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Crossing Bok Chitto

The New York Times

The New York Times
Children’s Books: New York Times Book Review, August 12, 2006
By Simon Rodberg

  • MALIAN’S SONG By Marge Bruchac Illustrated by William Maughan. Unpaged. The Vermont Folklife Center. $16.95. (Ages 6 to 10)

  • CROSSING BOK CHITTO A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom By Tim Tingle. Illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges. Unpaged. Cinco Puntos Press. $17.95. (Ages 8 to 12)

  • THE OLD AFRICAN By Julius Lester Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. 79pp. Dial Books. $19.99. (Ages 9 and up)

In the elementary classroom, at least, multiculturalism has succeeded. Schoolchildren now learn about the American journey as the coming-together of diverse cultures, with not just Pilgrims but Native Americans and Africans and, more recently, Latinos and Asians walking along the national trail. Even in this updated version, ours is a triumphalist travelogue: from slavery to freedom; from poverty to riches; e pluribus, unum. Sure, the new children’s literature suggests, we have our problems, but eventually we gather everyone with us into the future.

Three new children’s books radically challenge this myth, with alternative narratives and alternative dreams. In each, the journey of escape leads not into a bright American future, but out of an American nightmare. As a slave puts it in “The Old African ” (2005), by Julius Lester, “I don’t know what’s in Africa, but I sho’ know what’s here. . . . I believe I’ll take a chance on what I don’t know rather than to keep on living with what I do.” This is the classic voice of the American immigrant, reversed.

Unlike the multicultural mythos of America, these brilliant books are not feel-good, not melting-pot optimistic. They are as difficult as the real histories they tell, and they insist not only on diversity but on difference. They force parents and teachers to confront just how harsh a truth we can teach our children.

Marge Bruchac’s “Malian’s Song,” set in an Abenaki village in Canada in the 18th century, starts with the Native American idyll beloved by the 60’s generation (and their children). William Maughan’s lush palette illustrates Abenaki folkways, from catching fish to a breakfast of corn porridge, dried blue berries and maple sugar. The book feels almost “ by the shores of Gitche Gumee” — until “the White Devil” appears. “Awanagiak, strangers,” warns a scout, “come at dawn . . . burn village!” Flames obscure the moon: the English soldiers have arrived. Malian, an Abenaki girl, flees into the night, and sings, “I am lonesome; I am lonesome. . . . There is no friend anywhere.” This true story, about a 1759 attack north of Montreal, shows the other side of our multicultural history: a violent taking, not a joining.

“Crossing Bok Chitto,” by Tim Tingle, a story teller and folklorist, tells a tale with a happier ending, but its journey is no less a departure from the narrative of American uplift. In Mississippi, a Choctaw girl and a black slave boy join forces when his mother is sold: he knows how to become invisible to whites, she knows how to cross the river to escape them. They do not go north, to be with the enlightened white abolitionists. Instead, his family disappears into the fog — illustrated with a symbolic, almost Japanese simplicity, by Jeanne Rorex Bridges — and out of American bondage.

“In stories or in life, trouble comes,” Tingle writes; in literature for children, this is a lesson as old as the Grimms. But these realities cut deeper than any fantasy. Even young children recognize the Wicked Stepmother as an archetype. Will the children who read these books recognize the white people in them as the white people in their lives or in their own families?

The hero of “The Old African” thinks the skin of slave traders is “white like sorrow.” The traders remind newly captured men of “Mwene Puto, the Lord of the Dead, who was the color of bones.” The book’s first words convey fierce anger at the horrors of history. “The boy’s wrists were tied so that his arms hugged the trunk of the large oak tree. His face was pressed against it as if it were the bosom of the mother he had never known. His back glistened red with blood. Whack!”

“The Old African” depicts the brutality of the slave trade with stunning effect. Jerry Pinkney’s emotion-filled illustrations match the honesty of Julius Lester’s text; the hold of the slave ship, with dozens of emaciated, twisted bodies crammed into the page, is as horrifying as painting can be. The journey to America is a descent into hell.

These books reject the idea that there is one American history, or even several compatible stories. The Old African never says a word on American shores. “You can only talk if there is someone who understands,” he thinks. “No one in this new place could. Then how could he speak?” This incompatibility will pain both liberal multiculturalists and conservative unifiers.

The story we now teach our children is of American openness, of possibility in variety. At the school where I work, almost all the students are black or Latino and poor. We assign research papers on black mathematicians and hold assemblies for Hispanic Heritage Month , and tell students: “This country is yours, too.” If history is meant to hold lessons for living, these children’s books offer a more complex moral, and hope, for personal and cultural survival. Strikingly, each book ends with an afterword of closely printed text, the story behind the story. “Malian’s Song” turns out to stem from Abenaki elders and their descendants who refused “to live in fear. . . . They are finally speaking the truth about the past, and sharing their knowledge with anyone who is willing to listen.” In “Crossing Bok Chitto,” Tim Tingle writes, “We do not deny that darkness exists, but we chose to walk in light . . . as long as our stories are told, we can be Choctaw forever.”

These authors connect the traumas of the past to the telling of those traumas without compromise. The Old African learns “how to hold the hurting in a heart so it would not break, how to keep the living alive — and the dead too.” These stories ask the same of us.
- August 12, 2006 

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