Classics : The Indian in the Cupboard (1981)

Indians are people, too

by Gordon Campbell

Usually, fantasy offers a means of escape, a way of bending the rules of ordinary reality in order to access other realms of being. At its core, The Indian in the Cupboard does have a terrific fantasy idea – that if you put a tiny plastic Red Indian figurine into a metal cupboard and turn the magic key, you will find a real live tiny Indian in there in the morning. Yet the most ingenious aspect of Lynne Reid Banks book is that she treats this situation not as some whimsical carpet ride, but as a story about real life responsibility, fraught friendship and anxiety. Magic actions have consequences, too.

After all, when you suddenly have a real live 3 inch tall warrior entirely dependent on you – and he keeps asking loudly for food, shelter, female companionship and the opportunity to light a camp-fire, to hunt and to kill – how do you handle it? Can you keep this fantastic secret to yourself? Not to mention how do you prevent your tiny charge from being harmed by the giant insects, impossibly large cats and the multitude of other perils that lurk in the bedroom of an ordinary, middle class English boy?

Omri, the boy at the centre of this story is the youngest of what seems a loving family. At home and at school though, Omri already has his fair share of problems, some of them due to being young and relatively low in the social pecking order. When Little Bull, the tiny Iroquois Indian comes into Omri’s life, the boy tells his best friend Patrick about him, with mixed results. In short order, the impulsive Patrick brings to life a cowboy figurine called Boone, who proves to be an odd combination of tough-talking opinion and weepy sentimentality. As cowboys and Indians tended to do, Boone and Little Bull treat each other an enemies on sight, with tragic results – at least until the boys bring through a World War 1 medic to treat the wounded in their rapidly expanding miniature universe. It becomes too much for Omri to handle :

Another live little person to worry about…Omri had heard about people going grey-haired overnight if they had too much worry. He felt it might easily happen to him. He thought back to the time, only a few days ago, when this had all started and he had fondly imagined it was going to be the greatest fun anybody had ever had. Now he realised it was more like a nightmare…

To Banks/ credit, there is nothing preachy about the way the moral implications of The Indian in the Cupboard unfold. Primarily, this is a tense and exciting yarn that stays faithful to its main premise. There have been four sequels to this book – with The Return of the Indian in particular being much darker in tone. One sequel even offers an explanation for the origins of the magic key, though the author can never really explain why this ancient key seems to have such a modern affinity for plastic. The 1995 Hollywood film version of The Indian in the Cupboard was not only faithful to the best qualities of the original book but – see below – was more sensitive to the race and gender issues that the story brings in its wake. This is, after all, a story about a diminished Native American being trapped inside a gigantic white world.

Some reviewers have certainly taken Banks to task for the worldview that she presents in these books. One US critic even depicted the entire saga as a parable about Thatcherism, which was at its height when the book was first published in 1981. Omri’s stewardship of the 18th century savage in the cupboard and his encounters with the modern skinhead savages in The Return of the Indian can be read in that light, by those so inclined. The cor blimey, forelock tugging Tommy summoned from the trenches of WW1 also belongs to a nostalgic world where the lower classes automatically respected their social betters, and their property rights. It is a criticism that can easily be over-stated.

Lynne Reid Banks was born in 1929. She had already exhausted two early careers (in repertory theatre acting and television journalism) before she published her first best selling novel The L Shaped Room in 1960. As a child during the war, Banks had been evacuated to Canada. In one interview, she traced her interest in Native American culture back to those formative years out in Saskatoon. Fairy tales had been her early mythology back in England, she explained, but Western pioneering life had served as her teenage mythology.

IMO, the cartoon-like aspects of Little Bull the Iroquois warrior, and Boone the sensitive cowboy can be justified on those terms. If they talk and act like caricatures from a Western movie, that’s partly because it is exactly what they are. Before being given the breath of life, Little Bull and Boone were plastic stereotypes, and in a fairly amusing way they echo what Banks had seen onscreen at the movies and imagined as a teenager decades beforehand. She was, after all, a British girl suddenly transplanted way out West almost as arbitrarily as Little Bull had been dropped into Omri’s bedroom.

There were other influences. In 1962, Banks emigrated to Israel, where she lived on a kibbutz for eight years and taught English as a foreign language to classrooms of Hebrew speaking children. (Her former theatrical training in mime and expressive movement, she once said, helped her no end as a teacher.) To some readers, this experience in Israel may also explain why so little of her Indian series of books deals with the impact of colonization, and with the annexation of Indian land.

Little Bull hails from the year 1720 in the book, and from 1761 in the subsequent Hollywood film. To her critics, this timeframe enables Banks to ignore the later period of white colonization and cultural genocide and focus the action almost exclusively on Indian versus Indian violence – with the Iroquois and Algonquin serving as proxies for the French vs English struggle for control of Canada. The subsequent ravaging of Native American culture by whites plays no part in this story.

As I’ve indicated above, this line of criticism can be tediously over-stated. Yet even in The Indian in the Cupboard, it is true that Little Bull is depicted as being a far more abrasive, violent character than the aw-shucks cowboy Boone – who for all his rough and racist talk, proves to be a talented artist prone to sobbing during moments of emotional stress. By contrast, Little Bull snarls, grunts, and barks his commands to Omri for meat, firewater and a wife. He also boasts of having taken 30 scalps, and seems keen for more. Boone does eventually come to repent of a few of his own ingrained racist attitudes towards Indians – but Little Bull never changes, and never evolves. Violence, as Boone observes at one point in the saga, is an ” Injun’s natural nature.”

In that sense, as one reviewer pointed out, Omri’s stern lecture to his friend Patrick – ‘ They’re not safe with you. You use them. They’re people. You can’t use people..” could be directed with some accuracy at the author herself. Come 1995, the US creators of The Indian in the Cupboard were a little bit more sensitive to the potential racial and gender pitfalls of the tale. The book for instance, tends to make merry with Little Bull’s demands that Omri has to deliver him a wife :

“I like, Young. Beautiful. Act as told, I like. So you get.”

The film tones down Little Bull’s allegedly comic aggression, and gives him a more rounded personality. Some of the credit for this should go to the scriptwriter Melissa Matheson, who wrote E.T .( another story about being dropped into an alien universe) and the excellent 1970s film The Black Stallion. Tellingly, the film explicitly rejects the warrior’s requests for a wife. Women are not property, the script says explicitly, to be acquired in such arbitrary fashion. (Even if during the 18th century, in tribal and ‘civilised’ urban society alike, women were very much treated as property, with a market value placed on virginity. )

In sum, we have in The Indian in the Cupboard a terrific adventure story. In addition, it has as many socio-political layers (and oppptunities for parlour psychology of the author) as you care to bring to bear on it – including none at all.

For this essay, Gordon Campbell drew on interviews and analyses contained in volume 86 of the Children’s Literature Review.