When I was a kid, I loved The Indian in the Cupboard series. The premise is simple: put a plastic toy in a cupboard, turn the magic key, and the toy comes to life. As a kid who spent countless hours playing with action figures, this fantasy was very attractive to me.
During a recent move, I uncovered many of my childhood books, and I thought, How well has this series aged? Would I still enjoy it?
After reading through the five-book series again (reading the fifth book for the first time even!) I’d like to share my thoughts on which books are best, and why.
Minor spoilers for each book follows:
The Indian in the Cupboard (1981)
The tale starts innocently enough. Omri gets a beat-up medicine cabinet from his brother for his birthday. He puts a plastic Indian in at night, and when he’s awoken by a shrill, tinny voice, he learns the Indian has come alive.
The wonder and amazement that Omri feels is contagious. He can’t stop thinking about the cupboard, even at school. He plays with the Indian, Little Bear, outside, but soon Little Bear is hurt, requiring the medical attention of another toy figure, this time a military medic.
Omri’s idiotic friend Patrick brings a cowboy to life, Boone, who immediately shoots Patrick, then later gets into a fight with Little Bear.
The boys learn soon enough that these are not toys, that they are real people that bleed real blood, and they must be treated as such. It’s a fitting message, and the boys send the toys back to their own times, vowing to never use the cupboard again.
One fundamental problem with the series as a whole is that the boys never learn their lessons, and continually create flimsy excuses for bringing the toys back to life. Their ignorance, though, is somewhat forgiven in this first book: how could Omri have known what was going to happen when he put the toys in the cupboard?
Because of the magic and wonder of this first tale, and the boys’ innocence in bringing the toys to life in the first place, I rank this book second out of five.
The Return of the Indian (1986)
In the first book, Omri wrote a short story about an Indian in the cupboard: cribbed from reality, unbeknownst to his teachers and parents. The second book begins when Omri wins a contest for the story, as well as a cash prize. Excited by the news, Omri brings the cupboard out of storage to get an update from Little Bear, only to find that Little Bear’s tribe of Iroquois are under attack by colonials.
Vowing to help them, Omri uses the cupboard to bring modern soldiers to life, then brings many more Iroquois to life. A military commander, Fickits, teaches the Iroquois how to use machine guns, and it’s here that the story goes off the rails. Omri and Patrick learned the lesson (many times over) in the first book that these are real people, not toys. So Omri, whether he admits it or not (he reluctantly reflects on his actions only when people get hurt), he participates in war where real people get hurt and die.
This book also introduces the concept of traveling through time the other way: Omri goes in a large chest, and using the magic key, Patrick sends Omri back to Little Bear’s time. Omri appears as a painting on the side of a tepee, and thus his experience in Little Bear’s world is minimal, but this plot device will dominate much of the narrative action in later books.
The book ends with skinheads breaking into Omri’s house to rob him. Omri brings the toy soldiers back to life to fight off the skinheads, damaging his house in the process.
Because of the amount of killing and violence in this book, I think this is my least favorite in the series. Not because I have anything against violent media, per se. Rather, it’s the casualness with which the kids decide to intervene in history, bringing modern weapons back to colonial times, to fight a battle they were never a part of. And while the skinheads are unsympathetic criminals, the boys go overboard in bringing real soldiers through the cupboard to fight them.
The boys relearn the lesson about the little people being real people. They vow not to send “now-guns” back with Little Bear, though they make no vows regarding the future of the cupboard.
The Secret of the Indian (1989)
The third book picks off right where the last one left off. Omri and Patrick explain to Omri’s parents, and then the police, what happened with the skinheads. Meanwhile, a dozen Indians, plus the nurse Matron, are still in Omri’s room. The Indians are recovering from the vicious battle of the last book, and Matron is needed to help them heal.
Omri and Patrick decide they must stay with the Indians and Matron till everybody is recovered, then send them back to their old time.
But Patrick, being Patrick, is selfish and wants to travel back to Boone the cowboy’s time, just as Omri traveled back to Little Bear’s time in the last book. He whines that Omri got to go back to Little Bear’s time, and he won’t shut up until Omri sends Patrick back to Boone’s time.
Honestly, Patrick has gotta be the worst character in the series. He constantly has to relearn the lesson that the little people are real people, and that they can’t be toyed with. For all of Omri’s faults on this matter, Patrick is ten times worse.
Patrick wakes up in the desert southwest as a tiny person. He has a few misadventures with Boone, then things turn serious as a tornado in Boone’s time arises directly in their path.
Omri, unable to hide Patrick any longer (Patrick has been missing for a couple days, raising the suspicions of both Omri and Patrick’s families), just so happens to bring Patrick back to the modern time at the exact moment the tornado barreled down on him.
Completely by accident, the tornado also gets sucked into modern times, destroys Omri’s house, then proceeds to cut a path through London, causing astronomical property damage.
This book starts out well enough: it addresses the events of the last book, and shows that there are real consequences to Omri’s meddling in the past. And while Boone himself is a highly enjoyable character, the entire business with Patrick going into Boone’s time is completely unnecessary.
There’s no way Omri could’ve known that a tornado could get sucked through time, so the damage to his house and London isn’t entirely on his shoulders. That said, Omri and Patrick should have more than enough evidence at this point to convince them that the cupboard should never be fooled around with again.
The Mystery of the Cupboard (1993)
By the time the fourth book comes around, the shtick of the series has worn off. We know that no matter what Omri and Patrick do, they cannot resist bringing the little people back even for a visit. Such actions inevitably lead to conflict and strife.
How refreshing it is, then, that the fourth book features almost no cupboard magic! Crazy, right? The entire series is about bringing toys to life, and yet, the fourth book throws out this formula entirely to tell a new kind of story, which I so love.
Since Omri’s house was completely destroyed in the last book, the family needs a new place to live. Coincidentally, Omri’s mother inherits a country longhouse from a distant relative, and the family leaves the bustle of London for quiet, pastoral hills.
Omri has deposited the cupboard in the bank, finally realizing that the cupboard should not be played with. He appears to have truly learned his lesson.
The titular mystery begins when thatchers repair the old house’s roof. Omri digs through the discarded thatch and discovers a journal of his relative Jessica Charlotte, an actress and fortuneteller who was the black sheep of Omri’s mother’s family.
Through the journal, Omri learns about his family’s past, conflict between members, and Jessica’s fortunetelling powers. Omri also learns that she was the one who created the magic key, the very same key that makes the cupboard work.
While this book has very little action or conflict in the modern setting, it’s so interesting to read the backstory of the cupboard, and of the woman that made it all possible.
After finishing the journal, Omri can’t help but use the cupboard again to bring the little people to life, the very people discussed in Jessica’s journal. In a 246 page book, the cupboard is first used on page 176! And the book does not suffer as a result.
I’ve often wished that authors of genre fiction would take greater risks in successive works. Instead of repeating the same formula ad nauseam, put the characters in new situations to see what they would do.
Considering that this tale is carried largely through flashbacks, and not use of the cupboard, this book really establishes how strong of a character Omri is, despite his faults.
There’s also a fun meta-moment when Omri brings Jessica herself through the cupboard. The book veers into time travel confusion territory here, as Jessica’s becoming small was instrumental in giving her the idea of making the key, which was necessary for all of this to happen in the first place.
The book also has a touching side story about an old man named Tom who had a little woman of his own, whom he married and lived with for several decades until her unfortunate death.
Obviously this book wouldn’t exist without the first one. Even still, this is my favorite book of the series, precisely because it is so different than all the rest.
The Key to the Indian (1998)
The major cliffhanger of the fourth book was Omri’s dad accidentally discovering the magic of the cupboard when he cleaned up Omri’s room, put the toys inside, and turned the key.
This book begins with Omri explaining to his dad everything that’s happened. And he takes it surprisingly well.
At first, this concept is exciting. It’s good for Omri to have somebody to share the secret with other than Patrick and Patrick’s cousin. While Omri’s dad is a bit too eager to use the cupboard at times, he seems to understand intuitively that it is not a toy.
However, Omri uses the cupboard to bring back Little Bear, and Little Bear once again reports that he’s having a problem. This time the British are attacking the Iroquois, and Little Bear needs Omri’s help to fight them back.
The book regresses to the same struggle as the second book. We already learned before that a modern man like Omri shouldn’t mess with events in the past. In fact, in the fourth book, Omri attempts to change history once again, albeit on a smaller scale (and luckily for Omri, his plan didn’t work properly, conveniently keeping the status quo of the timestream).
Omri’s dad researches everything he can about the Iroquois and their struggle with the British. He and Omri then conduct an elaborate plan to go back to Little Bear’s time.
Omri recruits the help of Patrick who once again proves that he’s more of a liability than an asset, as he immediately whines about not being able to go back to Little Bear’s time.
While Omri and his dad never should’ve gone back to Little Bear’s time, it is exciting to see Little Bear in his element, to catch up with him after his absence in book four. It makes me wish for a book solely about Little Bear’s adventures, sans Omri.
Omri and his dad are naturally tiny, and unable to really do anything to help Little Bear. The chief asks Omri over and over again for help with fighting the British, and the best Omri’s dad can come up with is encouraging the Iroquois to go north to Canada, where they will be safest (though not safe) from the white man.
Considering that’s all Omri and dad accomplish, it makes you wonder why they went back to Little Bear’s time to begin with. Couldn’t they have just brought Little Bear back through the cupboard, read to him from the history books, and left it alone?
The author tries to give Omri something else to do when the British attack the Indian camp. Omri alerts the Indian women that a baby is in a burning longhouse, and Omri’s dancing in front of some soldiers scares them into (briefly) dropping their arms. But other than that, Omri and his dad accomplish very little in returning to Little Bear’s time.
Upon returning, they discover that Patrick has been dinking around with the cupboard on his own time. He brought back Boone and wife Ruby Lou, put them in the bathtub in a toy boat, then promptly lost them down the bathtub drain when the family cat Kitsa came into the bathroom and attacked the little people. It’s all so unnecessary and superfluous, and only serves to reinforce that Patrick is a moron.
At this point, the Indian series has run its course. The concept of bringing toys to life, and the parallel concept of sending people back in time via the key, seems to have been explored to its potential. I thoroughly enjoyed the series upon rereading them, despite the stupidity of the boys.
It’ll probably be some time before I read through all five books again. If I get the urge to return to this world, I’ll pick up books one and four and leave the rest alone.
Maybe when I have my own kids and they turn 8 or 9 or 10 years old, I’ll introduce a new generation to these characters!