I would be genuinely surprised if there was a child in North America who was not at least passingly familiar with the story of Peter Pan. The enduring quality of the children’s story has led to dozens of film and television adaptations, literary analyses, and reinterpretations over the past century.
I have read and reviewed at least two fairy-tale reimaginings for this website, Christina Henry’s Lost Boy and, more recently, Jodie Lynn Anderson’s Tiger Lily. I truly enjoyed that latest novel, but it made me realize that I’d never actually read J. M. Barrie’s original source material. So I downloaded the audiobook and got to work.
It is almost impossible to separate our collective understanding of the Peter Pan legend from Barrie’s novel (which was originally written as a play). I will, however; try to focus on the character’s as they are presented in the book, and not how they have been portrayed over the years.
This isn’t even so much a book review as it is a look back to see how the original source material has held up over time. Because let’s be honest, there is a magical timelessness about Peter Pan that has captivated generations of children.
And then there some things that definitely have not stood the test of time.
I would have laughed out loud at the British imperialist attitude that pervades this novel if it weren’t quite so alarming. In some ways, the constant references to “the might of Brittannia” or “King and country” were quaint and almost charming.
But then Barrie spends nearly an entire chapter detailing the ways in which the “red savages” are simply inferior to the white man. There are constant references to the Native Americans as “redskins” or “pickaninnies”. They refer to Peter as their “Great White Father”.
It’s an example of racism that is so startlingly casual it almost makes you understand how the 1953 Disney cartoon adaptation thought it would be okay to include songs such as “What Makes the Red Man Red?” *Note – the movie somehow manages to top the book in terms of blatant stereotyping*
I also have a huge problem with Wendy.
She’s such a fucking sissy.
And I get it. This book was originally published in 1911, when women were kind of expected to be sissies. Wendy’s entire personality is sweet, motherly, and ladylike. That’s all she is, and she has nothing in the way of a character arc. She idolizes and worships Peter as the ruling “father” figure, and caters to his every whim. It is such an outdated portrayal of a young girl that I had to constantly remind myself while I was reading that it is literally antique. If anyone ever suggests that the past one hundred years of feminism hasn’t accomplished very much, I’ll show them this book.
With all of this in mind, would I recommend this book to parents?
I’ve always been of the mind that reading changes the world for the better far more often than it changes it for the worse. Sweeping the bigoted mindset of the past under the rug isn’t the way to go. Instead, parents could use Peter Pan as a way to start a conversation about how ideas have changed over the past century, and why some people used to think in ways that were and are highly offensive.
Also, the more troublesome aspects of Barrie’s novel are but a fraction of the book as a whole. The excitement and adventure of Neverland is still there, as are the wonderfully silly lost boys, the pirates, and of course Peter himself.
I was personally glad I finally got around to reading the book.
My rating: 3.5/5
* Note: I read an unabridged copy of Peter Pan, which I believe contains a lot more offensive language than the one that is traditionally marketed to small children*