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It contains some surprisingly mature themes, including a great deal of death and responsibility.
Lynne Reid Banks is the author of two books about the Brontë children, who played a sustained imaginative game initially based on a box of toy soldiers which they said would come to life for adventures and exploration. The soldiers regarded the children as "genii" who directed their destinies.
Books in the series are The Indian In The Cupboard, The Return of the Indian, The Secret of the Indian, The Mystery of the Cupboard, and The Key to the Indian.
There was a 1995 film adaptation, casting Hal Scardino as Omri and Litefoot (Cherokee/Chichimeca) as Little Bear.
- 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.
- All Just a Dream: How the boys first keep Matron from passing out and willing to help them with the injured Little Bear and his men. Eventually subverted 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.
- 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.
- Bratty Half-Pint: Oh my God, Tamsin.
- 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.
- Can't Hold His Liquor: Boone.
- Cats Are Mean: Implied but in the end averted. While the scene where Kitsa kills Boone's horse is quite a Tear Jerker and has Omri shouting at her and threatening her, Patrick 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 him, 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.
- Deus Ex Machina: Just when it seems Mr. Johnson is about to expose the truth to Omri's parents and Patrick's mother...Omri, in bringing Patrick back, brings with him the cyclone from Boone's hometown. What is interesting about this is, not only was there Foreshadowing to such a thing happening, but the fact this stops the truth from being revealed is not without consequences, seeing as the cyclone ravages England, destroying thousands of homes and killing hundreds of people. It is in fact this horrific result that convinces Patrick and Emma to finally agree with Omri that the cupboard should be locked away and the little people sent home. And in a final bit of irony, while the destruction of Mr. Johnson's car and his subsequent going off the deep end prevents anyone from ever believing him, Omri's mother knew the truth all along, so the Deus Ex Machina really didn't solve anything or was even that necessary.
- 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: "Boo-hoo" Boone.
- 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 has Unfortunate Implications but is perhaps 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.
- 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.
- Happy Birthday to You: In The Movie.
- 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.
- 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.
- Literary Agent Hypothesis: This is actually true 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, and Unfortunate Implications--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.)
- 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 principal 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 Future: The past, really. Apparently when someone is sent forwards in time, their body collapses and goes unconscious for however long it takes.
- 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 his friend, breaking his ankle 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.
- 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, Idiot Ball, and Plot Induced Stupidity 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.
- Psychic Powers: Jessica Charlotte had them, allowing her to scry the future by pouring lead. Omri inherits some of this, as does his mother.
- Reality Subtext: Happens a number of times, most memorably and effectively when in book two Omri tries to bring Tommy back to heal Little Bear, only to find he'd been killed in World War One, and again in book four when awakening the figures belonging to Jessica Charlotte reveals Sergeant Ellis died at Trafalgar. The last book, dealing with the Real Life fate of the Iroquois versus the American colonists, is even more about this.
- 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 principal, 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.
- 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.
- Trapped in the Past: Happens to both Omri and Patrick, though longer for the latter. Also happens to Omri and Gillon in the last book.
- Tropes Are Not Bad: Injun Country, The Wild West, Living Toys, Did Not Do the Research, Unfortunate Implications, Deus Ex Machina...and they all either make perfect sense within the world of the books, or show the true consequences if these events really happened. There are stereotypes, but they are equally distributed in all time periods and cultures, not just against the Native Americans, and one of the main points of the story is proving these misconceptions wrong--in the first book alone, Omri goes from a British kid who knows only Old West depictions of "redskins" who all live in teepees to one who corrects his bigoted principal on the proper term for Native Americans, and immerses himself in research, coming to respect and admire the Iroquois culture in the process. By the last book he is actively working with his father to try and save Little Bear's people from the encroachment of the American colonists. Meanwhile, Little Bear and Boone each learn their own prejudices are based on complete misconceptions, Patrick finds out the Old West wasn't all it cracked up to be, and the disaster which stops The Masquerade from being broken doubles as a What the Hell, Hero? moment that underscores the true danger of what the children have been doing.
- 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.
- 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).