Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Rowan of the Wood (thoughts and guest post)

I'm on a road trip through California with my family this week, so posting will be sparse. My current read is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, because my friend lent it to me almost a year ago. It's her favorite book and she wanted me to read it. So far (p. 105) I'm not seeing what all the fuss is about, but with 500 more pages to go, there's still time.

We finished reading Rowan of the Wood aloud together on our way down here. My kids enjoyed the story, though they weren't crazy about the ending. Evan says, "We have to get the sequel, quick, to find out what happens next." I'd say that's a pretty good endorsement. I invited author
Christine Rose to write a guest post while I'm away. When she asked what to write about, I pointed her in the direction of Straight Talk on Race, Mitali Perkin's article in School Library Journal. This was the basis for a task for the Diversity Roll Call meme, and I thought it would be fun to ask various authors to address these issues. Christine was a good sport about being first. Here are her thoughts:

I'm guilty of stereotyping.

At least a few critics have said so.

Just this morning, I awoke to a review of Rowan of the Wood, which got a respectable B+. The reviewer had many good things to say about the book, but she also mentioned the number of stereotypes: orphan hero, attractive side-kicks, motherly, protective teacher, and father figure.

Truly. If I had a dime for every person who said "Oh, just like Harry Potter," I could retire. Yes.
Cullen, our young protagonist, lives with a horrible foster family, just like Harry Potter.
He has a tragic past, just like Harry Potter.
He wears hand-me-down clothes, just like Harry Potter.
He wears glasses, just like Harry Potter.
He reads books, just like... wait a minute! Harry Potter isn't a bookworm!

I guess Cullen Knight can bee seen as a stereotype, but we must remember that stereotypes became stereotypes for a reason. At one point (perhaps even currently), it was common belief or perception or even reality of a type of person.

Cullen is not based on Harry Potter.
Cullen's life is loosely based on Ethan's (my husband and co-author) childhood.

Ethan lived in less-than-desirable foster care.
Ethan was a bookworm.
Ethan escaped in his books.
Ethan has a tragic past.

Okay, he doesn't wear glasses.

The word stereotype is thrown around far too loosely. After all, does anyone say Harry Potter is a stereotype? The orphan hero has been around since Ancient Greece.

Because it works. Because it’s truth. Because it’s with what people can identify.

Does anyone call Bella a stereotype?
(Outcast, but pretty, high school girl just looking for love)
Does anyone call Edward a stereotype?
(Good looking, romantic vampire with a “soul”)

It’s all been done.
What’s different are the details.
The story.
The plot.

Still, more interesting is the way race is dealt with in Rowan of the Wood.
Basically. It isn't.
All the characters are white, and I'm rather embarrassed to say that I didn't even notice. (Then again, the story is about people from Scotland 1400 years ago and a rural-ish community in Northern California. Predominately white.)

But why should I be embarrassed?
Race is not significant to the story other than the Celtic heritage on which it is based.

We're all familiar with the old adage: Writers write what they know.
We do.

Most everyone in my life is white. I didn’t really think about it because I’d like to think that I don’t see race. But this article caused me to look more closely.

That said, I have very few people in my life. We work 24/7 and are traveling the country on a book tour. The few friends I have met are other vendors at our weekend events.

Mostly it’s me, Ethan, my family, my dogs, and my cat. That’s it.

I know what it's like to be a white, middle class woman in America.
Ethan knows what it's like to be an orphan in foster care.
I know what it's like to be a teacher, since I taught in public schools for six years.
I know what it's like to have regrets in life.

The teacher Max MacFey is the teacher I wanted to be.
The foster mother Trudy is the mother I feared I’d be. (It’s why I don’t have kids!)

These are the life experiences that make up part of our characters.
Race doesn't enter into it.

I certainly didn't want to have a character like South Park's "Token," just to say I had a racially diverse cast.

But, as a European American, I always feel like if I don’t display the exact correct proportions of knowledge, compassion, awareness, etc., that I’ll be labeled a racist. I don’t want to be a racist, and I don’t think I am. Nor am I a sexist or even speciest, as I believe in the right to a quality of life for all species.

My grandmother was a racist. She died fearing that she would get a black woman’s blood transfused into her body.

I was embarrassed of her racism.

My parents try not to be racists, but they are racist by default. They use expressions like “Jew them down,” without thinking because it was just how they were raised. Their awareness is certainly higher than their parents’, but not as high as the next generation.

I remember when I was six years old, I wanted to invite a black friend, Kendra, to my birthday party. I remember specifically asking permission to do so, as if the necessity to ask special permission to invite a person of color was somehow innate in 1976.

I’m very proud to say that this new generation, my sister’s kids, don’t have this innate separation. Even as stereotypically well-off they are (as a doctor’s family), they have a wide diverse group of friends.

I guess racism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Continuing with race in our books, in the sequel, Witch on the Water, we visit the past to a Native American tribe on the West Coast, an initial explanation as to how Rowan’s wand got from Scotland to Northern California.

I’m not Native American.

I know almost nothing about Indian culture.

Much of what I do know I've seen on TV or in movies, which is most likely stereotype.
I did my research on the specific tribe in question, and I used actual words and mythology from their culture. (The same way I did with the Celts.) But perhaps some of the blanks were inadvertently filled in with cultural stereotypes. Those chapters are actually in the hands of a tribal representative as I type this, to ensure we didn’t fall into any cultural stereotype trap or offend the members of the tribe due to ignorance.

However, after reading Perkins’ article, I’ll be taking out any reverence to copper-colored or rust-colored skin. The color of their skin isn’t important. That these people were here first is important. That these people suffered greatly at the hands of other people is important.

Whether the tear fell down a rust-colored or milk-colored cheek isn’t important.

Also in the sequel, it's revealed that Maddy's mother (kind of a nature girl) is a lesbian married to another woman. Is that a stereotype?
I guess it is: the natural, earthy, granola-eating, hairy-legged lesbian.

Funny thing is, the whole natural earth-loving, tree-hugging, animal-protecting, granola-eating activist was based on me in my 20s, not a stereotype.

Perhaps people see stereotypes where there is just life.

Thank you, Christine, for offering your thoughts to my readers!

Christine Rose is half of the husband/wife writing team: Christine and Ethan Rose, award-winning authors of YA fantasy Rowan of the Wood. The authors are on a year-long book tour, traveling the country in a fancifully painted RV they affectionately call the Geekalicous Gypsy Caravan. Christine blogs daily, produces two videos weekly (TheTuberRose) on YouTube, and was named one of the top 100 authors on Twitter by mashable. Catch her prolific tweets and pictures from the road @christinerose.


  1. Where are these critics getting their literary education? There's a difference between stereotypes and archetypes.

  2. It was fun to see you again!

    I don't think I could ever call a book like A Fine Balance my favorite. It was way too intense. I hope you can stick with it to the end, though!

  3. Sounds like a book my daughter would enjoy. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  4. True, J.T., there is a difference. I think many readers of today are looking to have those archetypal characters shaken up a bit, though. We want to be surprised, to have our unvoiced assumptions about people challenged. Or is that just me?

    Softdrink, thanks for the books & the coffee! I haven't gotten to the intense part of A Fine Balance yet, so I guess I should keep going. So far it's been mostly background information. 100 pages of background information.

    Anna, You're welcome! If she tries it I hope she'll enjoy it as much as my kids did.

  5. I think that guest blogger/author was using stereotype (as a pseudonym for archetype) to relate the content she was speaking of back to the topic suggested by Ali (and to tie in the way it was used by the reviewer of her book).

    In regard to the idea of archetypes, I think that Michael Chabon said it best, "All novels are sequence; influence is bliss."

  6. Interesting. I am not into boy wizards at all - especially Harry Potter types. A girl wizard (can there be such a thing?) might tempt me.

  7. Thanks to Christine for stepping out on a limb.

    I think that plot taken alone is often considered free of race issues. I heard Toni Morrison try to demonstrate this with a passage of her work when I heard her speak some years ago. It takes a pretty fine level of analysis to tease race issues out of plot -- action, structure, story arc. I think characters are the real key to easily recognizing race in a book. Who are they? What is their experience, background, etc. Why do they behave this way?

    So, concerning writing about what you know. . .these are some very compelling kernels for developing a character: "She died fearing that she would get a black woman’s blood transfused into her body." And who might that black woman be?

    "I remember when I was six years old, I wanted to invite a black friend, Kendra, to my birthday party. I remember specifically asking permission to do so, as if the necessity to ask special permission to invite a person of color was somehow innate in 1976."

    What if Kendra grew up to be that black woman giving the transfusion?

  8. lovely essay and reflection. I think these are all issues we want to be aware of as we read and think about stories and our lives. But not let them overwhelm us or our children.

    Rowan is definitely on my list to read this fall! thank you!

  9. That's a really juicy storyline in there, isn't there, Chris? Love the way you teased that out of there.

    MaryAnn, I agree. I find this stuff fascinating to think about, but I'm rarely analyzing the racial content of a story while I'm reading it. It's usually after the fact. I really appreciate Christine's willingness to analyze her own work in this way.