Last night, my husband was working late (and by late, I mean really late; he didn’t get home until past 10:30), so I had an evening to myself. I used to be a bit on the clingy side when we were dating, but I’ve found that as I’ve been married, I’ve really come to love my time alone. Occasional evenings all alone are a real joy. So yesterday, I caught up on some emails, went for sushi (it was half-price night at the sushi place up the street), swept and mopped the bedroom, vanquished the mold in the bathtub, and studied for my qualifying exam. And read an entire book. I’d say the night was quite successful!
What was this book, you may ask? Naturally, it was a children’s book. I’ve enjoyed revisiting a lot of childhood favorites this summer, which is why I’m halfway through my re-read of the entire Redwall series. But tonight, something else caught my eye: Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard (1980). My copy, as it turns out, belonged to my uncle. It was a lovely surprise to find his name on the first page.
It was really fun to revisit this children’s classic. I remembered the basic premise (Omri is given a magical cupboard that, when locked with a special key, makes plastic toys come alive) without much recall of specific details, so the book bestowed a real sense both of wonderment and familiarity. Omri’s homemade teepee, the blubbery cowboy, the near escape with the rat... All of these adventures made me smile again as I remembered how much they’d fired my imagination as a child. I don’t know if this is the first book ever to use the “toys come alive” scenario, but it was certainly among the first for me, and I think it’s because of books like this one that Pixar’s Toy Story series was so very familiar in spirit to all of us. Who hasn’t wondered whether their toys can come alive when we aren’t there? The joy in The Indian in the Cupboard is that Omri and Patrick get to interact with their living toys, and in the process, learn a great deal not only about Indian [Native American] and cowboy culture, but also about the bonds and demands of friendship. On an unrelated note, I also had no idea, as a kid, that this book didn’t take place in America – even though its location in England was specified at least once, as was the fact that Little Bear and Boone were far from their home in America. Funny what you gloss over when you read, and interesting to suppose that I must’ve automatically assumed this book took place in my own familiar American setting.
It’s not a perfect book. Initially, there are some very disturbingly pejorative comments about Native Americans, but Little Bear soon corrects Omri’s more egregious assumptions (at least, I hope Banks did her homework, because I’m surely not the only person who walked away from this book with a new set of facts about Algonquin Indians!) More problematic is the book’s treatment of women. Little Bear wants a wife, so he practically blackmails Omri into getting one for him. Omri helps Little Bear choose a wife simply by picking the best-looking plastic Indian woman, and then Little Bear even offers to pay Omri in thanks. And then, when Bright Star is animated by the cabinet, the narrative gives her no agency at all, assuming that she will immediately be a fitting wife for Little Bear. This bit made me uncomfortable, but overall, I found The Indian in the Cupboard to be surprisingly crafty (in the sense of constructing proper homes for the cowboy and Indian, finding them food, and so on) and wonderfully imaginative.