If you haven’t read The Indian in the Cupboard and you’re still a kid, drop everything and read it right now! If you’re an adult and you haven’t read it, well, give it a look. You’ll still enjoy it, I guess, but it won’t be quite the same. Because there’s magic in The Indian in the Cupboard. There’s magic in a lot of books, but this one is special in that it really does help to be a kid.
Don't miss my interview with author Lynne Reid Banks, one of my biggest writing heroes.
The premise of the Indian in the Cupboard is thus: on Omri’s birthday he’s given a magic cupboard, a magic key, and a plastic Indian. He puts the Indian in the cupboard overnight and in the morning he finds that the Indian has come to life. Why? Did you not read the part about the cupboard being magic?
What blew my mind in rereading this book is that the three inch tall Little Bear, Omri’s living Indian toy is introduced on page six, and keep in mind, one of those pages is taken up with an illustration! If this were a Stephen King book, we would read one hundred pages minimum about tales of ancient cupboards and hints and teases about what Omri’s cupboard might be capable of before the Indian is introduced.
But Banks is writing for children and knows she doesn't need to bother with much explanation. In fact, she wisely avoids most of the potential larger issues that a lesser writer might have worried over such as: What right does a boy have to keep a living, breathing person, even if they used to be a toy, cooped up in a room or carried about in a jeans pocket? As best I can tell, Little Bear isn't a metaphor for some social issue. He’s a toy come to life and here to have an adventure with Omri. And that’s it. Omri tries turning a couple of other toys real and concludes:
“It works,” breathed Omri. And then he caught his breath. “Little Bear!” he shouted. “It works, it works! I can make any plastic toy I like come alive, come real! It’s magic, don’t you understand? Magic!”
And there you are. Exposition complete. On to adventure! Oh sure, Banks concocts reasons for why Omri can’t tell adults about his magic cupboard:
The trouble was that although grown-ups usually knew what to do, what they did was very seldom what children wanted to be done. What if they took the Indian to—say, some scientist, or—whoever knew about strange things like that, who would question him and examine him and probably keep him in a laboratory or something of that sort? They would certainly want to take the cupboard away too, and then Omri wouldn’t be able to have any more fun with it at all.
And my favorite, Omri’s rationalization about how to deal with a sometimes violent Indian who has taken thirty scalps and who has stepped out of the past with a somewhat different sense of values and morality:
Even now, weren't soldiers doing the same thing? Weren't there wars and battles and terrorism going on all over the place? You couldn't switch on television without seeing news about people killing and being killed. Were thirty scalps, even including some French ones, taken hundreds of years ago, so very bad after all?
What I most admired about Banks’ craft is how quickly she was able to move, ignoring anything that is not story. If you’re sitting on a 500 page manuscript intended for children and are convinced you cannot cut a single word, study Banks. She, like Roald Dahl, could write War and Peace in about two hundred pages, and you probably wouldn't notice anything missing.
By way of example, here is a transition between scenes Banks employed that blew my mind:
“Omri and Patrick! Will you kindly stop chattering?”
At long last lunchtime came.
“I’m going. Are you coming?”
In one line she changed the scene entire and it was not the least bit jarring. There is no need for additional explanation or description of scenery. What matters is that Omri and his friend Partick are talking and their school day is flying by so we can get back to the Indian, which is who we really want to read about. Later, Banks does it again:
On impulse he asked the shopkeeper, “Do you know what the maize is?”
“Maize, son? That’s sweet corn, isn’t it?
“Have you some seeds of that?”
Outside, standing by Omri’s bike, was Patrick.
Oh dear. I see we’re out of time once again, Esteemed Reader. But I took lots of notes and I want to share them with you. So let’s change tone. In conclusion, The Indian in the Cupboard remains one of my most favorite books and I highly recommend it.
It also breaks a lot of “rules” modern American publishers insist on for new fiction. There are several overly long sentences that would nowadays be cut in half or thirds, but with which I didn't have a problem. Here is my favorite long sentence:
Omri and Patrick watched, spellbound, as the little man in his plaid shirt, buckskin trousers, high-heeled leather boots, and big hat, scrambled frantically up the side of Patrick’s right hand and, dodging through the space between his index finger and thumb, swung himself clear of the horse—only to look down and find he was dangling over empty space.
Banks also writes in dialect so thick it might make Mark Twain blush. Many editors and agents eschew writing in dialect, but I think it works great. Here is a short speech from Boone the cowboy that lets Boone be Boone:
“You shet yer mouth!” shouted the little man. “Ah won’t take no lip from no gol-darned hallucy-nation, no, sir! Mebbe Ah do drink too much, mebbe Ah cain’t hold m’likker like some o’ them real tough guys do. But if’n Ah’m gittin’ the dee-lirium tremens, and startin’ in to see things, why couldn’t Ah see pink elly-fants and dancin’ rats and all them purty things other fellas see when they gits far gone?”
“—man to man, Injun! D’ja hear me? No weapons! Jest us two, and let’s see if a white man cain’t lick a red man in a fair fight.”
And last but not least, Banks upsets Elmore Leonard with her creative use of speech attribution. According to Leonard and most modern editors it is always best to use the word “said” when assigning dialogue, and I mostly agree, though I’m still partial to the occasional “he shouted.”
By using only "said," a writer avoids writing, “I’m so angry,” he shouted angrily. I remain unconvinced that “I’m so angry,” he said, conveys the same meaning. Better, I think, is to use no speech attribution: The character slammed his fist against the table. “I’m so angry.”
In any case, a quick survey of agent and editor blogs as well as many writing manuals will convince the young writer that using any form of speech attribution other than "said," and only "said"--no adverbs--will destroy a work of fiction. Well, maybe. But here are some of the more colorful choices of speech attribution Banks employs:
He added accusingly.
“Omri’s friend, Little Bear’s friend,” said Little Bear magnanimously.
Breathed Patrick reverently.
It's true that "he burbled" jolted me out out of the story in a way that "he said" would not have. But then I'm a ninja and training to notice these things. But did it destroy the work that Banks used creative speech attribution? Absolutely not. And if I weren't looking for it, this slip in convention wouldn't have bothered me at all. And that's the last point I want to make. The Indian in the Cupboard is a classic work. If we try to frame it in terms of modern "correctness," it doesn't hold up.
But no matter! It's a great story well told and that works regardless of stylistic choices. And it makes you wonder what sort of style foibles we writers are making now, convinced we are superior, that some blogger will single out in a distant online review (we should be so lucky to achieve even a little of Banks' longevity).
UPDATE: I didn't address the topic of the depiction of Native Americans in this review. It's a touchy subject and as I only write about the positive aspects of each week's book, I left it alone. But if that's an aspect of the book that interests you, I recommend checking out the blog American Indians in Children's Literature.
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.