My name is KJ/Kerry-Jean.
I’m a 24 year old trying to make it in the exciting world of teaching high school history. Due to the complete lack of available education jobs right now, I’m currently stuck working as a substitute teacher. The only highlight of this situation is that I had ample time to complete my Master’s Degree in History.
Reading has always been a passion of mine. What started as an interest in classic mythology and fairy tales as a kid has now blossomed into a fairly substantial obsession with building up my personal library. I don’t read for escapism, but rather to push my mind to new limits, so I’ll admit to being a bit of snob when it comes to literature. I will always read a book before criticizing it, but I have difficulty taking some of my friends seriously when they gush over the newest romances or vampire trends.
This blog is my love note to literature. I use it to explore many different genres at once, discuss some of my favorite authors, and highlight books that I feel deserve more credit from the general audience. If you ever have suggestions or are looking for recommendations, I’m all ears.
I’ve had roughly a year to mull over this book since I last posted about it. While I don’t entirely disagree with what you’ve said, this novel has way, way too many problems for me to ever feel comfortable teaching it. It’s a nightmare.
The entire novel is based upon a gross set of cultural appropriations. Basically, a young white boy is adopted by Tlingit elders who use the wisdom and spirituality of Native Americans in order to solve his emotional troubles and force those same teachings onto the people that he deems worthy.
99% of the Native American concepts in this novel are made up on the spot. Seriously –Oyate.org recently removed their “Books to Avoid” page, but this topped their list. From the animal dancing to the totem pole to the ancestor rock, Miklaelsen blatantly made up Native traditions in order to keep his protagonist busy. Even the concept of Circle Justice was exaggerated to the point of lying. All of his decisions to include Native “culture” ignores any actual cultural significance that may be attributed to these items and actions. The result is that this book presents the reader with a fill-in-the-blank fantasy sort of culture that has no basis in reality.
First and foremost, this is a problem because Ben Miklaelsen is not Tlingit. He isn’t Native American at all. The guy is actually of Danish descent and was born in Bolivia. His decision to base a novel on Tlingit culture was due to the fact that he enjoyed travelling and once spotted a white “spirit” bear too. Oh, and he was inspired by the Columbine massacre. Not really a great connection to the culture he insisted on writing about.
When discussing this novel in both guides and interviews, Miklaelsen speaks as though the Tlingit don’t exist anymore. He outright states that they aren’t a modern culture. Every time he discusses the Tlingit, he pits them against “American society” and the American audience, as though they exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. This only reinforces the idea that Native Americans are some magical group that are spiritually and ancestrally linked to nature. It stops us from thinking of them as actual people.
But moving along from the cultural side of it:
I am not a fan of the way that Peter, the boy who was brain damaged from Cole’s attack, was treated within the story. His case is one of “tough love,” where he was forced to spend time with his abuser in an isolated setting because it was supposedly for his own good. His concerns and fears are ignored, his own desires to leave and never see Cole again are brushed off and his violent outbursts are hailed as a wonderful show of recovery. This is a young boy who attempted suicide twice since he was attacked. Somehow, despite the fact that he still suffers from vivid nightmares about being beaten, every adult in this situation agrees that learning how to forgive is what he needs the most. Forget that he needs to feel mentally and physically safe, forget that he currently has no trust of the outside world, forget that he is still coming to terms with the fact that his body will never again be fully functional: Nope, the only thing that will “fix” this teenager is if he forgives the boy who nearly killed him.
This is not safe and it is not healthy. That is not a message that I am comfortable sending, especially since there is a good chance that many students have experienced abuse in their own lives. This book essentially teaches that they must ignore the voice in their head that preserves their personal safety and keeps them out of danger. It’s the comfort and happiness of their abusers that supposedly matters the most.
Just typing that out makes me angry.
So during the past year, my opinion about this book has gotten much more harsh. I’ve talked about it with other professionals, I’ve been a part of the discussions that it provokes in the classroom and I’ve seen the misinformation that it spreads among students. If I can avoid this book for the future, I’ll be much better off.
Paolini was really just a kid when he wrote it. He didn’t have enough literary or life experience to truly flesh out his story and characters. The result was a book that isn’t a unique whole, but rather just a dozen different random pieces that have been stolen from other works that he admired.
Paolini took most of his world-building and naming details directly from Tolkein, most of his plotlines and characters from George Lucas, the dragon’s characteristics from McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, and the magic structure from Edding’s Belgariad. These aren’t tiny details that have been adapted, either. They are huge, glaring structures that are an important point to each of the novels.
There’s also the problem that much of his story isn’t realistic. This might seem like a stupid criticism of a novel that’s about magic dragons, but think about elements like geography, characters’ use of language, warfare strategies and government structures. For example: even though the Varden used a very simple battle plan that could be easily tracked (attacking cities closer and closer to Urû’baen), the Empire couldn’t follow their plans and therefore lost every major battle. Neither does it make sense for Angela to single-handedly poison thousands of soldiers by simply walking into an enemy camp undetected, carrying the poison under her clothes.
If you feel like reading more, this page has a good breakdown of most criticisms.
To be fair, the characters ARE all horrible people, and you DO want bad things to happen to many of them. Reviews have been saying this since the book was first published.
Context is everything. ;)
What we have here are a group of people who believe that hating a character is an insult to the novel. They are having a strong emotional reaction to Bronte’s writing and interpreting that as boredom, dismissing the novel because they didn’t like the feelings it evoked in them. “Bad” characters are automatically equated with bad writing. In all, they see these problems (that were put into the storyline deliberately) and think that merits a one-star review.
On the other hand, you have people who hate the characters and wish for their death while recognizing that it takes an extremely skilled author to push them to that point. When the book was first published, many reviewers marveled that someone could pen such a plot without spinning into depression and suicide. They saw it as wild, savage, brutal, and so new that it was impossible not to feel awe towards it. Even those who hated it admitted to desperately needing to finish the book and being struck by the sheer power of each character.
Are you allowed to hate Catherine and Heathcliffe? Oh god yes. Should you want them to die? Probably. But does all that mean your reading experience was wasted, that this is therefore an awful book? Absolutely not. If someone hates Wuthering Heights, I’d hope for a better reason than “stupid characters.” I’d take you more seriously if you felt nothing towards them.