If you are taking your government-permitted exercise in the south of Edinburgh these days, you will sometimes see boxes of books that have been left outside people’s houses. I assume that enormous cycles of spring cleaning are getting done during the lockdown and that long-unruly bookshelves are now being treated to that haircut that you need to give them every few years. The unwanted books are being distributed out in the street because there are still no charity shops open to take them, but there might be also some more exalted idea involved, of lockdown neighbourliness or solidarity. I saw one crate that was labelled, “Lockdown Boredom Busters.”
I like this model: perhaps it will eventually become universal, so that every home hands out its read books in this way. An economy in which every new book that you obtain will be second-hand and a gift. Sadly, though, the books on offer at the moment are plainly the runts of any library. I carefully pick through each box that I encounter and there is usually a mixture of aged chick lit and moronic thrillers. Yet one day, on Napier Road, there is finally a breakthrough, or else a miscalculation. Somebody has donated Lynne Reid Banks’ children’s novel The Indian in the Cupboard (1980). I snap this up, amazed that it is now mine, and next I decide that I will review it.
Perhaps I will become like some hobgoblin in superstitious folklore that has developed a specialist function. If you leave a book outside your house on a dark night, Tychy will come and review it for you.
Anyhow, the eponymous cupboard is likewise found in the street, in “the alley… a narrow passage that ran along the bottom of the garden where the dustbins stood.” Omri is the small boy who receives this item as a birthday present at the start of the story, which is set in the UK. Without much further ago, the cupboard is revealed to be a magical device that can bring plastic toy figurines to life. Nonetheless, the precise source of the magic is not the cupboard itself but a wandering key that comes to be attached to it.
Omri wishes to take a small child’s satisfaction in locking and unlocking the cupboard. In a beautifully mysterious detail, his mother happens to possess “a whole boxful” of homeless keys. When Omri finally identifies one that fits the cupboard’s lock, his mother remembers that this was “the key to my grandmother’s jewel box, that she got from Florence.” A toy figurine of a Native American “Indian” warrior (also a birthday present) is shut up in the cupboard overnight. The next morning Omri awakens to discover the cupboard’s life-giving properties:
Neither Omri nor the Indian moved for perhaps a minute and a half. They hardly breathed either. They just stared at each other. The Indian’s eyes were black and fierce and frightened. His lips were drawn back from shining white teeth, so small you could scarcely see them except when they caught the light.
The Indian in the Cupboard resembles a traditional fairy story in that there is a magical contract at its centre, with its terms and conditions stipulating where the story can flow and where it is contained. Omri does not know enough of the world to puzzle over how the key came to be enchanted. Any adult readers who are lingering over his shoulder might suspect witchcraft or spiritualism to be involved.
The cupboard can only bring to life figurines that depict some person or animal from world history. It never occurs to Omri to put, say, a model of a cartoon character into his animation chamber, but it looks highly likely that a Bugs Bunny would remain impervious to the magic. If the magic additionally renders “real” inanimate objects, such as a plastic teepee, this is merely a compromise in the story’s logic that prevents the warrior from materialising stark naked in front of Banks’ young readers. The cupboard otherwise latches onto spirits rather as a medium would do during a séance (in spiritualism’s heyday, Native Americans were quite commonplace as spirit guides). Still, it is made clear that these spirits are being taken from ongoing lives on Earth, rather than post-mortem, and that their own time must be accordingly somehow running alongside Omri’s.
Maybe we can dimly imagine that, in Florence, this key, along with its original box, had been used to consult the dead, namely by animating little models of deceased individuals. This is probably the key’s proper usage. In the hands of somebody who knows what to do with this technology, its power must be incredible. By contrast, Omri has alighted upon a more innocent application. But I have not read any of the several sequels to this book and it could be that Banks issues the rightful story behind the key in one of these.
Little Bear, the warrior, is proud and noble and he has eyes that are like “little bright crumbs of black glass.” If he was once a genuine human, modern readers might grow annoyed by how doggedly he continues to resemble a plastic figurine. That a living person from history can be funnelled through this plastic model apparently confirms that those crass villains that were sold to children in the 1980s were actually true-to-life representations of Native Americans. We have effectively no option but to conclude that the figurine of Little Bear must be based on a drawing or painting of a historical individual.
These days, it is quite predictable that postmodern academia and its minions would revile The Indian in the Cupboard. After all, this book largely reiterates the familiar propaganda of Manifest Destiny. Considering that after 1962 Banks and her family had lived for a time in Yas’ur, an Israeli kibbutz, one might also begin to espy something of the Arab World’s own Red Indians in the figure of Little Bear. Yas’ur is built on the depopulated Palestinian village of Al-Birwa; it had charmingly helped itself to farmland from two other erased settlements. Little Bear is potentially interpretable as offering a handsome souvenir of these deleted natives, or of helping in some obscure way to come to terms with their deletion. Even so, before we get swallowed up in this shadow, we should not overlook important elements of the story’s front-facing side.
Omri knows instinctively that he has to keep Little Bear secret. He only bends a little on this when it becomes necessary to confide in his friend Patrick, in order not to jeopardise their friendship. Aside from this, he keeps as shtum as a sealed can. He is a little boy with a secret big enough to turn the whole world upside down. All available scientific knowledge about space and time and human biology and molecular physics would need to be rewritten in light of the new evidence from the cupboard. The cupboard would send Albert Einstein packing. The cupboard could be used to retrieve any person from history. All that one would need to speak with Attila the Hun would be a small, makeshift model of Attila the Hun.
What could be possibly more urgent for Omri than sharing this gospel of the cupboard with humanity? It would surely make him so famous that in the future, many of the plastic figurines on sale would be of him. Omri nevertheless has such a reason. His squealing-and-kicking immaturity never in fact entails weakness of character. He is always thoughtful and even, when it matters, moralistic.
The answer is that Omri empathises with Little Bear because he knows that he is just as powerless as this tiny man is. As a child, Omri is at the total mercy of adults, he is constantly under their oppressive surveillance and he has to inhabit the colourless educational system that they have created for him. Every adult in Omri’s world – from his parents to his teachers to Mr Yapp the beady-eyed local store owner – is one and the same to him. They are all prison guards. Fairmindedly, Omri reasons that he can create happier and more liberal conditions for Little Bear to live in than these adults ever could.
He is undoubtedly correct in thinking this. At the end of the novel, he makes the unselfish decision to set Little Bear free and send him back to his “own time.” It is hard to imagine any adult scientists ever doing the same. Rather a mist descends, however, when one tries to scour this act of liberalism for a political meaning. If the challenge that the hidden Little Bear poses to established science is revolutionary, so too is that that the Palestinians’ equally-concealed humanity poses to Israel. Yet Little Bear is deleted from Omri’s world before he can cause any more trouble, just as the Native Americans were flushed out of history and the Palestinians are right behind them. For Little Bear, injustice is ultimately postponed rather than being avoided.
Omri would be today more or less the same age as myself. A lot of the realism within The Indian in the Cupboard rings true to me because I too had grown up in a decade when children didn’t have mobile phones or Fortnite and it was entirely feasible that they might incorporate some leftover cupboard into their imaginative games. Modern children, for whom this book is currently prescribed on national curricula, will find its story to be incomprehensible. A world in which children value a cupboard as though it is a PlayStation no doubt seems as impoverished today as the longhouses of the Iroquois had done to Omri.
What is most vivid about The Indian in the Cupboard is its evocation of just how boring childhood is (or was). Banks’ chief skill is her keen and very authentic observations of children’s behaviour patterns. As Omri fluctuates breathlessly between hopefulness and melancholia, the story’s portraiture feels almost photographically crisp. Any adult reader will recognise from their own childhood Omri’s annoyance at having his imaginative play constantly interrupted by school and chores and family. When Little Bear at one point goes temporarily missing in inaction, a bleak light falls over Omri’s life and it appears unbearably small and desolate.
Banks can move about empathetically within this world. She has an expert knowledge of the scale of a child’s existence and the frustrations that they characteristically encounter. Perhaps it is wrong to use the term “child” here since Banks only ever writes about little girls satirically. Whenever one does happen to glimpse some schoolgirls in her story, she is implicitly comparing them to traditional savages on the warpath. Clearly, she knows nothing about little girls and cares even less. Omri is, as this book’s dedication indicates, a real boy (as are his brothers) and The Indian in the Cupboard is written both for him and about him. Today he is the children’s author and illustrator Omri Stephenson.
When I first decided to review The Indian in the Cupboard, I was struck by an affinity that appeared to exist between its story and the “Bloody Mary” ritual. As anthropologists would have you believe, little girls who try to summon “Bloody Mary” in bathroom mirrors are supposed to be unconsciously getting to grips with menstruation. The Indian in the Cupboard ostensibly goes much further than this and certain aspects of it might look to be almost comically bawdy. Omri has a little man in his pocket and he will get into trouble if he shows him to other people. He realises that, yes, “the feeling of holding this little creature in his fingers was very strange and wonderful.”
I would today caution against reading the novel in this way. However much sense it might make, and however real it might feel, it is quite evidently an adult literary critic’s pareidolia. The Indian in the Cupboard actually concludes with Omri being reconciled with his mother. He is not reconciled with her enough to tell her about Little Bear, but he is now more appreciative of her and the other adults’ civilisation. There is a moment during his adventure when he marvels that he had never “so clearly seen the point of all his mother’s urgings to keep everything in its proper place.” He has sided with the wagons of civilisation rather than the outgoing tribes.
We might reflect that this has been a funny old Escher’s staircase of a story, which goes around and around in a perfect paradox without ever reaching any doors. The mother, who has been shut out of the secret, has been nonetheless omniscient enough in her surveillance, as a narrator, to record every tiniest detail about it. As a real-life mother, with her own real-life Omri, Banks has invented the secret that is always meant to be kept from her.
Running a caustic eye over one marriage, Sylvia Plath had scoffed that, “You say your husband is just no good to you. His Jew-Mama guards his sweet sex like a pearl.” Forget stereotypes of Red Indians, the biggest undislodged cliché in Banks’ book is surely that of dazed Jewish boys being controlled by overprotective mothers. And if the grandmother who had once owned the magical key was conceivably a witch or a supremely powerful matriarch, well! Like mother, like daughter.