Can you believe I’ve reviewed almost every book in the Dear America series? Unfortunately that means we’re down to the books I didn’t like all that much. Or, in the case of this one, the books that were a complete waste of paper and ink. Oh yeah. Strong words for a DA book! That’s because it’s horrifyingly bad!
My Heart Is On The Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, A Sioux Girl, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880, Ann Rinaldi, 1999.
Oh boy. I might as well start off by linking to a much better review that points out the millions of things wrong with this book: besides the numerous factual errors, like the fact that a girl from this specific nation would have never described herself as Sioux (way to put that on the COVER), the fact that Captain Pratt is treated as a model of reason in the book, while in real life he was a bully and an autocrat who tried to beat the Indian out of the students at the Carlisle Indian School. Well. Anyway, just go read this, it’s going to point out that fifty bajillion factual errors, while I’m going to focus on everything that’s wrong with the book from a literary standpoint. Spoiler: IT’S A LOT. Ann Rinaldi wrote this book! What the hell?
Nannie is a Lakota girl sent to the Carlisle Indian School with her brother, Conrad, in order to learn the “white man’s ways” and “bring honor” to her people. I know. It’s already awful. Stay with me. If you wanted to read an accurate and well-written book about Lakota girls growing up, you should have picked a better one. This is one of those books where the premise is “someone who doesn’t write English learns to do it better.” The same thing is done in Dreams of the Golden Country, except better. All of this is done in terrible stereotypical English, where she calls her diary “talking leaves” before she learns the word “die-eerie,” and I’ll point out that no one says “diary” like that, and also that’s not at all a phonetic spelling.
Nannie is amazed at how the white people know everything, wow, as if the Lakota don’t have any knowledge of their own, and how the “Sioux” lost all their land in bad treaties and the white people asked for Indian children to go to their schools to learn the white ways. Her brother is off in the boys’ section making friends with a Pawnee kid, an enemy of theirs, and Nannie worries about that, and they’re trying to teach the girls to cook white food and all that other jazz.
Sample of just how awful the text is we’re dealing with: “’No,’ I bed, ‘please. The council fire burns bright between Maggie and Missus Mary now. If you punish Maggie, it will go out. And all will know how you find out. They will give me new name. Girl Who Gossips.’ For a more long time she has no words.” You see? This isn’t even a good way of writing someone who’s learning English. It’s awful. It bounces from horribly-written “bad English” in the first few pages, to fluid and well-written, melodious English literally in the space of a few pages.
Nannie’s brother is continually in trouble for refusing to do as he’s told, and as he’s being punished he tells Nannie he’s going to run away and go home. She doesn’t want him to, because she doesn’t want to be alone there, but also because she wants to make her parents proud of them. Kids are dying left right and centre of smallpox and pneumonia and all the other diseases you get before vaccination when you cram dozens of kids into dormitories together. While she’s trying to reason with her brother, she blames him for not realizing that there are no more “Sioux warriors,” and then blames her father for not teaching him otherwise! Instead of, you know, blaming the white people who wrecked their way of life. Awesome.
I’m not even going to touch on the extreme annoying use of “A Friend-to-Go-Between” for “interpreter,” because just thinking about that makes me want to smack someone.
Anyway, Nannie’s best friend from home, Lucy Pretty Eagle, comes to the school as well, so Nannie is thrilled to have a friend with her. Her whole life, Pretty Eagle has been suffering from “fainting sickness,” but once she gets to the school she tells Nannie they’re not fainting sicknesses, it’s that her grandmother has taught her to go into trances, and that’s what she’s been doing. Nannie agrees not to tell anyone about this, and instead she just offers to teach Pretty Eagle the boring shit they learn at school all the time.
Nannie frets that she isn’t able to fast and find her spirit helper, which is what she would be doing when she was at home, but she manages to befriend a mouse in the kitchen by feeding it, and the mouse becomes her spirit helper. It comes to her in dreams and advises her that she will know to do a true act of bravery when it presents itself to her. What.
Anyway, in the summer, after Nannie has been there several months, Captain Pratt tells them that some children will go home over the summer, but others will be going on “outings” to live and work on nearby farms to earn money. Nannie is one of them, and while she’s initially pleased, she’s worried because she’ll have to leave Pretty Eagle—but then realizes maybe her brave act can be to stay back and look after her, instead of going to work. So she stays behind with her and the few boys who are staying behind, continuing to learn to cook and sew. She’s very content there, which is probably the most unrealistic part of all of this—she never says anything like wanting to go home, or missing her family, or anything. Just straight-up enjoying the white folks’ stuff and very happy to be there.
Ugh. Just go read These Are My Words instead.
At the end of July, Spotted Tail, one of the Sioux chiefs, comes to bring some of the Sioux children home, and wants to take Pretty Eagle with him, saying she’s too sickly to be there. But Nannie offers to continue looking after her and giving up her own privileges, and it seems like things will be fine when her brother runs away. Pratt promises her they’ll be caught and sent back, but suddenly Nannie is overcome with homesickness and sadness.
Nannie is offered the chance to go on a week-long excursion to Virginia, but Pretty Eagle can’t go—too sickly. And unsurprisingly when she comes back, Pretty Eagle is dead, and Nannie learns that she had fainted and was in the infirmary just a day. She’s horrified to think they may have buried her alive—and it’s at this point I’ll just point out that this is a god-damn ghost story from Carlisle, with no basis in reality. And here it’s just included for mostly lurid purposes. Nannie is devastated and cuts herself in her grief until her teachers stop her, and she’s upset that she failed in her one thing. Which is true. You had one job, Nannie.
In the fall Nannie has been there a full year, and she manages to make amends with another girl who’s been her enemy. And she hears that someone who may be her brother has returned and goes to fetch him at the train station, only to find him dirty and draggled. He says he went home to the reservation and found that she was right—there’s nothing for him to do there, and he needs to learn the white ways to get ahead. Charming.
At the end, the final act of bravery Nannie performs is to act as a pilgrim woman in their Thanksgiving play. I am not even making that up. Pratt even asks her specifically. So let’s recap: Nannie’s final act, as an Indian girl, is to play a white colonial woman in the school play at a school that is devoted strictly to destroying the Indian way of life. Could you possibly get any more horrifyingly meta than that?
Rating: F, of course. Listen. Read that review I linked that points out all the awful inaccuracies in this book, and a lot of the other horrible points. And getting away from the accuracy: this is just a poorly-written book. Nannie isn’t a well-developed character at all—you learn almost nothing about her other than she wants to make her family proud—and exhibits almost no change, for better or for worse, other than developing better English. The other characters are flat as paper, of course, and stereotypical in almost every way, and of course they have zero development, too. This is just a wholly disappointing book on so many levels—and while Ann Rinaldi is certainly no stranger to “oh dear maybe that was progressive for the 90s, but now…” this is just irredeemable. Don’t read it.