Banned Books Week 2021, 2nd day

I realize yesterday was Sunday, and perhaps your local library wasn’t open, so you couldn’t get your library card. But today’s Monday! You can still get one.

Or perhaps you have one already? Excellent. We can continue.

Today, I take you to the American Library Association’s website, which is loaded with information about Banned Books Week. The ALA, established in 1876, has the stated goal of enabling “librarians to do their present work more easily and at less expense.” Hmmm. I wonder what a 19th century librarian’s expenses were?

Among other things, the ALA funds grants and scholarships, holds conferences, and advocates for local, state-wide, and national support of libraries. Also, it helps promote Banned Books Week through its Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF).

If you’re into lists, click on the website’s link for the “Top 10 Challenged Books”, where you’ll find the list of the top-ten banned books for the last 20 years.

Infographic courtesy ALA

I’ve read five of the books on the 2020 top-ten list, so for today’s post I’ve chosen one of them: #5, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), a funny, sad, truly wonderful book about life for a Native American teenager who decides to attend high school off-reservation. Junior, the protagonist, tells his story as he deals with what every teenager faces: acceptance, self-understanding, sex, family, friendship. If you haven’t read it, you should.

Tracking the evolution of the challenges and bans the novel has faced since its publication is like tracking anger-points in 21st century US history. It first appeared on the ALA top-ten list in 2010, because of “offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence”. In 2011, “religious viewpoint” replaced “sex education”, but then disappeared in the 2012 reasons for the book’s challenges (“offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group”). Most of the same reasons appeared in 2013, but in 2014 the reasons ballooned: “anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: ‘depictions of bullying'”. “Cultural insensitivity”? Whose culture was offended? Alexie, a Native American, based much of the novel on his own experiences growing up in Spokane. Also, why is it bad to depict bullying?

In 2015 and 2016, the book didn’t make the top ten, but in 2017, something interesting happened. Whoever wrote the “reasons” for each book’s appearance on the list that year must have been in a mood. Here’s what they wrote for Alexie’s book: “Consistently challenged since its publication in 2007 for acknowledging issues such as poverty, alcoholism, and sexuality, this National Book Award winner was challenged in school curriculums because of profanity and situations that were deemed sexually explicit.” Read the 2017 list carefully — each banned book had won a prize or been a best-seller or was in some other way note-worthy. It’s as if that year’s list editor had had enough of this stupid idea that readers need to be protected from unpleasant topics.

In 2018, the list goes back to status quo ante, Alexie doesn’t make the list in 2019, and then in 2020: “Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author” [my emphasis].

Yep. It’s official. Cancel culture is now a “reason” for book challenges on the ALA list. I have no comment on the allegations against Alexie. I just want to point out that banning a book because of its author’s reprehensible behavior would erase a great number of classics: Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T S Eliot, Oscar Wilde (I’m trying to think of a woman writer to add to this list, but no luck — wait, Laura Ingalls Wilder).

Here’s an interesting op-ed about this very issue from the Chicago Tribune (Sandra Beasley, 14 May 2018).

Apologies. I went on much longer than I expected. Fortunately, that’s it for today. Join me tomorrow for another website and another banned book. With luck, it will also be a shorter post.

TAKE A RISK — READ A BOOK!

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Banned Books Week 2021, 1st day

Autumn begins, days are shorter, nights are cooler, and Banned Books Week begins.

As promised, this week I’ll provide a daily link to the websites of an organizations involved in bringing attention to censorship.

Image courtesy BannedBooksWeek.org

Today, let me introduce you to the Banned Books Week Coalition (BBWC), a group dedicated to defending the right to read. If you want to know what Banned Books Week is all about, or why it was started, this website is an excellent place to begin. Videos, event announcements, resources for holding your own event — all these and more can be found at the BBWC website.

So, and this is just for fun, here’s a scavenger hunt for you. 1. Under “About”, find the list of BBW Coalition members.

2. Under “Resources”, find the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund posters and “shelftalkers” (and learn a new term in the process).

3. Under “Latest News”, locate the link to Gene Luen Yang’s upcoming 28 September conversation about comics, and the link to the ALA’s “Dear Banned Author” campaign. Which author would you write to?

The “Dear Banned Author” letter I would want to write goes to Mark Twain, for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There are plenty of problems with that novel, but it still stands as one of the great works of 19th century literature. Funny story — when Twain learned that his book had been banned, he was pleased, for he knew it meant more people would buy the book, to see what all the fuss was about. A perfect example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

NYPL reader since 1976!

And a wee reminder: September is Library Card Sign Up Month. It isn’t too late to get yours. I’ve had one for ages, although this latest plastic version is much longer-lasting than the flimsy paper ones of the past.

Support art!

Support your local libraries!

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Autumnal rites

It’s time I rejoined this yearly week of celebrating good books that raise hackles.

I’ll be doing things a bit differently this year, each day featuring a website and then a quick look at a favorite banned book.

I hope I can provide you with useful info and inspire you to READ DANGEROUSLY!

Posted in Am reading, Banned/Challenged Books | 4 Comments

Numbers

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick (1968)

Here’s a question:

If I pick up Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), will I discover that their impact has diminished because those particular years have come and gone without the suggested future coming to pass?

Yes, yes, I realize: FICTION. But still. The authors gave us handles, something to dread, and it’s difficult to let go.

And of course I realize also METAPHOR. I say: Those years from the 20th and 21st centuries resonate in ways I can’t ignore. Rarely do random numbers hold such meaning.

Cover, first hardback edition

I’ve just finished Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (hereinafter DADES), which specifies a date: Rick Deckard kills 6 android escapees on January 3, 2021. When I saw that, I couldn’t help thinking, Damn! why didn’t I start this book 9 months ago? (Not to mention, what took me so long to read it in the first place?) But also, I’m relieved to find another dystopian vision has failed to come true.

For anyone who has never seen Blade Runner, DADES takes place in a dystopian world ruined by nuclear war and ecological devastation. The manufacture of androids is big-business, especially given how useful the “andys” are for off-earth colonies. Andys are essentially slaves, designed with minimal emotive faculties and short life-spans; they have visible gender but humans referred to them as “it”. They are things, not humans. They feel no loyalty for other andys, no sense of awe for any form of life, yet they fully understand their own situation as the property of humans and thus desire freedom.

Occasionally, andys escape enslavement and when they reach earth, they must be “retired”. Which is to say, a bounty hunter earns $1000 for each android he destroys. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter. No one in Deckard’s world makes clear why it is necessary to destroy the androids who escape Mars/enslavement. It’s possible to argue that any who have reached earth must have killed humans in order to escape, but once they arrive here, they’re mostly harmless. An accomplished opera singer is one of Deckard’s androids, and he doesn’t understand why she — “it”, he would correct me — had to be killed. “Retired” is the proper term, Deckard would point out. It’s impossible to kill something that isn’t actually living.

Two essential elements of the novel are missing from the movie, and they’re worth discussing here. One is the need humans feel to own and care for animals. The need is so great, there are companies that supply robots, “electric” animals that must be fed, groomed, taken to “vets”, etc. Deckard and his wife have an electric sheep. There are electric ostriches, toads, horses, along with dogs, cats, parakeets and goats. Living animals are so rare, there’s a weekly blue-book publication listing animals by species, latest sale price, and extinction status. At one point, Deckard buys a living goat, paying $3000 down with 36 additional payments of $500 per month, and that’s a bargain. It’s more than he can afford, but his need is too great. His sheep no longer satisfies.

And then there’s Mercerism. The religion of Dick’s dystopia, Mercerism’s inspirational leader (Wilbur Mercer) helps humans share empathic responses and modulate extreme emotions. It’s all very strange, with empathy boxes that take characters into a virtual world, and mood control machines that run from 0 to the high triple digits. It’s no surprise that people inhabiting Dick’s sunless and nearly lifeless Earth are in a perpetual funk and need help cheering themselves up. Electric pets can do only so much for a person. But why would they need a machine to de-escalate elation? I should think a glance out a window, or the daily cleanup of radioactive dust, would dampen any high spirits.

Turns out, though, that those resonant years (1984, 2001, 2021) are red herrings, not count-down clocks. I ought to let them go. What Dick foretold in DADES is this issue of drawing the line between human and android, a theme that the screenplay retains and that we’re still wrestling with all these years later. As we cede more control of our lives to AI, are we constructing individual dystopias where we need help empathizing with other humans? In building androids, are we simply creating a species we can consider non-human and thus suitable for enslavement? Or are we possibly creating a species we’ll eventually merge with?

In a well-known talk given in 1972, Dick wondered why much of his fiction up to then featured

… artificial constructs masquerading as humans. Usually with a sinister purpose in mind. I suppose I took it for granted that if such a construct, a robot for example, had a benign or anyhow decent purpose in mind, it would not need to so disguise itself. Now, to me, that theme seems obsolete. The constructs do not mimic humans; they are, in many deep ways, actually human already. They are not trying to fool us, for a purpose of any sort; they merely follow lines we follow, in order that they, too, may overcome such common problems as the breakdown of vital parts, loss of power source, attack by such foes as storms, short circuits….

P K Dick, “The Android and the Human“, 1972

And later:

… what is it, in our behavior, that we can call specifically human? That is special to us as a living species? And what is it that, at least up to now, we can consign as merely machine behavior, or, by extension, insect behavior, or reflex behavior?

Philip K. Dick isn’t merely asking “what makes androids human?” He also wants to know what might make humans robot-like? Deckard’s job is to destroy androids. When he shoots one, it doesn’t dissolve into a pile of wires and metal. There’s blood and guts. The only way to know the retired being is not human is through bone marrow analysis. When Deckard reminds himself to objectify each andy he kills — to refer to each as “it” — how much of his humanity does he give up? Dick argues that a human becomes an android when she is “pounded down, manipulated, made into a means without [her] knowledge or consent”. Or perhaps with her knowledge and consent? Deckard consented to being a bounty killer.

Ironically, Dick finds hope in reckless youth who can’t be controlled — the kid who “rebels not out of theoretical, ideological considerations, only out of what might be called pure selfishness.”

Mick Stevens, © The New Yorker Magazine, 1983

I have to laugh. Of course! If Dick is right, selfishness, the most human characteristic, is the one that will save us. If we’re lucky, we’ll always have young people flouting rules and laws, acting unpredictably, and teaching AI that it’ll never be the boss. I think I’ll sleep better at night now.

Posted in Dystopia, RIP, Science fiction | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Modern Tempests

As I prep for Witch Week 2021, for which my co-host (Calmgrove) and I have chosen The Tempest as our Read-Along, I’ve been working my way through some of the modern works that are either inspired by or adaptations of Shakespeare’s late play. These include an episode from the third season of Star Trek, a short story by Isak Dinesen, Julie Taymor’s 2010 film of the play, and the two modern novels discussed here. I’ve sampled but a small number of the works available, each focusing on one or two themes or elements from the play. Yet the little I’ve read and watched has given me insight into Shakespeare’s work.

First up is Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a 2016 addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series of modern adaptations. Atwood’s lonely island is a small town in Ontario where the hero, Felix Phillips, teaches a theater class to inmates at the local prison. He decides to direct his students in a production of The Tempest. Of course, Felix himself, ousted from the directorship of a Shakespeare festival by a conniving assistant, plays Prospero in his students’ production — while offstage Felix’s own life mirrors Prospero’s as he seeks revenge on those who ousted him.

In the discussions Felix has with his students, as well as with the professional actress who takes on the role of Miranda, Atwood gives us her take on some of the critical scenes in The Tempest — Prospero’s revenge, Miranda’s and Ferdinand’s love affair, Ariel’s scurrying about to win his freedom, and so on. One interesting idea that Atwood-as-Felix presents is the high number of prisons to be found in the play. For one assignment, the students create a list, and some surprising entries appear: the muddy pond that Trinculo and Stefano get stuck in; the madness that overtakes Alonso and the others; even the leaky boat that Prospero and Miranda are forced to sail in. But one prison Felix doesn’t reveal until the students have performed their play — the play itself. Prospero is trapped in his own creation, i.e., his own enchantment. As Felix explains, “He’ll be forced to re-enact his feelings of revenge, over and over. It would be like hell.” Perhaps even just once is a form of hell. Felix understands this well, since his need for revenge created the hell he needed to escape.

The eponymous Caliban, rather than being the hero, gets little attention until the end, when the students, as their final assignment, must explain the afterlives of the characters they played. Caliban’s group posit some options for their character’s future: Life as king of an island with no other inhabitants (rejected). Life as Stefano’s and Trinculo’s show-piece in a cage (rejected). They settle on the somewhat happier ending suggested by Prospero’s line, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

Caliban’s group read this line literally — Prospero is Caliban’s father. As the students explain,

Prospero’s learning that maybe not everything is somebody else’s fault. Plus, he sees that the bad in Caliban is pretty much the same as the bad in him, Prospero. They’re both angry, both name-callers, both full of revenge: they’re joined at the hip. So Prospero [cleans up Caliban and] sets him up as a musician, back in Milan.

This point about Prospero taking responsibility for Caliban ties in with something Mary Stewart brings up in her 1964 novel set in Corfu, This Rough Magic. The title comes from Prospero’s speech, when he closes his career as a magician: “But this rough magic/I here abjure” (V, i, 50-51). The “rough magic” in Stewart’s novel seems to be the theater, so we have another instance of a theatrical theme (if not setting).

The Prospero in Stewart’s novel, Sir Julian Gale, is in self-exile on Corfu with his son and a couple of local men to help with errands and chores. Sir Julian is a retired actor, whose final role before he abandoned the stage was Prospero. So, as with Atwood’s novel, there are opportunities for the-play-within-the-play trope, doubled over. Yet Stewart avoids that. The overlaps with The Tempest are occasional (a spy provides the treasonous MacGuffin, a cave hides an important clue, chapters are headed with quotes from the play), but the plot is typical Stewart: a young woman away from home runs across trouble and falls in love. Lucy Waring, visiting her sister in Corfu, gets caught up in espionage (with a villain who could rival Eric Ambler’s master spy, Dimitrios Makropoulos), and it all starts innocently with a friendly dolphin.

“Wait, what?” you say. “What’s a dolphin got to do with espionage or treason?” Well, actually nothing, except that its presence might attract curious crowds, which the villain doesn’t want. So he tries to shoot the innocent ocean-going mammal, Lucy gets outraged, and it all escalates from there.

But back to the point I wanted to make earlier. Early in the story, Sir Julian explains why he thinks Corfu is Prospero’s isle. It’s position, geography, and weather all support this idea. When challenged, Sir Julian digs deeper:

“I started at the wrong end. I should have begun not with the ‘facts,’ but with the play–the play’s kingpin, Prospero. To my mind, the conception of his character is the most remarkable thing about the play; his use as a sort of summing up of Shakespeare’s essay on human power. Look at the way he’s presented: a father figure, a magician in control of natural forces like the winds and the sea, a sort of benevolent and supernatural Machiavelli who controls the island and all who are in it.”

Nevermind that Sir Julian is noting a semblance between Prospero and St. Spyridon (“Spridion” in Stewart’s version), Corfu’s patron saint. What struck me here is the idea of “human power”. How do we get it? How do we use it? A director in the theater — whether fictional (like Felix) or real — has power over the world of the play. Costumes, setting, lighting, music, movement of actors, even the shape of the play itself (which lines are cut, for instance). It’s a tremendous amount of power, even if only in a small, limited world. But the question still stands — how do we use the power we’re given?

Felix uses his power to build a hell for himself. Not a wise choice, but at least he finds a way out. Sir Julian eventually returns to acting — but never to play Prospero again. Trinculo is more appropriate, he decides. Lucy, of course, wins her love, and the spy is suitably punished.

Prospero, however, still leaves me suspicious of his intentions. Sure, he gives his daughter a man to love, but isn’t it a bit too much of a coincidence that this man is the son of the king of Naples? What better revenge on your enemy than to make his son fall in love with your daughter?

BTW, I hadn’t planned on participating, but I’ve realized that This Rough Magic is a suspense novel, which means I can include myself in the RIP [Readers Imbibing Peril] XVI challenge. Hooray!

@perilreaders

Posted in Adventure, Mystery, RIP, Shakespeare, Witch Week | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Which Week Witch Week

Not long now until Witch Week 2021 comes to haunt us.

“What the boys did to the cow” (1908, Image No. 1587798, NYPL collections)

An event first begun by Lory Hess at The Emerald City Book Review (she now blogs at Entering the Enchanted Castle), Witch Week is an annual series of guest posts that I co-host with Chris of Calmgrove. Chris’s blog is where you’ll find the event this year, with guest bloggers from around the world. Literally. (And that’s a literal ‘literally’, rather than a figurative one.)

Our theme, TREASON and PLOT, takes its cue from Guy Fawkes’ Day, the last day of Witch Week, the 5th of November. That was the day Guy Fawkes and his treasonous crew planned in 1603 to blow up Parliament with all who were in it, including King James I. Thus bonfire night, and Diana Wynne Jones’ Witch Week, and this annual celebration of fantasy and witchy deeds that runs 31st October to 6th November.

Our read-along for this year is The Tempest. So dust off your Collected Works of Shakespeare and get ready to join us in what promises to be a fantastical exploration of wicked doings among the goblins, spirits and humans on an isolated island somewhere off the coast of Italy.

Oh, remember, remember, the fifth of November
Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Halloween, Mystery, Shakespeare, Witch Week | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Mythbusting: Part II

In my last post, I looked behind the curtain to bust the myth of the mid-19th-century “independent pioneer” during the western expansion of the US. Today I uncover the myth of the lonely autobiographer, who delves deep into memories to provide historical insight for us mere readers. All thanks to Caroline Fraser’s book, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I was young, no more than about 9 or 10, when I first read Wilder’s Little House series, and I can remember loving every book, finding it easy to imagine what Laura’s childhood had been like. Call this my unsophisticated phase as a reader. I never doubted the truth value of any sentence, never wondered how the events of nearly every book fell neatly and conveniently into a single year, never suspected Laura of wanting or needing help while creating the series. After all, who could have helped her write about her own life?

[I pause here to note the irony of how these two myths — the independent pioneer and the lonely writer — are essentially the same.]

I can happily say that, in various readings over the next 40 years or so, I began to recognize how Laura crafted dozens of memories into novels with dramatic highs and lows. In Farmer Boy, based on stories her husband had shared with her, Laura plotted events that no doubt occurred over several years into a neat coming-of-age tale. So what if Almanzo’s milk-fed pumpkin hadn’t won first prize at the state fair in the same year that he trained his own pair of oxen to pull logs through deep snow? Each of the episodes show the boy learning an important lesson such as honesty or perseverance, loyalty or patriotism. These lessons help us understand him as an adult trying to prosper on the prairie, making the novel fit neatly into the larger portrait of an era.

Rose Wilder Lane

Then bigger cracks started to appear. I can remember learning in the early 2000s that Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane (herself a journalist and author) had provided initial encouragement — the necessary prod to do something with the pages of notes Laura had written after her father’s death. Laura’s “autobiography”, written on yellow tablet paper, was published just a few years ago, complete with scholarly annotations, maps, photographs, a 9-page bibliography, and a 20-page index. Careful reading shows a much closer link between Laura as author and Rose as editor, but I was caught up in the maps and photos and let this other detail slide by.

But now Fraser has forced the cracks wide open in Prairie Fires, showing the extent to which Rose went beyond encouragement, very likely writing (by my very rough estimate) at least as much as 40% of each book.*

There are two things about this that make me sad. One is that Laura, whom I had long admired as a great writer, needed help from her daughter — not just the encouragement of “Oooh, that’s good” or “I want to know more about how you ….”, but everything from shaping plots and adding dramatic elements to correcting her spelling and punctuation. Here’s an example: that death-defying ride that Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland made, in The Long Winter, to find wheat for the starving residents of De Smet. Laura’s original version has the two young men returning well ahead of the next blizzard, but in the novel, the night and blinding snow crash down just as they spot a light in the distance, arriving safely back in De Smet only by sheer luck and determination. That’s Rose’s doing.

Rose preferred a “cracking yarn,” and she provided these throughout. Knowing the truth about Almanzo’s and Cap’s search for the wheat lessens neither their bravery, nor the desperate hunger of the townspeople. As Picasso wrote, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” But my admiration for Laura’s skills as a writer is lessened. She wanted to honor her parents in her autobiography, but no publisher would take her work until Rose had added drama and, I hate to say it, emotion. The Pa in Laura’s autobiography is recognizable, but only in the books, after Rose has put her oar in, does he become the restless man who wants to keep moving westward. According to Fraser, Rose suggested adding the lyrics of Pa’s many songs, and these are as much a part of the scenery as the open skies and prairie grasses. I can’t imagine the books without them.

The second matter is more distressing, and I suppose this is because I hate learning that people I admire hold beliefs that I find despicable. Rose Wilder Lane, early libertarian and acolyte of Ayn Rand, used her mother’s books to promulgate her own political beliefs, and Laura didn’t mind at all. Fraser doesn’t make clear how much Rose may have influenced her mother’s own politics, but it is clear that Laura and Rose convinced themselves that the Ingalls and Wilder families had made it “on their own”.

Knowing Laura’s and Rose’s libertarian leanings has given me something new to note as I reread the series. Certain scenes are now uncomfortable to read, with Rose’s political agenda front and center, for anyone paying attention. In Farmer Boy, after an Independence Day celebration, Almanzo asks his father how farmers could have made the US, when everyone knows it was the people who fought during the Revolution. His father explains:

“We fought for Independence, son,” Father said. “But all the land our forefathers had was a strip of country, here between the mountains and the ocean. All the way from here west was Indian country, and Spanish and French and English country. It was farmers that took all that country and made it America…. The Spanish were soldiers, and high-and-mighty gentlemen that only wanted gold. And the French were fur-traders, wanting to make quick money. And England was busy fighting wars. But we were farmers, son; we wanted the land. It was farmers that went over the mountains, and cleared the land, and settled it, and farmed it, and hung on to their farms.” (pp. 188-189)

No recognition of the native populations who lived on the land, no recognition of the government’s role in clearing these native populations to make room for the white settlers, no recognition of the trains and forts and schools paid for by federal tax dollars. As Rose typed up her mother’s manuscripts before sending them to the publisher, she tinkered and tweaked and shifted things around. (Fraser reports that Laura’s editor, who didn’t know of Rose’s contributions, was amazed at how good the manuscripts were, claiming that only E. B. White had needed less editing.)

In an Epilogue, Fraser partially answers my concerns: “The books endure. The Little House world belongs to the readers.” And later,

[Laura’s voice] speaks not about policy or politics but about her parents, her sisters, her husband, and her love for them. It speaks of her delight in nature, those glorious moments on untouched open prairies, watching the geese fly overhead.

Laura’s voice, without Rose’s tinkering, is certainly there in the descriptions of the wide-open prairies; the holidays with cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents; the everyday tasks of churning, washing, cleaning, and cooking. Rose added energy, but I think the sweetness is all Laura’s.

__________________________

Judith Thurman, in a 2009 article in The New Yorker, (“Wilder Women”, August 10 & 17, 2009; https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/08/10/wilder-women) refers to a 1993 study by William Holtz, who posits that Rose was Laura’s “ghost writer” (The Ghost in the Little House, University of Missouri Press).

Posted in Autobiography, Historical fiction, History, Memoir | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Mythbusting: Part I

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser, 2017 (NYPL e-book)

I inherited my love of “prairie fiction” from my mother: Willa Cather, O E Rølvaag, Hamline Garland, Sherwood Anderson. Top of the list, of course: Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957). Her Little House series comprises 8 books that cover about 20 years of Laura’s life on the Great Plains of the US, taking her from early childhood in the woods of Wisconsin to her marriage in Dakota Territory. As the crow flies, that’s a distance of just 300 miles, but the Ingalls family covered more than 2000 miles in a looping path that wandered south and north; west, east and then, finally, further west, all in a covered wagon.

When she was 44, Laura began writing columns for Missouri newspapers, about her life as a farm wife (chickens played a large role). It wasn’t until she was in her 60s, though, that her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was published, in 1932. Eleven years later, These Happy Golden Years closed the Little House series, and since then her family — Pa and Ma (Charles and Caroline), Mary, Carrie, and Grace, and her husband Almanzo — have become ideals of courage, strength, faith, loyalty, and love. Personifications of the Pioneer Spirit, models of what it means to be An American. (Read those capitalized words with scare quotes.)

The Ingalls and Wilder families were all of these, and Laura’s childhood no doubt seemed idyllic to her. Living in sparsely populated areas, far from any town, she had little to compare her own situation to. She knew her parents worked hard, but she accepted this as a given. Life required work, and if things went wrong, your only option was to keep going. Being part of a family meant you didn’t have to keep going alone. And, of course, being white in America meant every door you came to was open to you.

But you have to read deep between the lines to understand that Pa and Almanzo were not financially successful. This is what Fraser, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Prairie Fires, does for us. By setting Laura’s life within historical context, we can begin to see how difficult life was for people like her family, despite the open doors. (And please note that I’m not forgetting how much more difficult life was for people of color. During Laura’s childhood, post-Civil War Reconstruction ended, and African Americans throughout the country faced horrors well-documented for anyone wishing to learn more.)

Pioneer Woman Monument, by Bryant Baker, Ponca City, Oklahoma

But back to Pa Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder: It turns out that being a homesteader on the prairie was a pathway to bankruptcy, and part of the reason Pa moved his family so frequently was his inability to make a go of it — whether in Minnesota (On the Banks of Plum Creek), Kansas (Little House on the Prairie), Iowa or back in Minnesota (these horrible years, which included one instance of ducking out of debts by leaving town in the middle of the night, weren’t included in the books).

The Homestead Act of 1862 (read more about this here) lured hundreds of thousands of white farmers into the western territories with promises of cheap or free land, easy farming, and future wealth (few Native American, African American, or Latinx people were allowed to take advantage of the Homestead Act). The Act turns out to have been a triple boondoggle — 1) the huge numbers of settlers led to bad-faith treaties (always broken) with Native Americans, forcing them off their ancestral lands; 2) settlers without financial means went deep into debt to plow and plant their 160 acres, then losing entire crops to hail storms, locusts and drought, and then going deeper into debt to start over; and 3) after the prairie grasses were plowed under, winds began blowing the topsoil away, consequently finishing off anyone without financial means to get through the difficult times. The Long Depression of 1873-1896 (which ruined farmers even in the east; Almanzo’s successful father was forced to move to Minnesota after crop failures) was worsened by a 10-year drought on the plains; 50 years later, the area became the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, which turned entire towns and counties into ghost-areas.

It’s amazing the Ingalls and Wilder families survived at all.

Fraser makes all this clear, in her portrait of Pa Ingalls. Multi-talented (husband and father, farmer, carpenter, churchman and town elder, justice-of-the-peace, etc.), he scraped together a living for his family, and they were never hungry (except for during The Long Winter, when the entire town of De Smet, SD, was cut off from food and fuel for nearly 8 months) and always sheltered. But “scraped” is the apt word. The homestead was never enough to support the needs of his family, and he subsidized the farm income with jobs in town — carpentry and carting for the most part. Laura herself went to work at age 13 or 14, sewing shirts for a dressmaker in De Smet; she began teaching before her 16th birthday. The money she earned helped her family, but also went towards her sister’s tuition at a school for the blind in Iowa. Much later, when she began her journalism career, she did it out of necessity. Even in Missouri, where farming was a bit easier, it was impossible to support a family on what the farm earned.

Crazy Horse Monument, South Dakota

Thus, one myth that Fraser busts in Prairie Fires is that a homesteader, if they work hard enough (there were women homesteaders as well), could succeed and make a life for themselves without help from anyone, including the US government. (Never mind the irony of the US government, having stolen millions of acres from the people already living there, offering it for “free” to anyone who can last 5 years on a claim.) Turns out, you really can’t make it on your own — not as a homesteader on the Great Plains in the 1880s (and probably not anywhere or anytime else). The Great American Individual needed a community — of relatives, friends and neighbors, and the government itself — to survive.

I’ll return to the myth of bootstrapping in Part II of this review, which will also address Fraser’s study of the collaboration between Laura and her daughter Rose as the Little House series was written. Coming to soon to this very blog!

Posted in Biography, History | Tagged , | 5 Comments

So long, hiatus

Dianthus, forget-me-nots, and columbine at Ft Tryon
Park Heather Garden, NYC

Well, she wrote grumpily, I suppose it’s time I added another post to my blog. Let people know I’m still around. Give my brain a bit of a workout …. especially with this new block editor on WP (WHY WHY WHY???????)!

But seriously, after months and months of ignoring this semi-obligation, I’m actually ready to reappear.

So (I’m certain you’re wondering), what have I been doing with myself? Mostly, I’ve been reading. Like a fiend. And, I’m happy to say, mostly books I haven’t read before, some even published within the past 5 years. Here are some highlights:

Barbara Pym, Crampton Hodnet and Some Tame Gazelle. These are two of Pym’s early novels, although CH was published after her death. Funny tales set in small-town mid-20th century England, featuring spinsters and lady’s companions, vicars, dashing young men and women, a few titled folk, citizens of Oxford, and various others. Quite funny, easy, escapist reading. Some have called Pym a “modern Jane Austen”, but her stories remind me more of Miss Read’s novels of village life in post-war England. Because Miss Read’s narrator is a teacher, school children (and the school’s charwoman) play important roles — in Pym, they barely appear as even side-mentions. As well, Miss Read features fewer aristocrats, and many more characters of uncertain means, than do Pym’s novels. Yet what Pym, Read, and Austen have in common is the fine brush work on a “little bit of ivory”.

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi. Others have reviewed this (see Calmgrove’s fine review here), so I’ll keep my comments short. Tough to get into, but absolutely worth the effort. With only a hint of Faerie, this is not at all like her previous work.

Imagine Piranesi, the MC, as a fussy middle-aged man, scrambling through rooms, across vast spaces, up and down innumerable staircases, all to maintain a dwelling he can never leave, where someone keeps leaving messes that he’s getting tired of picking up!

Clarke sets a puzzle, with Piranesi at the center of it. Yet he’s quite the opposite of the minotaur at the center of the labyrinth of Greek myth. (Clarke’s novel inspired me to reread Lawrence Durrell’s The Dark Labyrinth, all of whose characters get pretty much what they deserve).

Parable? Allegory? Object lesson? Mad romp? Probably all of these and more (although the last may be just my bit of fun).

And finally, this year’s stand-out read so far:

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. One of the funniest sci-fi books I’ve ever read, right up there with Doug Adams and Earl Mac Rauch (look him up).

Yu’s narrator/hero (also named Charles Yu, hereinafter referred to as CY) repairs time-travel machines that break down when the drivers try to change the past. According to CY, you can’t change the past because

The universe just doesn’t put up with that. We aren’t important enough. No one is. Even in our own lives. We’re not strong enough, willful enough, skilled enough in chronodiegetic manipulation to be able to just accidentally change the entire course of anything, even ourselves.

What is chronodiegetics? Simple: It’s “a theory of the past tense, a theory of regret… it is fundamentally a theory of limitations.” CY adds, “Life is, to some extent, an extended dialogue with your future self about how exactly you are going to let yourself down over the coming years.” And then,

The Foundational Theory of Chronodiegetics [posits that] within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine.

Note the critical phrase, “within a science fictional universe”. Yet much of what Yu gives us sheds light on the human condition. As CY tells us, “Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward.” It’s that backward look, aka “regret”, that powers our personal time machines. We are all walking chronodiegetic wanna-bes, time-traveling “even when we’re sitting still.”

Looming large in this novel are philosophical and psychological issues: what constitutes our sense of self? how do we cope with loneliness? what role does memory play in how we make choices? CY has to deal with abandonment issues — his father abandoned their family when he was young, and he has recently abandoned his own mother. His closest friend is his time machine’s computer, TAMMY, whose personality has been programmed as “depressed”. (Paging Marvin the paranoid android!) He’s lonely, yet won’t even commit to recognizing TAMMY as someone he needs.

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a “sci-fi reader”, you might be surprised by the layers in this book.

Oh, and now that I’m back to blogging (if one post in nearly 7 months counts as “back to blogging”), perhaps I’ll get back to work on that WIP.

We’ll see.

 

Posted in Am reading, Fantasy, Humorous, Science fiction | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

#WitchWeek2020: The end is nigh!

If you’re reading this, you’ve lived to tell the tale of Witch Week 2020. When you do, make sure it’s a tale with dark corners, collapsed towers, and horrifying specters. Not to mention lots and lots of shadows.

Chris and Lizzie are grateful for the help of everyone who participated:

e-Tinkerbell of eTinkerbell, who, in typical English-teacher fashion, introduced us to a fabulous classic of Italian Gothic/Romantic literature;

Jean of Howling Frog Books, for guiding us on a tour through the world of M R James’ gothic horror stories and for participating so energetically in our read-along discussion;

Kristen of We Be Reading, who drew our attention to a modern gothic masterpiece set in Mexico;

Lory of The Emerald City Book Review, who joined Chris, Jean, and Lizzie in a lengthy and wide-ranging discussion of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book;

Citizens of the social media world, too numerous to mention, who added comments and questions; Tweeted/Facebooked/Instragrammed links to our posts; and included pingbacks, links, and reviews on their own blogs;

Our readers across the globe;

And, finally, once again, a special nod of appreciation to Lory, who six years ago started this annual celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and fantasy fiction on ECBR.

I want to add my own PS of gratitude to Chris for all his support as we put together this year’s event, especially for his excellent kick-off post on Gothick towers. Also, during our stewardship of Witch Week since 2017, he has created our wonderful memes. I hope he enjoys the work, because it’s his job for as long as we do this.

For anyone who just can’t get enough, here are the links for the Witch Week Master Posts from earlier years.

Thanks again to all of you for sharing this event with us, and we hope you’ll join us next year, at Chris’s blog, when our theme will be …

TREASON AND PLOT

Contemporary engraving of conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe. Third figure from right is Guy Fawkes.

Posted in Gothic, Witch Week | Tagged | 14 Comments