Monday, 25 July 2011

By Way of Sorrow, Indeed




Someone on Metafilter.com linked to the lovely slideshow above on YouTube yesterday, saying a friend of his had put it together in celebration of New York's first legal gay marriage ceremonies. I defy anyone to look at the succession of images depicting loving gay couples, contrasted with images of the hatred and bigotry they've faced for so long, and not be moved. The slideshow is set to a song called "By Way of Sorrow", which my Googling tells me is written by Julie Miller and performed by a group called Cry, Cry, Cry, and I cannot imagine a more perfect accompaniment for this video.


As happy as I am for these couples, as thrilled as I am to see that the tide of homophobic bigotry is on the wane, my happiness is veined with sorrow and shame. I feel sorrow that gay people have had to wait so very long for a civil right so many of us have had all our lives, that the U.S. Federal government still does not recognize their marriage, that if they were to merely drive across the state border into New Jersey, their marriage certificate would legally mean nothing, that according to Wikipedia only 4% of the world's population lives in a jurisdiction that offers legal gay marriage, and that gays face discrimination and even violent persecution nearly everywhere on the planet.


The shame I feel relates to my own past. As a Canadian I live in a country that has recognized gay marriage for six years, and I am in no way responsible for what the U.S. or any other country's legislative tardiness in coming to it's senses. The shame is personal rather than political, and is rooted much further back.


I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home. I attended a Christian school and Sunday School and church all my childhood, and had few other social contacts as my family lived on a farm. I'm embarrassed to think how indoctrinated I was at 14 or so, but the reality is that I didn't have much chance to be otherwise. As I attended public high schools, the re-education process began in grade nine and eventually led to my becoming agnostic at age 28 and an atheist at some point in my thirties, but it took many years for life to chip away what had been instilled in me.


At 17, when I was still two-thirds cocooned in a hard shell of patent Christian theology, I fell in love with a close friend who was gay. I didn't know he was gay, of course. If I'd had any real experience at all, I would have known. If I hadn't unconsciously wanted not to know, I would have known. Incidentally, it turns out that my first crush (at 11) and first boyfriend (at 16) were also gay. This is why you'll never hear me claiming to have gaydar, though since this trifecta I have at least, so far as I know, managed to pick straight men to date.


But it wasn't entirely due to my naiveté and wilful disbelief that I didn't know. My friend didn't tell me, and he had girlfriends before and after me. I finally clued in over four years later when I came across evidence through a bizarre chain of circumstances. It was his responsibility to tell me. Had he told me he could have spared me a great deal of pain, and both of us a lot of drama, and maybe we could have saved the relationship we did have that meant so much to us both in those days.


However, he didn't tell me, and in the years since I have recognized that I had a hand in keeping him silent. I remember very clearly, and with many a cringe, that one day on a walk through the park the subject of homosexuality came up and I expounded on what the Bible says about it and quoted the Biblical words "with such do not eat". I may even have shaken a finger at him. There were other incidents when I spoke disparagingly of gays or acted grossed out by what "they" did.


To understand the enormity of this you must know that I was a backward, sensitive teenager completely lacking in confidence or a sense of self-worth. My friend had confidence and self-esteem to burn, and whenever I was around him he cast such an aura of it that he made it possible for me to be wholly and unself-consciously myself while feeling completely accepted and supported. When I was around him we were in a world all our own and nothing anyone else said or did had the power to hurt me. He created that wonderful space for me... and in return I told him he wasn't fit to eat with.


I do keep what I did in perspective. He remained in the closet for a number of years afterward and I very much doubt it was my wagging finger that kept him there. He had a lot of issues that were unrelated to me, and even to being gay, just as I had my own issues that caused me to spend several years looking to him for things it was crystal clear all along that he could not and would not give me. But he was for several years someone I loved more than anyone, he probably suffered a lot over the conflict between who he was and what the world around him expected and allowed him to be, and instead of helping him and giving him the support he always gave me, I gave him one more slap in the face. It is this regret that remains with me to this day, more than fifteen years after all other regrets evaporated when I came to see that I wouldn't have been at all happy paired up with him even if he weren't gay.


And this is partly why, even though I am heterosexual, I am such a passionate supporter of gay rights. I've had intimate experience of how bigotry towards gays and living with lies hurts all of us, even when we're the bigots. Had my friend and I grown up in a time and a place when being gay was accepted as readily as being left-handed and the world offered the same options to a gay teenager as it did to straight kids, we both could have been saved the pain and waste of those years. And then perhaps my journals from my late teens would not be so full of an anguish so raw that to this day, twenty years later, I cannot bear to read them.


So to the newlyweds (including my former friend and his husband who have been maried for what must be close to three years now), I say congratulations, best wishes, and please forgive us all for being so wretchedly slow to give you your rightful place at the table.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Jean Teasdale and a Life Spent On An Escalator


Satire is a difficult thing to review for the same reason that Saturday Night Live sketches generally don’t make good movies: because satire by definition has little depth, and its thin premises are soon exhausted. Satire is simply a cleverly skewed presentation of truths everyone readily acknowledges, and one can find little to say about it before having to resort to obvious truisms. And so although I’ve intended to write a review of The Onion’s first ever “columnist-written” book, A Book of Jean's Own! All New Wit, Wisdom, and Wackiness from The Onion's Beloved Humor Columnist,by Jean Teasdale (really Maria Schneider), ever since it came out last fall, coming up with enough words on the subject has involved much mental scratching about. But I was determined to get this review written. I do think Jean comes close to transcending her satirical type and becoming a realized character with some interesting ramifications. I won’t go so far as to say she makes her readers care about her, exactly, but she’s real enough that many people who read her say they know someone very much like her, and sometimes cringe at her partial likeness to themselves. I have several friends who are equally into the Jean Teasdale material and we have very lively conversations about her and talk about her as though she exists. Tellingly, these conversations often seem to be on the theme of “how we could get her life on track”, and thereby tap into one of the most important veins in Jean’s character.

Human beings have a natural bent towards improving themselves and their lot. If we didn’t, we’d all still be living in caves and gnawing on raw meat. After millions of years of progressive development and invention we’ve exacerbated and inflated this tendency until we’ve reached a point of schizophrenic divide. We’re bombarded with images of perfection and incredible achievements while at the same time have reached such an apex of material comfort and convenience that comparatively little effort is absolutely required of us. At least in North America, and under certain circumstances, one can with relatively little effort and knowledge ride the crest of excess material goods and easy credit and self-satisfied ignorance like a sun-baked, slurpee-sipping water park visitor on an air mattress in a wave pool. Resolving this tension within ourselves, deciding upon realistic individual standards, and maintaining a reasonable and consistent level of effort can require concerted effort. Some people find their balance in this matter easily, but for others this schism is a source of great conflict and practical difficulties. Entering the ring of this conflict is one Jean Teasdale, proud and willful lowest common denominator.

Jean is at once an exasperating and enjoyable departure from the social norm of at least making some effort towards being all you can be (or, failing that, feeling guilty if you don’t). Some of Jean’s best and most hilarious moments are those in which she is on the very brink of achieving a state of mindfulness and then turns and snatches the iron, or rather, her Teflon psyche, from the fire. One classic example of such a moment occurs in one of my very favourite Jean columns, the one she wrote after 9/11, in which she decides to deal with the horror of the terrorist attacks by pretending they never happened, and this column about her marriage contains another example. It’s almost refreshing to see someone decide to not only embrace but wallow in her own rock-bottom laziness and sub minimal standards: someone who has “dress sweats”; who happily reports that she wears Crocs and clogs so as not to have to lace up her own shoes; who reads only home making and bridal magazines and romance novels; and takes to her bed, well fortified with junk food and sweets, whenever reality encroaches and life presents her with a challenge.

But then too, there is the urge to “fix” Jean. Her refusal to expect anything of herself or to be realistic has led to a life of precarious mental balance, and forces her increasingly more deeply into denial. She’s like someone who enjoys the free and easy ride on an escalator so much she tries to stay on it all day, and runs into all the drawbacks and hazards one might expect. Her marriage is a hopeless mismatch, she is a middle-aged women with a net financial worth of well under zero, she thinks she’s going to have the three children she dreams of even though she’s 40 and married to a man who doesn’t in the least want a child, she’s so overweight it impacts what she can physically do, she’s been fired from a long series of thankless minimum wage jobs, and she has no skills or education beyond high school.

My friend Jay and I have discussed how Jean could turn her life around or at least make it suck a little less. I suggested that Jean could sell the hundreds of stuffed animals and dolls and “collectibles” and assorted crap she seems to have acquired, which would surely give her a nest egg of at least a few thousand dollars, get at least a part-time minimum wage job and take it seriously enough to hold onto it, make up a budget and stick to it, cut up her credit cards, start knocking down some debt, and look into part-time community college programs. Once she has her finances under control, skills, and a job with enough income to be self-sufficient, she can move out. Jay thinks Jean should leave Rick and declare bankruptcy, immediately.

Maria Schneider has said that the Jean columns get more depressing with each one she writes, and that’s understandable. I first discovered Jean in the summer of 2001 upon reading this column, and not too long after read most of her archived columns at one sitting. It induced a weird mental state in me that I can only compare to the feeling one gets from eating an entire bag of chips at one go. Such matter may be enjoyable going down, but it leaves a bad aftertaste, and there was a unwholesome feeling of mental somnolence, as though I’d gone too far into Jean’s warped and confining little mindset and couldn’t get back into my own. Like the potato chips, Jean is meant to be enjoyed in small doses, and I think that may be partly why I didn’t enjoy A Book of Jean’s Own as much as I hoped. Jean’s columns are all solidly crafted with their own narrative arc and make for an enjoyable few minutes of entertainment each. The book was more of a hodgepodge of Jean’s thoughts on this and that: Jean’s tips on how to throw a pity party, her daily schedule, her sketch of her dream wedding dress, fiction she wrote about herself, extracts from her cat Priscilla’s “diary”, an account of the time she reacted to a job loss by shaving her entire body bald, recipes for chocolate goodies that sound revoltingly sweet, assorted lists, her accounts of her “most memorable” false pregnancy alarms (the first occurring before she’d even lost her virginity), her husband Rick’s scribbled contributions, etc. Jean says in the book that she’s not one of those “snobby authors” who expect their book to be read beginning to end, but I do think it’s best to read it that way, as the only narrative force it has comes from Jean’s growing desperation to fill the book (at one point she fills five pages with the repeated sentence, “I am limited!”), her progressive breakdown as her deadline looms, and Rick’s stepping in to finish the manuscript. Not that I regret buying or reading the book, but the columns are the main body of work and the book is better enjoyed as an adjunct to the columns than the other way around.

On the whole the book simply maintains and fleshes out Jean’s character as set in her columns. Maria Schneider must have run head-long into the limitations of the character in conceiving this book. Jean, of course, would never be able to focus and discipline herself to the task of writing a book. And, if she did, she would never come up with an interesting premise, let alone develop it into a book-length manuscript. The book, therefore, is the only thing Jean could ever write: a hodgepodge of Jean-like thoughts.

There are a few editorial sleight-of-hand changes which I suspect were made with an eye to the column’s future. For one thing, her age has recently become fixed and lowered. Jean has been “pushing forty” since her column’s debut in the mid-nineties and she used to make a lot of references to David Cassidy and other such seventies-era pop culture, but she celebrated her fortieth birthday in the summer of 2010, which makes her of an age more likely to have swooned over Michael J. Fox. Also the genesis story of her column has been changed. In a column that seems to have been taken down, I remember her telling the story of how she sent out copies of a column called “That Cathy Cartoon Was Bang-On!” to a number of newspapers on spec, and that just The Onion and some sort of coupon or sewing newsletter (that went out of business shortly afterwards) took it. Now the story is that her first column was “Day 24 in Deely Boppers and Counting!”

On the plus side (no pun intended, really!), I love that Jean’s drawings of herself are cartoon versions of her “official” photo. The drawing of her engaged in her “naked Plush Jamboree” past-time is – well, I won’t describe it, because it really needs to be seen. Suffice it to say it is arguably the best item in the entire book. The photos of Rick Teasdale and Jean’s pal Fulgencio are superb and just what you might have expected when picturing the characters. And there were several moments where Jean hits some all-time new low ebb of self-awareness. It turns out that her cherished cats Priscilla and Garfield actually hate her, probably because she insists on constantly subjecting them to an affectionate mauling regardless of whether they’re in the mood.

I also really enjoyed having a long-cherished theory of mine confirmed. My friend and I had a running argument regarding Hubby Rick, with Jay holding that Rick was a jerk and saying that Jean should leave him immediately, while I opined that while Rick may not be a palatable character he’s no worse a spouse than Jean. Yes, Rick’s obviously an alcoholic who expects Jean to do all the housework, makes no effort to do anything to please her, drops the occasional mean comment, and threw out Jean’s “Think Spring” balcony display (even though his agency in the disappearance of this display typically escaped Jean completely). But Jean, for her part, expects Rick to pay all their bills, makes fun of him constantly in her published column (including references to his, er, competence in the bedroom), calls him "Hubby Rick" though he hates being called that, and makes no effort to accommodate his tastes and needs. She has filled their apartment with dolls and stuffed animals and frou-frou knickknacks that he hates, adopted two cats against his will, and gives him dancing flowers and potpourri for Christmas. A Book of Jean’s Own confirmed my take on Rick. Jean is a classic unreliable narrator (reading between the lines of what she says is the biggest payoff of reading her work), and Rick’s section of the book is quite revealing on both their parts. It so happens that Rick turns out to be, if less literate than Jean who can at least spell and write in complete sentences, more intelligent, realistic and insightful. He knows he has a problem with drinking and he readily admits he’s fat, but he’s also equally straightforward about his intentions not to bother changing. More interestingly, he “gets” Jean. He knows she lives in a fantasy world and that he’s enabling her by paying their rent, but he’s willing to do so because he knows she doesn’t have any better options and because he, unlike her family and many of the other people in her life, does have a certain real if grudging affection for her. This is hardly a good foundation for a healthy marriage, of course, but in a way it’s an improvement on Jean’s passive aggressive denial.

I would be open to reading another Jean book, though I can’t imagine where Maria Schneider could possibly take the character that would produce enough material. I’m hoping that some of the listed future book titles in the back of the book are merely a joke, especially Priscilla Teasdale’s Kitty Letters to God. I do enjoy Jean’s increased internet presence almost more than the book that occasioned it. Before the launch of the book in late 2010, Jean got a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and a web site for the book, where “she” posted sad accounts of her book tour appearances. This all served to give the character a startlingly realistic dynamic, especially when Jean interacts with her followers on Twitter. So, although the book may not have been quite what I hoped for, I look as eagerly for new Jean columns as I’ve always done, and now can also follow Jean on Twitter. As Jean would say herself, "Success!!!"

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Some Vintages Age Better Than Others


A few months ago I came across a copy of Especially Father, by Gladys Bagg Taber, in Value Village. The book, written in 1948, seemed to bear promise of being a type of book I quite like. Though I don’t know exactly how I should classify or even describe this kind of book. Probably the best description is that of “vintage memoir”. I’m thinking of books like Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough; We Shook the Family Tree by Hildegarde Dolson; and E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, though Diary of a Provincial Lady is autobiographical fiction rather than a memoir. These books and the events they describe all belong to the first half of the twentieth century, and are all in a literary vein one doesn’t come across these days: erudite yet understated; delicately witty; self-deprecating yet dignified. And, if you can get your hands on an older edition, the yellowed pages with their well-aged scent and old-fashioned typeface adds to the feeling that one is stepping back in time.

Upon reading, Especially Father did prove to be this kind of book written by this kind of author. Taber penned more than fifty books, besides publishing a great deal of work in the periodicals of her day, and seems to be best known for her books about Stillmeadow, the seventeenth-century Connecticut farmhouse she bought and restored. I’ve made a note to myself to get my hands on one of these books sometime. But I expect to enjoy those books more than I liked Especially Father.

The book that Taber meant to commemorate her father, Rufus Bagg, does not do so in the way she intended. It’s evident that she loved her father and found that the excitement and hubbub he generated compensated for his shortcomings, but lacking her affection, and perhaps also her level of tolerance, I can’t agree. Good and even admirable characteristics her father had, yes. His level of physical energy seems to have been titanic. His knowledge of geology was profound and immense – as was to have been expected of a mining engineer and college geology professor – and he could discourse about it in a fascinating, poetic way. And he seems to have loved his wife and daughter deeply. But he also seems to have been an utterly unbearable man. Taber details his exploits: how she and her mother nearly starved in a rented room in Mexico because her father went off on an expedition to the mines in the mountains, supposedly for only a few days, and didn't return for a month (during which time Taber's mother ran out of money); how her father beat little Gladys black and blue for telling a neighbour where they hid their spare house key; how he left her in a store one morning and never remembered her until he returned home at suppertime; how he got up by six every morning and made such a racket no one else in the house could sleep; how he fought bitterly with the college librarian over a seventy-five-cent fine for months; how he browbeat his older brother into giving up his courtship of the girl who became Taber’s mother so he could court her himself; how he thought the only problem with Mexico was “all those foreigners” who lived in it; how he didn’t believe in red lights and never stopped for them; how he never understood any viewpoint that differed from his own and was convinced his own opinions were infallible.

Taber evidently wants her readers to admire her father as much as she did, but the really admirable character in this memoir is Taber’s mother. Without her mother’s sympathy, reason, and astute management, Taber’s childhood would have been a miserable experience. It would have taken a rare woman to put up with her father’s pigheadedness, and Grace Bagg seems to have had both the depth of sweetness and the strength of character to not only put up with him but to be happy with her lot – and to be the woman every other woman in town came to with her troubles. Taber writes that her father took her mother entirely for granted, that he expected her to do all the housekeeping, give the best parties of any wife on the faculty, feed six extra dinner guests at no notice, edit his papers, compose his speeches, find anything he had mislaid, and account for every penny he ever gave her. Many married women would have been expected to do the same at the turn of the twentieth century, but surely most would have received in return at least the occasional compliment or some consideration from their husbands. Grace Bagg did not, and she seems to have remained remarkably unresentful through it all, though Taber remembers how her mother would sew furiously late into the night when really perturbed. Grace Bagg did occasionally do battle with her husband to get what she really wanted – and win, too, because she had an understanding of his nature and therefore an ability to use his weaknesses to her advantage that he lacked – but generally she seems to have been able to take most of her husband’s behaviour in her stride and to see the never ending turmoil he caused as an adventure and a joke. But even while I marvelled at Grace Bagg’s spirit and fortitude, there was no getting away from the fact that she should not have been treated in such a way as to make such heights of self-abnegation necessary.

Taber does seem to have been fully aware of her mother’s worth (as she wrote, “Mamma was a genius”) and she is also cognizant of her father’s faults, but she could certainly have gone several steps further towards understanding the extent of his shortcomings. I found the pride not only Rufus Bagg but Taber herself showed over being a descendant of Cotton Mather to be appalling. Taber wrote:

I thought of the first ancestor, back there in 1632, setting his firm unfrightened foot on the new and terrible terrain.

It was his crest, and he was perfectly confident that he was virtuous and noble. And if the goodly man cheated the Indians, it was always for their own good, or for the glory of God. If he persecuted the witches, he was saving their souls or defending the innocent wretches they were casting spells upon. Sin was his mortal enemy, compromise a word he never knew.


Sure Mather treated the native people and their rights like nuisances to be swept aside, and presided over the cruel executions of innocent people, justifying it on the basis of an imaginary threat. But hey, he meant well, and compromising is for the weak and afraid!

Virtue, like everything else, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The blame or praise we attach to an action or characteristic is wholly dependent on its context. Compromise can be good or bad; persistence can be constructive or destructive. Good intentions need to be coupled with good judgment and competence if they are to lead to positive results. Anyone with a passing knowledge of history or politics knows what happens when those in power refuse to compromise or to be subject to checks and balances and ride roughshod over the rights and opinions of others to achieve their own ends.

Taber opens the book by telling us in a prologue that she came to write this book about her family because she did not want her memories, especially those about her father, to be lost, and ends it by describing a Bagg family reunion and commenting,

The sight of these, the last of the Puritans, standing there gave me an uneasy sense of weakness in my own generation…. If the time came for Communism to sweep the world, Father would face a firing squad still shouting, God bless the Republican Party.


This may have a fine rhetorical ring to it, but the truth is, far from sweeping the world, Communism was to collapse of its own accord, while the American Republican party has become a corrupted and destructive force. And none of Taber’s fond nostalgia about her father stands up to deconstruction much better than that example. Surely there’s no benefit in glorifying the kind of pig-headedness and complete lack of consideration for others that Rufus Bagg showed. We’ve seen what happened when the U.S. was governed for eight years by a man who prided himself on his own ignorance, who said that we were “with him or against him”, who said that dictatorship would be fine “if he was the dictator”.

Especially Father is a mildly enjoyable little memoir, but the reactionary, overly simplistic, and reverent tone of it did it no favours whatsoever.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Marie Antoinette and the Recession

Of late there has been a lot of copy generated about coping with the recession. Salon for example has been running a series of lifestyle articles called "Pinched; Tales from an Economic Downturn". New York Times financial reporter Edmund Andrews wrote about his own experience of getting in far over his head with a house he bought in a memoir called Busted. Even a magazine like Elle, which must be the antithesis of a publication concerned with living according to one’s means, has gotten into the act with a writer’s account of her “Year of Living Frugally”.

These articles draw me like a magnet, and once I’ve read them, I proceed to the reader comments, which are often just as good and interesting (if not much more so) than the article. It fascinates me to read about how people arrange their lives and make the most of their resources. I’m always hoping to get some ideas for how to manage my own time and money to better effect, and to vicariously learn about what will not work without the cost and trouble of trying it myself. And then, too, sometimes reading such material gives me a healthy reality check as to how fortunate I am compared to others. But at other times it’s just food for ridicule, when it's not grist for irritation.

These articles run the gamut of quality. The best of them are written by good, thoughtful and self-aware writers who have come to terms with their situations with courage and a matter-of-fact acceptance of reality, and without self-pity. They have an understanding of how their individual standard of living measures on a global scale. They know they may have to work long hours at jobs they don’t like or move in with the in-laws to get by, but they are thankful to have paid work or generous in-laws, not to mention a computer and spare time to use for writing the article, or for that matter, enough to eat and clean water to drink. One of my favourites was "Excuse Me While I Stick My Head in the Toilet", a Salon article written by Rebecca Golden, who works as a cleaning lady, and who takes pride in being physically able to do such work now that she no longer weighs 600 pounds as she once did. And it’s a pure pleasure and inspiration to read the articles written by people who delight in their own resourcefulness, who honestly enjoy the contriving and the organizing and ingenuity they employ to live within their means, who realize that such mindful, careful attention to household management can mean the same or even a better standard of living.

Then there’s the polar opposite. The Elle magazine article mentioned in my first paragraph is possibly the best example of the worst kind of recession-geared articles. The writer, Laura Hollinger, is a New Yorker with a six-figure income, and her idea of being frugal is relying on dinner invitations to make her Aspen and Vail vacations affordable, or foregoing certain luxuries like having her hair professionally blow-dried as often or buying a new cashmere sweater (when she already has four piles of cashmere sweaters) so she can afford certain other luxuries like a Cartier watch. This article was roundly and deservedly mocked on Jezebel. I completely agree with the Jezebel poster who wrote that the problem with the article is not how the writer spends her income since she has every right to do whatever she wants with her own money, but how the article is positioned. Laura Hollinger is in the top 1% of income earners in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It’s obnoxious for Hollinger and Elle to frame this article as an example of frugal living when by any objective measure it is nothing of the kind.

Another failed article in this vein was a Salon piece, "Can It!", by Sarah Karnasiewicz. Karnasiewicz made jam and concluded that, as delicious as the jam was, it wasn’t cost effective. Salon's readers lost no time in pointing out that Karnasiewicz's math hadn't accounted for the facts that one doesn’t normally make jam from organic strawberries purchased at an uptown market or buy brand new jam jars for just one use.

In my own reader comment, I said Karasiewicz reminded me of Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess. Many of these articles do have either this "playing poor" or a "crying poor" quality. So many of the writers just don’t have the honesty, knowledge, experience, and insight to do justice to the topics they address. Edmund Andrews wrote an entire book about his experience of buying a house he couldn’t afford and losing it without ever disclosing that his wife had declared bankruptcy twice — the second time during the time frame the book covered. Rebecca Golden's article about working as a cleaning lady would not have had the authenticity it does had the writer only worked as a cleaning lady for one day, or if she didn’t have to actually live on what she makes cleaning houses. And it’s so tiresome to read accounts written by the truly clueless and entitled who whine and blame all their problems on forces beyond their control: they can’t lose that extra 30 pounds because they can’t afford to join a gym; they can’t get married because they can’t afford a wedding with 200 guests; they bought a house they couldn’t afford because evil bankers gave them outsized loans; they’re “broken-hearted” not to have made more than an average of 40K a year from writing.

The reader reactions to such articles are a phenomenon in themselves. Nothing, it seems, raises the ire of readers faster than the complaints of a writer who has had better financial opportunities than them. And of course everyone has to air their own story of how they’ve managed on less. As one of the Jezebel commenters put it, these threads are so prone to become a “pissing contest”, with everyone producing evidence of thrifty they are or how few advantages they have, i.e., “I make my family’s undies out of worn-out sheets, and WE LIKE IT THAT WAY.” I’m exaggerating, but not by much. Another Jezebel reader claimed such threads reminded her of the Monty Python's The Four Yorkshiremen, and indeed there are parallels. So, giddy as I am over my recent purchase of a secondhand, brand-new condition $13 cashmere sweater at a Value Village, I’m going to try to refrain from trotting out my own thrifty cred in this review. I don’t want to get sidetracked into claiming that my family “dreamt of living in a corridor”.

What I do wish to say it that it’s just as important for us readers to maintain a healthy perspective as it is for the writers. I’m not going to condemn Elle for running Laura Hollinger’s article, or even wish serious financial reversals upon her. It’s a high-end fashion magazine after all. Elle, as with all media corporations, gets far more of its revenue from advertising than it does from subscribers, and Elle’s advertising clients are companies like Dior and Tiffany. We are never going to see articles about how to make three kinds of bean soup or max out our coupon savings in Elle because the women who buy Dior clothes and Tiffany jewellery aren’t interested in reading about those topics. (And who can blame them? I wouldn’t be either if I had that kind of income.) Even if the women who buy Elle can’t actually afford Dior and Tiffany products, Elle has to at least appear to be geared for women who live at that level if it wants to keep its advertising revenue.

And then too, even if it were feasible in business terms to run such articles, it wouldn’t be desirable. Why should every personal account about cutting back or getting more for less involve living at or below the poverty line? Do writers really have to be homeless or unable to pay for groceries or major surgery before they are allowed to muse about their efforts to live within their means? No one has unlimited funds; we all have budgets to stick to. Setting priorities and deciding what we can and can’t afford is a universal experience, and I think we’d all benefit from seeing money management as the subjective, context-specific experience it is rather than preening ourselves on our supposed moral superiority over others who have more and/or don’t manage as well.

It would be nice if such “high-end” money management lifestyle articles were of better quality than Laura Hollinger's and evidenced more insightful, nuanced, and creative thinking, since I can’t imagine anyone benefiting from the revelation that wearing clothes that are already in your well-stocked walk-in closet is cheaper than going shopping. But then that’s a criticism I could also make of many money-saving ideas in articles geared for people living at a lower standard; a lot of these ideas are so obvious and old hat to those of us with modest means. It all comes down to that old writing truism "write what you know", but to that I would add, "be self-aware about what you don't know". If you can live like Marie Antoinette, don’t assume that you know all about the working class experience or talk about how frugal you are or expect sympathy from anyone because you’ve had to start buying fewer ball gowns. For that matter, if you're middle class, don't think you know all about the working class or have hit rock bottom because you must shop at the dollar store or have had to take a minimum wage job for a few months. And if you are the socioeconomic modern-day equivalent of a shepherdess, it's good to realize you are just as much in need of a healthy perspective and generous, ungrudging spirit as someone with many times your income.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Lesser Sibling and the Short End of the Stick


Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved has been sitting on my desk for quite some time, waiting for me to review it. I remember not liking it when I was a teenager. Even ten years later when I was collecting children’s and young adults’ literature and bought a thrift shop copy, I ended up getting rid of it again after a re-read. I found it unsettling. I've found it just as difficult to review as it was to read.

When the story opens, it’s 1941, and we meet 13-year-old Louise Bradshaw, who lives on a small island off the coast of Maryland, with her waterman father, her former schoolteacher mother, her half-senile and wholly nasty grandmother, and her musically gifted twin sister Caroline. We follow Louise through her coming of age to maturity and revisit her when she’s well settled into her adulthood.

Life on the island of Rass is limited and spartan. Almost all of the occupants get their living from the sea, which means that most people have to work very hard, the mortality rate is high, homes and boats are sometimes lost in severe storms, and no one has a high standard of living or much education. The annual Christmas concert put on by the 20-student high school is a major social highlight, and everyone depends on the radio, Time magazine, and the Baltimore Sun newspaper to keep them informed about the larger world. But change is in the air, even though the changes themselves are themselves are grim ones, and initially mean more deprivation and new battles to be fought — literally, because World War II breaks out and the young men of Rass leave to join the military. In a wrenchingly poignant touch, Rass itself is disappearing, the ocean claiming a little more of it every year.

Louise is an intelligent, capable girl with loving parents, but she is constantly chafing miserably against the limits of her life. Her reaction to her twin sister Caroline is the main conflict of the novel, as the title of it indicates. I’ve deliberately written “reaction to” rather than “relationship with”, because Louise’s problems with Caroline have very little to do with who Caroline actually is, and much more to do with Louise’s need to find her own level and role in life, and to be comfortable with who she is.

Caroline was born frail while Louise was a strong and healthy baby, and so Caroline got a great deal of special attention during the first few years of their lives. When the family narratives are told and retold about those first few hours of the twins’ lives are told, they always seem to be entirely concerned with Caroline. When Louise asks where she was while everyone was trying to save Caroline, her family members look blank. Then as the twins got older and Caroline outgrew all her medical problems, it was discovered that Caroline had a remarkable talent for music, necessitating expensive music lessons on the mainland and much more special attention and adulation from everyone in the twins’ lives.

The back jacket copy on my edition describes Caroline as “selfish”, but I disagree that she is. The most selfish thing Caroline does is casually help herself to Louise’s carefully hoarded hand lotion (and she doesn’t in the least understand Louise’s resulting outrage), and the most irritating thing she does is announce she’s going to start writing her memoirs in preparation for the time when she will be famous, but as sibling misbehaviours go, if those are the worst things Louise has to complain of, she can count herself lucky. Caroline is no more selfish or self-absorbed than any average teenager might be, and certainly no more so than Louise. Caroline is quite naturally very involved in her musical studies, but she repeatedly demonstrates an awareness of and a concern for others and their needs during the course of the novel. The radio broadcast about the bombing of Pearl Harbor affects Caroline as deeply as it does Louise, she is infuriated by their grandmother’s horrible insinuations about a friend, and on several different occasions when a neighbour has a problem she is ready with a creative solution and works to bring it to pass. What Caroline lacks, and this is not to her discredit, is the hypersensitivity towards Louise that Louise has for Caroline. Caroline is a naturally serene and confident person, has no issues with Louise, and consequently can’t understand what Louise’s problem is. (Nor does Louise make a concerted effort to communicate her problem to Caroline, except in noisy bursts of rage that merely leave Caroline bemused.) And what Caroline could have done about it if she had understood? She could hardly have given up her music or been less confident or pretty. However, the fact that Caroline doesn't understand and can't resolve Louise's problem does not mean that Louise's issues are any less real or important.

Paterson seems to like delving into grim realities, and family hierarchies with their painful gaps are definitely a grim reality. It’s not possible for parents to treat their children with perfect equality when their needs are inevitably disparate. One child may need more — or less — resources than the others, and sometimes kids just have to accept getting the short end of the stick, especially in cases where one child is extremely gifted or handicapped and there just isn’t enough money or parental attention to go around.

As I think and write about Louise and Caroline, I am reminded of a real-life pair of sisters who had a similar hierarchical gap and unhealthy dynamic: Florence and Parthenope Nightingale. Parthe Nightingale was exceptionally intelligent and talented in her own right, but she lived her entire life in her younger and genius sister Florence’s wake. Florence was so much Parthe’s superior in everything, in intellect, accomplishments, popularity, drive, looks, health, that Parthe could never begin to keep up. Their parents were aware that they needed to separate the girls for Parthe's sake, but Parthe’s poor health made it impossible for her to attend boarding school and no school could be found to undertake the education of Florence. Parthe was tormented by her inferiority in her youth, and by her teenaged years she had developed a neurotic and parasitical attachment to Florence. In early adulthood, Parthe tried to live through Florence and demanded that Florence live the conventionally successful life expected of an upper-class Victorian girl rather than reform the medical system (to be fair, their parents W.E.N. and Fanny Nightingale were of the same opinion as to what Florence should do with her life). It wasn’t until mid-life, when Parthe got married and wrote a number of books, that Parthe finally started to settle into her own sphere and be contented with it. But even then, her happiness was shadowed by the fact that Parthe’s husband was a man who had wanted Florence and, when he couldn't get her, settled for marrying Parthe so that he could have a place in Florence’s life.

Fortunately Louise doesn’t turn into a Parthe Nightingale and latch onto Caroline. Instead she tries to escape her sister’s long shadow, difficult as that is on their little shrinking island where, both literally and figuratively, there are so few places for Louise to go. Rass offers her few options and she gets little support or approbation for the choices she does make. If Louise had been born a boy, she likely would have become a waterman like her father and been perfectly happy with that life, but for a girl in the 1940s this was not possible. She uses her own skiff to crab and later works with her father on his boat, enjoys the work, and is proud of her skill and stamina and of her contribution to the family’s income. But even though everyone acknowledges the economic necessity of her work on the water during wartime her father tells her he cannot let her work on the boat once the war is over and Caroline complains that Louise stinks when she gets home (okay, that’s maddening and should probably have gone in the list of Caroline’s worst behaviours). Louise has a friend in a neighbour boy named McCall — that is, they spend time together because neither of them have other friends even though they don’t get along at all well. And she falls in love, secretly and hopelessly, with Hiram Wallace, who is an islander in his seventies. For the most part it seems to have been this aspect of the novel that made me so uncomfortable, though as I think about why I realize it’s probably mostly just a personal bias against this kind of age gap in romantic relationships, which I need to set aside for the purposes of writing this review.

Falling in love is generally part of the teenage experience, especially for a girl of Louise’s emotional intensity. In her case there was a dearth of eligible boys of her own age, and that river had to flow somewhere. And, so far as falling in love is a choice, Louise doesn’t choose so badly at that, as Hiram Wallace is wise, kind, generous, and truly lovable. But Louise knows full well she can never be with Hiram in the way she wants, and the knowledge eats at her. Her grandmother, who divines her secret, tortures her by constant remarks on the topic as well as with the purplest of Biblical quotes. Louise also has to “share” Hiram and MCall with Caroline as she does every other area and component of her life, and as always she feels, not without cause, that Caroline gets far more than her share. It doesn’t help that her Methodist upbringing has her convinced she’s hell-bound due to the feelings of hate and anger her frustration with her life engenders in her, nor that she feels bound to Rass and her family because she loves them both, problematic as they are.

In the end Louise does get to create a life that she is contented with, and thankfully it doesn’t involve taking one of Caroline’s rejected suitors à la Parthe Nightingale.

I marvel at the skill Paterson demonstrates in this book. Almost no young readers with access to this novel would have any idea of what it was like to live a life as circumscribed as that of a young girl on a tiny fishing island in 1941. But Paterson’s characterization of Louise and her struggle to find her own place is so real that many who already understand what is like to not fit into one’s own life, will be able to relate to Louise. And though they probably wouldn’t want to live the life that Louise chooses, they can readily grasp that the promises of adulthood, of being able to make choices, of having the world open up to them, of being able to cast aside some of the burdens of childhood as irrelevant and outgrown, will also hold true for them.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

It Isn't Easy Being Green, Especially When We're So Vain

Good books on style are one of my genre-specific literary addictions. I have a little collection of such books I've read and reread to the point of memorization. So, when I decided to treat myself to a couple of new books on the subject last week, it seemed like a good idea to select Green is the New Black: How to change the world with style, by Tamsin Blanchard.

Flipping through this book in Indigo revealed a number of ideas new to me, and I thought I could use some educating on this aspect of shopping. I'm not a particularly green-minded dresser, though thanks to the force of other motivating factors (i.e., my modest budget, a hatred of waste, and being very picky) I suppose I'm not the worst offender in this respect. Most of my clothes either come from thrift shops or are made by me, I own fewer clothes than many of the women I know, I don't buy many trendy items or poor quality clothing that won't be wearable for long, I mend and alter things whenever possible, and I give my cast-offs to family and friends and thrift shops. But upon beginning to read this book, I soon had my eyes opened to how much I have still to learn and how much I can improve my habits.

I definitely liked the tone of this book. Blanchard and all of her contributors freely admit that they have a good deal of ground to cover themselves in terms of becoming environmentally conscious and responsible. Blanchard confesses that she owns 41 dresses and that she has to force herself to hang her laundry outside on the clothesline on cold days. Model Lily Cole wrote a thoughtful foreword in which she admits the schism between her urging readers to buy less while she makes her living encouraging them to buy more. Cole also acknowledges that she doesn't do much to save the planet, but hopes that besides being more personally responsible by shopping less and recycling more, she can make a difference in her industry by asking questions and fostering discussion and awareness.

There's also free and full acknowledgment in Green is the New Black that truly ethical clothing production is a difficult and complex issue. There's no real way to be absolutely sure an item was made by workers receiving a living wage and that its materials were produced organically, and even if a garment meets those standards it was likely transported halfway around the world. And in this book there's recognition that necessary changes can stymied for lack of better alternatives. Stores are still using plastic bags because although plastic bags take 500 years to decompose in a landfill, paper bags take more than four times as much energy to produce. However, Blanchard isn't handing anyone a free pass to not try at all. Going shopping armed with bags made of jute, hemp or unbleached cotton will enable us to refuse plastic bags at the cash register. Buying less and more thoughtfully and making our concerns known to the fashion industry will cumulatively effect big changes.

Blanchard has wisely included different tips and ideas for mending and reincarnating clothes that will cater and appeal to all skill levels. She provides instructions for how to sew on a button. As a reasonably competent sewer I had to repress a knee-jerk snobbish reaction to this one — there really are people who think they can't do basic repair work to their clothes, and they need to be walked through it and shown that they can. Then, moving along the DIY scale of difficulty, there are instructions for how to cut your t-shirt down into a halter top, how to make a wrap skirt and a kitchen apron (preferably out of an old curtain or tablecloth, of course), how to make a shift dress from several old t-shirts, and how to make your own natural dyes from onion skins and tea bags.

I was surprised and humbled by how many new ideas I came across given that I already do a lot of secondhand shopping and needlework and dip my dingy whites in tea. Blanchard even mentions that it's possible to make new underwear out of one's old t-shirts (the pattern can be found here). Those undies look pretty damn cute, but when even Blanchard admits she's not going to try out the pattern, her idea of making dusters and cleaning cloths out of discarded t-shirts seem more practical for most people. However, when I checked out the underwear making instructions, I went on to do some more internet research about uses for old t-shirts, and got inspired to create a Metafilter post on the subject. There were so many, many uses for the t-shirt fabric that I couldn't even list them all in the post. I'd definitely like to try at least some of those t-shirt recycling ideas, but I will be passing on using Blanchard's instructions for making a pom-pom ankle bracelet, not being 12. And even though I am a fiendish knitter, I doubt I'll be acquiring a pet angora rabbit in order to use its wool.

At some moments during my reading Green is the New Black really did jab me in the conscience. I did some eye rolling when I read a suggestion pertaining to “purse libraries” — it seems it's possible to rent trendy, name brand purses and handbags, use them for a month, and then send them back in exchange for the next trendy bag. “[Y]ou can indulge your desire to have a bag like Gwen Stefani's one month and Liz Hurley's the next“, enthuses Blanchard. Are people really so unwilling to practice a little self-denial for the sake of the environment as that? But I can't claim that I never buy anything I don't really need. And I was not willing to accept Lily Cole's argument that holes and frayed edges are beautiful. I dismissed the idea promptly and scornfully, thinking that it's all very well to go about unkempt and Boho when one is young and beautiful, but the older and plainer one is, the worse it looks. At 35, and with my average looks, I will mend my clothes, but only if it can be done so that the mending is invisible. I'm not willing to wear clothing past the point of their becoming ratty, even around home. And that's not any less wasteful than renting handbags because Gwen Stefani is carrying them. In fact, it's probably more so.

With all that Green is the New Black had going for it, it isn't the book it could have been. Its prose is slipshod. It employs a lot of slang and many sentences are ungrammatical and poorly punctuated. The book is not very well organized. Blanchard covers clothes, then celebrity efforts to save the world, options for travelling, hobbies, and then bags, shoes and jewelery, which seems as though they should have followed the clothes. A chapter on “occasion wear” covers how to buy jeans and sunglasses. An idea for an organic polish for one's brown leather (use the inside of a banana skin, allow the leather to dry, then polish with a cloth) appears in the DIY style chapter rather than in the chapter about shoes. The result is something of a hodgepodge. Some cutting and pasting would have made this book a more coherent and more useful read. An index would also have been a good idea in a source book of practical ideas and information.

Then there is the too-frequent and too-careless celebrity name dropping. The chapter on “Can Celebrities Save the World?” might just as well been left out of the book entirely, and its useful bits of information reassigned to the appropriate chapters. This chapter's list of A-list celebs who care about the environment is more or less a joke. Yes, Leonardo DiCaprio has made a documentary on the environment and set up a foundation, so he's definitely earned a place on such a list. Darryl Hannah and Julia Roberts both live in eco-friendly homes and have involved themselves personally in environmental causes, so yes, I can agree with their inclusion. However, Blanchard includes Maggie Gyllenhaal: “[an] anti-war protester, and all around cool gal, Maggie's quirky style has that thrown together look that might have come from thrift stores, just as easily as from Prada. She wears both with the same laid-back style.” Mischa Barton is also lauded for donating clothes to a temporary Traid fashion swap shop. Er, to be included on this list, oughtn't a celebrity have done something more for the environment than to wear clothes that look as though they MIGHT have come from thrift shops or to have made a one-time donation of cast-off clothing? A little more research might have resulted in some better candidates for the list. Blanchard also mentions that “Cameron Diaz is finishing off writing her how-to eco manual, The Green Book. The idea of Cameron Diaz writing a book gave me pause, so I did a quick internet search and discovered Diaz only wrote the foreword.

Not only are some of Blanchard's attempts to name specific celebrity role-models a stretch, I find it inherently problematic that we should be asked to admire and emulate Hollywood celebrities when many, if not most of them, with their regular air travel, extensive wardrobes and plural homes and cars, not only leave a much larger carbon footprint than the average person in Western society but do a lot to foster extravagance and conspicuous consumption by appearing in magazines such as In Style and playing movie characters with lavish lifestyles. And don't even get me started on those celebrities who launch their own product lines when they already make a multi-million dollar annual income.

I'm not so out of touch with reality in regards to the power of celebrity example nor so unfair to those A-listers who are sincere and informed about environmental issues as to suggest that Blanchard should have foregone positive mentions of celebrities in her book, but she should have set the bar for environmentally conscious behaviour higher. She does urge her readers not to try to emulate a celebrity's personal style and reminds them that even though Kylie Minogue's beachwear collection for H&M donates 10% towards WaterAid, buying a Kylie bikini will not give one a Kylie Minogue bottom, and she also criticizes celebrities for endorsing cheap lines of clothing that are made by sweated labour, but she should have taken this kind of critical deconstruction steps further.

The fact that the chapter ends with a list of tips of “How to Shine Like a Star” (meaning, how to dress like one, rather than how to further the good work by supporting the foundations some of them have set up) renders this chapter on celebrities even more absurd. The list underlines the fact that however much we may pretend to admire celebrities for their consciences, in the end we really just want to be as beautiful and well-dressed as they are. This list really should have been placed in another chapter so as not to undercut the celebrity chapter's intended message.

Green is the New Black is very much geared to the English consumer. The ethical issues discussed are generally universal to at least Western society, and the ideas and websites listed in the book are useful for people living elsewhere, but I will urge anyone who lives in other places not to order things from the U.K.-based companies listed in the book, but to find alternative suppliers nearby.

If you wish to learn about how to shop and dress more responsibly I am sure there must be more informative and better-written materials in print. But then the very fact there is so much information out there and so many options means that any book would be a starting point. Not only are we not all willing to acquire a angora rabbit for home sweater production, we're not all able to custom-build a eco-friendly home. We can't all do without a car or grow our own food. We don't all have access to the same goods and services. We have different needs. No book is going to provide anyone with a complete, foolproof formula for how to live green. Reading such books are a first step. The work of continuing to inform ourselves and adapting ourselves to a more responsible way of life will always lie before us.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

A Graphic Novel Before Its Time

Kate Seredy's 1938 Newbery winner The White Stag tells the mythic story of the Huns and their journey from their former barren lands in Asia where they were starving to what would become their homeland and modern-day Hungary. Beginning with the Huns' leader Nimrod's appeal for direction to his god Hadur during a time of hardship, it continues with the journey of the brothers Hunor and Magyar and their people, through the leadership of Hunar's son, Bendeguz, and culminates with the battles of Bendeguz's son Attila, who led his people to the conquest of their new land. The mystical White Stag appears at key moments and shows the Huns the way.

Seredy based The White Stag on Hungarian myths related to her by her father in her childhood, and I think she made the mistake Charles J. Finger made in writing his Tales From Silver Lands; she wrote down traditional oral myths that have been passed down through countless generations without fleshing them out enough to really adapt them to their new medium.

The prose of The White Stag is spare and lyrical, if uncertainly punctuated. (I saw a number of comma splices.) The White Stag is just 94 pages long, and covers three generations' worth of action. This will tell you how sparing it is of the kind of details that make it possible for a reader to enter into the world of the story. The story itself comes across as somewhat overwrought and faintly ridiculous — it's rather like a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic with its wooden characterizations and sometimes laughable dialogue. There are certainly echoes of the Bible in The White Stag: faith moving mountains, the search for the promised land, the evolving division of one people into conflicting tribes. The quest of the Huns and Magyars is much like the Old Testament journeys of the Israelites with Attila as Charlton Heston-style Moses, and unfortunately Attila's character is no more nuanced or believable than Heston's acting. I don't know how anyone can relate to characters who aren't recognizably human. Attila, who “learned not to cry when he was but a few days old”, is seemingly a sociopath with a conviction of his own destiny. Seredy also glosses over the battles as though they were successful rugby matches — another tribe of people slaughtered or enslaved and another victorious moment for the Huns!

Perhaps the problem is that no story could be worthy of the beautiful illustrations in this book. Seredy was certainly an extremely gifted and successful illustrator. She considered herself an illustrator first and foremost, saying that she “thought in pictures”, and she illustrated Newbery Medal winner Caddie Woodlanw, and her own Newbery Honor Books The Good Master and The Singing Tree, as well as Newbery honor books Winterbound by Margery Bianco, The Wonderful Year by Nancy Barnes, and Young Walter Scott by Elizabeth Janet Gray. The illustrations in The White Stag are therefore very fine (you can see some of them here if you're willing to brace yourself for a high-volume recording of the Hungarian national anthem). The drawings feature idealized, muscular, hairless bodies in an Olympic-athlete state of fitness, wearing classical tunics, cloaks and robes and spike-top helmets with birds' wings adorning the sides. They look, in short, like a precursor of comic-book heroes minus the spandex. Perhaps if Seredy had been born ninety years later, The White Stag would have been a very good graphic novel.

I can accept that not all fiction needs to be character-driven and that a novel can simply be a grand epic of adventure and conquest, but it's difficult to cheer on characters who are so stylized and so ruthless. And I kept wistfully imagining what Robin McKinley would have done with this material. McKinley understands that you can make your characters the stuff of legend and send them off to have thrilling adventures, but only after you have first made them come alive.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Eager Readers!

The Newbery winner for 2008, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village came into being because its author, Laura Amy Schlitz, who is a librarian at the Park School in Baltimore, had a group of students who were studying the Middle Ages. The students were building model castles, growing herbs, and illuminating manuscripts, but to round out their educational experience Schlitz wanted to give them some material they could perform. And since she didn't think it possible to write a play for seventeen characters and give them all equal time, she wrote nineteen monologues and two dialogues, so that “for three minutes at least, every child could be a star”.

I wish Schlitz had worked at my grade school. I remember how it felt to be one of only two people in my sixth-grade play whose “roles” did not involve a single line of dialogue and whose part in the action consisted of walking onto and off of the stage twice. And, more importantly, the play, written by our sixth grade teacher, was execrable.

Schlitz may mention excrement (as well as fleas, lice and other historically accurate if unsavoury facts of daily life in medieval times) in her monologues, but other than this her work is not to be compared to that sixth-grade play. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies is an excellent piece of work. In each of Schlitz's twenty-one vignettes, a character from medieval times tells us a simple story about some facet of his or her existence, gives us the sense of what life was like in those times, and in the process lays bare the essence of his or her personality. By the end of a few pages we know what the characters love, fear and desire most, what their probable fates will be, and how they cope with the hardships of their lives. Interspersed with the monologues are footnotes, sidenotes, and occasional full-length background notes explaining aspects of life in medieval times.

The historical notes are not only informative, revealing the depth of Schlitz's historical research, but often very witty. One comments that the logic of the assignment of saints to a type of work is macabre: Saint Bartholomew, the patron saint of tanners, was skinned to death; and Saint Lawrence, the patron saint of cooks, was roasted alive. Schlitz adds, tantalizingly, that “we won't even talk about what happened to Saint Erasmus — it's too disgusting.”

The illustrations in the book are woodcut-like pen-and-ink drawings by Robert Byrd. According to the book's jacket flap, Byrd took “inspiration from an illuminated thirteenth-century manuscript”. I would have preferred something tapestry-inspired, but then sometimes in writing these Newbery reviews I really must remind myself that these books are intended for kids, not for me. Byrd's drawings are undeniably cute, expressive, and period-appropriate.

The vignettes are wonderfully varied, and yet so elemental to human experience, regardless of one's place on the timeline of our existence. The lord's nephew faces a boar, and his fear of it, while hunting. The blacksmith's daughter finds that her size, looks and social status don't determine whom she can love. A plow boy takes pride in carrying on with his father's backbreaking work and responsibilities. “Crookbacked” Constance, a pilgrim, speaks of her despair over her deformity and her hope that she will be healed on her journey. A miller's son tells us how he is hated by the other village boys because his father adulterates the flour with chalk, but in his bitterness resolves to be the same kind of miller himself. A knight's son dreams of being a knight, but knows he must be a monk because his father has been bankrupted by war. The lord's daughter knows those who slung mud at her would take and enjoy her privileges if they could get them; the one who slung the mud knows the lord's daughter will not get through life without pain and worry. Pask, the runaway, tells us of his hopes that he has escaped his peasant's life and can become a skilled tradesman (but a historical note tells us he will probably not be able to do so). Maud and Mariot, the glassblower's daughters, know that one of them must marry their father's apprentice, and in a dialogue each comes to a decision about whether she can. A tanner's apprentice knows he is despised for the stinking processes he uses to make leather, but also knows that same people who despise him would not be willing to do without their shoes and saddles. And so it goes.

Schlitz makes each character come alive by giving us points of connection. Few people who read this book will have shod a horse, but most will have known what it is like to feel the lighting bolt of sudden, strong attraction to someone we can never be with. Almost none of this book's readers will have blown glass; all will know what it's like to do something for the first time and get lacklustre results, to feel a sense of accomplishment in having made a beginning, and to be all the more ready to try again.

In a foreword, Schlitz writes of how, as a student, she found that history as it was taught in the classroom was “about dead men who had done dull things”. It was only by reading historical novels that she learned that history was about survival, and could be very dramatic and fascinating. It was this exciting, living view of history, the stories of real people and the lives that they led, that she wanted to impart to her students. So she has, marrying fact with imagination and producing characters that seem to breathe. Not to mention that the material seems wonderfully actable.

And look up the fate of Saint Erasmus if you dare.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Strange and Unusual Growth of Gardenias

I was overjoyed when I first learned that Faith Sullivan had written a sequel to The Cape Ann. It had been a long time coming. The Cape Ann was written in 1988, and Gardenias did not appear until 2005. When I bought it and brought it home I read it in a evening. But I was disgruntled when I closed the back cover on the last page and laid it down.

Gardenias starts off in such a satisfying way. It takes up just where The Cape Ann leaves off; with Lark Erhardt, Lark's mother Arlene, and Arlene's sister Betty riding a train bound to a new life San Diego. Arlene Erhardt has had all she can take of Lark's father's gambling, abusive ways, and Betty had been essentially abandoned by her husband Stan and was languishing in depression at her parents' home, so Arlene decided to pull up stakes and move the three of them from Harvester, Minnesota to San Diego, California.

The novel takes its name from the gardenia bush Arlene, Betty, and Lark plant in the poor soil outside their new home in the housing project erected for the workers in the munitions factories, and it's an apt symbol. Gardenias is on the whole a novel about being transplanted, about new beginnings and new ties to new surroundings, and about all the changing and growing entailed. San Diego during the years of the Second World War is a good setting for such a theme. All the people in the housing project where Lark lives are from somewhere else, having moved to San Diego in search of work, and usually also to get away from something undesirable. And Faith Sullivan has a few things to say about how new surroundings aren't necessarily any better on the whole than the old, and how the changes people undergo aren't always positive or welcome. All well and good. But some of the new outgrowth feels so forced and artificial.

One of the best things about The Cape Ann was the characterization of Arlene Erhardt. In The Cape Ann Lark describes Arlene as a “headlong person” with “instincts as sharp as darts”, and quotes her grandfather, who called her mother a “freethinker”. And at the beginning of Gardenias, Arlene is still the same indefatigable person, with the same admirable ingenuity and drive, and the same open-handed kindness coupled with a refusal to take garbage from anyone or let any conventions stand in her way. One can't help but root for her, and admire her. When Arlene buys furniture on credit and Lark protests, "Grandma says that charge is the road to perdition," Arlene retorts, "I don't want to hear what Grandma says. Grandma's not sleeping on the floor." When Betty comments that she's heard the WACs are "a pretty wild bunch", Arlene sweeps such a hum-drum assessment aside with, "That's what they always say when women want to do something interesting." She also invites Lou, the black man who delivers her and her furniture back to her place, in for a cup of tea. Sullivan doesn't point out how unconventional this behaviour would have been for an American white woman in 1943. But it works because of why Arlene does it. She is not doing it out a super-progressive (not to say anachronistic) sense of social justice, but because there were no black people in Harvester and she sees Lou as exotic, a part of her new world that she is so eager to experience.

But as the novel progresses Arlene falters and begins to disintegrate. Part of this is her husband's fault. Willie Erhardt, Lark's father and Arlene's husband, doesn't change a bit in this novel about growth. He's the same self-serving bully he always was, and has the same total lack of comprehension for or interest in anything Lark or Arlene think or feel. He remains in Harvester, only visiting and writing San Diego in order to harass his wife and daughter.

Arlene could have recovered from Willie's vindictive behaviour, but she's harbouring a secret love for another man, and as Sullivan would have us believe, this turns out to be her undoing, causing her to nearly destroy her relationships with her daughter and sister, to lose her sense of purpose, and to direct her nervous energy and her hunger for love into some dead-end channels. And I don't buy it. I don't believe Arlene, who is generally a shrewd judge of character, would have fallen in love with the man she has, nor that she would allow her unrequited and hopeless love for any man to ruin her life.

There are other facets of her behaviour that don't make sense. Arlene, a woman who set up her own modestly successful business in a small, Depression-era Minnesota town, just seems to accept being stymied professionally and settle for being an administrative assistant in the personnel office at the munitions plant in San Diego. At a time when the war-time economy was booming and employers were willing to hire anyone they could get, she complains she can't get promoted and makes no effort to develop her skills. And the woman who so carefully saved for her own house in Harvester has suddenly become a spend-thrift who cares only about having a nice-looking rental apartment.

Then there's Lark's growing alienation from her mother. Certainly it was unavoidable that Arlene, Betty and Lark's relationships with each other should change, and Sullivan generally navigates these changes with considerable expertise. (The changing dynamic between Arlene and Betty is especially well-handled, as Betty gathers strength and the formerly high-handed Arlene weakens.) In San Diego, Arlene is soley financially responsible for Lark and herself instead of being a housewife and her own boss as she was in Harvester, and that means she has less time for her daughter — and is less emotionally involved with her. And she stops listening to Lark, because she is already so burdened she can't bear to hear how much Lark misses her old life in Harvester. Lark is much less coddled than many children. At nine she is considered old enough to be left alone after school until Arlene and Betty get home from work and to take care of a number of household chores. In The Cape Ann, Lark's sharp, detailed observations of her mother help us to know Arlene. In Gardenias Lark's observations come from more and more of a distance until Arlene's behaviour is no more intelligible than that of a stranger's.

It's always necessary when critiquing a novel to distinguish between those elements of the book that are ineffective and those that one doesn't happen to care for. So it's very difficult for me to determine whether Arlene's tranformation is not believable or if I just hate it. I can't decide between the two possibilities, so I'll just say it's a shame that Lark's viewpoint is the only one we have of her world, since that means we can't help but share her disgust and bewilderment with Arlene's behaviour. Lark's growing detachment from her mother means that we lost touch with Arlene too — and perhaps that Sullivan did as well.

Another Minnesotaen-goes-Californian transformation that doesn't work is that of Betty's husband, Stan, probably because we didn't get to see it unfold. When Stan makes his reappearance in Betty's life, claiming that he's sorry for the way he treated her and professing that he's learned how to think and embraced socialism and charming everyone, well, it was hard not to roll my eyes. I suspect Betty may have been tempted to the the same.

But now I can begin enumerating the things I did like about Gardenias. Betty's transformation is not only utterly believable but satisfying. She does not become the bold and brave and hard-charging person Arlene was, nor does she embrace socialist ideology, but she acquires her own quiet, gentle and irresistible force of will, and even Willie Erhardt doesn't attempt to bully her.

Shirley Olson is another achievement. Shirley is a schoolmate of Lark's, and though they aren't friends and don't even like each other she attaches herself to Lark's family. We never learn much about Shirley's homelife other than it seems to be dreadful — a morass of filth, poverty, and abuse. Shirley's a survivor who will never pass up a chance to grab whatever's in her reach, so she establishes herself as an auxiliary family member in Lark's home, eating whatever she can find, soaking up the kind treatment she gest from Arlene and Betty, playing their piano, and battling Lark for the position of alpha child. Arlene and Betty may feel sorry for Shirley and therefore show her unstinting generosity and unconditional acceptance, but it's Lark who knows, and tells us, how unpleasant Shirley can be. And it is Shirley's presence in the novel that really show us how continued proximity and shared circumstances can build bonds between just about anyone, no matter how incompatible and antagnonistic they are to one another initially. Lark develops famillial relations with her neighbours as well, though fortunately none are so hard to love as Shirley.

And finally Sullivan's biggest accomplishments over the course of both The Cape Ann and Gardenias is her rendering of the genesis of a writer. Lark is a sensitive and observant child (and a narrator similar to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird with her adult-level powers of observation and description and child's sensibilities and behaviour). Lark builds a rich, involved fantasy life out of the elements of her life. The Cape Ann's title refers to the name of the architectural plan Lark and her mother wanted to use for the house they dreamed of building in Harvester. Lark was sure that if she could live in the Cape Ann she'd become the kind of person she wants to be: happy, elegant, talented and self-disciplined, able to twirl batons and stop biting her nails. She also invents stories about a woman she meets on a train and the writer of a letter she finds.

In the first few pages of Gardenias, Lark catches sight of a beautiful, elegantly dressed woman. She becomes infatuated with this woman in the way little girls sometimes are with attractive, older females, and is sure that the woman is a movie star. The woman is indeed a movie actress named Alicia Armand, and over the next few years Lark collects clippings of her idol, sees all her movies, and daydreams of being "discovered" by her. Alicia Armand becomes the first element of her new dream life. Soon to join Alicia and populate an imaginary cabin in the snowy Minnesota woods are the ghosts of Lark's friend Hilly and her Aunt Betty's baby daughter. This dream world of Lark's is her way to escape her own reality and to comfort and amuse herself, but it evolves and takes on its own life and purpose. Lark extracts what confuses and fascinates her from the flotsam and jetsam of life, fantasizes and muses about it, and then in Gardnenias begins to fashion a fictional collage from them, and to write stories in exercise books. These stories are rather odd at times, and have the kind of charming absurdities common to a child's imagination with its limited factual knowledge and worldview, but it's clear that Lark has the vocation and perhaps the talent to become a writer.

Lark, with her writerly ambitons, and with all her mother's resourcefulness and self-reliance and spirit, is such an interesting creation in herself that I am eager to read another novel about her. I can only hope that Sullivan won't make us wait another seventeen years for it.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Caddie Woodlawn and the Dangers of Unexamined Nostalgia

I've been meaning to write a review about the Newbery award-winner for 1936, Caddie Woodlawn, but for some reason I find myself with little to say about the book. My copy of Caddie has lain on my desk for a number of months now, and occasionally I would pick it up and try to begin writing, but never was able to get started.

I read and enjoyed this book as a child without, if I remember correctly, it ever becoming a favourite. I find it still readable, but somehow not satisfying. It seems like such a generic, superficial book somehow. Tomboyish girl gets into episodic adventures with her brothers, chafes against the restrictive social expectations put upon a girl in 1864, and gradually learns to embrace her own, more palatable definition of femininity. Along the way all the sturdiest of virtues are espoused: honesty, courage, kindness, initiative, loyalty, cheerfulness, industry, generosity, and of course the inevitable American boosterism that seems to have been de rigueur for at least the early Newbery books.

That the book should seem so two-dimensional is surprising and disappointing given that the book is based upon Carol Ryrie Brink's grandmother's recollections of her Wisconsin pioneer childhood in the 1860s, with some additions and inventions. In the author's note at the beginning of the book, Ryrie Brink tells us the real Caddie was still alive at the time of its writing and provided details and verification, and further that her grandmother was pleased with the book and thought it portrayed her family members exactly as they were. I so hate to take a stance against the real Caddie's view of her childhood (what makes me think I know better than someone who was there?) but I just can't buy it. Were things ever this simple and straightforward for anyone at any time?

That's not to say this book is as irritatingly and absurdly idyllic as the 1939 Newbery medalist, Thimble Summer. The setting seems reasonably authentic. There are references to ample but monotonous food, limited reading materials, plain clothing, hard work, the dangers of prairie fires and rattlesnakes, and explanations of cultural differences, such as how birthdays weren't celebrated in the way that contemporary children would expect. But Ryrie Brink determinedly presents only a cheerful, tidy, picture of her grandmother's childhood, and seemingly has no interest in cracking the fond, nostalgic coating her grandmother's memories probably acquired over the years of her long life in order to see what lay beneath.

For instance, there's Caddie's effort to help some of her schoolmates, the Hankinson children. Mr. Hankinson, a white pioneer, had married an Indian woman due to the dearth of eligible white women in the early days of the area's settlement. Some years and three children later, Mr. Hankinson's shame of his wife grew to the point where he ordered her to depart from the area when the members of her native community did, leaving their three devastated little boys behind with him. Caddie feels she must help Sammie, Gus and Pete, and she takes them down to the general store, where she spends an entire, long-hoarded silver dollar on candy, tops, combs and handkerchiefs for the boys. It's a heartbreaking story, and a kind, generous gesture on Caddie's part, but there is simply no recognition that no amount of candy or trinkets can possibly compensate those three little boys for the loss of their loving mother. Caddie announces triumphantly that she has driven “that awful lonesome look out of their eyes”, and the Hankinson boys are simply never mentioned again, as though they are a problem neatly resolved and dismissed.

The portrayal of the native people and their relations with the settlers is an area Ryrie Brink chose to present in a flat and stereotypically racist way, relying on her grandmother's stories and the stock Indian renderings of her own day. The three Hankinson boys are described as “half-savage”. The native Americans in the book speak the pidgin English straight out of the early Westerns. Caddie's friend among the Indians (of course there's no identification of the specific tribe these native people belong to), “Indian John”, says to Caddie, “John he go 'way. John's people go 'way, John's dog no can walk. John go far, far. Him dog no can go far. You keep?”. I half-expected him to drop a “Kemo Sabe” somewhere in there. To be fair, the Irish characters in the book seem to begin most sentences by exclaiming, “Faith!” and are invariably the hired help. Ryrie Brink's characterizations may stem less from racist attitudes than from lazy, unthinking and unresearched writing.

There is a "massacre scare" in Caddie Woodlawn and any tensions between the white settlers and native people are explained away as being entirely the fault of some ignorant and fearful settlers. Of course there's no mention of the governmental mistreatment of the native people or the westward wave of settlers who commandeered the land and left the natives with no place to live. In Caddie's world, good, tolerant white people and gentle, peace-loving Indians can work the matter out between them. The situation is resolved by Caddie's courage, a handshake between Indian John and Mr. Woodlawn... and the native people's convenient decampment for an unspecified destination.

I'm in no way knowledgeable about native American culture or historical perspectives and so cannot really provide a proper analysis of the ways Caddie Woodlawn. Debbie Reese, of the web site American Indians in Children's Literature, has some interesting comments about the portrayal of the native Americans in the book. It seems she has been unable to substantiate the existence of any actual "scalp belts" among the American Indians, so the passages involving "Indian John's" giving his scalp belt into Caddie's keeping and the Woodlawn children's showing of it to the neighbourhood children would all have been invented by Ryrie Brink.

Then there's the handling of Mr. Woodlawn's account of his deprived English childhood. Caddie's father tells the children, "Whatever happens I want you to think of yourselves as young Americans, and I want you to be proud of that. It is difficult to tell you about England, because there all men are not free to pursue their own lives in their own ways. Some men live like princes, while other men must beg for the very crusts that keep them alive." I'm at a loss to understand how Mr. Woodlawn could possibly have thought men were any freer in America than in England, or how he could consider there were no comparable extremes in the standard of living among U.S. citizens, but its accepted as fact by the young Woodlawns and, apparently, by Ryrie Brink.

When I first found out that there was a sequel to Caddie Woodlawn entitled Magical Melons, I promptly borrowed it from the Toronto Public Library. But it was not what I would have considered a "sequel" — a book that followed Caddie through adolescence and possibly to young adulthood — but rather further episodes from the same period of Caddie's life. In a way, Ryrie Brink may never have got beyond being the credulous child listening to stories at her grandmother's knee. My guess is that she has not researched or explored her subject matter in any substantial or meaningful way, but instead accepted her grandmother's anecdotes at face value and contented herself with shaping the stories into fiction by adding material pulled from the prevailing beliefs and attitudes of the early twentieth century. And if this were the case, she could not allow Caddie to grow beyond the age of eleven either, because her work would never have the substance to satisfy older readers.

The (Indiana, U.S.) Allen County Public Library site has a listing of Newbery winners, which they have very sensibly ranked in order of how enjoyable they are to read. They ranked Caddie Woodlawn in fifty-ninth place (out of 87) and added the comment, "The 'adventures' of a pioneer girl that leaves modern-day readers wondering 'so?'"

Had I not felt compelled to expand my opinion of Caddie until it reached a word count that would qualify it to be considered a review, I might have said something similar and left it at that.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Sarah, Plain and Tall, and a Novel, Short and Sweet

Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, the Newbery Medal winner for 1986, is set on a nineteenth-century prairie farm. Anna (who narrates the novel), her little brother Caleb, and their widowed father have advertised in the Eastern newspapers for a mail order stepmother and bride. They receive a letter of inquiry from a Sarah Wheatman, of Maine. Sarah has formerly kept house for her bachelor brother, who is a fisherman, but now that he is getting married Sarah feels she must make new living arrangements. The next spring Sarah arrives on Anna’s father’s farm to look over the situation and decide if she is willing to make her home with them. Anna, Caleb and their father are very taken with Sarah and hope that she will stay.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is a little story – just 58 pages long - about the delicate business of building a family. It reminded me of nothing so much as a courtship, and really that is what courtship is – the forging a new family out of strangers. And the process will be familiar to anyone who has ever courted either a new family member or a romantic partner: the sensitive explorations of each other, the wondering and guessing as to what the other party is thinking and feeling, and as security and confidence in each other grows, the beginnings of an independence within the context of the new bonds.

So Anna’s little family pores over Sarah’s letters, awaits her coming eagerly, and examines her every expression and action for signs that she is happy with them and will agree to marry Anna’s and Caleb’s father and stay on their farm. The tension caused by Sarah's insistence on driving into town by herself for a day is palpable.

I found it more than a little odd that although Sarah is quite explicit about her own need for a new home and her capacity for hard work, there is no corresponding recognition of the sheer practical necessity of a housekeeper for Anna’s family, nor any mention of how they have been managing without one. Anna’s age is not mentioned, but in the cover illustration she appears to be only twelve or so. Caleb’s age isn’t mentioned either, but he is old enough to read Sarah’s letters without help. Their mother died the day after Caleb was born, and it would have been impossible for nineteenth-century farmer to manage the housekeeping and care of a newborn and a little girl plus his farmwork. In those days, doing the week's laundry alone was a full day’s backbreaking work. And even though Anna might be old enough during the timeframe of the novel to bake bread and make stew and wash the dishes, I doubt that she and her little brother and father could manage all the housework between them and still be able to attend school as she and Caleb do. MacLachlan makes no provision for any of these matters. There’s no mention of the housekeepers Anna’s father surely must have had to hire, or of any help from neighbours. Instead Anna’s family’s only concern is whether Sarah sings, and whether she will like them enough to stay. When Sarah does come she seems to spend most of her days picking flowers, sliding down the haystack, singing, and teaching the children to swim in the cow pond. What work she does do is outdoor work such as fixing the roof or helping in the barn, and when a neighbour tells her she must have a garden, she only mentions growing flowers. It’s all very idyllic, but I kept thinking the family was in for a shock when the honeymoon was over, or even when fall arrived and they have no preserving or sewing done for the winter.

MacLachlan does do very well at conveying to us the sheer novelty Sarah has for Anna's family. Anna and Caleb – and probably their father - have lived lives more limited than any present-day North American can really understand. They would know little of the larger world. The only people they would ever meet would be their neighbours who, culturally and economically speaking, were just like them. They probably had very few books and newspapers, and were educated in a one-room schoolhouse. Caleb’s only knowledge of what having a mother would be like comes from Anna’s often-told stories of their mother. Any woman who travelled even a few hundred miles to live with them would seem exotic. And so Sarah, a plain and plainspoken woman from Maine, is something strange and wonderful, with her yellow sunbonnet, her ability to draw and swim, her new songs, her habit of drying flowers, and her regional idiom. But at the same time, that's love for you, as anyone who has ever watched a friend fall madly in love with someone completely unremarkable will recognize.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is really a novel about the beginnings of love, and love’s ability to glorify the ordinary and make one content with the losses a new life entails. Sarah misses the sea, and her brother, and the three aunts she left behind in Maine. A neighbour and fellow mail-order bride tells Sarah, “There are always things to miss. No matter where you are.” And, recognizing this, Sarah makes her decision of whether to stay or to go on the basis of what she loves, and will miss, the most.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Johnny Tremain and the Irresistible Drumbeat of War

The Newbery medallist for 1944, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, is a historical novel about a young apprentice silversmith and is set in a Boston on the eve of the American Revolution. Forbes’ biography Paul Revere and the World He Lived In had won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for history, and well, way to make the most of your obviously thorough research, Ms. Forbes.

At 14, the orphaned Johnny Tremain is a self-assured and driven boy. Before his mother died, she managed to teach him to read and write, arrange for his apprenticeship with a Mr. Lapham, silversmith, and also give him a silver cup with the Lyte family crest, telling him that if he were ever in dire straits to go to the Lytes for help.

Mr. Lapham was once a fine craftsman, but is becoming too feeble and too interested in preparing to meet his Maker to really be in effective charge of his workshop. The other two apprentices besides Johnny don’t really have the ability for, or interest in, their work. Johnny, therefore, has all the insufferable cockiness of a kid who is economically invaluable and more able than everyone around him and knows it. Mr. Lapham’s widowed daughter-in-law has proposed that Johnny will eventually marry one of her four daughters in order to keep the shop in the family, and Johnny has no objection to marrying the third daughter, Cilla, who is clever, companionable, and his own age. Thus provided with insurance, skills, the opportunity to do work he loves, and the prospect of a bride and the ownership of an established business, Johnny is in a fair way to do well in life.

Then comes a tragic accident, and Johnny, who can no longer hope to be a silversmith, has nothing left but his pride and drive, and little food for either them or himself. The Laphams consider him a useless burden, and when he appeals to the Lytes, they accuse him of being a thief. After a long period of near despair and casting about for some worthwhile work that he can do, he does find some work as messenger and delivery boy for a newspaper. He learns to ride on a very difficult horse. He finds a friend in the newspaper’s typesetter Rab Silsbee, whom he looks up to and loves like a brother in a way only possible for those who don’t have any actual brothers, but more importantly, he finds a cause – the American Revolution.

This book – and the fact that I just previously reread L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside - got me thinking about the depiction of war in fiction. Doris Lessing, in her CBC Massey lecture “When in the Future They Look Back on Us” (as printed in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside), wrote:

In my time I have sat through many many hours listening to people talking about the war, the prevention of war, the awfulness of war, with it never once being mentioned that for large numbers of people the idea of war is exciting, and that when a war is over they may say it was the best time in their lives…. People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first secret, unacknowledged, elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is beating… an awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad. Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it.

Neither Forbes nor Montgomery shut their eyes to the excitement war generates. The stirring drumbeat of war is strong in both books. In Rilla of Ingleside, the little Glen community is energized and mobilized by the war. The characters in Rilla would have described themselves as primarily motivated by patriotism and duty, but they repeatedly marvel at their transformation from a people only interested in the gossip of their village to armchair military strategists. They work tirelessly and enthusiastically to “save and serve” by knitting socks, cutting back on sugar, and fundraising, and as Germany and Austria sue for peace near the end of the novel, one character wonders “if things won’t seem a little flat and insipid when peace really comes”.

In Johnny Tremain we find descriptions like “[a]ll over Boston was a feeling of excitement”, of men looking radiant and elated at the prospect of a fight, and of cheering crowds at the Boston Tea Party. But Forbes’ concept of war is far more nuanced and complex than L.M. Montgomery’s.

L.M. Montgomery, despite being an intelligent and well-read woman, was no less susceptible to propaganda than many people much less so and was sincerely convinced that World War I was a holy war. Again and again her characters describe themselves as fighting for an “idea” and against evil, to keep Canada safe and free from invaders, for a new world. They honestly believed that the Germans bayoneted babies and that Kitchener was some sort of military genius. The one man in their village who is anti-war and pacifist is also generally ignorant and a comic valentine, and is much persecuted. So many of these beliefs were so ridiculous, and even laughable, and it’s very telling that Montgomery never tells us what this “idea” is. We now know that WWI, far from being a righteous war, was simply a case of one imperialistic country picking a fight with another imperialistic country, and then a number of other countries jumping quite heedlessly into the fray. The Germans never had any notion of invading Canada, and never bayoneted babies. The pig-headed and inept Kitchener, who sent out many regiments of cavalry against tanks and was probably answerable for more Allied deaths than any single German officer, should have been court-martialled, not revered. And as for the new world, well, if it were ever in the offing it’s been very slow to arrive.

Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain isn’t anti-war. I doubt Forbes could have even got away with such a strain in her novel given that she wrote and published it during World War II. But being the historian she was, and writing from a distance of over 150 years (Rilla of Ingleside was published in 1920), and probably being of a less romantic, idealistic cast of mind, Forbes achieved a least some of the balance and perspective Montgomery totally lacked.

Johnny is fired up by the speechmaking of revolutionary groups and believes, rightly or wrongly, that he is fighting for freedom, so that “a man can stand up”. It’s a seemingly inevitable part of the American creed to believe this in every struggle, to the point where in a movie such as Independence Day there’s a lot of rhetoric about American freedom and independence and the characters seem to be idiotically blind and deaf to the fact that real issue seems to be one of mere survival for the entire human race. Johnny believes that he must join in the Revolution so that a man may stand up. Of course the issue of freedom for the slaves in the United States is not addressed – it would have thrown a significant curve into the fine sounding talk of freedom. And in fairness to Forbes, it’s only realistic that she should depict the American Revolutionaries this way. I do question whether it was really necessary for the Americans to battle the British for independence given that Canada and Australia have become autonomous without bloodshed, but never mind. Not every novel needs to address every moral question. And then too, sometimes, as Doris Lessing points out, we do need to acknowledge the attraction and benefits of war has for us if we’re ever to learn how to avoid it more often.

So perhaps it’s enough that Johnny may find his redemption in and be a believer in the Revolution, but is not a true believer. He gets to know some of the British officers and can’t help admiring and respecting some of them, and he’s all too miserably aware of the fact that though he himself is only a generation removed from England, that most Revolutionary-era Americans and the British are one people ethnically, and that though individually the British soldiers will be kind and decent to him, collectively they are his sworn enemies. He hears a street fight outside the door of the print shop where he works, and though he doesn’t lift a finger to help, he is sickened by the sounds of a number of Whigs beating a Tory who bravely tried to prevent them from attaching a placard to his shop. He is heartsick at the sight of both British and American wounded. Forbes does point out that the American newspapers were allowed to print whatever they wanted until the outbreak of war and that the tea tax amounted to very little, and she is honest about the twisted morality and human costs of war.

Johnny Tremain is excellent both in terms of being an adventure novel and one which traces the development and coming of age of a young boy, and it acknowledges both the bad and good things that can come of war and crippling injuries and a best friend’s attentions to a girlfriend formerly taken for granted. And I have to concede that’s probably enough ground for one book to cover.