Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Women of Wednesday: Women of Ambiguity

Clara Driscoll: Philanthropist, politician – and bigot?

I’ve been researching the women I’m writing about for Women of the Lone Star State (and an interesting group they are, too!). One in particular has me thinking about our work as historians and as writers for children, and the delicate line we sometimes walk.

Clara Driscoll, born in 1881, was the beautiful daughter of a multi-millionaire land baron and the wife of a diplomat (she eventually divorced him). She was a preservationist, a businesswoman, a politician and a philanthropist. She’s best known as the Savior of the Alamo. After working with the Daughters of Texas in their failed attempted to raise the funds to purchase the old mission building (before the owners built a hotel on the site) Clara wrote a check to cover the shortfall: $65,000, nearly 87% of the total price. She donated her lavish estate for an art museum, and when she died in 1945, left her considerable fortune to a Children’s Foundation.

Clara was also a writer, and through the magic of Google books I’ve been reading some of her work: a volume she wrote about the Alamo as part of her efforts to rally support for its preservation. Fiction and non-fiction, the pieces are very much a product of their time: redolent with adjectives and romantic in description of people and places. They are frequently variations on an odd theme: someone has taken religious vows after losing their beloved, but in some way the beloved returns to them. The stories also reveal Clara’s deep prejudice. She was fiercely proud of being a Texan, a common trait among the descendants of those early settlers. In her writing, all the Texans are proud, honorable Anglos. The Mexicans, however, are another matter. Whether the men are Santa Ana’s soldiers or fictional boyfriends, they are inevitably “swarthy,” violent, and amoral. The women are either wizened old crones or dark-skinned señoritas who long to run away with the blue-eyed Texan, but for fear of some dangerous Mexican man who lurks in the shadows, muttering.

What to do with people like Clara? Or Hannah Dustin, whom we conveniently avoided in the New Hampshire book by virtue of her having been included in They Paved the Way? Or any number of other heroes and heroines of history who exhibited attitudes and behaviors not acceptable in our time? I am passionate about not laundering history. Warts-and-all is the only honest approach, I suppose. And yet we do not want to hold up such prejudices as honorable or worthy of emulation! And, as we are writing for the educational market, it is essential that we remain on the pc side of the line, lest our books be rejected by those whose task it is to preview and select what their students will read.

Some years ago I was embroiled in an academic argument over Alice Dagliesh’s The Courage of Sarah Noble. The book won a Newbery in 1957 and remains a standard in many units on colonial life, but in today’s world it is often condemned for its depiction Sarah’s fear of the Indians (if it’s been a long time since you read the book, Sarah’s father leaves her with her friends, a Native family headed by Tall John, while he goes to collect her mother and siblings. It’s their enemies, the “Indians from the North,” whom Sarah fears, because she knows her friends are afraid of them. ) The book has also been condemned because Sarah and her family are afraid of wolves. Never mind that both fears are absolutely true of the settlers of the time (whether or not they were well-founded). Were Alice to have written in 2004 rather than fifty years earlier, the book would almost certainly not have gone to print.

This is the dilemma we face, and I don’t claim to have a one-size fits all answer. For Clara Driscoll, and for our book, it is simple enough to ignore her books, which are not the main part of her story. Hannah Dustin is different – leave out the conflict and violence and there is no story at all.

Real women, real people are always complex. Our challenge is to present the heroes of the past to the children of the present in such a way that maybe, just maybe, the future they inherit may be closer to that Dream articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr. – that one day his children would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

What do you think?



What do I think? I think you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

So, write the best book you can. Write what is relevant. Do not ignore what is important simply because it may make some child question and some parent uncomfortable. Accept your subject's shortfallings (by 21st. century standards) and try to put them into historical context. Educate, educate, educate, (note I said educate and not indoctrinate), and teach children to be critical thinkers. That's all you can do.


Anonymous said...

Sally, I ran into a similar issue with my Sarah Hale book. None of the children's books previously written about her mentioned that while she was anti-slavery, she believed that all blacks should be sent back to Africa and supported the Liberia project. I sure brought it up. Our readers deserve to know that no one's perfect.