Rae Carson's Walk On Earth A Stranger begins in 1849 in Dahlonega, Georgia. The protagonist, 15-year-old Leah Westfall and her parents are living on a plot of land her father got through a land lottery. Leah's dad, Rueben Westfall, his brother, Hiram, and the woman who would become Leah's mom are originally from Boston. The three were friends there and moved to Georgia for its gold rush in 1829.
Let's step out of the book to ask a question: what do you (reader) know about that lottery?
As a Native woman and professor who taught American Indian Studies courses at the University of Illinois, I know a lot about Native history. I know about that lottery. For decades before Georgia held that land lottery in 1832, the Cherokee Nation fought with the State of Georgia and its citizens who had been encroaching on Cherokee land.
The Cherokee Nation went before the Supreme Court where it was decided, in 1832 (yes, same year as that lottery) that the Cherokee Nation was a sovereign nation and that Georgia and its citizens had no standing or claim on that land. President Jackson, however, defied the Supreme Court and ordered the removal of the Cherokee people. At the Cherokee Nation's website, you can read some of the history. Forced removal started in 1838.
Leah would have been a little girl when that forced removal started. As a little girl, she was likely unaware of Removal and unaware of what that lottery meant to Cherokee people. For her, it is her daddy's land. Someone else in Walk On Earth A Stranger, however, knows about removal, first hand.
Leah's potential love interest is a guy named Jefferson McCauley. His father is an Irish prospector who drinks and beats Jefferson. His mother? She's Cherokee, but in 1839 (removal, remember), she fled Dahlonega with her brothers and left Jefferson behind. He remembers her and a Cherokee story she told him, too, that is significant to how Jefferson thinks about himself.
The story Jefferson tells is about eight boys who are brothers. Angry at their mother, they run away from her, and leap into the sky. She grabs one, bringing him back to earth. The seven brothers who got away become the Ani'tsutsa (Pleiades). Jefferson imagines he is the brother who was pulled down, that he stayed, and that he has something like brothers out there somewhere, and that he'll find them someday. When he leaves Dahlonga (Leah and Jefferson will soon be headed to California for the gold rush), he feels that he's done wrong, because he is supposed to stay.
The story Jefferson tells, however, isn't like the one the Cherokees actually tell. The way they tell it, the boys that run away are not brothers, and the one that is pulled to earth strikes the earth so hard that it swallows him. He's gone, too. His mother sheds tears on that site and eventually, a tree sprouts. It becomes the pine tree. Quite different from the story Jefferson tells, isn't it! Regular readers of AICL know that I object to writers using/twisting Native stories to fit the story they want to tell.
In the Author's Note, Carson lists sources for the emigrant stories she used to create Walk On Earth A Stranger. She obviously found the Ani'tsutsa story somewhere, but doesn't tell us where. She doesn't list any sources specific to the Cherokee Nation, at all, which makes me wonder how she created Jefferson and his voice. Could we say that she didn't need any Cherokee sources because Jefferson is sufficiently assimilated and is no longer Cherokee? Maybe, and yet, he remembers that story and thinks fondly of his mother. As the wagon train crosses the midwest, he never thinks of or expresses an interest in going to find his mother and his uncles. Maybe he's mad at them for leaving him behind.
Or maybe he is, as I suggested above, assimilated. That would explain why he is headed west to be a prospector, just like all the other people who did that. Certainly, it is plausible that a Native person would want to do that, but I find it unsettling to create a Native character--who lost his mother because of gold--wanting to head West to be a gold prospector on lands that belonged to other Native peoples.
That said, Jefferson looks Native, with black hair and sharp cheekbones. Along the trip west, he is conscious of his Native identity and concerned that people will figure out who he is. People know he's not White but don't know just what he is. Sometimes he is angry when racist men talk about Indians stealing from the wagon trains and kidnapping children, but he keeps that anger to himself. At another point, however, he speaks in a matter of fact way, saying that people are afraid of Indians. Leah is aware of all these incidents and his emotions. She commiserates with him--but sometimes she wonders about Indians, too, and hides those feelings from Jefferson.
Because Jefferson is seeking gold, and because his way of speaking/thinking about Indians is inconsistent, we might say he is conflicted about his identity.
Or... maybe something else is going on. Maybe he is just a device in the story. What he endures makes it possible for readers to view Leah as a Good White Person, worried for him and his well-being. She does this for other characters, too. "Free Jim" is one. The runaway slave, Hampton, is another. And the bachelors who are headed to San Francisco where they can live as they choose... Native people, Blacks, Gays... I think all are devices by which readers see this girl who gets across the country dressed as a boy, as a Good White Person.
Thus far, the problems I've described are familiar ones that occur in depictions of Native people, culture, and history. By that I mean stereotypical and biased storylines that omit key points in history.
Carson does something that--for me--is reprehensible. Yes, that is a strong word, but let me explain.
People hold two kinds of images of Indians in their head. The noble one (that's Jefferson) and the savage one (that's the ones who steal and kidnap kids). Both are problematic because they shape what people know about us. When writers in children's and young adult literature do it, they're shaping what kids know. They are teaching something to readers. Through their words, writers are, in effect, touching the future (wise words from Christa McAuliffe). They are creating images for their readers. What kind of images of Indians--beyond Jefferson--does Carson give her readers? What did I find reprehensible?
Carson's Grave Robbing Indians
The image that Carson adds to what people carry around in their heads is one of Indians as grave robbers. This starts in chapter twenty. By then, Leah/Lee and Jefferson are working for Mr. Joyner. On his wagon are his household goods and his family. Carson has been presenting him as a racist white man.
We see his racism again when the wagon train comes upon a grave. Men from the wagon train investigate. When Joyner returns to his family's wagon, he tells them that Indians did it. Jefferson, "tight and coiled like a thunderstorm about to let loose," asks "Indians killed him?" (p. 234). Joyner says it wasn't a him, but a her. Lee wants to say there's no way to know what she was buried in but thinks it won't do any good. Joyner says (p. 235):
"Truly, these savages have no fear of God nor love of the white man."Jefferson rides away at that point. Further down the page, Lee thinks (p. 235):
I don't know what to think about the Indians. Seems to me we don't really know anything about them. We don't even know what we don't know.There is, for me, an irony to those words. They're meant to ask readers to pause and question what they know about Indians. But to get there, Carson introduces a new image: Indians who rob graves of Whites.
Did that happen?
One of Carson's sources is Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, edited by Lilian Schlissel.
In it is the diary of Catherine Haun. She writes of a woman named Martha. On the night of the 4th of July, Haun's wagon train is having a celebration. In the midst of it, Martha and a young child stumble into camp, incoherent and disheveled. The next day, Martha tells them what happened: her husband and sister got cholera. Because of that, the rest of their wagon train left them behind, in their own wagon. Martha's husband and sister died. Martha and her brother were burying her sister when Indians attacked. Martha fled with her little girl. Two days later, Haun's wagon train comes upon Martha's abandoned wagon. They find that her sister's grave is still open and Martha's husband is where they left him, dead, in the wagon. Their clothing is missing and there is no sign of Martha's brother or Martha's little boy. Later on the page, Haun writes that Indians spread smallpox among themselves by digging up bodies for their clothing, and later in Haun's diary, we learn that Martha was reunited with her son. Indians had taken him and traded him for a horse.
Hence, in Haun's account, Carson has a source for the grave-robbing Indians she depicts in Walk on Earth a Stranger. But take a look at this page from Schlissel's book. The column on the left is from Cecilia McMillen Adams's diary. On the right is an excerpt from Maria Parson's Belshaw's diary.
Enter, again, my own identity as a Native woman and scholar. Do you know about NAGPRA? That is a law passed in the United States Congress. It is all about graves being robbed. Native graves, that is. For literally hundreds of years, people have been digging up Native graves. Human remains and artifacts, dug up and sold on the black market, or collected and deposited in museums.
Through NAGPRA, those remains are being returned to Native Nations for reburial. That sort of thing is still happening. It was in the news just this week. Actors in the film, Maze Runner, were shooting at a Native cemetery. They took artifacts because "who doesn't?"
But let's come back to Carson's sources.
In the introduction to Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, Schlissel writes that the letters and diaries in her book are "accounts of singularities" and that only "when the patterns emerge with regularity can one believe the responses are representative" (p. 11). Is Haun's singular account one that ought to be introduced to young readers as Carson has done?
In Walk on Earth a Stranger, she introduces that image and leaves it open-ended for her readers to sort out.
Therein lies the problem. This image of grave robbing Indians fits what people think they know about Native peoples: primitive, depraved, less than human, savages. Carson doesn't come back to tell us that, in fact, it is not representative of the historical record.
What she did is quite the opposite. In the preface to Schlissel's book, Carl N. Degler writes that (p. xvi):
Whereas men usually emphasized the danger from the Indians and told of their fights with the native peoples, the women, who admittedly often started out fearful of the Indians, usually ended up finding them friendly in manner and often helpful in deed. Women, it seemed, had no need to emphasize Indian ferocity.Friendly Indians? Helpful Indians? That is the image of Indians women had at the end of their journey. It is not the image of Indians that readers have when Lee and her group get to California. Let's look at another episode Carson provides.
When Lee's wagon train is at Fort Hall (chapter twenty-nine), they hear this story (p. 369):
"We had a situation here a few weeks ago, where an Indian offered a man three horses in exchange for one of his daughters. The settler joked that if the Indians gave him six, it was a deal. This joke, as it were, at his daughter's expense, nearly led to bloodshed, when the Indian came back with the horses."I found a similar story in another of Carson's sources: Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849, edited by Kenneth L. Holmes. In it, the horse trading story ends like this. The Indian (p. 33):
"followed our wagons for several days and we were glad to get rid of him without any trouble."Quite a different image, isn't it? I assume Carson read through her sources, but why does she give us such a different image of Indian people, given what her sources told her about them?
One might argue that Carson is even-handed in depicting racism. Indians rob graves, but what about Mr. Joyner? He puts fear of Indians in his wife's mind again and again. He puts measles infected blankets in a grave so the Indians can get sick when they dig up that grave. Pretty dang racist, right?
On one hand, we have grave robbing Indians, and on the other, we have Mr. Joyner and Frank (another White man who is depicted as racist).
Notice that Carson gives us Indian people as a group who are horrible, versus specific White individuals who are horrible.
Carson effectively tells us to hate Mr. Joyner and Frank as racists, but why did she not individualize those Indians on the trail in some way, guided by her sources? Why does she have that grave robbing part in there?
It'd be terrific if she would tell us why.
As noted in the title of this post, Rae Carson's Walk On Earth A Stranger is not recommended. Published in 2015 by Greenwillow, it is currently on the long list for the National Book Award. I hope someone shares this review with members of the committee. Carson's book debuted on the New York Times best sellers list. That, I think, is based on her previous work, but I'm sure the publisher's huge marketing campaign helped get it on that best seller list.
For further reading:
Notes I took as I read Carson's book
A Tumblr post I wrote after I shared my notes