Monday, July 11, 2022

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks (1980)

When Omri's best friend Patrick gives him an Indian figurine for his ninth birthday, Omri is vaguely disappointed, thinking his friend is a bit immature for giving him a toy at his age. When his older brother gives him an old cupboard as his present, Omri locks the Indian inside. When the Indian, an Iroquois named Little Bear, suddenly comes to life, Omri faces a series of challenges, including how to feed this small person, and whether to tell anyone about his magical discovery.

I read this book as a kid, and my kids and I listened to the audiobook together. While the book is mainly criticized these days for being racist, I actually found the overall theme of the book to be very much the opposite. Omri does stereotype Little Bear and, later, the cowboy who also comes to life in the cupboard. These stereotypes arise from the movie-fueled imagination of a young British boy, and they are challenged again and again by Omri's interactions with Little Bear. Omri assumes certain things about how Indians live, some of which are not true for the Iroquois. Omri also takes a while to realize that Little Bear is a human being worthy of dignity and respect. The fact that he learns to recognize the humanity in his Indian friend through magic doesn't make the lesson any less significant.

It's been a very long time since I read any of the sequels to this book, so I can't yet speak to the series as a whole, but I found this book to be far less egregiously offensive than most 21st century reviews about it would suggest. I also noticed on Goodreads that some parents edit the book on the fly as they read it aloud; I really urge parents not to change an author's words and recreate a book in their own image. If there are books with content in them that I don't want to share with my kids, I skip the book. It's not my place to rewrite the story. The choices are really to take the story as is, or leave it. In this case, I recommend reading this book in its entirety, especially with ages 7-10.

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