Fear in the Forest Redux

At Half Price Books a while back, I ran across a pristine copy of Fear in the Forest, an old Weekly Reader favorite of mine, complete with its original cover. I purchased it for $10.00 and intended to give it to my great-niece for her ninth birthday after rereading it myself. (I love the author’s name: Cateau De Leeuw. She grew up in Ohio. Leonard Vosburgh did the illustrations.)

My misgivings began with the first sentence of the Foreword: “There was only one way to make Ohio territory safe for the settlers and that was to defeat the Indians.”

In the next line appears the phrase “the savage foe.”

“Oops,” I thought, “I guess I don’t remember this book very well.”

Although I read Fear in the Forest a few times as a child, all I could remember after fifty years (yikes) was that Daniel, a young settler in the Ohio wilderness, feared Indians and then comes to grips with his fears. This time around, I hoped that Daniel would hate Indians at the start and then come to see them as regular people. It doesn’t happen. (Spoiler alert!) In the last few pages, a white woman dispatches an Indian with her rifle, and “Daniel suddenly found himself laughing. He did not know why.”

Daniel has an excuse to hate Indians — they murdered his father several years before. Still, it’s chilling to read the dismissive and hateful descriptions of Native Americans and their culture. At the same time, the corny pleasure of the dialogue and dialect, Daniel’s coming-of-age, the creepily threatening darkness of the wilderness, and wealth of pioneer lore made for an enjoyably nostalgic read…provided you ignore the bigotry.  

I’m not going to pass this book on to my niece. But why not?

The savage foe

I read it as a kid and saw hundreds of TV shows and movies where Indians were portrayed as red-skinned savages, and I turned out all right. I mean, I respect Native Americans, eschew offensive language, and never wear Chief Wahoo.

Was I harmed by Fear in the Forest and shoot-em-up Westerns? I’m not sure. Help me out here. How do we re-evaluate the politically-incorrect favorites of our youth?

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7 Responses to Fear in the Forest Redux

  1. Kathy says:

    Thanks for this response!

  2. Beverly says:

    Speaking as someone who is part Hispanic American and part American Indian (I prefer that to “Native American”), I have no qualms about anyone reading these books. Kids who grew up with these books in the 1950s and 1960s grew up to be drug-taking, love-your-brother hippies who embraced everyone. Also, before ‘white man’ arrived in America, the Indians weren’t sitting around living in harmony w/each other. Many were actively warring w/each other, stealing horses and supplies, women and children were kidnapped and forced into slavery, territory was won (and lost). Many American Indian tribes were brutal in their fight for power. Some welcomed the whites, but many others treated them with hostility just as they would a neighboring Indian tribe.

  3. Pingback: Kathy Ewing › Wilder Indians

  4. Bill Gunlocke says:

    I didn’t read books about Indians. A lotta’ guys did; I didn’t. But I cheered wildly at the Legion theater when the cavalry came with their bugles and their big yellow gloves and blew the Indians off their horses with rifles and smaller guns. But in the real light outside the movie theater the nuns read to us about Indians more reverently than they read about anything else. Looking for arrowheads was somethng fathers naturally suggested. The Hill brothers, Indians, were in school with us. David Hill was maybe the most liked kid. His father, had played lacrosse in his youth with Jay Silverheels who played Tonto on TV. Even in rural western New York in the mid-1950s, real life somehow more than balanced out the fiction in the movies.

  5. Lisa Marin says:

    Okay – you got me curious: What’s that other favorite of yours?

    Re-reading Huck Finn (or was it Tom Sawyer) several years ago for book group made me incredibly uncomfortable with its awful stereotypical racist dialects and portrayals. I was so embarrassed reading it on the Shaker Rapid commuting to and from work that I hunched over half-open pages hoping no one would glance over my shoulder.
    I know these books are considered quintessential American classics by many. Not me.

  6. Kathy says:

    What a good idea! Actually, though, I’ve already returned the book to Half Price; it seemed just too toxic in this era. I’d consider your idea regarding another favorite of mine, though. See next post…

  7. Tricia Dykers Koenig says:

    I can remember some cowboys-are-superior-to-savage-Indians themes from my childhood, but other stories that challenged those assumptions.

    We all eventually have to sort out the messages we receive as we develop our own values. Judging by the level of social and political discourse these days, some are able to overcome the racist, homophobic, and other negative attitudes – and others cannot.

    How about giving the book to your niece with a note that you enjoyed it when you were her age, and a ‘coupon’ redeemable for a trip for ice cream to talk about it when she’s read it?

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