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Literature / The Indian in the Cupboard

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Adventure Awaits With the Turn of a Key

The Indian In the Cupboard is a series of books by Lynne Reid Banks. An English boy named Omri finds that when he locks a toy plastic Indian in an old bathroom cupboard, it comes to life.

It contains some surprisingly mature themes, including a great deal of death and responsibility.

Books in the series are The Indian In The Cupboard (1980), The Return of the Indian (1985), The Secret of the Indian (1989), The Mystery of the Cupboard (1993), and The Key to the Indian (1998).

There was a 1995 film adaptation by Paramount and Columbia Pictures, featuring Hal Scardino as Omri and rapper/actor Litefoot as Little Bear.

This series provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: The first two books mention that Patrick is afraid of his father because he hits him (as well as his brother and mother). The escalating situation ultimately leads to his mother divorcing his father and moving from London to Kent with her sons.
  • Adults Are Useless: Eventually subverted. Omri starts out keeping the cupboard a secret from his parents and everyone else, for all the usual reasons, but later on in the series, his father finds out accidentally. Not only is he capable of dealing with it, he becomes Omri's best ally in the last book, and Omri is glad to have an adult's help with some of the problems that come with managing the magic. And at the end, Omri's mother reveals that she's known about the magic pretty much all along — which makes sense, as the psychic powers came from her side of the family.
  • Aerith and Bob: There are the three brothers Omri, Adiel and Gillon, and then there's Omri's friend Patrick (and later Patrick's cousin Emma).
  • All Just a Dream: How the boys convince Tommy and Matron (who actually passes out when she first sees them!) to help them with the injured Little Bear and (in Matron's case) his men. Played straight with Tommy but eventually subverted with Matron as she reveals to them she isn't stupid, and the reality of the wounds and the dead are something she cannot deny as fact. When they confess the truth, although skeptical at first she handles it surprisingly well.
  • A-Team Firing: Horribly averted when the Indians go back to the past with "now-guns"—not understanding the way bullets work, the braves surround their enemies and all shoot at once, and thus end up mostly killing and badly injuring each other.
  • Big Brother Bully: Both Adiel and Gillon are this to Omri on occasion (though to be fair Omri does his fair share of antagonizing as well- such as when he rages at Gillon for "allowing" his rat to escape when it was clearly a complete accident).
  • The Blank: In The Key to the Indian, Omri's father is accidentally sent back in time to inhabit a faceless Iroquois Indian corn doll. He becomes a miniature of his human self, with a flesh-and-bone face, but no features. Doubles as And I Must Scream.
  • Bloodless Carnage: Also averted. Aside from the arrow wound Boone receives in the first book, and the musket wound Little Bear has in the second, the massacre of the Indian braves is depicted in, if not graphic detail, at least more than enough realism to make the horror of war hit home, for Omri and Patrick and for the reader.
  • Born of Magic: It was originally a lifeless plastic child's toy, until Omri put him in an old curio cabinet. The figure emerged as live human Indian Little Bear, though still only three inches tall. This also happened to some of Omri's other toys, but he undid the magic when they began clashing with one another. Little Bear even admonishes Omri, "You should not do magic - you do not understand!" This is also how the cowboy figure Boone came to life.
  • Butterfly of Doom: When Omri considers keeping Jessica Charlotte from stealing the earrings, Patrick makes him realize that changing the past could have unforeseen consequences—in this case, that Lottie not being accused of stealing them and running into the street, and her father not dying, could make it so that Lottie never met his grandfather and Omri wouldn't be born. To Omri's horror, he realizes that having Bert return the jewel box could have the same effect. Luckily for him, Bert being a conniving little bastard who only keeps true to the Exact Words of his promise turns all of this into a Necessary Fail. Or perhaps it is a Stable Time Loop; Omri later reflects that he recalls his mother told him the jewel box was returned empty when she first gave him the key, which means either Status Quo Is God and nothing he did could change it, or Because Destiny Says So his intervention ended up fulfilling what originally happened anyway.
  • Cats Are Mean: Implied but in the end averted. While the scene where Kitsa kills Boone's horse is quite upsetting and has Omri shouting at her and threatening her, Boone points out that she was merely following her instincts and not being malicious about it. Which leads Omri to realize what happened was his fault in the first place for not being more cautious. One of many scenes where An Aesop is taught without being heavy-handed, instead being quite effective and realistic.
  • Comes Great Responsibility: What Omri realizes fairly quickly in the first book, once he comes to understand that the cupboard isn't bringing toys to life but actually bringing real people to him through time. It is a lesson he has to learn again in book two after his attempts to help Little Bear protect his people blow up in his face. Patrick, however, never seems to learn it—or even when he does, his Idiot Ball moments still manage to get the little people in trouble anyway. A related moment occurs when Jessica Charlotte offers to pour the lead for Omri, but he refuses to learn what his future may hold, a decision she commends as very wise indeed.
  • Deconstruction: A child discovers his 'secret cupboard' can magically bring his toys to life. Sounds like a huge amount of wish fulfillment and fun, right? Not so much.
  • Delivery Guy: In the second book, Boone ends up delivering Little Bear and Bright Stars' baby when Bright Stars goes into labor while Little Bear is away.
  • Direct Line to the Author: This is actually true In-Universe for Omri when he tells the story of what happened with Little Bear but claims it as his own work for the contest. But of course no one believes it, thinking it merely an incredible piece of fiction. This actually causes him some angst for a while, since he feels guilty for pretending it was all made up; he reconciles this by pointing out that even if the events actually happened, it was still his own words he used to tell them, including some embellishments or alterations he made to either hide the truth, for artistic license, or because he couldn't remember the exact words which were spoken. The implication is also there that Omri's story is the very book the reader is reading. Which if so could also explain some of the inconsistencies, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes—Lynne Reid Banks wrote the books with this idea in mind, from Omri's point of view. It could even explain Little Bear's broken English as some sort of Translation Convention (i.e., Omri wrote his speech the way he'd been taught Native Americans should speak, or the way his readers would expect them to.)
  • Draco in Leather Pants/Freudian Excuse: Invoked in-story—after reading the Account, Omri practically glamorizes Jessica Charlotte, defends her as a poor helpless Woobie at the mercy of her sister and brother-in-law who was justified in what she did and could never have foreseen the consequences, and even makes excuses for Frederick who is arguably a Holier Than Thou Jerkass with Mommy Issues. Patrick, of all people, calls him out on this by pointing out the darker side of Jessica's jealousy and Frederick's hatred and nastiness, suggesting that this explains a great deal of why the cupboard's magic seems so "evil", both in what it does to the little people it transports and what its use does to the lives of everyone involved.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Corporal, later Sergeant, Fickits is at first portrayed this way, but it turns out he's more of a Jerk with a Heart of Gold.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Boone is called "Boo-hoo" Boone because of his tendency to cry.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Matron is only ever called "Matron." Her real name is never revealed. Justified, as it was considered normal in UK English to refer to a head nurse as "Matron" (a formality that's changed only recently, as many head nurses are now male).
  • Foreshadowing: One of the more ominous, if heavy-handed, versions appears when, after Omri accidentally jostles the cupboard, almost all the Indian braves he sent back with Little Bear fall over, so that it looks as if they have been slaughtered. This, of course, is precisely what happens.
  • Forgiveness: One of the overarching themes of the series, which becomes most prominent in book four. Helped along by the fact that Jessica Charlotte is more of an Anti-Villain than anything else, and genuinely shows remorse for her actions. At the same time Omri needs to learn to forgive Bert and accept that his family has the lot in life they do for a reason, something which is justifiable after all because in the end, Misery Builds Character, being rich isn't everything, and more good than harm is done through the enrichment of lives that would otherwise never have intersected.
  • Foul First Drink: When Omri is caught stealing liquor from his father's liquor cabinet for Boone, his father forces him to drink it. He doesn't like it and finds it hard to swallow.
  • Hats Off to the Dead: Boone does this in the second book when he realizes his horse is fatally injured and will have to be shot.
  • Giving Radio to the Romans: Giving guns to the Iroquois. It doesn't turn out well.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Jessica Charlotte's Fatal Flaw, when she is denied a happy family life, acceptance by her sister, or interaction with her beloved niece. It eventually culminates in her rather unhinged fixation on a pair of earrings...which in turn becomes the crux that changes her and her whole family's life forever.
  • Groin Attack: It's implied that Omri does this (with his book bag) to a skinhead in the second book.
  • Idiot Ball: For most of the series Patrick seems to perpetually carry this, first by refusing to believe the little people are not just Living Toys and making the huge mistake of showing them to Mr. Johnson, then by trying to pretend the whole thing never happened and was just a game he and Omri made up. He doesn't finally drop it until after the horrific climax of The Secret of the Indian, perhaps also due to his experiences in the Old West. The end result is that in book four, after Omri has read the Account, it is Patrick who gets to call him on his mistakes—from his defense of Jessica Charlotte and Frederick, to his attempts to meddle with his own family's past to improve their lives, regardless of the consequences. The last book shows Patrick hasn't completely lost his fondness for this ball, however, as while Omri and his dad are in the past he still manages to lose Boone and Ruby Lou down the bathtub drain. Face Palm.
  • Immediate Sequel: The third book in the series, The Secret of the Indian, takes place moments after The Return of the Indian ended.
  • Injun Country: Both played straight and subverted at the same time. The author did her research and properly displays the culture, building practices, food, language, and even religion of the Iroquois, delves into the history of the French and Indian War (especially for the last book of the series), and portrays the Algonquin as The Savage Indian who were mortal enemies of the more peaceful and democratic Iroquois. Yet while elements of the Noble Savage are applied to the Iroquois, enough care is given to characterize the Native Americans with more depth, especially Little Bear, so that he and his people come off as neither paragons of virtue nor wicked slaughterers—but just people. At the same time, the trope is played with in having Little Bear use the dead Indian chief's feathered headdress, while Boone, meanwhile, at first believes Little Bear to be a 'dirty redskin' and views him through the distorted lens of his own time period. Nowhere is this contrast shown more clearly than when they are watching The Western on TV, with each of them cheering on their own side. In the end, however, Boone ends up becoming Little Bear's blood brother (itself something which is lampshaded as not being an original Native practice but something invented by white men) after he saves his life, and both of them learn their prejudices and preconceptions were wrong.
  • Kids Raiding the Wine Cabinet: Omri uses this as an excuse when his dad catches him sneaking into the liquor cabinet, since he can't exactly say it's for the tiny cowboy in his room upstairs.
  • Living Toys: The cupboard turns plastic toys into the things they stand in for, real flesh and blood and fabric. However, these are people fetched from a different period in time, and they are shocked to find themselves in a differently-scaled world.
  • Look Both Ways: Omri's great-grandfather dies because his daughter was blind to this trope, making him have to sacrifice himself to save her.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: The key is only able to bring people from the past to the present, or send people from the present to the past, never the future. And it only works on plastic thanks to Frederick, Omri's toymaker ancestor who made the cupboard. (Sending flesh-and-blood people back requires a different avenue altogether, and different materials for them to inhabit in the past.)
  • The Magic Goes Away: Repeatedly throughout the series this is threatened, whether by the adults taking away the key and cupboard to study them For Science!, the key being lost, or Omri deciding to seal it and the cupboard away so he won't be tempted to use them anymore. This last one almost sticks at the end of book three thanks to all the innocent people of England who suffer because of it, until Omri has to bring the cupboard out so he can use the key to open Jessica's lockbox. After he and his father finally help set things as right as they can ever be with Little Bear and his people, it looks like the magic really will be locked away for good, to prevent any more danger (like what happened to them and Gillon).
  • The Masquerade: Hiding the existence of the little people, the cupboard and key, and what they can do from the adults. The books realistically explore the stresses and pressures which mount upon Omri as the secret comes closer and closer to being exposed thanks to his carelessness, Patrick's greed, and the determination of their headmaster to discover the truth. In the end, only a Deus ex Machina ends up saving them all. At the same time, introducing key people to the secret (Emma, Omri's dad) enables Omri to better protect it, as well as provide better help to his friends. In the end they all agree that putting the cupboard and key away to prevent it being exploited is best for everyone.
  • Meaningful Name: Bright Stars, named for her shining eyes. Matron's real name is also never given, as to Omri her title (and what she can do to help him) is more important.
  • Meanwhile, in the Futureā€¦: The past, really. Apparently when someone is sent forwards in time, their body collapses and goes unconscious for however long it takes.
  • Men Don't Cry: This trope caused a lot of trouble for the soft-hearted Boone in his own time, where his tendency to burst into tears earned him the mocking nickname "Boo-Hoo Boone."
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Occurs quite a lot, but a notable example would be in the fourth book when, while climbing up into the barn's hayloft to reach Kitsa and her kittens, Patrick falls through the weak boards and lands on top of Gillon's friend, breaking his arm in the process. When he does, the friend cries out "Oh shoot!" Omri then notes, via the narrative, "except he didn't say 'shoot'."
  • Not a Game
    Omri, to Patrick: They're people! You can't use people!
  • The Noun and the Noun: All the book titles contain either "Indian" or "Cupboard" combined with another noun (or each other).
  • A Nuclear Error: In The Secret of the Indian, Patrick tells Ruby Lou, Boone's nineteenth-century love interest, about nuclear bombs that could blow up the world. Justified as Patrick is a child, and this was a popular misconception of what nuclear bombs do.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: In the second book, the Prone to Tears Boone is surprisingly calm and controlled as he Mercy Kills his beloved horse after a cat fatally wounds him.
  • Our Time Travel Is Different: People from the past can only travel to the future, and only by inhabiting plastic figures. People from the present can only travel to the past, and only if some other kind of figure, doll, or item is made which can hold them, while touching an item which comes from that time. While traveling, the body of the traveler is unconscious in their own time.
  • Paper Thin Masquerade: At first it appears to be played straight—how could anyone, even the most trusting parents, believe that two young boys could drive off a group of knife-wielding, much older skinheads all by themselves? Not notice the bullet and rocket launcher holes in the walls, even if they were on a very small scale? Allow Patrick to go missing for days because each set believes the other family has him? Forget about this, as well as the secret Mr. Johnson tries to reveal to them, all because of a freak cyclone, which is also never explained? Or just plain not notice the similarities between his prize-winning story and events that happened in their house? But all of this, which comes across as a combination of Adults Are Useless and Idiot Ball is eventually subverted: it turns out Omri's mother knew the truth as soon as she read the story but said nothing because she trusted him to handle things responsibly and come to her if he needed help, while his dad suspected but brushed it off through It's Probably Nothing and Cassandra Truth.
  • Plot Magnet: The key becomes this several times, most notably in the first book/movie when it is lost under the floorboards and again in Secret of the Indian after the cyclone is brought to the present.
  • Portal to the Past: The cupboard is an unusual variation of this, as is the sea chest. Time runs the same on both sides of the portal, and much drama comes from this when Patrick being kept from getting Omri out of the chest results in him almost getting burned to death along with the teepee and again later when Omri bringing Patrick back to deal with the mess with Mr. Johnson results in the cyclone coming back with him.
  • Prone to Tears: They don't call him "Boo-Hoo Boone" for nothing.
  • Psychic Powers: Jessica Charlotte had them, allowing her to scry the future by pouring lead. Omri inherits some of this, as does his mother.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Omri gives one to Little Bear in the first book after the Indian continuously sticks his knife into the boy's leg in the middle of a school assembly (because he was mad about being stuck in Omri's pocket all day) and gets him in trouble.
    • Omri gives multiple of these to Patrick in the first book for treating Little Bear and Boone like toys despite knowing that they're alive.
    • In The Return of the Indian, Matron tells Omri off for foolishly equipping Iroquois braves with modern firearms (the disastrous aftermath of which she is now forced to deal with single-handedly).
    • Little Bear gives one to Omri in The Key to the Indian when he (albeit unknowingly) insults Clan Mother.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Write the story of true events involving your secret magic cupboard and the Living Toys it creates through Time Travel. Win a contest with it because no one believes it could possibly be anything but an incredibly creative piece of fiction. (And since Omri's story is essentially Banks's, there's a meta bit of self-praise there—but an acceptable one since her story is undeniably an incredibly creative one.)
  • Secret Chaser: The headmaster, Mr. Johnson, once Omri's story makes him recall the moment Patrick showed him Little Bear and Boone, and he realizes it was all true.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Omri tries to do this with the theft of his grandmother's jewel box. It doesn't go well.
  • Shapeshifting Excludes Clothing: When the person who would have been sent through time and space to the cupboard is dead, all that gets sent is a pile of clothing.
  • Shown Their Work: Impressive study and research of various subjects, from the Iroquois and Algonquin to the times of Napoleon, Victorian England, World War One, and The Edwardian Era. There's even side issues such as roof-thatching, the competition between metal and plastic toys that drove the former out of business, or the prevailing attitudes toward stage performers in the 1800's that are accurately depicted. Even The Wild West bits, for all their hewing to the standard view of Hollywood, have proper realism in the place not being the exciting heroic era it's usually shown as, with lack of hygiene or gunfights and plenty of prejudice and suspicion but not an Indian in sight.
  • Sworn Brothers: After a fight between Little Bear and Boone results in the latter being injured and Little Bear ends up helping Boone get better, Omri has Little Bear and Boone perform a ritual to become blood brothers (which he claims is an old Indian custom — he saw it in an old movie). Little Bear says it's just a white man idea and not from his tribe, but he agrees anyway, and after Boone is fully healed the two have their wrists cut and then bound together by Little Bear's new wife. Later, as the pair and Bright Stars are preparing to go back to their own times, at the last minute Little Bear chooses to perform the rite with Omri as well, which is more of a prick on Omri's finger.
  • Testes Test: Gillon does this in The Key to the Indian after he and Omri are accidentally sent back to early 20th century India and he finds himself inhabiting the body of a female puppet (much to his relief, his masculinity is indeed fully intact under that sari).
  • Tipis and Totem Poles: Averted. When Omri uses the cupboard on a toy tipi so Little Bear has a place to live, the miniature Amerindian has no idea what he's looking at and points out that he lives in a longhouse.
  • Trapped in the Past: Happens to both Omri and Patrick, though longer for the latter. Also happens to Omri, Gillon and their father in the last book.
  • A True Story in My Universe: In the first sequel, Omri writes an award-winning story called "The Plastic Indian" which is based on the events of the original book.
  • Values Dissonance: In-Universe, Omri is horrified when he learns Little Bear has scalped thirty men, a fact which Little Bear either boasts of with pride or dismisses as unremarkable because it was something so many in his time did (and was a practice first learned from the whites); Boone isn't surprised when he learns of it, thanks to his prejudices. Omri's eventual rationalization of this, which allows him to still call Little Bear his friend and realize he is not a bad person (or no worse than any in his time) puts things in clear perspective for the reader, even if it does partake of Humans Are Bastards:
    Even now, weren't soldiers doing the same thing? Weren't there wars and battles and terrorism going on all over the place? You couldn't switch on television without seeing news about people killing and being killed. Were thirty scalps, even including some French ones, taken hundreds of years ago, so very bad after all?
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The secret is preserved because when Omri brings Patrick back from the Old West, the cyclone is brought back with him, destroying homes and killing people all over England. Omri himself immediately calls Patrick and Emma on what they have done with their meddling, and it proves to be shocking, horrifying, and sobering enough that these two greedy kids, who still seem to find it hard to accept their friends are not just Living Toys they can have for their very own, agree that the magic needs to go away.
  • When It All Began: The story of how the cupboard and key got made is finally all revealed as a Prequel within a Sequel, in book four. Even the bit of red velvet ribbon tied around the key is explained as being from the dress Jessica Charlotte wore the last day she saw Lottie (and had her 'dream').
  • The Wild West: Unlike Injun Country, this trope is played entirely straight, with the author portraying Boone's hometown exactly as it would be according to the myth: the saloon, the preacher, The Piano Player, Ruby Lou as either a Soiled Dove or a Dance Hall Girl, guns being drawn at the drop of a hat...
  • Write Back to the Future: An interesting variation of this is Jessica Charlotte's Account. At first it seems merely to be a diary that tells Omri the origin of the magic key and cupboard, but then he discovers that her mention of an "odd dream" which "only the reader" could understand or imagine leads him to realize later that the last package in the lockbox is Jessica Charlotte herself. So he wakes her up and speaks to her, thus fulfilling her dream. This same point is revisited in the last book when, by extrapolating from an enigmatic reference and a broken, faded entry, he figures out she tried to kill herself after the death of Lottie's father, and he quickly uses the key to bring her to the present and save her.
  • Ye Goode Olde Days: Despite Boone's time otherwise hewing to the mythical stereotype, Patrick does find out when he goes back there that things aren't as exciting and awesome as he thought they'd be—horse dung, spittoons, smelly people (even Ruby Lou has an odor covered by her perfume), a Burn the Witch! tendency when the saloon-goers find out he's a talking little man. An inversion occurs with Ruby Lou who initially thinks The Future must be an incredible place and quizzes Patrick all about it...only to find out that for all our technological advances, there's still death and disease and poverty and war, as well as nuclear weapons. Leads to a pretty good Aesop about not giving in to the "grass is always greener" mentality.
  • You Dirty Rat!: Gillon's rat that almost kills Little Bear, despite being a perfectly tame pet for most of the first book, is treated with suspicion, scorn, and nastiness from the beginning, and what it does at the climax is merely motivated by instinct (a small 'creature' scurrying before it is acting like prey).