So I pulled out another favorite Weekly Reader book that over the years I’ve muddled in my mind with Fear in the Forest (see previous post). Written by William O. Steele (illustrated by Paul Galdone), The Far Frontier takes place at the same time, during the early settlement of the Ohio territory. Wanting to disentangle it from the other book (all those “F’s”), I gave it a quick reread.
In this book, a boy gets apprenticed to an old naturalist improbably named Mr. Twistletree, who’s more interested in insects and leaves than the normal manly pursuits of huntin’ and shootin’. He wears spectacles and collects feathers and leaves. All the regular folk deride Mr. Twistletree for his eccentricity, useless book-larnin’, and general lack of aplomb.
As you might imagine, young Tobe, on their year-long journey into “Injun” country, comes to appreciate the man’s knowledge and abilities. By the end of the book, Tobe has decided to pursue some serious education and heads off for Philadelphy to study with Mr. T.
Along the way, the duo encounters some actual Indians, and I was curious to compare this incarnation with Ms. Leeuw’s in Fear in the Forest.
The Cherokee are fairly peaceful, but their cousins the Chickamaugas are cruel and uncivilized. They capture Tobe and his master. It looks bad, because everyone knows the Chickamaugas will kill you “in the cruelest way — rip out your fingernails, heap hot coals on your bare feet…” These Indians are portrayed, as in Fear in the Forest, as ignorant savages.
But there’s one redeeming, or almost redeeming, moment in this book. When Tobe calls the Indians “natural-born blackhearted and mean,” Mr. Twistletree demurs:
“Listen, Tobias. Whatever happens, I want you to remember this. Indians are no more black-hearted than other folks. The white men are their enemies, and with good reason, at least the Indians think so. Whites have stolen their lands; they have taken their hunting grounds; they have given them their diseases. There’s no place for the Indian to go. He can no longer find enough game to live on. He strikes out at the white man and his ways just as the rattlesnake strikes out at whatever he believes is menacing him. It is not you and me they hate and fear, Tobias, but whatever is new and strange. And that is the way with most men, expecially ignorant ones.”
Mr. Steele was doing okay up until those last couple sentences.
Was I harmed by this stereotyping? Was I wrong to overlook it and just enjoy the plot and adventure? The Far Frontier is leagues ahead of Fear in the Forest, but still not enlightened by today’s standards.
Along that line, here’s one more reflection on these two books. Much as I liked them, they moved me (aged about ten) to write a letter to the Weekly Reader folks suggesting that they choose more girl-centered books. Feminist in the making.