Review: Darkness Under the Water

As it stands, Darkness Under the Water is a travesty, a melodrama marketed specifically to young people in Vermont—including Abenaki young people—who will probably be told this is how it was.

 

 

Darkness Under the Water

(and the Vermont Eugenics Survey)

 

Written by Beth Kanell

Published by Candlewick, 2008

Reading level: grades 7-up

Tribal / Ethnic groups: Abenaki

 

In the late 19th Century, there began to be an interest among scientists and sociologists in the possibility of improving the human race by controlled breeding programs. From 1925-1936, in an effort to “breed better Vermonters,” the Vermont Eugenics Survey campaigned to shape public opinion and social policy. The Survey targeted people it referred to as “degenerates” or “the three D’s: defectives, dependents, delinquents.” The Survey’s definitions were purely subjective and included poor people with large families, poor people who were dependent on public charity, poor people who were living off the land, poor people who may or may not have had certain physical or cognitive disabilities, poor people whose family relationships did not fit the social “norm” of the time, and poor people whose children were frequently absent from school. The Vermont Eugenics Survey played the race card and the policies that resulted from it—including institutionalization, sterilization, and removing children from their families—devastated the Abenaki communities. To this day, the wounds remain deep, cultural continuity has been disrupted, and there are now many Abenaki families who continue to “hide in plain sight.”

In Darkness Under the Water, Beth Kanell cites Nancy Gallagher’s landmark study, Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State (University Press of New England, 1999) as the inspiration for her young adult novel of one tragic year in the life of a family who falls victim to a fictitious state-sponsored sterilization program. Promoted by its publishers as a work of “historical fiction” for young readers, Darkness Under the Water is neither historically accurate nor culturally authentic. As such, it will confuse rather than enlighten young readers about the eugenics movement in Vermont. More important, the novel obscures the real tragedy and enduring legacies of the Vermont Eugenics Survey and the state social policies that it inspired.

As the story begins, it is 1930, and almost-16-year-old Molly Ballou and her French-Canadian Abenaki family are living on their traditional land in Vermont, in the town of Waterford, near the Connecticut River. They’re a hard-working hardscrabble family—Grandma and Mama take in washing and mending, Dad is an itinerant laborer, working on the river; and Molly helps when she’s not in school. There was another child, Gratia, who drowned at the age of five, just before Molly was born.

Every society has its mores and web of relationship and obligation. Every society has its cultural markers. Grandma is an elder who has not given up the Abenaki way of being in the world and tries to protect her family from the hazards of being Indian. Mama is pregnant and exhausted from the hard work she does together with Grandma. Yet, they and Molly show a culturally inappropriate lack of respect for each other. Grandma constantly harps at Mama or Molly and Mama or Molly snaps back.

Worst was the moment Me-Mere said to Mama, “You’re not a true Daughter of the People, or you would respect me!” And Mama replied, “If you want respect, you have to be respectable!”

Molly, for her part, is self-absorbed and immature in a way far more typical of modern American young adults than of a young woman of that time, place, and family. She would have had responsibilities to the family unit from childhood; that would be expected, without question. But, given her mother’s late pregnancy and the hard labor she must do to support the family while her husband is away on the river, Molly’s constant whining and resentment, and the idea that she would be glad to see her father because she was tired of being in “a house of women,” are just not believable.

And it is beyond possibility that an Abenaki girl—even one not being “raised “ to it—would grow up in a small town in the Vermont woodlands so totally ignorant of the connection to the land, the forest, and the animals. And a good French-Canadian Catholic Indian family such as this one would have had many more children, and aunties, uncles and cousins being near and helping out.

Then there’s the ghost of Molly’s sister, who drowned at age five, yet continues to haunt 16-year-old Molly (“What dark river shadow did her spirit cling to?....Something of Gratia moved as easily as water through me”) as a 21-year-old, advising her about, among other things, the application of makeup and how to deal with a boyfriend. How is it that the ghost of Molly’s sister is 16 years older than the five-year-old child who died 16 years ago? How is it that Molly doesn’t know that ghosts are unable to travel through water? Why is it that Molly doesn’t tell her parents, or any other relative, that she’s being haunted? In any event, it can well be assumed that Kanell uses this ghost as a literary device to highlight Molly’s dysfunctional interactions with her family, and/or to provide further scenarios for her teenage angst, and/or to provide a lot of water-ghost metaphors, and/or to move the plot, which it doesn’t.

In Henry Laporte, the young Abenaki basket seller whom Molly meets in the woods, Kanell has created the perfect white women’s fantasy Indian. He is a “real” Indian. He is mysterious. He moves soundlessly through the woods, and appears out of silence. He knows everything about the forest that Molly does not. He is gentle, intelligent, and respectful. He has a “cool and quiet outside.” And, oh, those dark eyes and high cheekbones. In reality, if anyone were to be a target of the eugenicists in the ‘20’s and 30’s Henry would have been—the way he lives, his deep understanding of the land and what it offers—these are the people whom the eugenicists targeted. Not those who were assimilating, going to school, and holding down “full time jobs” as Molly and her family were.

A brief digression about the relationship between Henry and Molly: Henry Laporte is more the product of Kanell’s heavy-handed attempt to portray the differences between “traditional” and “assimilated” Indians than it is of Indian realities in this time and place. In a long conversation between Henry and Molly, Henry asks probing questions about Molly’s family and explains to her that she’s not “really” Abenaki because, although she’s “born to be Abenaki,” she has not been “raised in it.” When Molly forces him to apologize, he asks her—to teach him about friendship (!).

And for a traditional Abenaki who gathers basketry materials for his female relatives, Henry (through the author), doesn’t know a whole lot about basketry materials. “Would you show me where you go to get the willow branches?” asks Molly, and Henry replies, “No, not the willow. I could show you the black ash on the mountain, some day.” There are over 100 varieties of willow in Vermont; every little kid around here picks pussy willows and knows that willows grow in the wetlands and on the sides of rivers. Molly, who lives on the side of the river, even if she were not “raised” Abenaki, would know where to find willows. Black ash grows all over the state; the best ash for pounding into baskets grows in the wetlands. Because the closer the trees are to sea level, the wetter the land is, the more water there is between the annual rings, the easier it is to pound and separate the annual rings for basketry material. Why would Henry go to the mountains to get ash, when that would be the most difficult ash to pound? Answer: So they could “cross a stretch of willows on the way” up the ridge.

A brief digression about the Comerford Dam: For millennia, our Abenaki family bands lived alongside the Long River, fishing in its waters, farming the fertile fields nourished by the river, and hunting in the woodlands nearby. And where our family bands lived, we buried our dead. In 1928-1930, a massive hydroelectric dam was built across what became known as the Connecticut River. The creation of the dam flooded our lands, submerging and destroying much of our woodlands, burial grounds, homes, farms and traditional gardens in the town of Waterford.

Although there was no resistance to this great upheaval in their lives, we can assume that our Abenaki families living in Waterford at the time saw the dam as a great tragedy, a great trauma to the land, the river and their lives. Yet, in Kanell’s book, there is little questioning, sorrow or regret and no action. Rather, there is only matter-of-fact comparison. Henry muses, “it was a lighter place when it was still an open river…. Deep waters are darker.” And, from Grandma: “Maybe the Long River will rest a bit longer in this place when there’s a lake. Without the falls, it will be quiet,” she says. “Still, a free river has the best voice.” All of which conveniently leaves opportunity for Molly to wax philosophical with yet another dreary water-ghost metaphor: “What good is a wild, free river’s voice if the voices of the dead braided themselves into the song?”

And speaking of braids: Throughout, there are numerous references to the unbraiding and brushing of hair to “make it look pretty.” Grandma tells Molly to “make it look pretty,” Molly tells Grandma to “make it look pretty,” Molly tells herself to “make it look pretty,” Molly tells her little girl-cousins, through their dolls, to “make it look pretty.” Even the cover illustration has ghost-sister Gratia unbraiding her hair—underwater. In truth, our Abenaki mothers and grandmothers would cut our hair short, or put our hair up in pigtails, or brush our hair out. They might tell us this was necessary to keep us safe, or they might tell us a story, or they might not say anything. We understood this because we know our parents did it to protect us. But who would belittle a child, wound a child’s spirit on purpose, by telling her that her braided hair is not pretty? Someone may have shared a story with the author about how painful it was to have had her hair—this important part of her being—cut or unbraided in order to avoid suspicion; but Kanell, once again, wittingly or unwittingly distorts the historical and cultural significance to the point that it was painful for us to read and it’s painful for us to relive.

Kanell, not one to let a sleeping metaphor lie, ratchets up the “hair-pretty” metaphor by having Molly ask her grandmother why they’re removing the bundles of dried sage hanging from the rafters in the hallway: “‘Brushing out the braids to make it look pretty.’ She echoed my words to the little cousins, with a half smile, a half wince.” Then, to make sure that not one reader misses that this whole thing is an allusion to assimilation, there’s this from Molly: “Brushing out the braids? She meant our home and its Indian-ness under the surface.”

There is little possibility of dealing adequately with the ramifications of the Vermont Eugenics Survey and the state sterilization law passed in 1931 in a work of historical fiction for young readers, and that, apparently, was never Kanell’s intent. Instead, she uses the Vermont Eugenics Survey’s 1920s investigations of some of Vermont’s “French-Indian” kinship networks as the centerpiece of her story of teenage angst. She introduces it early on through a brief adult discussion of a fictional 1930 newspaper article: “[T]his Perkins fellow, he’s already saying all our people are Gypsies, and at the statehouse, I read there’s a bill being considered to sterilize anyone with Indian blood.” In fact, such a newspaper article never appeared in 1930, nor did the biennial state legislature even convene in 1930. The Eugenics Survey’s family studies never referred to Native family bands as “Indians,” nor did the newspapers. Rather, we were referred to as “Gypsies,” French-Canadians, “pirates,” “feeble-minded,” “degenerates,” or “unfit parents.” While Kanell mentions Henry F. Perkins (the founder and director of the Eugenics Survey at the University of Vermont) only once as “this Perkins Fellow,” she fails to explain the relationship between the Survey and the complex network of social workers, town overseers of the poor, medical personnel, teachers, police and truant officers, courts, and state institutions, who assisted the Survey’s field investigations and promoted their legislative agenda, including the eugenical sterilization law passed in 1931.

Instead, Kanell creates a pair of nurses in white uniforms, cruising the countryside in search of—although this is never specifically stated—targets for the Eugenics Survey. The tension heightens; there is a sense of impending danger as these nurses, “required by the [governor and] legislature,” interrogate the teacher and take the children’s measurements. But it takes Kanell 209 pages to arrive at what she apparently considers the heart of her novel. Here, in a scene so brutal, so graphically described as to make the book unsuitable for the intended audience, Mama goes into early labor. The two nurses, who just happen to be stopping by for a “visit,” suddenly appear. They hoist Mama onto the kitchen table and, in the process of delivering the baby, smother him; then tell the family that he was born “too soon.” Then they cut out Mama’s womb:

A cry of pain from my mother made me run. My grandmother, still holding the wrapped dead baby, called out, “What are you doing to her?”…. “Cleaning,” said Nurse Williams quickly. “Cleaning out the afterbirth. So there won’t be an infection.”…. I stepped closer to my mother...and saw a sharp flash of a blade in Nurse Carpenter’s hand. “Stop it!” I called out. “You’re hurting her!” She turned her face toward me, eyes blazing. “It has to be done” was all she said, as she tugged a handful of bleeding flesh out of my mother’s most private place, and blood, too much blood, flew forth in a dark red wave onto the sheet-covered table. Swiftly wrapping the handful of bloody something into a towel, along with the blade, the nurse snapped to me, “Another towel, if you want to help her.”

In the obligatory scenes of grief and loss, Molly’s main concern remains for herself. Two days after the baby’s burial, she goes off to a dance with friends. She is distressed to learn that her parents could have wanted a son, and, now that she must take some real responsibility in the family, whines about the loss of her “freedom.” No surprise; Mama is terribly ill, and will never fully recover.

Time goes by, with a degree of healing for Mama, and some accommodation to her new circumstances for Molly. Although she’s “so tired…tired of bad things happening,” she thinks about going back to school because she has “little choice: gain a teaching credential or wash other people’s clothes for the rest of my life.” Her mother has been cruelly mutilated, her baby brother has been killed, her family is in constant danger, but again, still, yet, this is all about Molly.

The dénouement comes when the nurse who “had pushed a blade between [Mama’s] legs,” having suddenly reappeared out of nowhere while Molly is at the store, sneaks past the dozing grandmother and up to Mama’s room, and in a confrontation, is flung down the stairs. Her neck is broken. Molly’s father and Henry—who just happens to be around—take the body to the place on the river where the dam is being built, “the one place, where, if she fell, she’d be sure to break her neck.” Of course, there are no questions from the authorities.

Mama, having disposed of her enemy, quietly declines and peacefully dies. Molly will, in time, walk off into the sunset with her Indian “brave.” And no action is taken on the governor’s “demand for the sterilization of the strangers among us, the different, the weak, the ‘unfit’ among the plain New England family trees.” It’s all very neat and tidy.

In an author’s note, Kanell says that recently, “Vermont gave state recognition to the Abenaki people,” but that “their ‘disappearance’ for so many years has prevented the federal government from recognizing the tribe.” None of this is true. The Abenaki acknowledge and recognize many family bands (“tribes”) throughout Vermont, but the state government only recognizes us as a “minority group,” with none of the rights of a tribal entity. With the exception of one of our family bands that attempted and failed at federal recognition, we have not felt safe enough to come out in an organized way in order to prove the continuity of our cohesive family bands to the federal government’s satisfaction.

Kanell also writes that the Abenaki “now feel safe as they share stories of those days and people.” Not likely. In many ways, we are as much at risk as we have ever been; the threat is just different. It is, for the most part, more sophisticated and still difficult to counteract.

If indeed Kanell had read Nancy Gallagher’s book, one would not know it. Although the state of Vermont passed a sterilization law in 1931, the targets for sterilization were individuals who were deemed “feebleminded or insane” by physicians and psychologists, according to their subsequently discredited “science.” If there were any state senators or representatives who “found their own cousins in the scientific studies,” none of these people were ever under threat. Two-parent families who were employed full-time and whose children regularly attended school were not targeted. There were never any attack nurses roaming Vermont for the Eugenics Survey. What we had was bad enough.

And that’s the heart of the problem: What we had was bad enough. Our people were picked up as “feeble-minded” and institutionalized, sometimes for life. Our children were taken away from our families, and our families had absolutely no recourse. In these institutions both men and women were sterilized, because someone had decided that to let them reproduce would contaminate Vermont’s breeding stock. Whole families scattered across New England and never saw each other again. Some were captured in other states and then institutionalized. An old, old grief: broken families, lost futures, people growing up not knowing who they are because their parents will not tell them they are Indians—for their own protection. Not over. Not done. Now. Still. If you are Indian, there is no guarantee that you are safe.

This is the history, the legacy that Kanell has appropriated for her venture into young adult historical fiction. Such a sensational story obscures, ignores, and even functions to belittle the deep and enduring wounds that continue to poison our families and communities today. If Kanell had created characters who were authentic for the time and place and subject matter; if she had left out the graphic and gratuitous brutality; if she had chosen to make appropriate use of Nancy Gallagher’s material, whose work she cites; if she had understood—or cared—how tragic the Eugenics Survey has been for an entire nation of people; if she had shown any comprehension of what it has meant to be Abenaki in Vermont; even with her stilted, cliché-ridden writing, had she even chosen just to tell truths, she could have been forgiven.

As it stands, Darkness Under the Water is a travesty, a melodrama marketed specifically to young people in Vermont—including Abenaki young people—who will probably be told this is how it was. Since young adult historical fiction is often used to supplement textbook versions of history, Darkness Under the Water will probably turn up on Vermont reading lists, and will probably win awards. And our Abenaki mothers will probably continue to cut their daughters’ hair so they will be safe. And our Abenaki people will probably continue to “hide in plain sight.” And the cycle of hatred and denial will continue.

 

—Doris Seale and Judy Dow

In collaboration with Nancy Gallagher, Doris and Judy have conducted extensive research into the eugenics movement in Vermont, including the Vermont Eugenics Survey. Over several generations, Judy’s was the largest family specifically targeted by the Eugenics Survey, and Doris’s was caught in the aftermath a generation later.

We wish to express our gratitude to Nancy Gallagher for her time and persistence in her past and present search for the truths of our story—D.S. and J.D.

 

© Oyate, 2012

 


 

Join our email list

 

NEW Book! Chicora and the Little People

Buy Now

 

featured video