I know the tagline at the top of my blog says “Everything I need to know about history, I learned through children’s literature.” And I stand by my claim that my reading of certain books (over and over and over again) helped form my love of history. But in reading books like A Little Princess as an adult, part of me just feels icky. Because I know that there’s a whole other side to India’s history that Burnett would never have even thought about.
Honestly, I don’t know much about Indian history–I’m almost ashamed to admit how much I learned after reading most of this wikipedia article. But as I was reading Princess, there was always this nagging feeling in the back of my mind–”You’re being enchanted by this glamourous vision of India, but all of this really sucked for the Indian people.” Sara’s father, who she loved so much, was one of those white men who occupied India–and later profited from its resources. Diamond mines, as glamorous as they sound, are horrible places to work. Even today.
So I read these wonderful passages, and part of me was enthralled. Who wouldn’t be, with descriptions such as this?
She did not know what being rich meant. She had always lived in a beautiful bungalow, and had been used to seeing many servants who made salaams to her and called her “Missee Sahib,” and gave her her own way in everything. She had had toys and pets and an ayah who worshipped her, and she had gradually learned that people who were rich had these things.
Replace the word “servants” with “slaves” and “ayah” with “mammy,” and you could very well have a book about life in the ante-bellum South. There’s the same hot climate from which the wealthy must escape. And perhaps this book has survived because its about India, a story in history few knew about, rather than about the American South, of which most know at least the basics.
But I digress. Am I blaming Burnett for not being more balanced towards the Indian people? Not at all-she wrote about what she knew. And in this time period, few thought that what was happening in India was wrong. Quite frankly, the way she wrote about India always made me curious about their culture. Ram Dass is such a fabulous character. He is human–well, as human as a fairy godmother-type can be!–which is more than we can say about most minority characters created during this era.
But to really know about history, we certainly can’t rely solely on the images that children’s literature have placed in our heads. I know that Laura Ingalls Wilder is frequently cited as being insensitive to Native Americans. She’s not insensitive per se, but she’s not balanced either. And I understand concerns about her books–they are so popular and I know that most readers won’t ever try to find out more and get the bigger story. She is indeed creating ideas in children’s heads about the past–ideas that aren’t entirely right.
And this is part of the reason I’m championing, in my own small way, the genre of Kidlit History. For those books written in the time–that some classify as historical fiction, but were written before there was the distance to properly assess the big picture. There are still plenty of lessons in them, but we must acknowledge that they are biased to that one author’s experience. Little House is not the only story of the pioneer experience, though it seems that some folks believe that it is.
My childhood reading had extraordinary bias in it. Almost all of the books I read were about white, middle or upper class, protestant females. Yet, as a historian, one of my specialities is African American history. I can’t trace that interest back to childhood reading. But I don’t have to. My hope for kids that read kidlit history is that this is a first step into a life-long love of history. So, if they don’t figure out that colonial India wasn’t all about being pampered until they’re adults, that’s okay. When they do, though, there’ll be a spark of recognition as they realize they’re discovering the rest of Sara’s story.