Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Drummer Hoff was Framed!!!!!

For reasons that, quite honestly, escape me one of the books I remember most from my very youngest days is Barbara and Ed Emberley's Caldecott Medal winning Drummer Hoff.  For those of you who may not be intimately familiar with this tragic volume, I shall provide a link - but in summary it is a description of the process whereby an early gunpowder era cannon was fired.  Wikipedia says of the art style that it evokes "both 1960s psycheldelica and Colonial American engravings."  I can't think of a better way to put it, myself.

The work is clearly a product of the sixties, both in its artwork, but particularly for the tone and anti-war message most people see in it.  I see something else, that doesn't seem to strike as many people, when they read the book.  Before going any further, here's the video:

New Hampshire public television, hosting the 1969 Weston Woods short film version  (Sorry, there are a couple of versions on YouTube, but they're either annoying or distracting.)

The video also has a teacher's guide associated with it.  In the guide it highlights three things that they think the children should learn from the book:  recognition of the horrors of war; recognition of the idea of division of labor; and following a sequence of events.

The horrors of war, to me, seems rather iffy.  There is no sense of desperation or contested achievement in firing off the cannon in the book.   If anything it looks far more like a celebratory event (until the final denoument, at least.) than anything I'd call war.  However, I'll concede the point, and admit that my own view is probably a bit skewed.  Further, for that time period in the American consciousness, an anti-war message is a likely intent of the authors.

The division of labor, and the sequencing of events are unobjectionable, and clearly a part of the work.

Where I feel that the teacher's guide fails is that it ignores the lesson that I seem to remember being most vivid about the whole work:  That blame, if not accountability, is going to flow downhill to the lowest member of any hierarchical organization in the wake of a disaster.  With every step of the sequence of events the reader is being reminded that the ultimate step taken was Drummer Hoff's.  Not only does this emphasize the sequence of events, but also places in the minds of the audience the sense that the person who must have been at fault was Drummer Hoff.

In short, this work is a masterful frame job for poor Drummer Hoff, providing us a concrete example in children's literature of the truism that Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem The Hyenas:

"Nor do they defile the dead man's name - 
That is reserved for his kind."  

In this book poor, dead, defenseless Drummer Hoff is clearly, and relentlessly, saddled with the guilt for firing off the cannon and killing the squad that set up the weapon.  And no one cares to admit it.

As an adult, I find that message and warning even more explicit than I found it as a child - knowing that the sort of cannon ruptures shown in this work are usually the result of poorly cast weapons means that if there is any fault involved the most likely culprits are never named, let alone investigated nor called to account for their actions.  After all, why investigate further when we all know that it was hapless Drummer Hoff who fired it off?

I will close with some lines from another source, which may be familiar:

"This story has no moral; this story has no end;
this story only goes to show that there ain't no good in men."


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