Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Book Club To-nite!

This was a bittersweet book club for me, as it will be my last with this group since I'm moving 150 miles away at the end of the month. But it was an excellent one to say goodbye with!

Tonight was rather different. Tonight, we welcomed author Marlene Carvell to talk about her two books, Who Will Tell My Brother? and Sweetgrass Basket. Carvell lives and works in the area, and it was a real treat to hear her talk about them after having read them. Well, I read the one, anyway: Who Will tell My Brother?

The most striking thing about her novels is that she writes them in free verse. I know of no one else who does this, and it gives them a very different feel than anything else. As she talked about her journey in getting published, I felt pleased that something like this was able to see the light of day at all. I had avoided watching American Idol until this current season. I had hated the show all that time, but decided to actually see it and find out why. I had my answer during the first few auditions I saw, when Simon, Paula and Randy were actually coming out and telling people: "You've got the look that record companies love" or "You'll be very easy to market." I wasn't so naive as to believe that marketing had nothing to do with their decisions, but I hadn't thought that was ALL there was. So reading a book like Carvell's is a pleasant oasis amidst all those pink-shoe books you see at Barnes and Noble these days.

As Carvell herself said, to say that Who Will tell My Brother? is a book about a Native American boy who tries to get his offensive high school mascot changed is to oversimplify, although that is what the book's about on a very basic level. It also follows the journey of Evan (the young man in question) towards understanding his heritage, and (as Carvell also said) is about how people treat one another. Changing a school mascot sounds like such a small thing, but in the book (and the real-life experience of Carvell's son the book is based on), people dug in, people ridiculed him and treated him horribly. The Board of Education actually voted to keep the mascot -- after repeated appeals, they not only not listened to him but actually voted to keep the mascot. He got picked on at school. And ultimately, the mascot did not change. But Evan succeeded in changing people's minds, and several of his classmates stood with him at graduation through the mascot's offensive dance on the field.

The treatment of Native Americans at the hands of whites is one of the most shameful episodes in American history -- only the treatment of blacks even comes close. The difference is that attitudes towards blacks have changed, and that the story from slavery through Jim Crow and Brown vs. Board of Ed. is taught in school and well-known to all Americans, whereas we as a society have never really faced up to the systematic destruction of Native life and culture. Unless you live near a casino, you generally just don't hear about them. Politicians never court the "Native American vote." There's no "Native American Music" section at Borders, no Native American market segment. We've never really given them a way to fit in, although we have alternately romanticized and vilified them. Carvell is white, but her husband is a member of the Mohawk tribe and has a painful family history. His aunt was taken from her family and placed in a boarding school for Native American children, where she was forbidden to speak her native language, cut off from her family, and kept away from any classmates who happened to be from the same tribe (her experiences form the basis for Sweetgrass Basket). His grandfather ran away from a similar school and had to work his way back home. He changed his name from a typical Native American last name when he'd applied for a liquor license and gotten denied. He applied under his new last name and was granted it. And while Who Will tell My Brother? is a novel, her own sons suffered through many of the same experiences as each tried and failed to get the mascot changed.

If you're wondering, though, there was a positive ending IRL. Her son's cause resonated with the eighth graders in the district, and as high school students, a group of them banded together to fight for change. The school board promised them that if they did a list of things over the course of the school year, they could change the mascot, but refused when the students came to them having completed the list. The students went to the media, a special school board meeting was called, hundreds showed up, the mascot got changed, and there was an unprecedent turnout of high school seniors who were 18 at the next board elections and they voted out the president. They kept the name -- the Marauders -- but the mascot itself is now a wolf. The real-life Evan, meanwhile, is now studying for the bar exam, and is involved with a tribal court out west.

Carvell's third book is in pre-publication and doesn't deal with Native American issues. She is working on a fourth, but didn't tell us much of what it was about. It was a fascinating evening with her, however. I'm going to pick up her other book tomorrow (sexual exploitation fest 2007 having come to an end). I'll report on it soon!

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