A family friend who was raised in New York City recently sent me her copy of “Here is Alaska,” a book by Evelyn Stefansson that was published in 1943. My friend loved this book in her childhood but wasn’t as impressed when she re-read it as an adult. Neither was I.
Instead of exploring Alaska’s history, Stefansson’s book tried to show middle school children what mysterious Alaska was like seven decades ago, but it’s not very comprehensive nor does it give a clear picture of even that dated reality.
There’s a chapter on “Eskimos,” and another on Eskimo village life, but you won’t find “Yupik,” “Inuit,” or “Gwitch’in,” in the index, though “Tlingit” and “Haida” each got a paragraph, and “Athabascan” warranted a mere two sentences.
As a glass house dweller myself, I can’t be too critical; after all, I misled readers just last week by botching the title of James Buckley, Jr.’s excellent children’s graphic novel: “Sacagawea, Courageous Trailblazer.”
“Here Is Alaska” does have lots of photographs and is worthwhile for providing a “slice of life” view of how our state was popularly conceived during WWII.
It’s wrong in many aspects, but it does encourage consideration of how things do change. And as Ursula Le Guin said, “If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell you it again when you’re fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’ve read a whole new book.”
My friend made clear that she didn’t ever want “Here Is Alaska” returned, saying “Sorry to dump this on you, but no one here wants it.”
Even so, should she demand it back, I won’t call her an “Indian giver.” According to Wikipedia, David Wilton, author of “Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends” maintains that “the phrase originated in a cultural misunderstanding that arose when Europeans first encountered Native Americans on arriving in North America in the 15th century. Europeans thought they were receiving gifts from Native Americans, while the Native Americans believed they were engaged in what was known to Europeans as bartering; this resulted in the Native Americans finding European behavior ungenerous and insulting.”
The modern, pejorative meaning, that an Indian giver is a person who gives a gift and later wants it back, has been traced back to John Russell Bartlett’s “Dictionary of Americanisms,” saying the phrase was used by New York children to mean “one who gives a present and then takes it back.”
By the way, this Bartlett isn’t the John Bartlett who ran the University Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts and compiled “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” in 1855.
But things do change – Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is on its 16th edition – and the 1997 book, “The Color of Words: An Encyclopedia of Ethnic Bias in the United States,” noted that, while the “Indian giver” phrase is used innocently by children, “it may be interpreted as offensive.”
Speaking of people being offended, this is the 50th anniversary of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which blew me away in 1971.
I was a YMCA summer camp counselor during college, and a local movie house always gave the campers a free showing of a suitable kiddy movie, and that year it was “Willy Wonka.”
I fully expected to be bored but was instead thrilled by the film’s concept, story, acting, music, etc., and, if Ursula’s listening in heaven, I still love it. Not everyone does, however.
In 1964, when Roald Dahl wrote “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the book “Willy Wonka” is based on, Wonka’s Oompa-Loompa workforce weren’t jolly, tubby, orange-faced dwarves, but were African pygmies who lived in constant fear in their woe-begone foreign land.
As Mr. Wonka described it, “oh what a terrible country it is! Nothing but thick jungles infested by the most dangerous beasts in the world – hornswogglers and snozzwangers, and those terrible wicked whangdoodles.
“When Wonka found them, the Oompa-Loompa’s had to live in tree houses to avoid those ravenous creatures and “were living on green caterpillars, and the caterpillars tasted revolting, and the Oompa-Loompas spent every moment of their days climbing through the treetops looking for other things to mash up with the caterpillars to make them taste better – red beetles, for instance, and eucalyptus leaves, and the bark of the bong-bong tree, all of them beastly, but not quite so beastly as the caterpillars. Poor little Oompa-Loompas! The one food that they longed for more than any other was the cacao bean. But they couldn’t get it.”
Wonka had warehouses full of cacao beans to offer, and the Oompa-Loompas willingly migrated to England to wallow in cacao beans in return for working in the Wonka factory.
In 1964, a literary historian Named John Russel Townsend termed the book a fantasy “of astonishing insensitivity,” but even though Dahl re-wrote the characters’ race and origins, other critics lambasted him for having the Oompa-Loompas being taken advantage of by the capitalist Wonka.
Even Dr. Seuss’ legacy was rocked last March 2 (his birthday, no less) when Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the outfit that owns the rights to Seuss’ books, films, merchandise, etc., announced the “retirement” of six of his books from further publication since they depicted Asian and African people in a manner they deemed offensive.
Perhaps in my dotage I’ve grown jaded, but all the characters in “If I Ran the Zoo” (1950), “McElligot’s Pool” (1947), and “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” (1937) seem equally strange and humorously-drawn, and it saddens me that books written long ago in different cultural times, and that bring back all sorts of wonderful, warm memories from millions of childhoods, won’t be available any longer.
Some readers sifted through Seuss’ books looking for morals, but the good doctor, an outspoken socially conscious New Dealer, always warned them about reading too much into books intended to amuse children gently and amiably.
In library school we were taught the difference between selectors and censors. Librarians select books for their libraries by looking for good things to include while censors are on guard for things they consider bad.
For example, thirty years ago a book came out that claimed that AIDS was transmitted by mosquitoes. Its thesis was quickly and utterly disproved, but the author was featured on local radio shows, so we added his book to the collection so people here could read it and judge for themselves, because that’s a good thing that outweighed the librarians’ personal abhorrence of bad, misleading science.
Wringing the fun out of books to ensure they’re packed with lessons and current social mores smacks of almost all pre-Seuss children’s literature, back in the bleak days of the early 20th century and earlier when teaching kids how to behave counted for more than simply allowing them to have fun with a book.
They should know better; as Willy Wonka himself noted, “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.