Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

The Indian In The Cupboard brought race issues to kid lit

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Growing up, I loved Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian In The Cupboard series, because of what I viewed as its analytical approach to magic. When Omri, the young boy at the center of the tale, realizes he can bring his toys to life through the use of a magic key, he reacts the way any kid would: He experiments.

Or so I remembered. In actuality, Omri learns the rules fairly quickly (lock a toy in a container once to bring it to life, lock it a second time to send it back; only plastic items turn real), but once he does, he’s more than content to stick with his initial discovery, a 2-inch-tall Iroquois man named Little Bear. While he grants his friend Patrick his own living toy—a drunken, cowardly cowboy named Boone—he’s otherwise adamant that they not abuse the power or let harm come to them. So rather than going on small-scale adventures, à la Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, or having Omri somehow save his new friend, à la E.T. (though Frank Oz’s 1995 adaptation of Cupboard was scripted by E.T. writer Melissa Mathison), the boy spends most of his time learning.


That is the real story of The Indian In The Cupboard (1980) and its sequels, one I didn’t appreciate until adulthood. More than anything else, the first book is about stereotypes and the importance and difficulty of being able to look past them. To a surprising degree, it’s an elaborate parable about race, and not a particularly subtle one. The toys start out defined by their labels—“the cowboy,” “the Indian,” and all the baggage those entail—and things are tense until they learn to see past the labels, to view each other as people.


It’s easy to imagine the ways this premise could end up being downright offensive. Going in, I was worried the books would have aged terribly, marred by offensive stereotypes, but was surprised that Banks not only avoided those pitfalls, but made untangling racial assumptions a key theme. The idea of a white kid having what’s basically a “pet” human is obviously tricky, but the dynamics never really falter.

It helps that Little Bear is a great character, flawed but strong, not fitting the “noble savage” stereotype and not there to engineer Omri’s life lessons. Even Banks’ touchier choices, like having him boast about having scalped 30 men, are put into a broader context when Omri reads about the era:

The book, in its terribly grown-up way, was trying to tell him something about why the Indians had done such a lot of scalping. Omri had always thought it was just an Indian custom, but the book seemed to say that it wasn’t at all, at least not till the white man came. The white man seemed to have made the Iroquois and the Algonquin keen on scalping each other, not to mention white men, French or English as the case might be, by offering them money and whiskey and guns.

There’s a heavy revisionist streak running through the series’ view of history, a sense of overturning the dominant written-by-the-victor narrative that excuses, omits, or even celebrates imperialism. Omri learns various tribes fought each other, but that, “when you came to think of it, the English and French (whatever they thought they were doing, fighting in America) were probably no better, killing each other like mad as often as they could.” Later, he decides against bringing a toy knight to life, thinking it looked “most unpleasant, just as knights must have looked when they were murdering the poor Saracens in Palestine.”

Stereotypes come into play repeatedly, and Banks shows how even “positive” ones can hold people back—Boone is unhappy because he fails to live up to the ideal of Wild West toughness; Omri is “shattered” to learn the cowboy is sensitive and fearful, prone to crying jags. The pivotal scene of the first book comes when Omri, Patrick, Boone, and Little Bear sit down to watch a Western. Boone is absolutely thrilled by the heroic cowboys mowing down faceless enemies, while Little Bear feels so attacked by the imagery that he lashes out in violence. Banks doesn’t editorialize here, but the point she’s making about how media create a victor’s narrative and influence the way we see people is sophisticated.


The series’ considerations of race and violence become even more fraught in The Return Of The Indian (1985), which opens with Omri finding Little Bear wounded by another tribe, an attack that looks to be the opening salvo of a broader war. After some convincing, he brings a collection of Iroquois to life so that they can be formed into an army, armed with modern weaponry, and sent back with Little Bear to guarantee victory in the next battle.

This leads to one of the series’ most audacious sequences. Curious about how the battle is faring, Omri transports himself to Little Bear’s world, directing himself by touching a plastic teepee when the lock is turned. When he arrives, he finds himself literally part of the structure, sentient but immobile, and witness to a display of horrendous violence. Before he is brought back, the Omri-teepee is set aflame, and he returns with a blistering burn across his face.


Witnessing the bloodshed—which for a children’s book is hardcore, though it serves a thematic purpose that justifies its inclusion—forces him to reckon with the part he played in what had happened: “He couldn’t avoid the realization that he had sent devastating modern weapons back in time and that they had certainly killed people.” The violence is so horrible that Omri is unable to justify such actions against anyone. He had wanted his friend to win the battle, but now he reflects that “if Patrick, a year ago, had made him a present of some other plastic Indian, it might just as well have been an Algonquin, and then the Iroquois would have been the baddies.” Again, both of these points represent a remarkably complex moral view, one that’s far more useful for thoughtful kids to hear than some “always be nice” generality.

But then, before Omri has a chance to consider the morality of his amateur arms dealing, the book moves to a battle with skinheads.


Yes, skinheads, and though I grew up believing this was meant in the fascist sense, it turns out it actually refers to a working-class subculture, rather than neo-Nazis. (The first book ends with a useless four-entry glossary that includes such British terms as “biscuit” and “football”; it would have been genuinely useful to have something similar in book two for “fascism.”) At any rate, the series’ focus on race certainly makes it appropriate that the description of climatic villains recalls a group synonymous with racial violence.


Though less graphic, the final battle is more unsettling than the one Omri witnesses, and its depiction is the biggest misstep of the first two books. The skinheads are grotesque creations, with their hollow eyes and moonlit skulls, which adds to the sense that violence against them isn’t merely justified, but awesome. They attempt to burgle Omri’s house; he and Patrick drive them off with miniature soldiers using heavy artillery, the recent epiphany on this point completely forgotten. It’s a sequence with a lot of Western parallels—the charge of the cavalry against an enemy depicted as a savage—but contrary to the lesson of Cupboard’s TV scene, the boys agree their battle was “fantastic,” a view Banks seems to endorse. Patrick even says he no longer regrets missing the battle between the tribes, a statement the formerly traumatized Omri neglects to tell him is fucking stupid.

The circumstances between the two battles are different—the second one being a case of non-lethal self-defense—but when they come one after the other, the book’s view toward violence becomes more muddled than complex. It’s weird to see Omri go from regretting his role in people’s deaths to saluting a totally bitchin’ display of superior firepower. (That his burn singed off some hair makes for intriguing symbolism. Does Omri have something in common with his hairless foes?)


This is hardly the first time fictional bullies were driven off by violence, but the scene put the series on a less intriguing path. The third book, The Secret Of The Indian (1989), begins in the immediate aftermath of the skinhead skirmish, but the kids just have to explain the collateral damage, not deal with the morality of what they did in their and Little Bear’s time. The fourth book, The Mystery of the Cupboard (1993), follows a path familiar to current franchises, with bigger action and a story dedicated to building out the magic-and-time-travel mythology of the world.

In fairness, The Key To The Indian (1998), the fifth and final book, does return the series to its original thematic inquiry. More than anything, it is an elegy for Native American tribes, and deals with white people coming to terms with the genocidal imperialism of their forebears. The story—which is far more scattered and underdeveloped than the series’ early books—involves Omri and his father going back to Little Bear’s time to help him deal with white colonists. Banks doesn’t pull any punches with why Native populations were decimated—at one point, white men set fire to a building filled with Iroquois women and children—but she basically lets Britain off the hook. “We haven’t as much to be ashamed of as a lot of colonial powers, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t anything to blush for,” Omri’s father says at one point. “Englishmen always prided themselves on being men of their word, but our rulers haven’t always lived up to that. I’m sorry to say that our treatment of the Indian tribes that helped Britain in its colonial wars was not a shining example of honor.” This is insufficient.


Still, there is an undercurrent of progress as Omri and his father break the cycle of British exceptionalism. At first they’re reluctant to advise Little Bear, with Omri’s dad likening themselves to the missionaries “who told [the Indians] what to believe, and rubbished their religion, destroying everything that had ever held them together.” When they do provide counsel, it’s based on their defeatist knowledge of the future. Little Bear is urged to take his people to Canada, where they’ll have a greater chance of escaping disease and violence. The final glimpse Omri gets of his friend, or that the series gives of its title character, is of Little Bear preparing to leave the land of his ancestors.

This is a sobering note for the series to end on, but a fitting one. When it comes to the sins of the past, Banks seems to be saying, there is no victory that can be had. All we do to prevent this kind of dark history from recurring is to be honest about what happened and the pain it caused. If we can, perhaps the children who read about it will see things differently.