Indian in the Cupboard has got everything: action, adventure, excitement, a pinch of magic, countless awards, rave reviews and oh yeah…some of your garden variety stereotyping and racism.
I’m pretty sure someone could write a dissertation about everything that’s wrong with Indian in the Cupboard.. Someone may already have done so. I couldn’t possibly go through everything that might/could/does offend, I don’t have that kind of time (or a thesis advisor). Here are the main things that bothered me:
- The way Little Bear talks. A sample you ask? “Happen? Good sleep happen. Cold ground. Need blanket. Food. Fire.”
- Omri is completely ignorant about different tribes and often ignores Little Bear when he is told the Iroquois way of doing things. Example: Omri says Indians live in teepees; Little Bear explains that his people, the Iroquois, live in longhouses. Omri says, please just try it? Little Bear is converted. Every time Omri proposes Little Bear do something that he believes Indians should do, Little Bear eventually acquiesces, coming around to Omri’s way of thinking, sometimes giving up the ways of his people.
- Despite feeling concerned about all other figures and their ability to return to their own time, Omri allows Little Bear to choose a plastic woman as his wife. The girl gets no say in any of this and at the end of the book is sent back with Little Bear rather than to her own time and people. This is a very minor part of the book, but it seems that so much energy is spent on showing us that Omri realizes that these are real people, not toys and that their lives can’t be messed with. Unless of course, it’s a female character they introduce in the last few chapters of the book.
Here’s the thing though. This book is beloved. It’s generally considered a great book and is still taught in many schools (although I hope with more sensitivity than it was taught to me all 20 something years ago).
So what should you do? This is a really personal choice. For a lot of people, the story still has has both value and genuine interest. It also has a reputation for being able to grab kids who aren’t big readers. But, it’s up to you. Definitely skip it if you have trouble with the racism issue and do not want to address it. What do you think? Is Indian in the Cupboard still worth reading?
Great for: Raising discussion. Omri clearly learns something from his time with Little Bear, and kids can too! Find the places where Little Bear shares information about his culture and talk about how he must have felt about Omri’s dismissal of his wishes. Do research on the Iroquois people and see if Little Bear’s character seems to be a faithful interpretation of an Iroquois or whether the author is stereotyping Little Bear.
This also sometimes works to capture the attention of reluctant readers, but I would say make sure the book is at or below the reading level of the child you’re trying to get interested, because if it’s too hard, you’ll be defeated before you start. This would be considered a challenging book for most of the third graders I teach.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – None
Profanity – “dawggone heck,” “Hell” (used several times), references to Little Bear as “red”, “redskin” or “Injun”
Death, Violence and Gore – The Indian has a knife and stabs Omri with it. The Indian claims he took 30 scalps during a war with the French. The Indian’s wife is dead. A horse kicks the Indian causing him to bleed and require medical attention. The cowboy has a gun and uses it to shoot Patrick. Omri brings a knight to life to get an axe for Little Bear and mentions being able to picture the knight “murdering Saracens in Palestine.” There are several instances of fighting. The Indian shoots the cowboy in the chest nearly killing him. The Indian and cowboy decide to become blood brothers and cut their wrists.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – There are frequent references to “firewater” as the only thing the Indian wants to drink. At one point it is clarified that firewater means whiskey. When the cowboy is brought to life he believes Omri is a drunken hallucination. A doctor recommends brandy to treat an injury and Omri steals whiskey from his parents to give to Little Bear and Boone the cowboy.
Frightening or Intense Things – As described above, plus Omri’s brother’s pet rat gets loose and they worry it will eat the small people.