Book Review: The Indian in the Cupboard

Sometimes themes just happen. Native American-colonist relations in the 1750s in middle grades literature is a theme that just happened to me, hardcore. As you can see, my last two reviews were Calico Captive and The Sign of the Beaver, and now I am about to review Lynne Reid Banks’ Indian in the Cupboard. I also just watched The Sign of the Beaver and The Indian in the Cupboard and called it a soft start for seventh grade. (Don’t judge. We did other things.) If you couldn’t figure it out, all five of these things are meant for middle grades and involve Native Americans in the Northeast in the 1750s.

The final book in this theme (at least, as far as I know) is The Indian in the Cupboard. In some ways, it is a weaker book than the other two, though I say that largely because it is not historical fiction and is not as accurate or truthful. On the other hand, it’s a childhood classic—which is maybe more children’s literature than middle grades—and is magic realism (or low fantasy), a fantastical and imaginative story. I do wish the portrayal of the Onondaga brave and the 1870s cowboy were less caricatures, but they did have some twists of character, even if they were stereotypical (in an ignorant way). After reading Elizabeth George Speare, I caught the Native American behaving in ways that were glaringly wrong, but only a few times. (The movie was much worse for this. I also suspect the later titles were worse in their stereotyping, misinformation, and white paternalizing, which landed the books on “books to avoid” and “challenged books” lists.) Little Bear does correct Omri (what a name) sometimes about his misconceptions about Native Americans, but I am getting ahead of myself.

A book I enjoyed somewhere around fifth grade, Indian in the Cupboard is about a boy, Omri, who receives an old medicine cupboard from his older brother for his birthday. His mother gives him a special key to use with it and Omri discovers that together the two objects can turn plastic figurines—the kind that were very popular in the mid-century England of the book—into real, live, few-inch-tall people. Or, more like it summons them from their real lives. Omri’s pretty pumped about his secret until a series of accidents and some interaction with his best friend, Patrick, causes him to realize the responsibility he has toward Little Bear and the seriousness of the situation. You can’t use people.

The Indian in the Cupboard is one of those stories that immediately draws kids in with its acceptance of magic in the world and its posing of impossible—and impossibly cool—situations. Omri is a great protagonist, growing emotionally and socially by the chapter, fast on his way to becoming a good and sympathetic man. He bumps through things, like a real kid, plucking nuggets of wisdom from the world around him as he makes his mistakes and regrets them. And he’s not the only one: Patrick, Little Bear (the Native American), and Boone (the crying cowboy) all have flaws, make a poor decision or two, and must deal with the consequences and decide to do different next time. The writing is fine. The pace and plot are on par with late elementary school.

The issue is the cultural muddle when it comes to the characters Patrick brings to life, especially Little Bear. I really saw Patrick as learning more from Little Bear than vice versa (though in the movie he much more clearly takes Omri under his wing as a developing child), but it is awkward, at best, that they end up being “brothers” and respect seems to flow mostly toward Omri while Little Bear is more, like, a neat novelty. I mean, the whole lesson of the novel is that you can’t use people, like I said, and Omri really begins to see outside of himself, which is developmentally appropriate. As for him being the one in control, that is normal for children’s literature, which is the place they get to be large and in charge.

The series is:

  • The Indian in the Cupboard
  • The Return of the Indian
  • The Secret of the Indian
  • The Mystery of the Cupboard
  • The Key to the Indian

I did notice some problems with the handling of the Native Americans and even the cowboy (and again, suspect they are magnified later in the series), but it didn’t seem overwhelming to me. It is a classic, a book I have enjoyed and my son also seemed to enjoy, and it encourages thought and growth in empathy and responsibility. I am happy to stop with book one, which feels like a stand-alone. I understand why many children enjoy it, but I can also understand the naysayers. With that all in mind, the decision here is really going to have to be up to you, and, as always, discuss books with your children as they read them.

MOVIE

Number one: the soundtrack for the 1995 The Indian in the Cupboard was distractingly bad. Like so bad, that I’m not sure I could watch this movie again, even though other than that it wasn’t half-bad. Some of the plot was made more realistic (and also brought to a 1990s America) and of course shorter and more simplified. Also, some of the characters were changed, like Patrick a bit and definitely Little Bear, who went from surly, fiery, and strong to smart, calm, and relational. There were, for sure, too many long, awkward pauses which were made worse by the spotty acting of the main character. But it was fun to see the story and the setting come to life in a normal home and loving family. The kids were fairly endearing. There was some LOLing. I’m pretty sure many of the changes were made to make the Native American more complex and real and less controversial in his relationship with Omri (and others) though the portrayal still seemed chock-full of historical inaccuracies. And if it weren’t for the darn soundtrack, I would recommend it despite the fairly drastic plot changes.

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