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?
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?