- Goodly Is Our Heritage: Children’s Literature, Empire, and the Certitude of Character
Rashna B. Singh's Goodly Is Our Heritage is a difficult book to review because its scope is so large—too large. Her study of "character" in children's books spans everything from children's versions of Robinson Crusoe to the novels of Enid Blyton to stories of the American frontier. This is problematic in that ideas of ideal "character" shift over time and across geographies. Singh addresses this issue by asserting that ideal character consists of "assenting behavior that upholds the prevailing political and economic structure" (xxxvi). Furthermore, Singh sees that ideal character is constructed by empire builders, wherever and whenever they build: "Trust, responsibility, and scrupulous fairness, combined with courage, resolve, decisiveness, determination, and physical prowess were the idealized traits of the empire builders" (218). This is perhaps true, but the definition leaves out some of the less ideal characteristics of empire builders, characteristics that were present even within many of the books Singh writes, for example, of stealth, deception, and violence.
But Singh is interested in how the idealized character of empire is presented in children's books and therefore to children themselves. What remains unclear is whether Singh is interested in the reactions of the children of empire builders or in the reactions of children of the "others" whom the empire builders are colonizing. For example, Singh devotes an entire chapter to the novels of Enid Blyton, whose novels were important in Singh's own childhood in India. She says in her introduction that one of the effects of colonialism "was to compel upon the colonized a self-concept that did not grow from within but was forced from without" (xxxvii). Yet she rarely addresses this issue within her book. The question of whether or not these books help the colonized internalize the values of the empire builders is not addressed in this study, and is perhaps an area more fruitfully explored by sociologists and psychologists than by literary scholars. But it is within the scope of literary scholars to expand the definition of "literature" to include popular tales and the oral tradition, both of which are often products of indigenous cultures. What was the relationship between indigenously produced literature and that of the colonizers? Did indigenous literatures shift to reflect European [End Page 151] values? This is a question worth pursuing, as is the question of who was reading or listening to literature produced by the empire builders. Indigenous cultures often appropriate the trappings of the colonizer without internalizing moral values. One thinks of how Santeria and other religions from Africa display statues of Catholic saints yet regard them as images of their own, not Christian, deities.
Another weakness of Singh's book is an oversimplification of her discussion of binary thinking in children's books. She notes that The Secret Garden sets up a series of oppositions of life and death, Indian and English, and so forth, and says that, "This sort of binary thinking was a natural corollary of empire building" (119). One cannot argue that the binary thinking of "us" (the white colonial power) and "them" (the darker colonized races) underlies all Western imperialist endeavors—but it also underlies imperialist struggles in Asia. To the Chinese all outsiders, including other Asian peoples (especially the Japanese), are "other"; to the Japanese both the Chinese and Koreans are despised "other"; and so on. Binary thinking is not exclusive to the West, and may indeed be hard-wired into humanity. Infants can distinguish between "mother" and "not-mother" and slightly older children can readily distinguish between male and female. It is not binary thinking itself that is problematic, but the uses to which binary thinking is put. Singh's contention that we all learn binary thinking from children's stories, and that this has an effect on empire building from the seventeenth century on through current American foreign policy, is flawed.
Despite these shortcomings, when Singh at last turns to substantive discussion of children's texts (after forty-three pages of prologue and introduction focusing more on the language of political discourse than on children's...