No Escape from the Past
- Clare Bradford (Author)
Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children's Literature. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Suzanne James
Clare Bradford’s critical study of children’s literature from the settler societies of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States “arises from . . . [her] conviction that indeed ‘there is no escape’ from the colonial past, that the past enters the present in the form of relations of power, systems of government, modes of representation and myths of national identity.” Applying concepts from such canonical postcolonial critics as Edward Said, Bill Ashcroft, Homi K. Bhabha and Mary Louise Pratt, Bradford explores both representations of colonial and postcolonial contact zones, and of Indigenous people and cultures. Her study covers an impressive range of children’s texts published over the last two decades, from picture books through adolescent novels (over 150 works are referenced in the Bibliography).
The title of this work, Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children’s Literature, effectively conveys both Bradford’s intention of providing “unsettling” readings of texts which embrace conventional imperialist myths and tropes such as the Indigenous “ancient noble spirit” or the Native environmentalist, and her interest in works which challenge the assumptions and dominant discourses of settler societies—yet fails to identify the site of Bradford’s study (the four settler colonies listed above), or the most distinctive features of the work: its focus on representations of Indigenous people in children’s texts, and the breadth of the author’s knowledge of works by Aboriginal as well as non-Aboriginal writers.
Bradford’s award-winning 2001 work, Reading Race: Aboriginality in Australian Children’s Literature, lays the groundwork for the comparative, more theoretical text I review here. While the previous study provides a chronological survey, analyzing discourses of religion, aboriginality, gender, and race in Australian children’s literature, this work focuses on a sampling of contemporary texts from four settler colonies, and is organized into two broad sections: “‘When Languages Collide’: Resistance and Representation” and “Place and Postcolonial Significations.” Significantly, Bradford opens the first section with a discussion of texts which resist colonial representations of Aboriginal people through narrative, illustration, humour, and satire, and follows this with a chapter on Indigenous texts and publishers. Only then, in a chapter entitled “White Imaginings,” does she take on the perhaps-too-easy task of exposing the racist and imperialist subtexts of representations of Indigenous people in children’s books from settler societies, including those written by apparently sensitive, non-racist, yet non-Indigenous writers. Shifting briefly from her focus on written and pictorial texts, Bradford provides a classic dissection of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 Disney-animated film, Pocahontas, exploring subtly racist aspects of the work as well as its obviously stereotypical representations of Native American culture. A fourth chapter, “Telling the Past,” considers the popular genre of historical children’s fiction in which, Bradford concludes, “representational and narrative habits and patterns privileging Western over Indigenous perspectives are more entrenched” than any in any other genre.
In the second section of the text, “Place and Postcolonial Significations,” Bradford shifts her focus slightly, moving from an analysis of textual representations of individuals and communities to a study of works which explore links between place and identity, which represent borders, boundaries, and cross-cultural encounters through the trope of journeys, and which confront political issues of land appropriation and self-determination within Aboriginal communities. She argues convincingly for the effectiveness of allegorical texts in providing a counter-discourse to, and critique of, colonial history, and contrasts such works favourably to realist historical novels. Here, as elsewhere in Bradford’s study, issues of class and gender remain a subtext. While this is understandable, given the necessary limitations of a broadly based work, the absence of a developed analysis of classist or gendered discourses remains noticeable.
For the most part, the comparative aspect of this work remains understated: Bradford suggests specific links between texts and national/cultural communities, but avoids (with a few exceptions) broad generalizations about the diverse settler societies her texts are drawn from. Perhaps most effective is her tactic of discussing what she describes as a “sampling” of texts chosen for their embodiment of discourses of colonialism and representations of Aboriginal people. Although at times one feels overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the works she cites, her concise summaries and the numerous accompanying illustrations from the children’s texts she references help maintain a unity and focus within the study. Bradford’s goal—to “to show how ‘politics of knowledge’ about colonization, relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and the projected futures of postcolonial societies inform contemporary children’s books”—is largely achieved and Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children’s Literature provides a significant contribution to the fields of First Nations/Aboriginal studies and comparative Postcolonial studies, as well as to the development of theoretically grounded postcolonial analyses of children’s literature.
- Specificity, Métissage by Susan Knutson
Books reviewed: New Perspectives on Margaret Laurence: Poetic Narrative, Multiculturalism, and Feminism by Greta M. K. McCormick Coger and Postcolonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers by Karen Gould, Mary Jean Green, Micheline Rice-Maximin, Keith L. Walker, and Jack A. Yeager
- Value in Collaboration by Megan A. Smetzer
Books reviewed: An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English by Terry Goldie and Daniel David Moses and A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples by Barry M. Pritzker
- Save and Punish by Nancy Frelick
Books reviewed: Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature by Peter Brooks
- No Dust Gathers Here by Judy Brown
Books reviewed: The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales by Jack Zipes
- Animal Book Mix by Lynn (J.R.) Wytenbroek
Books reviewed: Cursed! by Maureen Bush, The Last Loon by Rebecca Upjohn, The Sea Wolves by Nicholas Read, and Uumajut: Learn About Arctic Wildlife! by Simon Awa, Neil Christopher, Flaherty Louise, Stephanie McDonald, Leah Otak, Caron Romi, and Anna Ziegler
MLA: James, Suzanne. No Escape from the Past. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #200 (Spring 2009), Strategic Nationalisms. (pg. 130 - 131)
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