The two alternating narratives of Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth (USA 2002) tell of Jonah Flying Cloud, a new arrival at an Indian residential school in the eighteen eighties, and Jenny Muldoon, a young girl in our present who moves to the army post that once housed the school. Jonah has died by the end of his first section, and appears as a ghostly presence after that: he has been unable to move on. Jenny’s senses his presence and then, as she learns more about the school and about him through research on a school project, interacts with him Finally, she helps him to understand what his problem is, and like Brennan in Gary Paulsen’s Canyons, creates a change in him that allows him to move on.
Jenny can do that mostly because, in contrapuntal fashion, she sees her own situation as similar to his––and so she can teach him what hard experience has taught her about herself. Having lost a father and often moved, she has become prickly and isolated. But after she learns that she merely had to make herself more open to change and to others, she can teach Jonah that he, too, is causing his own inability to move on. She frees herself and then she frees him.
The process of knowing of Jonah and helping him comes to stand for a much wider history, as Jenny learns of the entire system that caused an Indigenous boy like Jonah to end up in a residential school run by white people. There is no doubt that Rice has a commitment to making young readers aware of this tragic history; the novel clearly describes the insensitivity, cruelty and ingrained racial prejudice that Jonah and the other Indigenous children experienced in bring removed from their homes and brought to the school. But the way in which Rice presents these events in parallel to Jenny’s personal story suggests that the history is something primarily to be moved beyond—that once readers have knowledge of the tragic history and have acknowledged its horror, they can then feel freed from its burden. But while acknowledgement of past personal difficulties might indeed allow one to move beyond them, the suggestion that our responses to knowledge of historical events might follow a similar trajectory seems significantly problematic, for a number of reasons.
As happens also in Canyons, it is instructive that it takes a white girl to free an Indigenous ghost. I have to assume that these novelists are drawn to giving their young protagonists this sort of power by the perceived need in fiction for young readers for characters that young people can identify with and thus share the ways in which those characters triumph over difficulty and achieve happy endings. But in fulfilling that convention here in terms of her contemporary protagonist, Rice creates the impression that the situation the novel describes is an exclusively white problem. There are no contemporary Indigenous people included as characters in the book, no suggestion that any Indigenous people even exist at all in the world Jenny. occupies: the burden of history rests, then, on her and on people like her. Not only is the contemporary world apparently all white, but the only Indigenous people who appear prominently in the story of the past have all died by the time the novel finishes with its descriptions of that past. Their culture is also dead. Jonah has wanted an eagle feather on his grave to help him move on, but Jenny provides him with something that she says and he agrees is better: a military badge from her new stepfather’s collection that depicts an eagle, the replacement of a presumably dead culture’s symbol with one from the powerful living culture that actually represents its military triumphs over people like Jonah’s nation. That substitution suggests the colonizing nature of white control over Indigenous people in the past; and Jenny’s actions in relation to Jonah suggest a similar colonial impulse and with a similar result: the wiser white girl works to remove the less perceptive Indigenous boy who cannot figure out how to solve his own problem from a place that he no longer belongs in and that no longer belongs to him.
To begin with, Jonah is a stiff and weirdly formal presence––an almost inhuman version of the noble savage stereotype. He loosens up and seems more human as the book goes on, apparently because Jenny succeeds in making him more like herself––more open to healing emotions, the book wants to suggest, but it also comes across as being less alien, i.e., less Indigenous as the book seems to understand Indegeneity. Jonah and the other Indigenous characters have no sense of humour or irony, and as a result, not much humanity. Furthermore, the novelist misrepresents the Lakota culture that Jonah supposedly came from; a discussion by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale on the Oyate website concludes, “Rice has written this book from a point of near total ignorance of Native lifeways and cosmologies, and has even gone so far as to do so in the first person. This is unacceptable.” (http://www.oyate.org/books-to-avoid/edgeEarth.html).
These problems emerge mainly from the ways in which the novel invites readers to generalize from Jonah’s story, and to see it as a representation of the entire history it evokes. The social and the communal are absorbed into the personal, and what works for one ghost clearly seems to be being offered as a solution to a communal history. Psychological wellness trumps historical consequence. By the end, not only is Jenny’s view of things the only acceptable one and the one right and proper solution to everyone’s problems, but it has occupied a space that effectively ignores and thus shuts down the significance of historical and cultural forces beyond the personal.
Rice, Bebe Faas. The Place at the Edge of the Earth. York: Clarion, 2002.