The Indian in the Cupboard
© 1980 Lynne Reid Banks
I had to keep watch in the children’s department today, and there bumped into an old friend: Omri, the boy with a seemingly magical cupboard that can turn plastic figures into real, albeit tiny, people. I can’t remember how young I was when I encountered the Indian in the Cupboard series, though I do remember being puzzled as to why the “dollar” signs looked funny (£). The story begins when Omri receives a plastic figure of an Iroquois warrior and a cupboard for his birthday. There’s no key for the cupboard, but oddly one of Omri’s mother’s heirloom keys fits the lock perfectly. When Omri locks the figure up for safekeeping, however, he’s astonished to hear yelling and muted scraping from within. Somehow, the toy has come alive. When Omri is able to talk to the figure — now a very animated and angry warrior — he learns that the man is not simply a moving toy, but a real man suddenly ripped from history. The book follows Omri and Little Bear’s evolving friendship, as well as the near disaster that ensues once Omri trusts his friend Patrick with the secret. Oddly enough, the arrival of this tiny figure from the French and Indian Wars is a pivotal experience for Omri, giving him his first taste of responsibility, an opportunity for wrestling with the morality of his own actions. Ultimately he decides that he doesn’t have the right to play with lives from history like this, and he and Patrick will send back Little Bear and a few others back closing and locking the cupboard door once again.
I loved this series as a child, and I enjoyed it no less today when I decided to revisit the first two books. I remembered much about the story — I should, considering how many times I read the first few books — but was amused by some of the things I’d forgotten. The memory of the weird dollar signs, for instance — I didn’t realize the book was set in another country back in the day, and there were some jokes that went over my head because ‘whiskey’ wasn’t a word that I had encountered at age seven, or whenever it was that I found these. What a delight this book was to me back then, already in love with history — even in fourth grade, my history book was the first one I looked for on the first day of school — and immediately interested in any notion of toys coming to life. One of my favorite childhood books was Elvira Woodruff’s Back in Action, about a magic kit that brings toys to life and shrinks their owner down to have adventures with them. This book was genuinely educational, however, as Little Bear behaves nothing like what Omri expects a ‘savage’ to act like. Through Omri and Little Bear, I learned that there were all kinds of different native Americans, that some lived in longhouses and some in tipis, that they fought each other and fought on different sides against European powers. Omri becomes fascinated by Iroquois culture, and when in the sequel his friend makes a churlish remark about the ‘savages’,, it is Omri who chides his friend for not knowing what he’s talking about.
Return of the Indian is more of an adventure than a moral drama — Omri brings Little Bear to life again to tell him some good news, and then learns that the warrior’s village about to be burned and his friend killed, so Omri tries to figure out a way to help out — but is still enjoyable. There’s so much to appreciate about these two books, but I suppose the days of children playing with little figurines instead of their parents’ phones are passing into memory.
This book appeared in a 2011 Top Ten Tuesday list, “Childhood Favorites”.