book report: Boomtown by Nowen N. Particular

I thought I'd give another children's book from Thomas Nelson another chance, even though I didn't enjoy my previous choice. This new book is for older children. It's full title is Boomtown: Chang's Famous Fireworks, by Nowen N. Particular a.k.a Marty Longé. If you want the short review, don't bother. It has potential, it's almost funny, but it's not one a parent would enjoy reading aloud to a child. My 13 year old daughter did find it fun, but she also saw my furious notes in the margins when I got to the really bad middle part of the book.

What was really bad in the middle of the book? Stereotypical American Indians, the Hopontop tribe who were circus Indians that traveled around the country doing crazy circus tricks with names such as Chief Knife Thrower and the Fire Diver, Flaming Arrow, and Dark Cloud the Magician. How would it fly if he set the story in the South and wrote about an African American village who ran a circus and had dumb names? But it's OK for Thomas Nelson authors to write about the Indian tribes in the Northwest as caricatures.

They live in a "neat encampment of teepees, each with a curl of smoke climbing into the clear, frosty sky. In the center was a longhouse built out of logs and roofed with bark shingles." p. 138 Since the story is set in northern Washington state, the wooden lodge is appropriate, but tipis are housing for Plains Indians who migrate with their game. Somehow all is meant with no intent of harm because Mr. Flaming Arrow who performs the Fire Dive has a degree in civil engineering, "he's also pretty good with a bow and arrow. When he's not busy with the circus, he teaches math and science in the Hopontop school." p.145 Mr. Particular is not very successful in escaping the caricatures in his mind. Slapping a backstory on a stereotype does not make the stereotype acceptable.

Another example of American Indian ignorance is the foil of the orphaned Indian baby left on the pastor's doorstep. The Hopontop tribe won't take her back because she's not pure blood Hopontop. Now this is the clearest example of a white author reading his own beliefs onto a minority group. American Indians are generally not racist. Adoption was a normal method of tribal enlargement. In my area, the Mashantucket tribe have an amazing exhibit at their museum of the diversity of skin color among their members. I can't imagine any elder saying of a non-pure blood baby, "'We could adopt the baby ourselves, but that is not as easy as it sounds. I have a duty to preserve the heritage of my people - we have had to fight for it for hundreds of years - mostly agasint our white neighbors...It is better that she be rasied among her mother's people.'" p.149 Those seem like words ripped from a Southern mayor brought a baby who wasn't purely Anglo, not a tribal elder of an Indian tribe in the real world.

That chapter was pretty bad, but the next chapter introduces the genius-escaped-slave-originally-from-South-Africa. Now we move from bad stereotypes to bad history. South Africa was not a source for North American slaves. Most of them came from the horn of Africa, up to a third of all slaves came from present day Benin and Nigeria. South Africa was too far away from buyers on the plantations. The horn of Africa was much closer and allowed fewer slaves to die en route. So the author got his source of the slave unlikely, but then he got the date completely wrong, 1854, p.157. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was outlawed to the U.S. in 1808. Most slaves in the U.S. afterward were born in the U.S.

After these offenses, the book tries to return to a Willy Wonka sense of goofiness. It swings but usually misses. I simply did not laugh out loud, ever. The theme of grace is very nice. But it is no excuse for the use of Indian stereotypes and historical cluelessness. I hope the author spends more time learning about and meeting real people different from himself before he drags out worn cardboard props of people.


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