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the matchlock gun

7 december 2010

The Matchlock Gun was written and published before Pearl Harbor, but won the 1942 Newbery Medal after Pearl Harbor. Did its theme of military preparedness make the difference between also-ran and Medalist status in the eyes of the judges? If so, the book presents an example of how junctures in political history can influence literary history.

On the face of it, it seems unlikely that author Walter D. Edmonds or illustrator Paul Lantz had the growing Japanese military threat in the Pacific in mind when they created their slice-of-colonial-history tale. They had a more local-color agenda. In his preface, Edmonds suggests that the legend of the Matchlock Gun is founded in fact.

As the story has it, a young boy named Edward saved his family from death and worse fates by discharging a huge arquebus into a pack of marauding Indians. Edward's father Teunis is off ineffectually leading the colonial militia somewhere, leaving Edward alone with his mother Gertrude and little sister Trudy. Really it's Gertrude's resourcefulness that saves the day. She devises a plan to lure the Indians into firing range. When they do, Edward touches off the powder in the big gun's pan and kills three men.

It's an undeniably suspenseful story, very skillfully told. Lantz's illustrations are understated and at times eerie. The problems the book presents to a 21st-century reader, though, come from two directions. One is the book's simple racism; the other is its more complicated association of heroism and mayhem.

The racism of the book is centered in its depictions of Indians. Here they are sneaking up on Gertrude's home:

They hardly looked like men, the way they moved. They were trotting, stooped over, first one and then another coming up, like dogs sifting up to the scent of food. (48)
That these people might have reasons just as rational as whites' for making war is never considered. That they might be people at all barely registers. They're just beasts on the prowl, beasts more loathsome and deadly for having humanoid form.

I call such racism "simple" because it's on the surface for the world to see, and there's no way of rationalizing it. But less-obvious racism lies just below the book's surface. It shows itself most visibly in the preface by Edmonds. Tracing the origins of his story back to the oral traditions of Hudson Valley Dutch settlers, Edmonds pauses to extol the races that make up the "stock" of the Eastern Establishment: "the Pilgrims, and the Scotch-Irish, and the English" in addition to the Dutch and Germans, races that share the hereditary "complaint" of anyone "who wants to be free, to think as he chooses, and to live as he likes" (xi).

Such gumption breeds victory. The implication is that the defeated Indians at the end of the story don't value freedom, or perhaps don't want it enough. Are the Indians slaves to their carnivorous nature? There are African-American slaves in the book too, though they are offstage, perhaps lacking the willpower even to come into evidence. That the book's "Americans" should own slaves and kill Indians is unremarked-upon; no latter-day PC-fest for The Matchlock Gun.

As I've said, the other idea in the book, even less remarked-on, is that mayhem makes the man. Edward's mother loads the blunderbuss with some fairly horrific ammunition. Two bullets, and then "some horseshoe nails and some small pebbles and two brass buttons" (35) enter the muzzle of the thing. When they leave, they kill three Indians in their tracks, and ultimately cause a fourth death. (When the men got back from their aimless militia-ing, "they had found another Indian crippled and had killed him" 62.)

Why on earth would this be considered a good thing? It's self-defense, all right: these Indians have tomahawks and succeed in carving Gertrude slightly with them before they are killed. Within the confines of the story, mortal enemies collide and the better-prepared win all the marbles.

My problem is not that Edward's actions are morally reprehensible (they're not, or at least their cruelty is mitigated by necessity). My problem is "why tell kids such a story in the first place?" My students sometimes assert that stories like The Matchlock Gun are "the way it used to be on the frontier." They're probably right. But why have American writers been so determined to make much of such events? Why is Edward's courage the stuff of heroic legend? Why didn't children's writers and editors in 1941 think of it as the most horrible blood-curdling freaking thing that could ever have happened to a little kid: having to take the lives of three human beings by splattering them with miscellaneous hardware?

Because, I suppose, that's the way the West was won. And winning the West (or anyway, west of something, even if only New England) was still cause, 70 years ago, for uncomplicated celebration. It's only become disturbing in retrospect to realize that so much of American mythology is bound up with killing those who get in our way.

Edmonds, Walter D. The Matchlock Gun. Illustrated by Paul Lantz. 1941. New York: Penguin, 1998.