Monday, August 9

Old Abe, Eagle Hero

The Civil War's Most Famous Mascot
written by Patrick Young
illustrated by Anne Lee


Traditionally-told biography of a bald eagle who was a wartime mascot, which is sort of odd when you think about it.  I thought so at least. But this book has bigger fish to fry, like the fact that it's riddled with inaccuracy.

"Found" in a nest high in a tree (i.e. stolen from its home) a Native American (here called an American Indian) named Chief Sky raises a fledgling eagle and then trades it to a farmer named McCann who, though he can farm, cannot apparently fight in the war due to his leg so he sends his eagle in his stead.  Old Abe rides a standard into battle for Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry's Company C and, though he has a few close scrapes, comes out alive after over a dozen battles.  Once home, Old Abe lives out his life as a celebrity, with a two-room apartment in the state capital and tours to the Liberty Bell in 1876 for the Centennial.  

All well and good, if it didn't have so many issues that makes the book more fiction than biography.

This is what happens when you do a life-to-near-death style biography and reshape historical events in the process.  One of the problems I have with picture book biographies is when information is diluted for its intended audience who in turn come away with the wrong idea about the story.  Chief Sky, as a boy and so clearly not the adult depicted here, spent hours scoping out the tree where the eagle's nest was, and had to fend off attacks by the eagle's parents.  This is a far cry from the illustration that shows Chief Sky as an adult calmly standing with a baby bird in his hand.  The illustration and text are framed in such a way as to have you believe it was an honorable and humane undertaking, more a rescue than a kidnapping, and not the antics of a boy. 

Next we have Chief Sky trading away his bird when his tribe goes downriver to conduct business with the white settlers.  It would have been just as easy to start the story here, with Chief Sky trading the eagle away without having to whitewash its provenance, and it wouldn't have affected the story at all.  To a point.  What isn't in the story, but I learned from a very quick Internet search, was that the bird was traded away for a bushel of corn. I think that's the sort of detail a young reader would find interesting, and would make for a good point of discussion; would you trade away your pet for something, and if so, what would you be willing to trade it for?

Then later, unlike the way it's presented in the book, McCann is reported as having made several attempts to sell the adult bird, finally finding a regiment that paid McCann five dollars (or $2.50, depending on which source you use) for their mascot.  Nothing about sending the bird to war in his stead, as suggested in this text.

At this point we're barely a fourth of way into the book, and I've grown impatient about trying to sort out what is ans isn't factual, or at least what is presented in a way that a reader doesn't draw the wrong conclusions.  For example, at one point a infantryman is shot and Old Abe is described as dragging "his buddy to safety."  At most, an adult eagle is going to weigh 15 pounds and can rarely lift or carry anything above its own weight... and you want me to believe a bird dragged a man ten times its weight to safety?  A kid reads that, sees that depicted in a book, they aren't going to question it.  Why should they?  We're giving them a book and telling them it's non-fiction, meaning it really happened.  Do we want them to think we're liars?

Best tidbit also not in the story, according to Wikipedia (which, unlike this book, cites references): Old Abe was a female eagle.  I don't fault the Wisconsin soldiers for not being able to correctly sex a bird, but at the very least it could be pointed out and the pronoun "she" could be used throughout the text to indicate that, now, we know better.  It sells an audience short to say they wouldn't understand that mistake, or that they'd get confused by a masculine name on a female animal.  And it continues to perpetrate known falsehoods.  We're back to the myth of Washington chopping down the cherry tree again.

I find it odd that an author who is a science and medical writer (or his publisher for that matter) wouldn't think to include a bibliography.  There is some backmatter about bald eagles, which is nice, but nothing specifically about Old Abe that might correct some of the inaccuracies in the text.  This would be the place to explain how war stories (like eagles dragging men to safety) were sometimes exaggerated by newspapers, or how it's likely that young Abe "danced" when McCann played music because its wings were clipped and it couldn't fly away, or even how Old Abe was actually female.  Also implied with in the subtitle – the most famous Civil War mascot – is the idea that there were other mascots of the war between the states.  Like that Dadblamed Union Army Cow.  Were there others?

I've said this before (and I've written a critical thesis about it for my MFA) I think that when it comes to presenting biographies and other factual materials to younger readers, particularly readers of picture books, those books need to be accurate, thorough, and perhaps even vetted to make sure the information present or implied isn't misleading.  We do no favors to children by teaching them about something or someone new to them if what we teach them is wrong.
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