Author Warns of Romanticised American History
Friday, 20 November 2015
Author Tanya Landman gave a fascinating insight into the history of the American West and slavery in an address to Sixth Form History students at Bolton School Girls’ Division. The author spoke about the five years of research that went into writing her latest Carnegie Medal winning novel Buffalo Soldier and how this had made her reappraise her own understanding of American history.
Recalling her own childhood, she recounted how she had inherited a romanticised and white-washed version of the history of the American West in which “good” white cowboys always overcame the “evil” Native Americans. It was only with the films Little Big Man with Dustin Hoffman and Soldier Blue did Hollywood’s interpretation of this period begin to change. In Little Big Man, General Custer was depicted as a murdering madman whose band played whilst his troops ransacked innocent settlements. It had been whilst working on an earlier novel, Apache, that Ms Landman had realised that there was very little written about the period after the American Civil War when slaves were freed but had no income and nowhere to go and many enrolled in the US cavalry, where they ended up being used to round up Native Americans. This had given her the premise for Buffalo Soldier in which a young black woman, having been set free and having witnessed the rape and lynching of her adopted mother, pretends to be a man and joins the US cavalry.
During her research, Ms Landman read endless testimonies from slaves talking about their ill-treatment and abuse and feels that America is still coming to terms with its shocking past. Even to this day, Confederate flags fly in some southern states and innocent black people are imprisoned. She cited the telling statistic that 12% of Americans are black yet they make up 50% of the prison population. Her research revealed how history still influences the present and that blacks are still routinely arrested and beaten; she recounted the story of Sarah Bland, who died in police custody over the Summer. Ms Bland had been stopped for failing to indicate whilst overtaking on the freeway. Ms Landman contended the American Civil War still casts a massive shadow over the US, which they are yet to deal with. Only with the recent films of Django Unchained and Twelve Years a Slave are issues finally being explored. She found it telling that Buffalo Soldier has not been published in the States, although her earlier book Apache had and her next novel will be too.
Earlier in the day she had addressed an audience of Year 8 girls and talked to them about her varied writing career and the different genres and age groups she has written for. In her earlier writing career she had written a lot of murder mysteries but was now focused on young adult historical fiction.