A critical reading of Ruth Bornstein’s Indian Bunny
In Ruth Bornstein’s Indian Bunny, published in 1973 by one of the stalwarts in modern children’s literature, Scholastic, we find the short story of a yellow bunny who decides to run away and become an Indian (if it were published today, it might be called Native American Bunny). This charming children’s book yields interesting readings upon closer examination from a critical-theoretical perspective. This paper presents a reading of Indian Bunny, wherein the text is seen as setting up a binary opposition between nature and civilization, with the bunny functioning as a human traversing this divide. One may see Indian Bunny as involving a variation upon the 19th century romantic conception of the “noble savage”, and depicting a kind of idealized return to nature.
Indian Bunny is composed of 27 pages (32 including titles, dedication and copyright information) and generally, up until the last few pages of the book, each page with text has one sentence or less (often the sentences are fragmented across a two page spread). In the latter half, we find three instances in which two sentences are found on one page. The illustrations are similarly economical, with no more than one visual scene per illustrated page, with four two-page spreads and one spread which contains a continuous line running across both pages, showing what appears to be a single wooded scene but which features the bunny in two different places (picking up a feather and then walking into the woods with the feather on his head) .
The whole text of the story is told in the future tense, “I’ll climb a tree and look far out” (Bornstein no pagination), “I’ll gather round stones to mark a place”, etceteras. The bunny describes various adventures to be had in nature, finally going to sleep in his tepee, an owl flying by and wishing him goodnight. The minimalist, childlike nature of the illustration of the book, and the seemingly casual and straightforward way in which the story unfolds gives the book a charming, off-the-cuff feel, as if this were composed on the fly for a small child at bedtime, which may very well be the story’s origin. Bornstein herself has authored several children’s books involving animals, such as The Dream of the Little Elephant, though she is not as well-known or prolific as some of the bigger names in children’s literature.
Approaching Indian Bunny from a critical-theoretical mindset, one can find in this text, as in others, a multitude of paths and approaches from which to yield theoretical readings. This paper aims to address some of the striking tropes to be found upon a closer examination of the text. An interesting demarcation is set up within the first few pages of the book, a binary dichotomy of the sort that Jacques Derrida attacks in the body of theory loosely known (accurately or not) as “deconstructionism” – a divide between the bunny and the natural world, between some sort of civilization and the wilderness – a “dialectical polarit[y]” between “culture vs. nature” (Richter 821).
The bunny decides, with no reason given, “Good-by, I’m going to be an Indian.” The bunny then sets off to follow the river, “along a hidden forest trail”, and proceeds to engage in conversation with a tadpole (“he’ll tell me how he turns into a frog”). What is this bunny leaving? Are we to assume he lives in a city or house, as in children’s classics like Runaway Bunny and countless other anthropomorphic animal books? The bunny walks biped throughout the book – the bunny is very much a human in bunny’s clothing (or fur, if you like).
The most interesting instance of this dichotomy is when the bunny walks a “hidden trail to the place where the animals meet”. The bunny then proceeds to watch from behind a tree various animals (bears, bison, raccoons, skunks, snakes, frogs, etceteras) congregated together. The bunny is hiding – why? Presumably because, if his presence were known, the animals would scatter or perhaps become angry at his intrusion. In the two page spread following this animal meeting, the bunny “silently steal[s] away” as the sun sets, looking back at the animals and moving away in the trees, trying to leave undetected. Reading this, we feel nothing is out of the norm here – were a human to come upon such a fantastic (albeit improbable) gathering of forest animals, he or she would certainly try to remain hidden for fear of disturbing or irking the animals. Yet the bunny is a forest animal, unless it were (as it is) an anthropomorphized animal, or rather, an animalized human. The dichotomy is set up and confirmed, between the civilized and self-aware (the bunny) and the wild and natural (the rest of the animals). The bunny, in becoming the Indian Bunny and donning his feather and doing his deer dances, is a civilized human escaping into the natural .
Of relevance here is the idea of the “noble savage”, popularized by, among others, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Loosely described, the concept behind the “noble savage” revolves around the notion that human beings in a state of nature, unsullied by civilization, are purer and freer, happier and less inhibited than those formed under the restrictions of civilization and society. Thus, Native Americans and other indigenous non-European peoples living in conditions considered “primitive” and “natural” (by “civilized” observers) are thus romanticized as being closer to the earth and the way man is supposed to be, as being of a more noble and hardy nature than those raised in the cities. This idea has come under criticism in the 20th century as a kind of pandering racism, as a patronizing reversal of the stereotype of the violent, animalistic savage, just as offensive and intrinsically prejudicial (
Of relevance here is the idea of intertextuality, wherein a single text contains within it references to a vast field of other texts, situating itself in a world of texts – “[e]very text builds itself as a mosaic of quotations” (Kristeva quoted in Harmon 279). This critical trope is not relegated purely to “serious” or “grown-up” literature, as William Moebius affirms in his essay: “[t]he phenomenon of intertextuality is more common in the picturebook than might appear” (Moebius 147).
Indian Bunny, on its surface, appears to have no explicit references to other texts, and indeed, there is nowhere any direct or indirect allusion to specific texts. However, the story of Indian Bunny is founded upon the cultural idea of Indians (Native Americans) and their perceived close relationship with nature.
Several of the signifiers within the book are based upon direct allusion and deployment of tropes founded in the cultural icons of Native Americans (that is, the texts and conceptions which form the culture of Native Americans within the collective mainstream culture of America). The bunny dances “a deer dance” – a playful allusion and variation on traditional Native American rituals. The bunny comes upon “a feather the eagle has floated down” directly to him, and places it on his head (fastened with a string or band whose origin is unaccounted for). Thus, the bunny becomes the Indian Bunny. Then the bunny goes deeper into the natural world, “follow[ing] the hidden trail to the place where the animals meet”. At the end, the bunny makes a fire, beats a drum, and goes to bed in his tepee (all signifiers of “Indian”-ness).
The realization that all these external references and cultural signifiers are contained within a children’s book, and that these signs are expected to be (and presumably are in most cases) easily recognized and understood by very young readers (or, perhaps more accurately, listeners) points to the relatively complex degree of cultural literacy possessed by a young audience.
In the second to last page of the book, an owl flies by, and says, “Good night, little Indian Bunny”. The owl acknowledges the bunny as “little Indian Bunny,” thus signifying a kind of successful integration of the bunny into the land the owl lives in. Thus the bunny has successfully made his way into the natural world and become a kind of variant on 19th century Romanticism’s “noble savage”. He has traveled from the unseen but implied world of civilization, to the natural world, traversing from one end to the other of a binary opposition. Unlike many children’s books which feature flights to other lands and worlds, the main character does not have to return home, as Max in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are or the Pevensie children in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia must. The Indian Bunny, rather, migrates to the natural world and stays there at the book’s conclusion, which may be seen as reflective of and consistent with the same kind of romanticizing mindset behind the “noble savage” and an idealized return to nature.
Anonymous. “Noble Savage” Wikipedia article. 30 April 2006.
Bornstein, Ruth. Indian Bunny. New York: Scholastic Inc, 1973.
Bornstein, Ruth. The Dream of the Little Elephant. New York: The Seabury Press, 1977.
Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature Tenth Edition. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
Moebius, William. “Introduction to picturebook codes.” Word & Image 2:2 (April-June 1986): 141-158.
Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends Second Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston. 1998.