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?