A Post Colonial analysis of
Stanley Bloom’s Binny and Belloe
My friends … under the fur we are all the same … I beg you to remember that … – Oggy, the Red Squirrel
Let’s face it. In Western Culture, we have a long history of being rather inconsiderate and sometimes downright condescending or degrading to Others. How this looks in practice depends on the work and the time-period. Consider Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which presents the mysterious Eastern European as a bloodthirsty vampire who tempts women into sin – or better releases from the shackles of societal norms the women who are already giving into their sinful natures so that they can be free to express it. Pick a work by HP Lovecraft. If the villain is not from a non-white ethnic group, he or she was probably heavily influenced and brought into acts of evil by someone who was.
We do our best to improve this, but face it. We even manage to mess that up. Our ethnic characters tend to fall into one of two categories. They are the token character – a female in a mostly male cast, a non-white and/or non-Christian ethnic member in a predominately white and/or Christian cast. The way to tell if your diverse character is token or not is to examine their role. Are they merely the background so that you can show ethnic/religious diversity in your story, or do they take actions that affect the plot? The former is definitely token. The second can be, depending. But that’s a discussion for another time.
The other way we tend, in white Western culture, to present other ethnic groups is as the “noble savage”. These are the ethnically diverse characters in stories dominated by white European and/or American protagonists. The noble savage displays some special skill, insight, or power that aids the white character in some way.
Some beloved examples: Dick Hallorman in The Shining, Oda Mae Brown in Ghost, Azeem in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, most movies that Morgan Freeman has been in.
So when a story attempts to tackle our perceptions and attitudes of race, I like to pay attention and see just what the story is doing, and if it is doing it effectively.
Enter Binny and Belloe
The red squirrels have lived happily in the wood, playing, frolicking, and generally doing things that squirrels love to do. Their life has been idyllic for the most part. It appears that predation in this part of the wood is low. The squirrels are plentiful, and life is good. Then enter the white squirrels. At first, hardly any of the other red squirrels believe that such a thing can exist. Surely, they must be a fantasy. However, as the white squirrels move into the wood, everyone comes to recognize their existence and see them as great omens. They will bring plentiful gathering and their attention will make tails bushier and prettier.
They are magical creatures, these odd-looking ones.
That lasts for a short time. Then the real world comes back. A great storm shakes up the forest and the red squirrels begin learning more about the white squirrels. They have strange beliefs. The red squirrels talk of many gods, while the white squirrels have one. The white squirrels also have strange customs that the red squirrels do not understand. As winter comes, the squirrels quarrel over food.
Now, the story is very much a children’s story. It incorporates the elements children love – magical talking creatures. It also incorporates what we think of as being a squirrel – that hyperactive sense where you do not linger on one thing for very long, quickly moving from topic to topic.
Have you actually had a conversation with a child? You will learn about three different things before they finish the first story they wanted to tell you.
That is what it is like to read Binny and Belloe. For an adult, used to reading prose with long, drawn out descriptions where a letter A is described in four pages rather than four lines, it can be difficult. For a child, it is perfect, keeping their attention as it moves quickly from one scene to the next. Parents bemoan how technology has shortened the attention spans of children. It is good to see that literature is learning to keep up.
The story also incorporates, at its heart, a discussion of race and acceptance. Bloom also does this very well. The newcomers, the Others, are easy for most children in Western culture to identify with. They are white. They worship a single God Squirrel, where the red squirrels worship many. They are also more civilized, washing their paws before eating and storing food ahead for those who are too weak and may not be able to gather food easily.
While the white squirrels are clearly civilized colonizers in a savage land, the story paints a much more complex picture than that. They do not subjugate the red squirrels. Instead, many of them keep themselves segregated, and many of the red squirrels are quite happy with that. As the story continues, however, several of the red squirrels adopt increasingly insular attitudes and the slogans of any group seeking to rid their homeland of outsiders.
What is refreshing in this tale of differences and acceptance is that one side is not presented as completely enlightened. While clearly the red squirrels present the greatest challenge to peaceful co-existence, they are not alone in their prejudices. Members of both groups display them, and members of both groups are able to rise above them.
For both red and white, the difficulty of integration and acceptance is a shared experience.
Lynn Perretta is a contributing author to StreetWraith Press. If you want to see more of her work, please visit The Writer’s Manifest. You can also check out her published work through Amazon or Smashwords.