Wednesday, December 23, 2009

White children and their natives

Aaron's recent post on the American "bad boy" in Avatar made me think in general about children's narratives that construct a "native" with which the child may have an adventure.

The American bad boy is very, very familiar: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Rip van Winkle, etc. Avatar seems to fall into this (primarily nineteenth-century) tradition as well. There's an extensive literature, from Fiedler to Jehlen and beyond.

I found myself thinking about Aaron's claim that this is a specifically American construction. I think that's right, but it put me in mind of its early twentieth-century non-U.S. cousins as well, who deviate from the model in interesting ways.

Related to the bad boy is the jolly uncle, e.g. the professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or Albus Dumbledore, technically a grown-up but a boy (not a girl) at heart. Jolly uncle is British and is there to let you in on some arcane knowledge that will help you on your boyish adventure. He'll also help you subvert the mean (female) housekeeper. It helps that he is an Oxford(ish) professor -- a puerile pedant, as it were.

Swallows and Amazons is also British, and offers yet another model. Here the mother is not to be resisted, because the mother is supremely pliable, an ally in the children's play. She will set you up with regular shipments of butter, eggs, milk, and cake made of butter, eggs, and milk, and will allow herself to be designated a "native" from whom the conquering children can get their various dairy products for free. We don't have a fun uncle/mean mom dynamic here; the mother is perhaps the most fun character of all, the best at playing, the ideal imaginary Indian. She's so good at playing that she is easily conquered.

Oddest of all to think about in the context of Avatar was Anne of Green Gables. Avonlea is a female utopia, and Anne peoples her woods and lakes with other girls and women, in part quite clearly because her tragic past has forced her to invest in objects in lieu of friends (her first best friend is her own reflection in a cabinet), but ultimately because creating alien others -- dryads, naiads, animated plants -- is a form of creative play that marks Anne as interesting.

Yet those creations are also a way of staking claim. As soon as she arrives at Green Gables, before she even knows that she will stay, Anne begins to name things, and thereafter they are in a sense her gentle friends -- hers. She is a second Adam, in her childishness experiencing her own days of prismatic color and offering the adults around her a cherished glimpse. Her "marriage" to her first real friend, Diana, in the garden (a little homespun Eden) confirms rather than undermines her status as namer and master of her environs; Diana never reaches Anne's imaginative capacities, and only ever shows the initiative of an Eve by her multiple failures to adequately enter into Anne's imaginary realm. If anything, Diana acts as the female principle of fun-squelching, not because she is mean but because, like Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly, she simply has an inadequate imagination.

Is Anne a colonist? She is, of course, a "spunky girl," but is she a "bad boy" too?

And what does it mean, in Swallows and Amazons and Anne of Green Gables, that in the absence of indigenous peoples, the children must invent some?

1 comment:

skg said...

Thanks for chewy thoughts. hmm.