Thursday, December 31, 2009

Peter Pan in Scarlet

Brilliant as Geraldine McCaughrean's writing is, there was enough in my memory of J.M Barrie's Peter Pan (amply borne out in my recent rereading of it) that made me put off reading the sequel until now.

But read it I did, managing to squeak it into 2009. Here's what I found:

Wonderfully crafted prose. This is a writer who can intuit voice and deliver it on the page. She's been asked to channel Barrie, and she does so with her usual fine sense of emotional tone and timbre, the things that make the music of a written voice. She's taken the 1911 sensibility of the editorial or involved author's voice and updated it subtly, so it has strength and purpose but it's not as intrusive. In contrast, the voice in Barrie's original often feels downright coy. Peter Pan in Scarlet has terrific momentum, and its through-line with Peter growing more and more like his arch-enemy is quite wonderful. The time-frame's been moved forward but it's still only 1926, so the storyteller's trapped within the viewpoint of another time. I'm saying all this to try and understand one of the storytelling choices.

Those “redskins.” They're still here. For a while it seems as if they're just putting in a sort of collective cameo appearance. Subverted and turned into pirates, but still referred to as "squaws" and "braves," they continue to occupy the awkward niche of a playfully subordinate race. Their innocent savage role plays out to the end, when they all come joyfully back in a veritable storm of "bison and appaloosas and drums and papooses and war-bonnets and peace-pipes and braids and coup sticks and moccasins and bows and arrows that went to make up the Tribes of the Eight Nations."

What? They came back just to be an escort in fancy-dress? To a bunch of white kids, forgive the plainspeak, who treated them like live toys in the first place?

Most reviews didn't make a single mention of the continued manhandling of worn-out American Indian stereotypes. What's wrong with that picture? Sure, in 1926 fake Indianness was writ large in public perception. But the one thing that the narrative voice of an involved author does, and something that this narrative voice in particular does with elegance and grace, is to convey a worldview.

Let me try to say this clearly. The worldview that this book conveys suggests that this fake subordinate war-painted "redskin" flim-flam is OK.

Now before I get accused of playing the PC card, let me say this: most of Geraldine McCaughrean's sequel is masterfully crafted. In places the prose is practically incandescent. Even the mothering thread, that at first feels stretched a bit thin, gets somewhat redeemed by the presence of Tootles's father. But oh boy, those Tribes, I just can't explain them away. I mean, given the period in which he wrote, Barrie could just as easily have chosen another kind of Indian, the kind they were drumming into the Empire's army just a couple of years after the play was turned into a novel. Had he done that, we'd have had sadhus and fakirs and cobras and elephants and Taj Mahals and turbans and dancing-bells all galloping across the plain, right into the 21st century.

Nostalgia for the good old colonial days dies hard. Hardest of all, I think, in the world of children's books.

Welcome, 2010!


  1. I found myself very disenchanted with her story. She has mistakes in it as compared to Barrie's original stories. An "official" sequel with fact-checking errors? No thanks.

    There is a Pan novel that's faithful - based on Barrie's own idea for more. And the "Redskins" are much more integral to the plot of it than here. As for how they're treated, the author tries to give them more dignity while maintaining the Barrie 'version' as well. Click here to see.


  2. I should clarify that I'm not coming at this from the viewpoint of a Neverland fan, so the question of disenchantment doesn't arise for me. I didn't know there was a sequel based on JMB's notes so thanks for that bit of information.

  3. I have had this book sitting on my to-read pile for a long time and I am so disappointed to read what you point out here as I couldn't agree more with what you say. What a missed opportunity.