Anytime I see a book that has something to do with ghosts, I wonder if the author is going to be contributing to the too-high-pile of problematic books with characters who are haunted or inspired by the ghost of a Native character. One example (there are many) is Susan Cooper's Ghost Hawk.
I think Telgemeier's Ghosts is one of those problematic books, but I don't think that Telgemeier is aware that she's doing that same thing. The story she tells, and the reviews of her story, demonstrate (yet again) an ignorance of history. I imagine some people defending the book by saying its audience isn't old enough for the complexity of that history, but that holds true only for a selected (possibly white) audience. Native children, and children of color, know far more history than one might expect, because history informs and shapes our daily lives, today. History, of course, informs the daily lives of White children, too, but in a way that means they're ignorant--and are taught ignorance--until they're deemed "ready" for that dark history.
So, let's get started. Here's the synopsis for Telgemeier's Ghosts:
Catrina and her family are moving to the coast of Northern California because her little sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn't happy about leaving her friends for Bahía de la Luna, but Maya has cystic fibrosis and will benefit from the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea. As the girls explore their new home, a neighbor lets them in on a secret: There are ghosts in Bahía de la Luna. Maya is determined to meet one, but Cat wants nothing to do with them. As the time of year when ghosts reunite with their loved ones approaches, Cat must figure out how to put aside her fears for her sister's sake - and her own.
The ghosts in Bahía de la Luna (that is a fictional town) are primarily the ones they see at a mission. This starts on page 73, when Carlos (the neighbor boy who tells them about ghosts) takes them to the mission, "where the ghosts' world and ours mostly closely overlap." The three get separated on the way up there. Cat arrives, alone. The mission itself is run down.
Nobody is there, which is interesting in itself because those missions are a key piece of California's tourism industry. There may be some that are like the one in Ghosts, but I kind of doubt it. After wandering around a bit, Cat sees a ghost. She follows it and finds Maya and Carlos in the courtyard:
Carlos opens a bottle of orange soda, hands it to Maya, and then one of the ghosts goes right up to her, smiling:
At first she's taken aback, but in the next panels, we see the ghost hug her, so she decides it is a friendly ghost. She says hi, but Carlos tells her that most of the people buried there were from Mexico, so, they like it when people speak Spanish to them. So, Maya calls out "Hola!"
That visit to the mission is the point where--for me--the story really starts to unravel.
The missions were there (obviously) for a specific reason: to turn Native peoples into Catholics and to claim that land for Spain. Some see missions and missionary work as a good, but if you pause for a minute and think about what they and that work is designed to do, and if you do a bit of reading, you'll learn that it was far from the benevolent character with which it is regarded by most of society.
At the missions, life for Native people was brutal. There was rape. Enslavement. Whippings. Confinements. And of course, death. Analyses of the bones at the mission burial sites that compare them with bones found elsewhere show that the bones of those who died at the missions were stunted and smaller than the others.
Some of Telgemeier's ghosts might have spoken Spanish, but it is far more likely that their first language was an Indigenous one. Did they joyfully want to be spoken to in Spanish, the language of their oppressors? Given the history, I think it is unlikely that these ghosts would be smiling as Telgemeier shows:
And I wonder, too, about those cemeteries. There are a lot of accounts that report that Native peoples were buried in mass, unmarked graves, elsewhere.
One might defend Telgemeier by saying that her ghosts are of the Spanish priests and maybe soldiers, and, maybe Native peoples who had been successfully Christianized, but the overwhelming evidence of the history is what I think should hold sway when we look at the missions, and when we give children stories about them.
I strongly urge people to read Deborah Mirandah's Bad Indians. Look, especially, at her chapter, The End of the World: Missionization. There, she presents an accurate version of what children across California are asked to do: a mission study. But Deborah's doesn't soft pedal or whitewash what happened. She describes items, like a cudgel (p. 15):
Wooden club used to strike quickly; alcaldes, soldiers, and sometimes padres carried these with them for spontaneous corrections throughout their day. The alcaldes used these during services in church to remind the Indians to be quiet, to pay attention, and to stay awake. A longer cudgel or cane was useful during Mass because the alcalde could reach far into a crowd without having to move very much.Look, too, at A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions by Elias Castillo. He writes about treatment of Native people who tried to escape the missions. When caught, the friars at Mission San Francisco burned crosses into the faces of men, women, and children.
If you can't get Bad Indians or A Cross of Thorns right away, then read The Lesser-Told Story of the California Missions, which includes quotes from their books.
Above, I wrote that this brutal history is usually kept away from children--but I also noted that the children it is kept from is not Native children, or children of color. Indeed, Castillo's book includes a foreword, written by Valentin Lopez, Chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Costanoan/Ohlone Indians. He writes:
Until now, the true and full history of the California missions has never been told. When visitors tour the missions, they are usually presented with stories and images of peaceful, loving priests and soldiers who treated the Indians as adored children.
These stories belie the truth of the missions, where Native Americans suffered under harsh and brutal conditions. As a young boy, I listened to stories from my elders about the cruelty of the missions. There were tales of how native women were captured— with their thumbs tied together with leather straps to form human chains— and marched forcibly from their tribal lands to the missions. If the Indians did not cooperate, the soldiers, at times, killed them. In one incident, more than two hundred women and children of the Orestimba tribe (living near what is now the town of Newman) were being taken to Mission San Juan Bautista. When, after passing the summit at the Orestimba Narrows, these women refused to go any farther, the Spanish commander ordered the women and children killed with sabers and their remains scattered.
The oral traditions of our tribal band, the Amah Mutsun, taught us stories of how certain Spaniards would appear when the Indians were first brought into the missions so they could get their pick of the young girls and boys for their perverted appetites, always with the tacit approval of the priests.I know most people don't want to read about such things, but for certain, we cannot go forward presenting the missions as Telgemeier does. Can you imagine what Mr. Lopez's response to Ghosts? Can you imagine how teachers will use this book in the classrooms? On a superficial level, it looks to be the perfect "diverse" book. It isn't. Head over to Reading While White's post about Ghosts and see the conversation and links there. In particular see what Yuji Morales and Patricia Encisco submitted in their comments about the book.
Published in 2016 by Scholastic, I do not recommend Raina Telgemeier's Ghosts.
Eds. Note: AICL will add links to additional reviews about concerns with the book.