Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'Redwall' Has a Race Problem

In my ongoing quest to make sure that the children I care for are entertained, at one point I hit upon the idea of having the older of the two start reading Redwall books. After all, I reasoned, she's certainly of a high enough reading level to understand them, and she's just about the age I was when I started the series, so this will be perfect! We'll have something in common that we can nerd out over and she'll have an endless series of books to love and that I can go make her read when it's clear she's gotten to the "whining about how boring summer vacation is" part of the day. Win-win.

Except it didn't work. She doesn't like them. And maybe she still could, maybe she could be persuaded to try again with a different book or I could wrack my brain to come up with an incentive to get her more than twenty pages into the story, but so far nothing has worked. It's frustrating. I mean, I love those books. I read them over and over and over again. I saved up and bought most of them with my own money, which for a nine year old was impressive. Why won't she love them?

And then I actually got around to reading one of them again and I have a sneaking suspicion as to why this child doesn't have nearly the same experience reading these books as I did.

See, the thing about the Redwall books that I always glossed over was the race part of it. And before you all get up in arms, I mean the very well established part of the books where the different species of small woodland creatures have clearly defined traits and racial characteristics. So, like, mice are your average joes, but moles are all hardworking and a little slow, with this thick accent and they really like food but they're not that bright. Hares are silly and foppish and ridiculous but very good soldiers and excellent to have at your back, but they brag and make things up and you probably shouldn't trust them to get places on time. And so on.

It's a weird correlation for the story to make. Animal species is tied to a set of behaviors and characteristics and while some of it is totally arguable as cultural bias, a lot of it isn't. And where it gets most tricky and weird is when we start talking about the "evil" animals. As in, there are whole species of animals that are just plain bad. That are awful and nasty and mean and always the bad guys. The weasels and stoats and ferrets and foxes and rats and so on are all the villains in the books. Not just the villains, though, they're established as just being from "bad blood". In other words, everyone's favorite series of stories about cute woodland creatures eating big meals and fighting evil has a really unsettling racial undercurrent. Yay.

This comes out most obviously in the book actually devoted to the subject, The Outcast of Redwall. In that story, which I absolutely hated as a child for no reason I could really articulate, the nice woodland creatures of Redwall Abbey - a haven for all good animals in need - find an orphaned baby ferret in the forest. Being kind and loving, they take him in and raise him.

But it's not easy. He's a ferret, after all, and by his nature he's evil and bad. The nice animals of the Abbey are scared of him and they aren't always that nice. Eventually, as he grows up, he starts to resent the Abbey for being so, well, racist to him, and he acts out. Or as, the story puts it, his "vermin nature" can't be hidden for long, and he turns on his sweet mouse nursemaid. Eventually he's banished from the Abbey because, basically "blood will tell", I guess, and then he's off to find his real dad, who's a warlord.

Only his nursemaid follows him, convinced that he can be saved. He's horrible to her because he's nasty and evil and bad and it's all awful until they find his birth father. Said birth father threatens to kill the ferret's nursemaid and then the ferret fights back and saves her but dies in the process. The end. Such a nice ending, right?

It's genuinely distressing when you look at this actual storyline. There's so much junk in here about race and privilege and just grossness. I mean, the evil ferret is born bad and cannot be redeemed because of his race. But if he dies tragically saving the nice kind good mouse who raised him, then maybe, just maybe, he can be considered a "good" animal after all. Yuck. Out of the entire series, I feel like Outcast of Redwall is where the inherent racism of the series, or just the distressing racist undertones, are most prevalent. But it's not the only place they show up.

As a point of face, the entire series has a really upsetting tone when it comes to race. Mice and badgers and hares and moles and hedgehogs and such are all always good. Ferrets and weasels and rats and such are all always bad. There's no moral ambiguity. Your morality and personhood, your place in the world, is determined entirely by your species. You're born into it. And far from becoming a really interesting analysis of how discrimination and a lack of economic or social opportunity can breed crime, the plots here just become stories that enforce an idea of genetic determinism. He's evil because he's a rat. End of story.

And this is a problem! It's a problem when you're a little kid reading the books because you don't have the intellectual training to parse those ideas yet. You don't have a literature professor leaning over your shoulder reminding you to examine the underlying assumptions about race that these books put forth. You're just reading and the book tells you that some people are born bad. It's easy to swallow that when it's wrapped up in such a fun and exciting covering.

It's not that I think the Redwall books have no value, either. I still really enjoy them and I have my whole collection kicking around to this day. Those beatup paperbacks have been my friends for a very long time. To toss them out now would be like cutting out a huge part of who I am. They shaped me. The problem is that I can't say they shaped me entirely for the better.

Like, there's some really good elements to those stories too. Redwall Abbey is a utopian society where all good creatures can live together in peace. It's basically a socialist dream, where everyone contributes what they have and they all have big meals together and get along and are happy. The battles they fight are epic and always about protecting the innocent from some form of injustice. They help other creatures and go on noble quests and there is seriously a lot of good in those books.

But it's hard to remember that when I have to stop and explain that, well, in these books the weasels are just evil. All the time. The reason my young charge had trouble getting into these books - among others, chief of which was that they're "boring" - was that she didn't feel comfortable reading a story where the bad guys are just bad because they were born that way. And it makes perfect sense. It kind of made me feel like a jerk for even suggesting them.

As I've stated before a few times now, the kids I care for aren't white. I am. I have no real cultural history of being told that I'm lesser because of my race. I don't get stares on the street. People don't make assumptions about me because of the color of my skin - I am privileged enough to be "neutral". Of course we all know that there is no neutral or default setting, but I'm white and it's very easy in our culture to see everyone who isn't as an other.

These kids aren't white. And while they don't have a meaningful understanding of racism yet (thank goodness), they are aware of it. How could they not be? They know that I look different than they do and that sometimes people treat us differently because of it. It's hard to deal with that. It's hard to explain that. It's brutal to explain to these kids why the nice lady at the YMCA thought that I was their mother and that she later thought their actual mother was their nanny. That's a horrible feeling.

When it comes down to it, I'm really glad that my charge didn't like the book. I'm glad she just put it down and pushed it away. I think she could have gotten something good out of it, but I'm not sure I want to deal with the cost. It was a hard moment for me, because I couldn't deny anymore that something I love, a story that has nurtured me through some tough parts of my life, is, frankly, racist. It supports racist ideology. That's not okay. 

So I won't be burning my books or anything, but I will be thinking a lot more carefully before I recommend them in the future. The last thing I want is to be responsible for a child coming to believe that they are racially inferior or "born bad". And I can't wholeheartedly recommend a book series where that is a major part of the story.

Yeah.... No.


  1. Good thought processes here. Makes me think of Wind in the Willows--where all the stoats, weasels, etc. are bad as well.

  2. (Sorry if this is kinda off topic, but) Have you thought about recommending the Circle of Magic books by Tamora Pierce to her?

  3. That the good in us is irrepressible, the hidden good resurfaces, and the redemption and restoration of broken goodness is possible are all such core ideals to me that their presence determines a lot about whether I like a story. And the reason I cannot stomach a tale about adultery or revenge (without redemption) has everything to do with the hopelessness of imagining that we are doomed to follow evil impulses. I don't think the motivation for evilness is ever sufficiently explained for my taste. I mean, I can't imagine how it is the best strategy to fullness of life (aka "happiness"), any more than altruism is (also, a totally insufficient motivation). The idea that some are doomed to always lack motive-clarity and (therefore) wisdom in achieving their desires would be disheartening if it could be true.