The Obelisk Trap by Margaret Pearce

I received this book through Library Thing’s Early Review program. It is truly the first book I read from there that I wholly and completely could not enjoy. It was very disappointing. So, be warned, this exceptionally long review is about addressing the issues in the text.

Warning: here there be spoilers. I try very hard not to spoil books in my reviews, but in order to thoroughly address the pervasive racism and sexism in this manuscript, I need to back it up with examples from the text. These examples do give away important plot points. If you do not wish to be spoiled, this paragraph is sufficient. I rated the book so poorly because of persistent sexism and racism. I truly believe that to read a book to a child with those issues is to pour poison into their minds. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this book.

A note regarding intentions: I actually believe this author did not try to be sexist or racist. Many of the problems in this manuscript are the background sexist and racist tropes that I myself have had to train out of my brain after a lifetime of society feeding me and teaching me to believe this crap. Regardless of intention, it is still wrong and should NOT be allowed to survive uncontested, or survive period.

Should you still be hanging around, I would like to say that I wanted to like this book. It was the first middle grade book I had seen in the Early Review batches that sounded interesting to me. I think part of my visceral anger while reading was the fact that these expectations were so greatly disappointed. I’ve waited to review until I could speak calmly, or as calmly as I am able.

Basic plot: Charlie is trapped in a magical place called The Place of No Name with his sister, Billie, and Uncle William. They must escape before Billie is discovered to be a girl, as all young girls are killed immediately upon arrival.

Now that that’s out of the way, the text was appalling. Racism and sexism abounded and it was completely unacceptable.

The sexism was especially hurtful because the author dedicated the book to her daughter, “the daughter who could do anything better than most of the boys in the district and still can.” From the dedication, I got the feeling her daughter had been teased about being a tomboy, so I appreciate that the author tried to write an inspiring narrative wherein the female was a hero.

She failed.

Billie, the sister of the narrator, is first described as bossy; ugly for a girl, but alright for a boy; and embarrassingly sporty. All of these are common insults thrown at girls to shut them up and shut them down. Had they come from her brother and he later said he was wrong, they would have been barely acceptable, but instead, the narrative continues to say that Billie – who is is outspoken, but never bossy – is too smart for her own good. I think my least favorite descriptor was, “She has an intellect so sharp she’s going to cut herself one day.” Not one other character is told being intelligent is dangerous.

Billie is forced to pass as male to survive. I don’t appreciate the implication that sporty, tomboy-ish girls would be better served to be boys. I would much rather imply, or outright state, that a diversity in what is socially acceptably masculine and feminine would be the far better solution.

Eventually, Billie does manage to be the hero, but it’s not because of her intelligence or athletic skills or anything that she has any control over. She is established as smart, but isn’t allowed to use them to save the day. It is the two “scientist” males who figure out the solution and then choose to mind rape her (at best) and potentially sacrifice her life WITHOUT HER KNOWLEDGE OR CONSENT. And all of this would be SLIGHTLY okay if what made Billie special had anything to do with a special talent or skill she had required. But no. Billie manages to be the hero because she’s – wait for it – a girl. Something in her specifically female biology doesn’t allow the alien parasite to live. She literally saves the day because of girl cooties. And can I note: scientifically, any parasite that can survive in the human biosex male body can survive in the biosex female body. Perhaps they can BETTER survive in one sex or the other (if testosterone or estrogen are significant factors in the survival of the parasite), perhaps, but this is laughably bad science AND plot. Making her “girlness” the saving factor is sexist. Women are not innately magic – they are human beings with skills and abilities. To WASTE an intelligent, problem-solving female character like this is practically criminal.

Also, out of a predominately male cast, the secondary villain is the only other named female character. And she’s the villain because she’s trying to protect a man, not for personal reasons. There is a primary villain, but his villainy is framed as a instinctual desire for survival, as something understandable, if not acceptable.

Now, for the racism. As another reviewer noted, the native inhabitants of the village are referred to collectively as “the blacks.” This is not okay. There are plenty of other descriptors for the villagers that aren’t race-based. Also, black is used as an unnecessary descriptor. There is only one doctor in the whole of The Place of No Name, but rather than being referred to as “the doctor,” he is referred to as “the black doctor.” Him being black makes literally NO DIFFERENCE to his skills as a doctor, it had already been established that he was black, and there was no other doctor from which to differentiate him. It was ridiculous and unnecessary.

The native population is described as having “fine features” that are so atypical for black people that a TRAINED SCIENTIST says “They look almost Caucasian except for their colour.” This is RIDICULOUS. And to have it come out of the mouth a scientist is especially offensive. The diversity of the human species, both in feature and in color, not only allows for fine-featured black people, but demands that they MUST exist. There are naturally blonde black people, and naturally broad-featured white people. It seems this author has never really looked at a black person, but rather dismissed them all as a group fitting into a narrow visual and cultural stereotype.

Speaking of cultural stereotypes, the native population is distinctly less advanced than the city built by the white people who have been trapped in The Place of No Name (I bet you anything it has a name in the native language, more on that in a moment) for a significantly lesser time period. The natives bring coal they have mined to the white people in exchange for food that should be freely available and goods that are utterly impractical in a place where survival is key. It smacks of slavery and white dominance.

The native peoples have learned English, but the English speaking white population has never – in hundreds of years – bothered to learn the natives’ language because “it’s just too hard.” This is a common tactic used to force non-English speaking peoples to learn English in American society today, I can’t speak for Australian society. And yet society still characterizes people who don’t speak English as stupid or lazy, as if society is not guilty of those crimes ten times over.

The Traveler, the ruler of The Place of No Name, is white. Remember, The Traveler is an alien parasite that chooses a host body, wears it out, and then travels into a new one. He sits as king over the villagers – he’s apparently been terrorizing them for centuries. And yet, he himself is not black. It seems that as soon as white people began stumbling into The Place of No Name, The Traveler deemed them more fit hosts and has slowly been picking off the best and healthiest of the white population, despite the fact that the native populations have shown themselves to be more resourceful and adaptable.

Billie is a white savior. That trope should be banned for all time.

A little note: the doctor who lives among the natives is the ONE black person I can find in the manuscript who traveled from our world to the The Place of No Name. It is heavily implied that he is the one who taught the natives everything they know (I call BS). This is Western Supremacy/Colonialism in action. The fact that the doctor is not white does not change that colonialism is based in racism and this counts as a racist stereotype.

There was more. This is a sampling of things I found deeply disturbing. More disturbing is that so many harmful stereotypes and actively poisonous attitudes made it past an editor and beta readers. I would hope that someone along the line might have noticed and said something, but if they did, they were not heeded. The writing is grammatically passable and not entirely uninteresting, but that cannot save a manuscript steeped in thoroughly toxic attitudes.

F (rampant sexism, racism, and poor plot devices)

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