Monday, June 15, 2009

Beckendorf's Sacrifice (I Should've Seen It Coming)

The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan - This is the fifth and final book in the bestselling Percy Jackson series. I read it the week it was released. I loved this series but this final book left a bad taste in my mouth. In the first book Lighting Thief discovers his father is Poseidon and that's he's a half blood. During the summer Percy spends much the summer with other half bloods at camp half blood. The author introduces other half bloods by name, though only Beckendorf is said to be African American.
"After the Ares kids came the Hephaetus cabin- six guys led by Charles Beckendorf, a big fifteen year old African American kid. He had hands the size of catchers mitts and a face that was hard and squinty from looking into a blacksmith forge all day. He was nice enough once you got to kow him, but no one ever called him Charlie or Chuck or Charles. Most just called him Beckendorf." (Sea of Monsters p. 55)

The introduction of an African American character was unexpected and greatly appreciated. In the second book, Sea of Monsters Beckendorf is referenced a few times, he's great with metals and is the only camper who will work with Percy's half brother Tyson, a cyclops. So not only did the Riordan have an African American character, he also made use of him.

Now I'll get to my issue with the final book. (which I should've seen coming)

Here are the clues- 1) Beckendorf first appears on page 10. Beckendorf is a secondary character he has never mentioned so early in the previous books. 2) Beckendorf goes on a mission with Percy. Beckendorf is not in Percy's inner circle. So for him to go on a mission with Percy in the first chapter is a serious red flag. I shame my people for not recognizing these obivious clues. To be fair I was blinded by my love of Percy, I was so happy to have the final book in my hands I couldn't see straight. My eyes cleared up right quick when I saw what was about to happen. The plan was for Beckendorf and Percy to plant a bomb on a ship and make their escape. The two are captured before they can get away.

"I swallowed. One of the giants had his hand around Beckendorf's neck. I was in no shape to rescue him, and even if I tried, he would die before I got there. We both would. Beckendorf mouthed one word. Go. I shook my head. I couldn't just leave him. The second giant was still rummaging through the peach cans, which meant Beckendorf's left arm was free. He raised it slowly- toward the watch on his right wrist. I wanted to scream, No!. Beckendorf closed eyes tight and brought his hand up to his watch. I had no choice. I threw my sword like a javelin at Kronos. It bounced harmlessly off his chest, but it did startle him. I pushed through a crowd of monsters and jumped off the side of the ship. The Princess Andromeda blew up from both sides, a massive fireball of green flame roiling into the dark sky, consuming everything. Beckendorf, I thought. Then I blacked out and sank like an anchor toward the bottom of the sea." (pgs.26-27)

Also I didn't see this coming because its 2009, I thought the sacrificial death of the one black character so the white character can live was a thing of the past. I pointed out the problem I had with this book to two co workers, who also read this series, neither remembered Beckerdorf's African American. Riordan, establishes Beckerdorf's race in Sea of Monsters and doesn't feel the need to do so again in the Last Olympian. It's the only decision regrading him in this final book that I agreed with. It's easy for my co-workers to forget, it such a small detail when you're the majority but when not many characters look like you in bestselling series, its unforgettable. So does every reader of color remember Beckerdorf's race? No, nothing a 100%, though I would put it at a high percentage.

Beckendorf's sacrifice was bad enough but Riordan seemed to be pushing my reading bottoms. He would not let it go.

"Poseidon stroked his beard. "Percy, Beckendorf chose a heroic death. You bear no blame for that." (p39)

"Percy, Beckendorf's sacrifice wasn't in vain. You have scattered the invasion force." (p40)

"We'd already lost so many people over the summer, but this was the worst. With Beckendorf gone, it felt like someone had stolen the anchor for the entire camp." (p47)

The anchor of the entire camp, Really! Reading that made me sick. If you've read this series, you know there is nothing in the previous books gives weight to that, Beckendorf was never talked about like that before. Its not enough that Riordan decided to sacrifice the only African American character, he also had to make him bigger and more important than what he was in death.

"Nico tapped his sword on the ground. A tiny mound of animal bones erupted from the dirt. They knit themselves together into a skeletal field mouse and scampered. "I was sorry to hear about Beckendorf." A lump formed in my throat. "How did you" "I talk his ghost." "Oh... right. I'd never get used to the fact that this twelve year old kid spent more time talking with the dead than living. "Did he say anything?" "He doesn't blame you." "He figured you'd be beating yourself up, and he said you shouldn't" (p. 85)

Again I say, Really!, Because a white hero should never feel quilt, so even in death Beckendorf finds a way to get a message to Percy's to ease his conscious.
I didn't have a problem with Beckerdorf dying. The half bloods are raged in a war throughout the entire book, so characters will die. Did I want him to live? Yes. Did I think he would? No 1) He's African American, 2) he's a secondary character the author developed so the readers will feel his loss more. So I was perfectly fine with Beckendorf dying in battle and I expected it. But, this sacrificial death was uncalled for and not appreciated. I did a few engine searches with key words but nothing popped up about how and why Beckendorf died. It got me to thinking maybe I am being oversensitive (previous word surrounded by air quotes) but than I thought to myself, no. I see what I see because of who I am and I will not apologize or dismiss my feelings.


Summer said...

Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert! Haha, no really, I haven't even heard of this series until just today, believe it or not, when I subscribed to Rick's blog. But very interesting post. I don't know if you're reading too much into it or not but it's still a very important discussion. It makes me think about why he identified that character to be black in the first place. But it's always nice to have a more diverse cast of characters. The clues you cited are interesting. Especially the one where he goes on a mission with Percy when that's unusual... it does seem like a set-up for a sacrifice. No matter if people agree with you or not it's very telling for this series that it means so much to you that'll you'll think about it this deeply. So that's one good thing that comes from Beckendorf's death.

Doret said...

Summer, I read great postabout spoilers not even 10 min. after posting this. I agree I also hate spoilers and avoid them when I can. In this case I coudn't but I still didn't reveal much of the major plot.
Bestseller or not this got to me so much because its just wrong. The only thing good that can come from Beckendorf's death, is that it never happens again.

Zetta Elliott said...

good job, doret! this is a thorough explanation of your concern, and seems totally justified...what--if anything--do you think this gesture tells us about the author's position on race? Is it a subconscious yearning for the good old days of Uncle Tom? Or is this the only way he can imagine a black hero (i.e. dead)?

Doret said...

Thanks Zetta. I won't make any assumption on the author's stance on race. Though I will always wonder if Riordan knew what he was doing with Beckendorf. I believe Uncle Tom is a stretch. I loved the Lighting Thief series, and I look forward to reading more books by Riordan. I hate what he did with Beckendorf but there is no pattern. In the future my reading radar will be up when it comes Riordan's minority characters.

tanita✿davis said...

I have read about this series but haven't yet jumped into it myself, though I have heard a lot of good. I must say that you do a thorough job of explaining your point, and you are, of course, right. HOW many Star Trek episodes did we see the black guy in the red shirt die?? HOW many times do you see this coming -- the negligible minority character who can be sacrificed to save the lot. Got to shed some blood -- let's make it this guy's!

I'm glad you wrote this up. While there will be some people who believe you are overly sensitive and accentuating the negative on what has been a successful series, I think it's important that all writers be reminded of things like this, in hopes we can all think past our cultural conditioning.

Linda said...

Smart, thoughtful post.

Macavity said...

I know I'm getting here late, but... Yeah, you are reading too much into it. I read book after book, and find endless examples of too much white-washing. I laugh at the token minorities, and cry that the main characters can't be, but let's be serious, if you've read the whole book, let alone the whole series, it's clear that Riordan just likes sacrifice (a very greek element). Is it sad that all the main characters are white? Definitely. Did he kill Beckendorf for being black? No way. Not the first or last secondary character to die. And hey, Grover and Persephone are both being played by minority actors in the film, while not being pointed out as such in the books, which is great.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the thoughtful and well-researched post, but i don't think rick riordan means it that way. I dont think he had race in mind while writing the book or creating the characters. What is Silena's role in beckendorf's death, i was just wondering... thanks again.

Anonymous said...

As you said most people didn't even know Charlie's race. Most people were just upset that he died, even if it was a sacrificial death. He was a secondary character, yes, but that doesn't mean that he wasn't an anchor to the camp. I mean I had totally forgot that he was African-American and I was sitting there about to cry when I read that and to be honest later on I did cry. Charlie was one of my favorite characters. I like him more than I like Percy. And as Macavity said Rick just likes sacrificial deaths. Even Luke and Bianca died sacrificial deaths.

Anonymous said...

I read the whole book series. The last book was so sad. I was like crying. Rick Rioden continue the series please!

Cara Membersihkan Kamar Mandi said...

Good article and a nice summation of the problem. My only problem with the analysis is given that much of the population joined the chorus of deregulatory mythology, given vested interest is inclined toward perpetuation of the current system and given a lack of a popular cheerleader for your arguments, I'm not seeing much in the way of change.