Monday, June 6, 2016

Teen Romance and Taming the Old West

One of the things I love most about my summer job at the beach is all the time I have to read. Even though the gatehouse has wi-fi, I try to take advantage of the hours of child-free time to enjoy new, or old books. It's hard for me to become engrossed in a book when I've got a mischeivous little monkey roaming around. This past Saturday I managed to knock out a few new reads.
This is a YA book that some generous person on the Maine library listserv offered up. At our school library, we made our new YA section a priority this year in our collection development in order to accommodate the middle-schoolers who are older, more mature (if there is such a thing in middle school!) and read at higher lexile levels. The romance in the story is pretty typical for a YA book: a girl who doesn't think she's beautiful but who is actually stunning, which she finds out when the not-so-bad boy with smoldering good looks falls in love with her and tells her so following her realization that the superficially cute guy she had formerly had a crush on is a shallow jerk. But what won me over was the main storyline, in which  Darcy sees her family and home fall apart, and rekindles a relationship with her loving hippie Uncle, who owns a thrift store. She discovers that there's alot of soul and substance to be found when one looks beyond the world of prep school and McMansions. A message I hold dear.

Okay, okay, I admit it. Up until very recently, I had never read Old Yeller.  I also have yet to see the Disney film. I never sought this story out because I already knew what happened- thanks to Friends

But, it was one of those books that I was always ashamed to admit I hadn't read, and we recently withdrew our dog-eared (ha- get it?) old hardcover version, and I have a major weakness for vintage books, so I knew it was inevitable. It's only 158 pages so it was a quick read. I definitely understand why it's become a classic; the descriptions of 19th century Texas are straight-forward, yet evoke a sentimentality for our heritage, much like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books do. And the story about the yellow dog that caused trouble, but melts your heart with his antics and his undying loyalty is obviously the hook. Old Yeller is the original Marley and Me. The part that brings anyone, even the Magnum PI himself, to tears, is actually much less drawn out than I'd always assumed. I guess because as a society we are so used to the way that films over-dramatize the books they depict I had expected this scene in the book to have a much bigger build-up, but it happens immediately after Old Yeller defeats the wolf, and is described very matter-of-factly, with very little emotion seeping through. Despite the story's tear-jerker reputation, it actually does end on a positive note.

Which brings me to the book's sequel, Savage Sam. Since this book is about Old Yeller's descendent pup, I picked it up afterwards expecting another story about the relationship between a boy and his dog. I could not have been more wrong. This book should have been titled WE HATE INJUNS AND ALL THE RED DEVILS SHOULD DIE! It amazes me how little of the story actually involves the title character, because most of the story focuses on the  kidnapping of Travis, his little brother Arliss and their friend Lisbeth by Indians. The text is peppered with derogatory descriptions and the illustrations that accompany that chapter pages aren't much better.

As a historian I am well aware of the effect of presentism on readers when we engage historical fiction, but the emphasis on the "injuns" and "heathens" was actually making me a little uncomfortable. In Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, she describes the Indians and relates her mother's distrust of them, but those instances are woven into the narrative of westward expansion, and while they may be viewed as offensive in the 21st century, they were typical attitudes in the 19th century, and not that unusual in the early 20th century either, when her first book was published. Savage Sam was published in 1962, about 30 years after Little House in the Big Woods, and with much worse depictions of Native Americans, so it's not really surprising to me that it hasn't achieved the same kind of celebrity as the original story as others like it; I think we like to imagine that in the 60's, an era of revolution of equal rights, that our mindset had evolved alot more than it actually did.

Obviously, we have progressed quite a bit since then, and even Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt knows it:

I wish I had listened to Phoebe Buffay on the ultimate fate of Old Yeller: "He doesn't have rabies, he has BABIES!"

It's much nicer than "Well, he does have babies right before his beloved boy shoots him in the head and one of those babies searches day and night for injuns to fight."

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