Thursday, October 01, 2009

Season of Gifts (MG)

Peck, Richard. 2009. A Season of Gifts.

I really wanted to love this one. I mean really wanted to. You see, I love Richard Peck. A Teacher's Funeral. Here Lies the Librarian. On the Wings of Heroes. Long Way From Chicago. Year Down Yonder. (I can't believe I never blogged about Here Lies the Librarian.) And besides that I love Grandma Dowdel. So I had high hopes and big expectations. Perhaps, my hopes were too high.

So I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it. What is it about? It's about a new family who has come to town. A preacher, his wife, and their three children. An older daughter, Phyllis. A younger daughter, Ruth Ann. And the middle child, a son, our narrator, Bob. It covers a little under half a year--from August to December. It focuses on this family's growing pains as they adjust to a new town, a new community. It's historical fiction. Set in the late 1950s. There's talk of Elvis joining the army and being shipped out, talk of the Russian threat and the potential for Russian spies, and then there's the bit more controversial talk of Indians. (I'll get into that in a bit.) This family lives next door to the ever-cranky Mrs. Dowdel. A strange woman, an old woman, a character who says and does whatever she wants whenever she wants. (You don't have to have one of those in your family to know that that can be a bad thing at times.) How much is the book about Mrs. Dowdel? How much is the book about growing up in a small town? It's a nice blend of the two. Mrs. Dowdel adds some flavor to the story--both sour and sweet, and now that I think about it, a little salt too. But this story isn't only about a family growing up with a strange and sometimes scary neighbor. It's about growing up. It's about family and friends. It's about bullies. It's about life--the good, the bad, the ugly. It's not about sugar-coating the past. Making it into something it's not. But there is a nostalgic feel to it.

I liked this one. But there were a few chapters I loved. For example, the "E'er the Winter Storms Begin" section, the final section, was just great. What I expected from the whole book really. We've got Mrs. Dowdel at her finest. Behaving like you'd expect. You get to see the community as a whole. And it had its moments. Sweet and tender. Yet raw and bittersweet in a way. Life wasn't ever presented as being perfect.

Yet even though this one felt right in some places, it felt wrong in others. I didn't really feel as connected as I'd hoped to the characters. Is that my fault as a reader? Maybe. I just didn't feel we got beneath the surface of some of these. Is that to be expected? How many twelve-year-old brothers can really, truly know their sisters and do them justice in the narration? Maybe my disconnect with Phyllis was because Phyllis was disconnecting from her family. So maybe this is intentional. Phyllis was having growing pains of her own, and her story isn't this story. I think the truth of the matter is that part of me almost wishes the story was told from another perspective. Or from multiple perspectives. I found Ruth Ann interesting. And I wouldn't have minded the story from Phyllis' perspective.


I mentioned the controversy over this one. The two articles over at SLJ. A Season of Gifts...Don't Throw the Popcorn, and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. (Thanks goes to Roger for pointing these out. He also wrote about the potential for offense here.)

Here are the facts. In chapters six, seven, and eight...(titled "The Haunted Melon Patch," "Fuss and Feathers," and "Indian Summer"). We've got some story lines that could give offense to readers. They involve a supposed ghost of an Indian Princess. A rumor gets started in town that Mrs. Dowdel's melon patch is haunted by an Indian ghost. And one of the supposed-scary things about Mrs. Dowdel and her house is that it is supposedly built on burial grounds. (Anther scary thing about Mrs. Dowdel is that she has a gun and is not afraid to use it (so she says). She's always threatening to shoot trespassers.) So with this sudden appearance of a ghost, Mrs. Dowdel sets up shop. She capitalizes on these rumors, these stories, these other-worldly happenings, to make a quick buck or two. Once all her crops are in, once she's run out of everything that she can think of to sell, she shows up next door with an alleged box of bones and asks the preacher to bury the Indian princess. Not just bury, have a grand funeral. This funeral turns his church around. He goes from having a congregation of eight or nine, to having a full house.

I'm slightly confused by these posts because I had a different interpretation--a not so literal interpretation of these chapters. Not that my interpretation has to be the correct one. And there may be a dozen different ways this could be interpreted, and ten of them may be offensive to somebody. But, the way I read the book was that it was Ruth Ann dressing up pretending to be the Indian princess. Ruth Ann became attached to Mrs. Dowdel, and became her shadow for much of the book. In chapter six, or "The Haunted Melon Patch" the chapter concludes with this statement:

"We glanced across the pink stripe to Ruth Ann's side. She was this little mound in the bed, snoring lightly, with one small hand on top of the covers. A drying hollyhock doll nestled by her chin. "For Pete's sake," Phyllis murmured, "what are those feathers doing all around her bed? It looks like a pheasant flew in here and blew up." (65)

The next chapter, "Fuss and Feathers" seems to be the biggie in offensiveness. And it concludes with this:

"Dad jiggled the box. The label on the blanket around it read: Made in the USA Pendleton, Oregon. "I don't think there's much of anything in this box," Dad said. "Or anybody." "Maybe she's there in spirit," Mother said. "Or maybe Mrs. Dowdel dreamed her up out of thin air," Dad said. "I'm not sure the truth is always in her." But then they both noticed Ruth Ann right below them, all ears and as innocent as if she'd never worn a feathered headdress in all her six years. (74)
I thought it was fairly obvious that there were no *real* bones involved. That this was just a fabrication. Does that make it acceptable? Does that make it less offensive? Maybe, maybe not. I think it's an opportunity for discussion perhaps. I think even if this was all make-believe, a fabrication, that Mrs. Dowdel was using the situation to her advantage. Her attitude being: If people want to believe this story, this superstition, this ghost, then I'll make some money off of folks' curiosity. I don't know that she started the rumor, but I think she knew what was going on, and didn't stop it until she'd made the last drop of money from it. And then decided to end it for good by putting it to rest with a fake funeral. In other words, I *thought* Mrs. Dowdel was telling Ruth Ann to stop playing her game. So whether the funeral was 'real' or 'fake' I think you could probably find offense somewhere.

Of course, whether you read these chapters as being literal or not so literal, there are no easy answers. Even if there were no real bones, no desecration of sacred burial grounds, no condescending let's give these bones a christian burial so there will be peace attitude, you've still got a couple of problems.

One, I think it is still offensive (or potentially offensive) to "play" Indian. I think it is something that was certainly done then. I think during the time period this is set--the fifties--that playing dress up, 'playing Indian', or playing cowboys and Indians, is something that was just done. It was a game to be played. I don't think it was seen then, viewed then, as being wrong or out of place or insensitive.

Two, I think Mrs. Dowdel doesn't come off as a good role model. I think it's hard to read these chapters without seeing her as a bit greedy and manipulative. In other words, she was cashing in on people believing stupid and untrue rumors. Should the people have known better? Probably. Did she take advantage of them being gullible? Yes. Was that unethical or immoral? Probably. It's not like she forced people to give her money. She comes across as childish to me in this section. Like she should have known better, acted more like a grown up.

Three, the funeral itself. Was it unethical or immoral for the preacher to go along with this mess? Was it wrong for him to go through with this gimmicky service? He knew it was a game. I think he knew Mrs. Dowdel was full of it. And I think he suspected that his daughter was not so innocent as she appeared. He was not taking Mrs. Dowdel seriously. Should the reader be taking her seriously then? So the service didn't dwell on the supposed "Indian princess" they were burying. In fact, his son, Bob, conjectured that most people forgot why they came in the first place. This was an opportunity for the people to hear this new preacher speak, to preach, to read from the Word, for the first time. Once they were there, they liked what they heard. They thought he sounded fine, that he preached well. So they wanted to come back for more. Was this wrong to trick them into coming into the church doors to begin with? Do the ends justify the means? Here is a preacher with an empty church being given the opportunity to turn things around. But does the fact that he went along with it make the reader lose respect for him and his decision?

So even a non-literal reading of these chapters isn't problem free. And if you take the Peck-meant-this-literally approach then you've got big, big problems that I think you can't ignore. As I said, I don't think it was meant literally. But the thing is, it isn't about what I think. Each reader's interpretation matters. Each reader's opinion matters.

So what do you do--what can you do--when something like this comes up in your reading? You can ignore it. Pretend the problem isn't there. You can highlight the book's strength and tuck away the criticism. You can try to be as fair as possible and mention the good and the bad. You can focus solely on the book's weakness and fail to even mention what works about it. You can take your interpretation and argue emphatically that that is what the author absolutely, positively meant. Or turn the criticism of the book into the criticism of the author.

But perhaps the best thing to do is to turn it into a discussion. To use it as an opportunity to dialogue.

Other reviews: Kids Lit, Sarah Miller,

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Hull.Margaret said...

I have just discovered Richard Peck. I work in a Library and picked up his book A Year Down Yonder. So I have just met Mrs. D. She is quite a it seems to me Peck is just letting her live up to her reputation.
Read and enjoy. Peck seems to be a character himself.

Marie said...

I didn't read the entire post because I definitely plan to read this one myself, and I don't like spoilers. :) I've been a fan of Richard Peck for a long time--have you read the Blossom Culp series that has "The Ghost Belonged to Me" and others? Thanks for reviewing this one.

Sandy D. said...

Thank you for a wonderful review - you put your finger right on a couple of points I was trying to muddle through. :-)

Melissa said...

Yeah -- what you said. I took the whole Indian princess thing literally, but I could see how it could cause some offense. But I was expecting to love this book, and I just didn't.