Smiler's Bones Booktalk
In 1897, Robert Peary brought six Eskimos to New York City as a living breathing exhibit for the Museum of Natural History. And then he betrayed them. This is their story.
Minik is only eight years old when he, his father and four of their friends leave their Greenland coastal village to travel to New York City with the Arctic explorer, Richard Peary. He's excited and overwhelmed that first day as thousands of New Yorkers pay to walk by the Eskimos and shake their hands. The Eskimos learn their first English phrase when they are given candy and peanuts. "Tankyou!" Minik figures it meant "more candy and peanuts" since that's what they are given every time they say it. But the treats also make Minik sick, and his father takes him down into the hold, where it's quiet and cool. And that's where he discovers the barrel. It tips over, spilling out bones. The bones are larger than a fish or a rabbit, but smaller than a bear. And just as his father closes the barrel, Minik sees a skull. Why did the white men have barrels of bones? Where had they come from?
They never speak of the bones againthey are too busy. They are taken to the museum and given a place to live in the basement. People pay to come and watch them through grates in the walls and newspaper reporters write about everything they doincluding the first time Minik has to take a bath, something he'd never had to do before.
But the Eskimos don't have any defense against the diseases of the white man, and they get very sick, and in February, just four months after they'd arrived, Minik's father dies. A few months later, Minik is alone. Four Eskimos have died, the fifth has returned to Greenland on one of Peary's ships. Too ill to travel, Minik is left behind to live with the head of the museum, who has no idea how to handle a sad, sick and very confused Eskimo boy. He's sent to live in upstate New York with the museum's superintendent and his family, Uncle Will, Aunt Rhetta and their son Willie. There he finally finds a home and happiness. But that lasts only a few months, until Uncle Will takes him back to the museum and he sees the place where his father was buried. His father is not there, grass grows where the pile of stones that covered him once was, and no one will answer his questions about his father's body. Minik knows that none of the other Eskimos were given proper burials, but he's sure his father was buriedhe saw it. Or did he?
Minik has been betrayed by those he most loved and trusted. He is more alone than ever, and farther than ever from the home in Greenland that he yearns to return to.
This Booktalk was written by librarian and booktalking expert Joni R. Bodart