Monday, September 23, 2013

The truth of the matter

As I was gathering resources around the ‘big idea’ of awakening earlier this past summer, I thought about how travel often ‘awakens’ us to cultural awareness and self discovery and thought I had found a great resource.

Imagine then a fifteen-year-old boy taken from this home on an island around Tierra del Fuego in 1830 and transplanted to London.  What did this boy awaken to?  What did he learn about the people of London?  What did he learn about himself?

 In Jemmy Button by Jennifer Uman and Valerio Vidali, a brief account of the true story of Orundellico (his real name), we can get a general impression of what a culture shock this young man experienced in these circumstances.

And a general impression is the best we get with this picture book.  The experience is described in fairly benign terms, “one day a boat came with visitors”, “they invited the boy to visit their land”, and “one of the visitors opened his hand to reveal a button made from the ocean’s most magnificent pearl.  They gave it to the boy’s family.”

I had a feeling that this was likely glossing over some of the facts.  How likely was it that Captain Robert FitzRoy ‘invited’ Orundellico to visit London?

The book describes the long ocean voyage and what Jemmy would have seen in this vast, bustling city.  It tells of his experiences, which sound like a whirlwind of social events (even to meeting King William IV and Queen Adelaide) and a little of his homesickness.  He eventually returns to his homeland where is resumes his traditional ways, shedding his European clothing and supposedly with “great effort, he learned his native language.”(from last page)

I was left with a lot of unanswered questions after reading this picture book.  A quick Google search fills in a few of the details which are more of what I expected: Jemmy was one of four hostages taken back to London with the idea to educate and Christianize them to Victorian civilities, so that they could be sent back back to their homeland to educate their own people. Very little about this historical episode really fits with the gentle, dreamy story depicted in the picture book.

I know this is a story for children and that this isn't the place to hash out the details of Britain’s imperialistic intentions.  I know the focus of the story is on the ‘wonder’ of being in a totally foreign environment and that by the end Jemmy knows where his home is.  (In reality, it is thought that Jemmy might have chosen to stay in London if given the chance and was initially unhappy at being returned to South America.)

On that level, the story works. Its unlikely children will have the same questions I do and will enjoy the story of Jemmy.  It’s likely they’ll see Jemmy as having a grand adventure.

But I'm left wondering, what’s the point of that when this is based on a true story?

Check out Nonfiction Monday at Sally's Bookshelf for a blog-wide review of nonfiction children's literature.


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