The Indian in the Cupboard (1980)

 ‘Don’t you speak English?’ asked Omri. All the Indians in films spoke a sort of English; it would be terrible if his Indian couldn’t. How would they talk to each other? The Indian lowered his knife a fraction.
‘I speak,’ he grunted.
Omri breathed deeply in relief. ‘Oh, good! Listen, I don’t know how it happened that you came to life, but it must be something to do with this cupboard, or perhaps the key — anyway, here you are, and I think you’re great, I don’t mind that you stabbed me, only please can I pick you up? After all, you are my Indian,’ he finished in a very reasonable tone.
He said all this very quickly while the Indian stared at him. The knife-point went own a little further, but he didn’t answer.
‘Well? Can I? Say something!’ urged Omri impatiently.
‘I speak slowly,’ grunted the miniature Indian at last.
‘Oh.’ Omri thought, and then said, very slowly, ‘Let — me — pick — you — up.’
The knife came up again in an instant, and the Indian’s knees bent into a crouch.
‘No.’
‘Oh, please.’
‘You touch — I kill!’ the Indian growled ferociously. […]
‘Oh, okay I won’t then. But there’s no need to get angry. I don’t want to hurt you.’ Then, as the Indian looked baffled, he said, in what he supposed was Indian-English, ‘Me — no— hurt — you.’
‘You come near, I hurt you,’ said the Indian swiftly.

Extract from The Indian in the Cupboard, pages 17-19

A timeless classic or an extreme case of controversy? The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks has faced repeated criticisms and divided the opinions of its readers since its publication in 1980. Despite this, it remains the most successful publication of its London-born author, selling more than 10 million copies, producing four sequels and resulting in the production of its equally successful film. The story follows the adventures of Omri, an English boy who receives a small plastic figure, Little Bear, who is brought to life when placed in an old cupboard and locked using a key gifted to him by his mother; hence The Indian in the Cupboard.

Considered by the protagonist as ‘a sort of English’ (17), the speech of Little Bear is in many ways representative of a simplified form of the English language, with his grammatical structures similar to those found in children’s speech. From his use of utterances like ‘you touch – I kill!’, (18) we see he uses intransitive verbs which describe his actions rather than feelings and do not require a direct object. It is Little Bear’s difficulty with English and Omri’s assumptions of his incompetence that lead Omri to adjust his own speech in order to communicate ‘successfully’ with his new friend. For example, Omri attempts to produce what he assumes to be ‘Indian-English’, exclaiming ‘Me – no – hurt – you.’ (19). Here Omri uses an ungrammatical negative form, ‘no hurt’, opting to omit the auxiliary ‘will’ as well as producing the personal pronoun ‘me’, as opposed to ‘I’. This choice is particularly interesting, as we have seen that Little Bear is able to produce and therefore comprehend ‘I’ as it is found in his earlier speech. As a result, this oversimplified use of language could be seen as Omri patronising Little Bear and claiming himself to be the superior user of language – similar to when English tourists attempt to communicate with people who speak a different language in another country.

Not only does Little Bear’s dialect influence Omri’s views towards him, but the reader is also subject to the assumption that he is linguistically incompetent. This is an idea discussed by Meek (2006: 121): that the dialogue assigned to American Indians is often an inarticulate form of English, which intellectually and economically marginalises the character in the imagination of the public.

In contrast with this, the dialect that Banks is attempting to replicate is extinct in modern society. As discussed by Seale, a Native American herself, who suggests that although ‘there are characteristic speech patterns for those who are also Native speakers … nobody in the history of the world ever spoke this way’ (1988: 14). The closest we find to a modern day Native American accent, is the so-called ‘rez accent’. With this, ‘Native American … people are linguistically constructing a shared indigenous ethnic identity through a set of English prosodic features’ (Newmark, Walker and Stanford 2016: 654), including producing lengthened word-final syllables. Such an accent could not be successfully mimicked in children’s literature, as the number of respellings needed to represent it would make the book far too complicated to be read by children.

A further issue is the character of Little Bear himself. As he is said to be from the 1700s, genuine samples of the dialect he speaks would not have been accessible as a basis for producing a fully authentic representation. The decision to represent the character as he is potentially comes from the stereotypical ‘Indian’ character we see in many films and books; most commonly ‘the image of the Indian as the savage’ (Taylor 2000: 373). This, according to Stern & Stern (1993), is also the type of portrayal of a Native American character that we find the most entertaining, making it an enticing choice for a children’s novel.

It is important to remember when criticising Banks’ representation of the Native American that her purpose for this book is to be entertaining and accessible to a young reader. Therefore, it is perhaps not possible for her to provide a fully accurate representation of this dialect, especially with regards to the constraints of the written form, and meeting the need to be an engaging read.

Despite all this, the controversies surrounding the book are in many ways well founded; its portrayal of the Native American character invokes a number of incorrect stereotypical assumptions about Native Americans themselves. However, this is an issue that is wider than the book, which appears to make only an innocent attempt to portray a character for entertainment purposes, as opposed to an actual human being. Regardless of how it is interpreted, Lynne Reid Banks produces a dialect representation which may be successful for a reader when creating a characterisation for Little Bear, but is in no way accurate or authentic.

References:
Meek, B. (2006) ‘And the Injun goes “How!”: Representations of American Indian English in white public space’, Language in Society, 35: 93-128 <https://doi-org.sheffield.idm.oclc.org/10.1017/S0047404506060040&gt; [accessed 16 October 2017]

Newmark, K., N. Walker & J. Stanford (2016) ‘’The rez accent knows no borders’: Native American ethnic identity expressed through English prosody’, Language in Society, 45: 633-664 <https://doi.org/10.1017/S0047404516000592&gt; [accessed 16 October 2017]

Seale, D. (1988) ‘Review of the book The Indian in the Cupboard’, Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 19: 14

Stern, J. & M. Stern (1993) ‘The Indian Image’, In Coca-Cola Culture: Icons of pop, 33-53. New York: Rosen.

Taylor, R. H. (2000) ‘Indian in the Cupboard: A case study in perspective’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 13: 371-384 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/095183900413313&gt; [accessed 20 October 2017]

5 comments

  1. Your post raises some really interesting points, particularly that of the difficult nature of the portrayal of a Native American character in the text as well as how this is attempted by the writer. You raise some things that I hadn’t really thought about before, in the portrayal of speech being linked to intellectual and economic marginalisation. I think you could have explored this further – does the writing of dialect in this way for this character affect the reception of the book and is the fact that it’s a children’s book somehow make it more acceptable? Is using this technique ever excusable/understandable because it’s ‘entertainment’.

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  2. I was interested to read about this book, about which I’d previously been unaware! I was wondering about a couple of things: does the speech of the Indian change over course of the books (i.e. is there any sense that he’s learning a different form of English through his engagement with Omri?)? And does the book in any way present the speech of the Indian as being shaped by Omri’s own expectations about how Indians ought to speak, or is the depiction not that self-reflective?

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  3. The blog is an interesting analysis. Balancing the entertainment purpose of the original text within the wider pragmatic debate about cultural assumptions regarding the dialect and the authors acknowledgement (or not) of that. I think I’d agree with the analysis overall but I’m not familiar with the Indian in the Cupboard. It might be possible to find written evidence of regional dialect in the 1700s but admittedly due to the rise of prescriptivism & standardisation in this period maybe this wouldn’t be easy.

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  4. I find this a difficult blog to comment on as I have not read the book. I would like to know if this initial conversation between Omri and the Indian is typical of their later conversations.
    Having said that, the writer of the blog raises interesting points about the use of dialect in children’s literature and I agree that Omri’s incorrect use of “me” when communicating with his Indian is somewhat patronising.
    The writer points out that the book does create an inaccurate stereotype though I agree that the purpose of the book is to entertain young children. It has clearly done this very successfully over several decades so perhaps we should not be too critical.

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  5. I very much enjoyed this blog. I found it to be written at a level that I (with no linguistic background other than having read a lot!) could very much follow. The examples were well presented, engaging and thought provoking. I liked the way you gave different suggestions (that she was writing for children and had to keep it readable by them, that she was reflecting the thoughts of the times) rather than just criticizing her writing.

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