and his supernatural horror novel The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull (1984). In the years since I’ve had the chance to share Bellairs’ books with my sons, and we’ve experienced together the chills and discomfort (in a good sense) about which I wrote in that post. I don’t know many other children’s authors like Bellairs, but earlier this year we discovered a book that’s very much in his tradition: Kate Milford’s wonderful The Boneshaker (2010). Moreover, while Bellairs’ books do tend to be set in a vaguely past moment (to feel slightly antiquated on purpose, that is), Milford’s novel is much more overtly historical: it’s set in 1913 Missouri (in the fictional crossroads town of Arcane), and is as interested in conjuring up that historical period and place as in its teenage protagonist Natalie Minks and the supernatural horrors she and her family and friends face. As a result, The Boneshaker communicates a number of complex and compelling historical lessons along with more than its fair share of chills.
Many of the novel’s most overt historical lessons concern the constrasting yet interconnected presences of traditional and modernizing influences in that 1913 moment. Without spoiling any specifics, I can safely say that the novel’s villains are a group of traveling snake-oil salesmen, huckers and con artists led by the sinister Jake Limberleg. They gain access to the town in part because the more modern Doc Fitzwater departs in the opening chapter, driving his fancy new car to a neighboring town that has been struck by a flu epidemic. In between those two ends of the spectrum are Natalie and her family: her father is a mechanic obsessed with new technologies (an obsession and set of skills he has passed on to Natalie), while her mother is a kind of town mystic who knows its past and stories (knowledge and talents she has likewise passed on to Natalie). To combat Jake and his crew, Natalie needs both sides of her heritage and identity, offering a compelling case for the roles of both past and future. But even beyond the book’s plot, these distinct influences position 13 year old Natalie as a particularly interesting representive of a moment and nation on the cusp of the 20th century but still very much linked to and defined by its 19th century past. That’s a complicated but crucial historical lesson, and one Milford’s book conveys on these multiple levels of setting, plot, and characterization.
The novel features a number of other interesting characters, but for both me and my sons by far the most compelling was old Tom Guyot. A supremely talented African American guitarist whose story features a prominent crossroads encounter with the Devil, Tom clearly echoes Robert Johnson, the real yet semi-mythic blues guitarist who was born in neighboring Mississippi just two years before The Boneshaker is set. Yet Tom differs from Johnson in a couple key ways: he was born into slavery, and brings that historical legacy into the novel; and he chose not to make a deal with the Devil during their crossroads encounter, a choice that echoes into the novel’s present and plot in many ways. Moreover, Tom becomes a crucial mentor and friend for Natalie, a role that partly echoes that of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (another novel set in Missouri) but with none of that novel’s controversial and (to this AmericanStudier) too casual racism. In an understated but potent way, then, Tom allows Milford to revise longstanding mythic images of African Americans (such as Johnson and Jim), to make slavery and its legacies part of her book’s setting and historical moment, and to feature a powerful and heroic African American character (something still too rare in much children’s and young adult literature). Just one more vital historical (and contemporary) lesson in a book the boys and I highly recommend.
Special post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other children’s histories or stories you’d highlight?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

October 19, 2017: Children’s Histories: Little House on the Prairie



[This coming weekend I’ll be at a book signing for an excellent new young adult historical novel, Dori Jones Yang’s The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the histories within and behind a handful of children’s books and authors, leading up to a special post on Yang’s book.]
On a key difference between the TV show and the books, and why it matters.
I watched a good bit of the TV adaptation of Little House on the Prairie (1974-1982, but I mostly watched it in subsequent reruns on TBS) growing up, but only one episode stands out in my memory: “Gambini the Great,” an episode early in the show’s 8th season (the penultimate season, and the final one featuring Michael Landon before the show changed its title to Little House: A New Beginning for the 9th and final season) in which the Wilder family’s adopted son Albert (Matthew Laborteaux) becomes enamored of the titular aging circus escape artist/daredevil. Albert’s father Charles Wilder (Landon) tries in vain to convince Albert that the openly and proudly non-religious Gambini (Jack Kruschen) is not someone to idolize or emulate, and is proven tragically yet righteously accurate when Gambini dies in a stunt gone wrong. As I remember it, the show and Charles (pretty much always the show’s voice of unquestioned authority) present this tragedy as, if not explicitly deserved due to Gambini’s lack of religious faith, at the very least a clear moral and spiritual lesson for Albert, and one that he takes to heart as he returns fully to the fold of the family’s religious beliefs.
Albert was a character not present in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of books (in which Little House on the Prairie was the third of eight published novels, with a ninth published posthumously), and thus represents one of many elements that were added, tweaked, or significantly changed in adapting the books into the show. But I would go further, and argue that the overt and pedantic religious themes and lessons exemplified by an episode like “Gambini the Great” were also far more central to the TV adaptation than the novels. That’s not to suggest that religion and spirituality weren’t elements of the novels and their portrayal of the Wilder family and its world, but I believe they were just that: elements, details of the family’s identity and community and experiences that could be paralleled by many other such elements and themes. Perhaps it’s the nature of episodic television (particular in its pre-serialized era) to need more of a moral, a sense of what an audience can and should take away from the hour-long, at least somewhat self-contained story they have just watched. Likely the show’s producers also learned quickly just how compelling and charismatic a voice they had in Michael Landon’s, and wanted to use him to convey such overt morals and messages. But in any case, I believe (and as always, correct me if you disagree!) that the show tended toward such overtly pedantic (and often, although certainly not exclusively, religious) moral lessons far more than did the novels.
Although the word “pedantic” does tend to have negative connotations, I mean it more literally, in terms of trying to teach the audience a particular lesson; that is, I’m not trying to argue through using that word that the novels were necessarily better or more successful as works of art than the show because of this difference. At the same time, however, I do believe that the difference produces a significant effect, one not so much aesthetic as thematic, related in particular to how each text portrays history. To me, the novels seek to chronicle the pioneer/frontier experience for their focal family and community, describing a wide range of issues and concerns that were specific to that communal experience (if, of course, very different from the concurrent experiences of other Western communities, such as Native Americans, with whom Wilder engages to a degree but certainly far less, and at times more problematically, than would be ideal for a more accurate portrait of the American West). Whereas the TV show consistently seeks to make use of its historical setting to convey broader and more universal messages (about religion and morality, but also about family, relationships, communal obligations, and more). Which is to say, I would argue that, to use the terms I deployed in this post, while Wilder’s novels certainly qualify as historical fiction (as well as autobiographical fiction), the show seems more to be period fiction, with somewhat less to teach its young audiences about the history itself.
Next children’s history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other children’s histories or stories you’d highlight?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

October 18, 2017: Children’s Histories: Dr. Seuss and Propaganda



[This coming weekend I’ll be at a book signing for an excellent new young adult historical novel, Dori Jones Yang’s The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the histories within and behind a handful of children’s books and authors, leading up a special post on Yang’s book.]
On the iconic author’s surprising starting points.
As I wrote in one of my earliest posts, it’s possible to read The Cat in the Hat (1957) as particularly radical in its portrayals of family and gender roles (especially in relationship to dominant 1950s images and narratives). But even if you don’t subscribe to that reading of Cat, it’d be very difficult to argue that its author, Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), didn’t have a substantial and generally very radical impact on the world of children’s books and animation—not just in his voice and style, his silliness and playfulness, his breaking of virtually every formal and generic rule, but also in his subtle but frequent inclusion of progressive themes and morals, including prominently the anti-Cold War (and anti-war period) ethics of The Butter Battle Book, among many other such messages.
Which makes it that much harder to grapple with the fact that Geisel got his start crafting animated propaganda films for the military during and after World War II. But he did—first making army training films (featuring the cautionary tales of one Private Snafu) as part of Frank Capra’s Signal Corps (the organization that produced the most prominent U.S. WWII propaganda, the epic eight-part Why We Fight series), then branching out into even more overt anti-Axis propaganda works. Geisel even continued to make such films in the aftermath of the war, creating works to be distributed to soldiers in occupied post-war Germany. To call these films propaganda isn’t to critique them, necessarily—the term has come to be used pejoratively much of the time, but at its core it’s simply descriptive, a categorization of works that are overtly designed to further political purposes. Geisel’s World War II works were precisely that, and achieved their purposes clearly and convincingly.
As the Capra reference indicates, Geisel was far from alone as an artist who enlisted in the war effort—in fact, he was more the norm than the exception. Moreover, it’s even possible to link his World War II works directly to (for example) his later anti-Cold War messages, since in both cases he could be seen as opposing the proliferation of violence and war (in the first case by the Axis powers, in the second by the Cold War superpowers). But for me, the problem is more one of style—whatever else we say about propaganda films, they are by design and necessity both straightforward and conservative, neither of which are terms that we would likely apply to most of Seuss’s subsequent children’s books and works. Of course we can simply say that Seuss evolved and changed, as does any artist (especially a talented one) over the length of a long career. But we also have to consider that each stage of Seuss’s career tells us something about the man and his work, and can’t dismiss or minimize the first stage just because it doesn’t line up with how we (or at least I) like to think of him.
Next children’s history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other children’s histories or stories you’d highlight?