Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Question of Case

I'm reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond right now (which is as fresh and enjoyable to me now as it was when I read it as a teen), and last night I came across something that raised a question in my mind. Kit (the main character) met Hannah Tupper, an old Quaker woman who lives in the meadow isolated from the rest of the community. Here are a couple of examples of Hannah's dialogue:
"Thee must be hungry," she said, more briskly. "Come, and I'll give thee a bit to eat."
"The answer is in thy heart," she said softly. "Thee can always hear it if thee listens for it."
What I wondered is whether the pronouns have been used properly in this dialogue. (Forgive me some grammar geekiness here...) I always thought "thee" was the objective case for the pronoun, "thou" was the subjective case, and "thy" was the possessive. If that's true, then a sentence might read something like this:
"Thou must be hungry...I'll give thee a bit to put in thy stomach."
In an earlier draft of my novel, I had the protagonist's sister-in-law be Quaker because I thought it would contribute to a subplot about slavery that was in the story at that time (Quakers were leaders in the abolition movement). I tried to be very careful to get the dialogue right, because I thought that would be the type of mistake that would take the reader out of the story. But I never felt entirely confident that it was done correctly, and I also had the problem of trying to figure out what verb should go with "thou." ("Thou have"? "Thou has?" "Thou do"? "Thou does"? ARRRGGGH!!!)

Eventually, I decided it wasn't urgent to the plot that the character be a Quaker. That was an easy way to solve my problem, but I still wonder about it. Just what is the right way to have a Quaker character use pronouns? Just in case it is urgent to have a character be Quaker in some future story!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Once Again, It's the Little Things

When I teach Introduction to Rhetoric and Social Influence, one of the exercises I always do with the class is about censorship of books. I put together a collection of books that have been challenged, find a part that relates to the reason for the challenge, and then have students read that section and say whether or not they would support the challenge. Every time I gather books for the exercise, I find a new book I want to read. This year, it was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

What interested me about the book was the conflict the main character, Junior (Arnold) Spirit, faced. Junior is a Spokane Indian living on a reservation, but one of his teachers at the reservation school tells Junior he should go to the public school in a town off the reservation. Junior decides to take the risk, even though it means his best friend now hates him for "deserting" the tribe. Junior faces discrimination at the town school, but eventually he makes friends with several of the white students. Throughout the story, though, Junior struggles with being a "border dweller" (another term from Intro to Rhetoric class!) who lives between two cultures. I liked that entire storyline. While I was saddened by the portrayal of the hopelessness and alcoholism of the Indian culture, I liked the way Alexie portrayed the sense of community of the Indians.

But...once again, there were some little things that seemed sloppy to me and took me out of the story several times. One thing happened right in the first chapter. Junior is introducing himself, and he's got all kinds of physical problems, like being born with hydrocephalus and having seizures and being very awkward with big hands and feet. Then he goes on to tell about playing basketball and in fact, becoming a starter on the town school's varsity team and even hitting the shot that leads to his school team destroying the reservation team. That seems unrealistic to me. I've had a couple of students in the past with those kinds of physical problems, and those problems don't just go away in time for a kid to become a star basketball player. Strike one.

Another thing I thought was unrealistic was Junior saying how many times he ended up walking the 22 miles from the school to the reservation because his dad forgot to come pick him up (or was too drunk to do it). I'm not arguing with the fact that a kid could have to find his own way home from school; what seems unrealistic to me is the distance. How long would it take to walk 22 miles? When my husband and I used to do backpacking, the best we accomplished was something like 11 miles in an 8-hour day. Of course, that was carrying a pack, but wouldn't a school kid have a backpack full of books? You should see what my daughter hauls back and forth every day. I don't buy it. Strike two.

The thing that bothered me most, though, came when Junior's grandmother died. Of course, she died in some bizarre way. At her memorial service, a rich guy steps up to return a ceremonial dance dress that he said belongs to Grandmother Spirit. Then Junior's mother steps up to say, "I'm her daughter....." Wait...I thought she was Grandmother Spirit, related to Arnold Spirit. If Indian surnames follow the same rules as Anglo names, that means it would be his father who was related to Grandmother Spirit, not his mother. Maybe the rules are different for Indian marriages, but there's nothing in the book to say that. It reads like a mistake to me. Strike three.

Those three strikes, combined with what I thought was an overdone "voice" for Junior's character, soured me a little on the book. I don't know that this is what was in Sherman Alexie's mind, but no author should take for granted that readers will, without question, overlook sloppy detail work if the issues in the story are "important" enough. It especially bothers me when that happens in a young adult book. YA readers are still forming their perceptions of the world - they may not have the critical thinking skills to ferret out the mistakes and correct them. In my opinion, we do those readers a disservice when we are less than accurate - even with minor details.