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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #291: Little Bear

Dances with Wolves without the wolves. Or the dancing.

The Indian in the Cupboard resides in a thorny place in my life. Written in 1980 by Lynne Reid Banks, the book was a favorite of mine as a young reader. The fantastical premise is a magnetic one for a child: the idea that a magical key and box could transform your toys into living, breathing, miniature playmates. Like Toy Story, except you get to be part of the adventure. For those unfamiliar with the book, Omri is a nine-year-old boy who accidentally discovers that a key his great-grandmother owned is magical, and can grant life to inanimate objects. The first to undergo this metamorphosis is Little Bear, a plastic Indian figure. Omri and Little Bear struggle to connect, but eventually manage to communicate and even develop a rough friendship. The fun part for me was always the way Little Bear adapts to his tiny environment, he and Omri using various toys and household items to cobble together a functional home for Little Bear.

Little Bear is a demanding soul, requiring that Omri (whom he probably considers a God or merely a fever dream) provide shelter, food, a horse, and eventually, a wife. Omri's friend Patrick gets in on the action, bringing in a cowboy figure who becomes Boone. When the two golems predictably fight, Omri resourcefully brings to life a tiny World War I medic who provides first aid. At the end, Omri sends Little Bear and his new bride back to their own lives, and gives the magic key to his mother, to prevent him from being tempted to play God again. Of course, sequels ensue, though I've never read them.

As I said, as a bot I read this book not once but many times, completely absorbed in the magic of the story. So what's the problem? Well, upon further reflection it's a pretty clearly racist narrative - the presentation of Little Bear is rife with stereotypes of primitive savagery (Banks writing as a Brit in the 1970s), and his relationship with Omri evokes many of the most painful aspects of indigenous-white history in America. Having altered Little Bear's reality, Omri takes on the paternalistic role of providing everything for "his" Indian, who becomes dependent on his white master. Ouch. Pretty ugly stuff, in retrospect. Part of me longs for simpler days, when a story could just be a story, while the other part acknowledges the privilege that allows me such ignorant nostalgia.

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