Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Matchlock Gun

The Matchlock Gun, by Walter D. Edmonds, was published in 1941. It's a short book, with less than 50 pages of text, "for boys and girls from 7 to 11" (according to the dust jacket), written rather simply and skilfully. There are quite a few more illustrations (lithographs by Paul Lantz) than most of the other Newbery winners, as you might expect from a book aimed at younger kids.

As the dust jacket also states, The Matchlock Gun is "a stirring story of American courage...the straightforward, deeply moving tale of a small boy, his smaller sister, their splendid mother and an antique matchlock gun...[that] happens to be a true one."

The story takes place near Albany, New York in 1757, when this part of New York was a British colony mainly populated by Dutch and German settlers. Although Edmonds doesn't explain it as such, the raids he describes were part of the French and Indian War, when the British and the French and their respective Native allies battled for control of eastern North America.

Edward Van Alstyne, the 10 year old hero of the story, lives with his parents, Teunis and Gertrude, and his little sister Trudy, in a snug house near the larger brick house where his grandmother (Widow Van Alstyne) and her slaves live. When Teunis leads the local militia to defend the settlements north of Guilderland, Gertrude decides to stay in the family's cabin, hoping that if the French or Indians (which Indians? It would be nice to know) make it past the militia, their house will be overlooked, since it is not on the main road. Unfortunately, raiders find their house, as described here:
There were five of them, dark shapes on the road, coming from the brick house. They hardly looked like men, the way they moved. They were trotting, stooped over, first one and then another coming up, like dogs sifting up to the scent of food (p. 39).
Edward uses the antique gun, and kills three men who chase his mother to an ambush she sets up on their front doorstep. Gertrude is wounded, and the cabin burns, but Trudy and Edward escape, and join their mother outside. Their father returns with the militia (killing another Indian they find, who had been wounded by the single blast Edward shot from the matchlock gun), and then they find Gertrude, Edward, and Trudy with the gun in the dooryard.


"They sneaked by us," Mynderse said. "Who shot them, Edward?"
"I did. With the Spanish Gun," said Edward.
"You've killed more than all the rest of us put together!" Mynderse exclaimed, and he picked up the gun and hefted it (p. 50).
Although I did enjoy the suspense, and appreciated Edmonds' writing (his descriptions of the house, their farm, and Trudy's occasionally annoying toddler behavior are especially good), the two passages cited above pretty much stopped me in my tracks. I just don't want my kids reading that.

And it's not that I want to sugarcoat colonial history. My kids have seen the bloodstained bonnet and vest (in a case at the little historical museum near my hometown) that my great-grandfather's grandparents were wearing when they were killed along with thirteen other settlers during the Black Hawk War. But even my surviving great-great-grandmother and her sister - who saw their parents, little sister, and neighbors massacred, and spent two weeks as hostages, and wrote about their experiences - never described their attackers as less than men, or spoke in such a matter-of-fact manner about killing.

I was pretty critical of the subtle racism that I saw in Caddie Woodlawn (see here), which was actually written six years before The Matchlock Gun. Well, maybe I shouldn't have been quite so hard on Caddie, because it can't hold a candle to The Matchlock Gun in this respect. Then again, I don't think Matchlock is a favorite of nearly as many people.

Doris Seale, on the other hand, writing for Oyate (a Native organization that examines how Native peoples are portrayed in literature) notes that The Matchlock Gun "may very well be one of the worst descriptions of Native people in children’s literature, certainly in the 20th Century." Check out her review for some interesting insights on it.

It's a shame, really, because Edmonds is a skilled writer, and I think that this period of our history is an important and interesting one. But I'll be looking elsewhere for stirring stories of American courage for my kids.

9 comments:

Shelley said...

Sounds like a classic case of "dehumanizing the enemy." At least maybe children old enough can read it critically(with guidance) and be prevented of doing the same thing in modern times, and remember that even our enemies are human, with lives and feelings.

TJ said...

Once again, rampant political correctness runs amuck in teaching our children history.

I loved Edmonds tale of the French & Indian War as a child in the early 1980s, and I don't think I have been emotionally scarred by its depiction of violence -- it is a book about a war, of course, and people living in such an enviroment probably would speak so matter-of-fact about death and killing. It's easy for someone living in the 21st century with our pampered lifestyle to be critical of those in the 18th, but walk a mile in their moccasins first.(pun intended!)

The article by Doris Seale staggers the imagination. She needs to read about Native American warfare and how they were just as cruel to each other as the Europeans were towards them -- Native Americans were not the passive victims that Hollywood potrays them to be. If you want to see what they were like, Brian Moore's "Black Robe" is probably the closest thing we have to the reality of European-Native relations.

Seale's politically correct view should be instantly discounted due to flagrant and open PC bias.

Anonymous said...

Our grandmother was full-blood Creek. I agree whole-heartedly with TJ's comments.

Anonymous said...

My 6 and 8 year old sons just completed reading this book for fun and loved it. They were riveted. Granted there are some "political" issues with the book, but we see this an opportunity to talk about perspectives of the colonists and the Native Americans. It gave us a chance to discuss war, allies, and how these sort of things come about and work. This book generated discussion at our house, and that to me is part of what makes a book worthwhile. If we only read "fluff" and teach our children to demonize themselves alone as liberal factions would have us do, how is that any different than what you accuse this award winner of doing?

I will expose my children to as many sides of the colonization story as possible. And I find this story of a child peer defending his family from Native Americans with an intent to kill as just one perspective worth considering. They will also hear about the other sides too. Then they will be well-informed and able to bear compassion for not just the victims/aggressors of violence of any sort.

_The Matchlock Gun_ captured my son's imaginations and gave our family a chance for deep discussions. I give it a thumb's up.

Some of these previous reviews and reactions to this book border on censorship.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with TJ. My grandmother and grandfather are "full blooded" Indian too, as are my mother and father, and I totally agree that teaching history from an exclusively colonialist's point of view is the right way to teach history to everyone. Obviously, Doris Seale, who is Santee/Creek, has no idea about the cruel past of hers and other Native peoples. TJ should give her a lesson, especially on the difference between what's PC and what's anti-racist, since he obviously knows. Way to go, TJ!

Mariam said...

As a Van Alstyne descendant, this is the story as I know it:

THE GREAT WHITE SINGING SPIRIT

Polly was at home tending two small sons while her husband was off fighting in the war. He heard about the Indian massacres heading toward the small settlement where his wife and children lived, so he sent his brother with an extra horse for their escape.

Meanwhile, the Indians arrived at the settlement and massacred EVERYONE. The last hut was where Polly and the children lived. Because she heard all the screams, etc. she hid the boys in a large kettle. The Indians came to her door and motioned for something to eat (my note: they must have been a sight having just killed everyone else! and smoke from burning the other huts...), She proceeded to cook them food and sang hymns to cover up any noise by the boys (my note: obviously in a different kettle, maybe she hid them in one for washing clothes). When the Indians were finished eating, they made hand signals to each other and left quickly, leaving Polly and the boys unharmed.

Almost immediately, Polly's brother-in-law rides up with the extra horse (my note: he must have been devastated to think he got there too late - seeing the massacred bodies and burning huts!). Polly mounts the horse with the youngest boy in front and the older one behind. She follows the instructions to head north along the creek until finding friendly people. Lambert would come as soon as possible to find her.

She ended up in Canada and it took Lambert 2 years to find her. They stayed there and their grandson, Miles Van Alstyne, moved back to the US. Polly was known throughout the Indian communities as "The Great White Singing Spirit."

******** This is my retelling of the story as my grandmother had a typed copy of it, but I am unsure of the origin of that document. There are many details in the original. As my great-aunt was member of the Daughter's of the American Revolution, there are a lot of patriotic stories about our family. -Mariam

Sandy D. said...

Thanks Mariam, that was a fascinating story.

TJ said...

In response to the comment of 16 November 2009, I would suggest they read "New Worlds For All" by noted Dartmouth Historian Colin Calloway about the realities of Indian-European relations in the Colonial period. Calloway uses numerous primary sources in a good attempt to show that this part of American history contains many shades of gray.

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