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  • Writer's picturelaurenaliseschultz

Mandie and the Secret Tunnel

It's been something like twenty years since I've read the Mandie books, and I was thrilled to find that they had been published on Kindle. I well-remembered the handsome Joe Woodward, Uncle Ned the Cherokee Indian, and Snowball the kitten. But as I read through this first volume in the series, I was happy to also have Polly the neighbor girl, Aunt Lou and Liza, Uncle John, Jason Bond, Elizabeth and Grandmother Taft also all return to memory.

Of course, twenty-five years after first reading Mandie and the Secret Tunnel, my critical analysis skills have been honed a bit and I noticed several things about the story and the writing that went right over my head the first time. To be honest, I'm not quite sure how I feel about how the novel/series depicts Native Americans. They all speak in stilted English, but the narration carefully explains that Uncle Ned's "pronunciation is good," it's just "his grammar [that is] poor." The book acknowledges that some white people are "out to kill every Indian they could find" but Mandie and her friends all act as though they are hardly impacted by the tensions between white people and Native Americans. There is a great friendship between Mandie's father Jim Shaw and Uncle Ned in particular, as well as a friendship that forms between Mandie's Uncle John and Ned. Jim and John Shaw, and thus Mandie herself, are part Cherokee Indian, a fact which Mandie is thrilled to find out. Mandie quickly begins referring to the Cherokees as "my people," something that seems a bit glib and disconcerting, coming from a blonde white child who seems to be aware but largely sheltered from any conflict between white and Native Americans. Mandie is quite attached to Uncle Ned, who has made himself her secret guardian after the death of Mandie's father, having promised Jim Shaw that he would look after young Mandie. So in this book, Uncle Ned and his Native American friends seem to exist just to protect Mandie and do Jim Shaw's bidding from beyond the grave. There is no attention paid to the fact that had the Cherokees been caught spiriting Mandie away from her home in Charley Gap, they probably would have been strung up by a posse, even though they were taking her to live with her Uncle John. Mandie and the Cherokees hide from the posse members, so Mandie knows that there would be negative consequences if they are caught, but she conceptualizes of those consequences only in terms of what it would mean for her - that she would have to go back to the horrible family from whom she was trying to escape.

Though she comes from a poor family in Charley Gap, North Carolina, Mandie epitomizes white privilege - she does not have think about the serious (potential) consequences of her actions, which would have a great deal more repercussions for others with darker skin tones. Although she is one-quarter Cherokee, she has white skin and a head full of shining blonde hair that place her above the Native Americans and African Americans in the novel even before her ties to wealthy relatives are revealed.

Although the novel focuses directly on Native American characters and at least openly acknowledges that there is tension between the Cherokees and the white people, the African Americans in the novel are hardly acknowledged as such, which is even more emblematic of white privilege and even more problematic as far as I'm concerned. The novel is set in 1900 in North Carolina, and although slavery was abolished in 1862 with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation/in 1865 when Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment, African Americans were still locked into a social structure that degraded them at every turn. The year 1900 was just four short years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that Jim Crow segregation laws did not conflict with the 13th and 14th Amendments, upholding the practice of "separate but equal" which was a joke. African Americans lived their lives at a great disadvantage to whites and under the constant threat of violence. Lynchings were prevalent in the south. But when Mandie goes to live at her Uncle John's house, she immediately meets a cast of African American household servants that are trivially characterized as happy and even carefree, which blows my mind.

The stereotype of the "happy darky" was used to romanticize slavery and Jim Crow in post-War fiction with sickening effects, and the presence of such an insidious trope in Mandie and the Secret Tunnel is really upsetting to me. There is the jovial and motherly Aunt Lou, who runs the household, and the cheerful servant girl Liza. We are briefly introduced to Jenny, the cook, and a fourth servant named Abraham is mentioned. While race isn't explicitly referenced, the speech patterns of all of the household servants characterize them as African American. They are depicted as being separate from the white members of the household, but content and pleased to be looking after their white masters. Aunt Lou and Liza, in particular, immediately take a strong liking to Mandie. Aunt Lou begins calling Mandie "my child" and dressing her up in pretty new clothes like a china doll, while Liza washes and combs her hair. But of all the characterizations of the African American servants, Liza's is the most irritating. As she "twirls" and "spins" and "dances" in and out of rooms, Liza seems happily and whimsically content to perform household chores while Mandie and Polly, her white peers, are free to spend their days playing detective. This is the epitome of the "happy darky" trope, portraying African Americans as happy within the confines of slavery and neo-slavery/servitude. Despite the fact that as employees in the household of a wealthy and obviously open-minded white employer like John Shaw, these servants would have had an enviable position as far as African American servitude goes, I still can't imagine that they would be so happy and carefree as to constantly dance around as though they weren't forced into a life of servitude and aware of the fact that a change in their employment would likely mean that their life would become a lot more difficult and dangerous.

And so even though I enjoyed the basic plot of the novel, the writing throughout truly bothered me, because I feel like it never truly acknowledged white privilege. For this reason, I would definitely have to think long and hard before giving this novel/series to a child to read, although my opinion of the series overall may change as I read through more of the series. The second volume is entitled, Mandie and the Cherokee Indians, and I am looking forward to reading farther and seeing how this beloved series from my childhood continues to treat the matter of race. I am hoping that perhaps the series grows more enlightened as it continues.

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