Last year I did a casual series I called “bookweek,” where I spent a week posting my thoughts about books.
It was fun.
I decided to do it again.
Recently I read an old book I picked up at a garage sale, called The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, by John Fox Jr. I’d never heard of it, but apparently it was a bestseller when it was published in 1908.
If I’m gonna be honest, the book had some weird stuff in it. Like…
A. The main characters in the book are a man who has graduated from college and is working as an engineer, and a child so young she still plays with dolls. They fall in love with each other. It’s a little cagey on how old they are. At the end of the book, when they get married, the girl is 18. But he first kisses her several years before this. And their bizarre “friendship” prior to this is full of him buying her presents, arranging for her to be educated, etc, so that she is enamored by him, “good enough” for him, and indebted to him.
Is that not about fifteen levels of creepy????
B. Every once in a while these odd, slightly racist and/or classist tidbits sneak in. Like when the characters are setting up a police force in their newly-established town, and this is just tossed in there:
There had been gentlemen-regulators a plenty, vigilance committees of gentlemen, and the Ku-Klux clan had been originally composed of gentlemen, as they all knew, but they meant to hew to the strict line of town-ordinance and common law and do the rough everyday work of the common policeman (Fox 95).
Um, okay? You’re just going to casually mention the KKK as being “gentlemen-regulators” and move on?
Then, a couple pages later, we have this gem. (The “she” referenced is June Tolliver, the child love interest).
She was so intelligent that he began to wonder if, in her case, at least, another of Hon. Sam’s theories might not be true—that the mountaineers were of the same class as the other westward-sweeping emigrants of more than a century before, that they had simply lain dormant in the hills and—a century counting for nothing in the matter of inheritance—that their possibilities were little changed, and that the children of that day would, if given the chance, wipe out the handicap of a century in one generation and take their place abreast with children of the outside world. The Tollivers were of good blood; they had come from Eastern Virginia, and the original Tolliver had been a slave-owner (Fox 100-101).
This got me thinking. I think there is a prevalent myth that books are getting more and more immoral as time goes by. If your kid is reading above their grade level, you hand them old books so they don’t have to read about sex.
But issues like racism and child grooming are actually pretty prevalent in old books. Often they’re not really THAT overt, just kind-of lurking, vaguely troubling. Like The Magic Garden by Gene Stratton-Porter has that creepy female-child-is-romantically-befriended-by-much-older-boy element. According to Mom, several of L.M. Montgomery’s short stories have this plotline as well.
And then there’s the racism/classism, which I’m lumping together because they both come from the root idea that some people are naturally better than other people. Classism especially seems to be everywhere in old British literature. Take Emma by Jane Austin, for instance. Emma decides that Harriet Smith is “too good” to marry a farmer. Knightly reprimands her for this, but it’s definitely not an “everyone is equal” speech. More like a “Harriet isn’t as high class as you think she is” speech.
But by far the most troubling thing to me is the racism that shows up in old books, particularly in children’s books that depict American Indians. The ones that immediately come to mind are Five Children and It by E. Nesbit, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, and Centerburg Tales: More Adventures of Homer Price by Robert McCloskey, but I’m sure there are more.
These books present American Indians as silly caricatures, existing only to provide entertainment for the children in the story. Very much the way children’s books present pirates–as though American Indians were a profession of the past, not a vibrant culture of today. I think this one especially troubles me because I remember how these types of media shaped my friends’ and my view of American Indians. I remember, for instance, explaining to my friend that “did you know that Indians today live in houses, not teepees? My mom said!”
He didn’t believe me.
Now, Peter Pan is my favorite book, and I love Emma, and I obviously give writers from the past a lot of grace because they were a “product of their era.” And I try to give writers from today a lot of grace, as well, when they write things I view as problematic. Everyone is a product of their era, really.
However, I think we also need to accept the fact that we can’t just blindly hand children books from some other era and expect that they won’t find shady stuff in them.
Thoughts? What shady stuff have you noticed in old books?
Laura Ingalls Wilder series has drawn attention recently for being removed from some prestigious list of literature, I believe. Fallen from grace, somewhere, at least.
Yet I remember my mom reading the series to us and stopping to ask questions and prod us to think through the themes. I credit my stubborn refusal to blindly accept status quo to instances like this in my childhood. When we come across these disturbing references, we have a chance to encourage real discernment of right/wrong. I hope we can foster dialogue not just stern moralizing!
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Yes!! I agree so much. In my mind this is the ideal way to deal with problematic content in books–to be aware of it and work through it with your children instead of dividing the world into “good” literature and “bad” literature and banning the “bad.”
I didn’t really go into that, though, because the last thing I want to do is, as a childless person, tell others how to parent. If your child is devouring 20 books a week i’m sure it’s well nigh impossible to read them all first in order to foster dialogue.
OK, this has gone too far. The Laura Ingalls books are literally THE best books I have ever read. Also E. Nesbit just happens to be on my list of top 8 favorite authors. This is my list, and one of their books :
1. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
2. Edith Nesbit, Five Children and It
3. Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy-Tacy
4. Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek
5. Robert McCloskey, Homer Price
6. Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
7. Patricia MacLachlan, Baby
8. Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING wrong with good, old-fashioned, funny books. Do you know how many of those are written today? That’s right. None. Tell me what’s wrong with Laura Ingalls. What’s shady in those books. Tell me what’s wrong with Five Children and It. What’s so badly wrong with them that you had to write a post about it. Old books are THE BEST, and there is no getting around that fact. That IS a fact. You are NUTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The Elsie Dinsmore series, while much loved and touted as great books among Christian homeschool families, I didn’t get to read them until after I was married. I was horrified at the creepy stroking and petting between Elsie and her father, and then she falls in love with her father’s best friend who has been watching and loving her through her childhood. Just eww and ick!
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I agree! I read all 28 of the Elsie books when I was about 15 years old, and enjoyed them. Or I should say, was infatuated by them. Shortly thereafter I determined to NEVER read them again! Now, about 12 years later, I recently flipped through one of the books and was just disgusted!
Definitely definitely agree. Like in Huckleberry Finn. Such great writing, but all the racism makes me sad.
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They weren’t racist, that’s just how every body was. The Indians and the Blacks were- excuse the word- racist too, even though, way back then, nobody was racist because that’s how everybody was. The Indians hated the white people and blacks alike. The blacks hated the indians and blacks alike. And the whites hated the indians and the blacks alike. Oh, sure, in Little Town on The Prairie, Pa and some other men blackened their faces and pretended to be blacks, but they were NOT racist.
I agree with you that just because a book is old doesn’t mean it’s good! When I was a young teen my family found an old book, a story about Abe Lincoln’s younger years. Well, it was fiction, and the author had added all kinds of bad stuff! Thankfully I had the wisdom to ask my parents to throw it away (which they gladly did).
Don’t be afraid to throw books away!
Emily of New Moon by L. M. Montgomery. Emily and Dean Priest? Ew. Just…ew.
You are asking questions again!?! 🙂 Maybe you will stir within me the love of reading for pleasure again!
I recently read Emma for the first time, and was rather horrified by her incredible snobbery. This is a fascinating topic, and I could make lists of books with the problems mentioned.
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I find this interesting because I live in the area where “The trail of the Lonesome Pine” was written. The June Tolliver house is a museum and there is an outdoor drama performing the story every summer. I live too close to have ever seen it (in my experience you’re much more likely to visit places farther away) and I’ve only skimmed through the book. I think I’ll read it now though. I love old books and normally just find the classism etc. a bit humorous but you ask some excellent questions!
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Thank-you: this is really interesting :-)
However, I think for either classism or racism, it’s necessary to be saying that people must be fundamentally inferior in nature in some way due to their parentage belonging among a certain group of people. Inferiority of social position, however much I’m glad to live in a society that doesn’t think like that, isn’t the same thing.
I think Mr. Knightley’s rebuke to Emma is not classist, in that he is not saying that Harriet must be inherently inferior due to her parentage, but that in reality she has no personal attributes – such as a strong character or good education – that are likely to cause a man to accept the disadvantages of marrying out of his own class. These disadvantages are things like her not having useful family connections (in-laws were a major part of support networks) and the fact that it isn’t known what sort of scandal her illegitimacy involves. I think the notion is that in practice Emma is not acting in Harriet’s interests on any level, in trying to encourage her to marry into Emma’s class, due to the fact that it probably won’t happen, not that Harriet must be naturally inferior due to being of a lower class. I think Jane Austen intended Emma to be rather an annoying person, and I don’t have the impression her snobbery is approved of.
Similarly, in “Five children and It”, if I remember it correctly, the “Indians” may be wished for as “amusement”, but they are capable people who turn out to be a real danger to the children.
I feel that the Indians in Peter Pan are on the same level as the fairies and the crocodile: an element in the fantasy world, but not anything else: it never would have occurred to me that anyone might take them seriously. Possibly I should have done – when you say that, I wonder what would have been thought at the time it was written, and certainly they are caricatured. But is there anything in Peter Pan that is not?
Both E. Nesbit and J. M. Barrie were British authors, and our experience of these issues is a bit different anyway, due to a different history.
What children take seriously and what they don’t is a difficult question. I remember one of my friends commenting that she’d learned a rhyme at school that went:
“My boyfriend gave me an apple/ My boyfriend gave me a pear/ My boyfriend gave me a kiss on the lips / And threw me down the stair…”
It went on with the girl taking her revenge on him. My friend said it was only when she started to teach it to her preschool daughter that she realised that it was completely inappropriate – which in a real sense it is, but it obviously never occurred to her to take it as a serious comment on how relationships should work!
I don’t think there’s anything sinister about the relationship between Emily and Dean Priest when she is still a child, but the account of their interaction when she’s a young woman stands in my memory as one of the most horrible and realistic portrayals of a relationship gone wrong I’ve ever read. Though as the author is very clear Dean’s behaviour in betraying her over her writing is both wrong and tragic, I think it is a slightly different issue.
As to creepiness: how about L.M. Montgomery’s “Kilmeny of the Orchard”? I love it in many ways, but the portrayal of the Italian young man probably is accurately described as racist, given the reasons that are given for his apparent inferiority of character.
Thanks again for a very interesting post 🙂