Jan. 13th, 2013

adrian_turtle: (Dracomir)
Last fall, I went looking for Rumer Godden's doll stories. "Little Plum" was once one of my favorite books ever, and the youngest of the little girls I love seemed like she might be close to the age of appreciating it. (The older one didn't want anything to do with dolls.) I might have read one of the other books from the library, but Aunt Pat gave me "Little Plum," and I read it many times. After the paperback died in a tragic housetraining accident, the story lived vividly in my memory.

Or so I thought. After I managed to track down a copy (they're remarkably hard to find these days), I had to read it myself. Maybe it would have to go in the "when she's older" pile. Besides, I wanted to spend some time with Belinda again.

The only copy I could find was actually a collection including all Godden's doll stories, which would certainly make it a more impressive present. As I vaguely remembered, "The Doll's House," wasn't bad but didn't grab me hard. "Miss Happiness and Miss Flower" was wonderful! (Some of you probably remember it from when you were 8.)

The little girl who feels so out of place. The bookstore owner who helps her. The dolls who can't move or speak or do anything, but love her and play with her and make her less lonely. *happy sigh* And the other lonely girl in "Little Plum," who doesn't know how to play, and thus her doll is lonely and neglected. And how they are wished and pulled and quarreled into friendship and community and happy ending.

I still love it. Only now that I'm not 8, I'm not comfortable with some of the details. The little Japanese dolls are fascinating because they are so exotic. Nona making a dollhouse isn't just about making a nice comfortable home for dolls she loves. It's very strongly about making a Japanese dollhouse, so different from the English kind! with everything just so like the books. Making green tea out of paint. Making rice out of snippets of thread. Dolls bowing and thinking of "Honorable so-and-so."

And of course the dolls are silent. Nobody asks them what they want before moving them around. The only power they have is wishing. Where the silent and powerless dolls are so emphatically Japanese dolls, it makes me uncomfortable. Yes, of course they're dolls, and dolls don't talk. (I love how dolls' wishes have power, and how Godden shows the parallel with children who are moved around with nobody asking what they want.) But there's also that stereotype of small, pretty, exotic, doll-like, Asian women with no voices or wills of their own. It makes the whole thing feel vaguely creepy, unlike the small, pretty, voiceless, English or Dutch dolls in Godden's other stories.

Is this a glancing blow from the racism fairy? The colonialism fairy? Am I being hypersensitive about a book that's really sympathetic to all its characters--the disempowered ceramic Japanese ones, as well as the English children (and even the adults in the background.) I didn't recognize "Little Plum" as being even slightly racist, the first dozen times I read it. That might have been because I wasn't 9 yet. Or because it was the 1970s, and I lived in a world where "racism" meant calling people vicious names or beating them up. Not subtle othering.

The child wouldn't notice any hint of racism in the book. She reads very well, but she's only 7. She's only 7...but someday I hope she'll be a strong voice against bigotry, even the subtle kinds of bigotry. I don't want her to think this kind of thing is ok, or that Aunt Adrian thinks this kind of thing is ok. (But she won't notice.) But I do want her to know about Nona. And Mr. Twilfit, because of course miracles come from bookstores. And Gem. And Tom. And Belinda, who does spiteful things and then is sorry and tries so hard to fix them. Ack. Wibble. Thus do I grind to a halt.


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