Pocahontas, Whitewashing, and Playing the Long Game

I have not seen the movie Pocahontas since I was a small kid. Truth be told, I don’t remember that much of the movie. I remember that the English looked very Spanish in the movie, what with their glittering armor and their Morion helmets, and I remember that Pocahontas sings something about the color of the wind or something like that. If I remember correctly, there was also a raccoon that was supposed to be pretty important to the story. Were I to rewatch the movie today, I doubt I would enjoy it much.

Truth be told, there are a variety of reasons why. Part of the reason is I’m not that into musicals–the suspension of disbelief is usually too much for me. Part of the reason is I missed out on the chance to see the Matrix in theaters because I had to stay home to watch Pocahontas with my younger brother. As someone who really enjoys film and philosophy, I am still aggrieved that I missed out on the chance to see the first Matrix on the silver screen. But if I am going to be completely honest, what really bothers me about the movie Pocahontas is the lack of respect for the history and the people involved in the story.

I understand, of course, that Pocahontas is intended for a young audience and that young kids aren’t necessarily interested in a historically accurate tale. Nonetheless, I still find it disturbing that Disney took so many creative licenses with the historical facts related to the Jamestown colony and disagree with the idea that historical fiction ought to be sanitized if it’s intended for a young audience. For proof why this is not the case, I would urge readers to pick up Blood on the River.

Blood on the River was required reading in my elementary school and my first introduction to historical fiction. The book is very much intended for a young audience but I suspect if I were to re-read it today, I would still enjoy the book. Told through the eyes of a young orphan forced to join the Virginia Company, the story does a great job of capturing the wonder, confusion, and fear a young boy may have experienced upon arriving in 17th century Jamestown.

Well-known historical figures like Pocahontas and James Smith both make appearances in the novel, but unlike Disney’s Pocahontas, Elise Carbone never tries to suggest the two had any kind of romantic relationship. Moreover, Carbone does not try to elide the fact that Pocahontas was pretty young when she met the English, likely 12 or so, and her decision to stay true to the established facts should be commended.

As almost anyone familiar with the history of Jamestown knows, it has a pretty sordid history. The colonists who founded Jamestown brought little in the way of practical skills, but they did bring plenty of gold-mining equipment, and knew next to nothing of living conditions in the Chesapeake region. Some of the people who were most knowledgeable, the Powhatans for example, did share information and resources on occasion, but the English had a bad habit of attacking Powhatan settlements which kind of put a damper on peaceable cross-cultural interactions. Owing in part to their inability to forge a positive, working relationship with their indigenous neighbors, and their profound ignorance of agriculture, the colonists often went weeks without food. These food shortages were often times severe, so much so that more than half of the colonists died during the Starving Time, and drove many of the Christian settlers to cannibalism.

Genocide and famine don’t exactly make for light reading, but I think Carbone does a good job of alluding to these events in a way that won’t be off-putting for young readers. Moreover, I think the way the protagonist, a real-life historical figure who went by the name of Samuel Collier, deals with these crises make for compelling reading. At one point in the book, the protagonist has to decide whether he will kidnap a baby from his mother to save the child from coming famine or if he will leave the baby with a mother who insists the Jamestown food shortage is no serious matter. The choice that Collier makes sticks with me to this day and gives the book an emotional depth unmatched by the Pocahontas movie.

In all fairness, Disney is in the money-making business, not the telling historical-stories-accurately business. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that Blood on the River was a big success with readers. The book has over 4,000 ratings on Amazon and averages 3.99 stars which is pretty good by most metrics. Moreover, it’s also a top-seller in multiple Amazon categories which is impressive considering the book was released only 12 years ago. I’m sure Pocahontas helped Disney bring in tons of money, but I suspect the movie will fade from the cultural lexicon in the years to come and will hurt Disney’s brand in the long-run. Whitewashed historical fiction just isn’t as popular as it used to be and fans have increasingly high standards when it comes to historical fiction. Owing to Carbone’s respect for history and people involved in the Jamestown colony, I suspect Blood on the River will continue to rack up many positive ratings and will continue to be read by young students all across the country.

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