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Good Literature

I remember hearing from a librarian a few years ago that Tom Sawyer was a banned book. I was shocked. How could such a classic of literature be banned? The librarian said it was considered racist. I had to go read it again to find out why. I didn’t believe Twain was racist; so how could his book be considered so?

If you’ve read Tom Sawyer, you will remember Injun Joe. That perhaps is explanation enough for the racism. Injun Joe is a drunk, thieving, murdering Indian—the only Indian in the book, portrayed stereotypically and negatively. Okay, that’s racist. I’ll agree with that. I won’t agree with banning the book. I didn’t assume, the first time I read it as a child, that Mark Twain’s portrayal of Injun Joe meant that all Indians are like that. If anything, Injun Joe is a great way to bring up discussion about stereotypes, historical and cultural influences on literature, and the portrayal of character in literature.

Recently I came across a website condemning Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Little House on the Prairie for improperly portraying Indians. The readers’ comments to me seemed more biased than the book. The writer was Aboriginal and took offense to Wilder’s brief mentions of Indians. I wondered if, as a child observing the circumstances, Wilder knew enough about them to give them the full details this person seemed to think she should have included.

Perhaps all of this comes from my perspective as a book-lover. I see no reason that good literature should be banned or condemned merely because it is now no longer politically correct. Books reflect the history and the culture in which they were written. Most readers, I think, are smart enough to understand that times change and we no longer refer to Native Americans as “injun.” I don’t believe that such references detract anything from the literature, however; they merely provide the discerning and questioning reader with further material for thought. Instead of banning books like Tom Sawyer and Little House on the Prairie, we should use these books to teach readers how to read critically and thoughtfully.

Good literature is worth reading again and again, because it raises questions and thoughts and makes the reader think rather than merely entertaining them. Good literature is deep, something that we can dive into again and again, and enjoy it more and learn something different from it each time we do.

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