There can be no doubt that DePaola has had a “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children” as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award committee announced.
when a person from one culture tells another culture’s story they sometimes just can’t help making mistakes. DePaola said he did a lot of research before creating this book and I believe him. I also believe his intentions were good. And seriously, it is kind of a relief to even see first nations people represented in children’s literature. For that alone, thank you.
Unfortunately, there are a few things in this story that just don’t ring true to me. I think that as DePaola told the tale his own cultural background/assumptions couldn’t help but slip in.
Family Structure & Domestic Life
The main character She-Who-Is-Alone is an orphan. Why is she an orphan? What has happened to her parents? Did they die in one of the epidemics that nearly destroyed so many native groups? Whatever disaster struck it must have been really bad because as far as I can determine Comanche people were not organized around nuclear families. A boy had special connections with his father’s brothers and a girl had the support of her mother’s sisters. If she is an orphan then not only is her immediate family dead but the whole extended clan is gone, too.
Normally, a girl would spend a lot of time with her mother’s family to learn the skills she needed. The little doll she carries is less likely to be a warrior doll than one of the mannequins little girls carried to practice their sewing skills.
I wonder what happened to her name? She-Who-Is-Alone is obviously a literary device but not knowing her real name bothers me. I suppose that was probably the author’s intention. It adds to the character’s alienation.
When the Comanche’s population was reduced so drastically that some bands were driven out of their traditional range they moved south and east displacing other first nations people. During this period of chaos the Comanche went into survival mode. I don’t know if they were originally agriculturalists but at the time when Europeans were spreading across the continent the Comanche were on the road and in hunter gatherer mode. There was even a shift in their belief system. They became pragmatists relying on their own personal power rather than the supernatural. The theme of sacrifice which sounds so very Christian (and gives the story its power) just doesn’t sit right with me. This is only an intuition. I could be wrong.
Economy and Political Structure
The book shows tipis indicating the people were nomadic. Nomadic people are certainly inconvenienced and frightened by drought but drought is not necessarily a dire situation. Where farmers are tethered to the land nomads can move following the rains and wildlife.
A strength of the book is showing how decision making was communal and built on consensus. Another strength of the book is showing the anguish of a people caught in forces beyond their control.
I sincerely hope that teachers and librarians using this story can take it beyond the language arts class. The Legend of the Bluebonnet could make a nice starting point for discussing some issues that I hope are explored in social studies classes. I doubt this is happening though because as I did a quick search of reviews I simply did not see these cultural issues being discussed. A busy teacher would likely only find glowing reviews of how accurately the culture is visually depicted.
Even in a picture book, story resonates so I feel compelled to throw in a few words suggesting the underlying story here is a tragedy. Does knowledge of Comanche culture reverse the protagonist’s triumph? Does her action show an affirmation of her culture or does it better reflect a disintegration? Is there any meaning in the idea that the symbol of redemption is a beautiful but largely inedible flower? I suppose in the long view a bluebonnet is a hopeful sign but hungry people might have been more impressed by a field of blooming Apios americana. ;)
Apologies in advance for any hurt feelings.
Edit: if you don’t know the story I recommend checking out http://ravenscourtgardens.com/2014/03/28/garden-quote-friday-the-legend-of-bluebonnet/