Sunday, November 12, 2017

It's in the character's DNA

Some characters claim our hearts from the very start.  Wherever a story steadily heaps challenges and sordid abuses on our main character, but we detect a tenacious quality in her personality and expect she may find her way to fight clear of any victimhood, we're better able to follow her down some dark alleys as the story tension progresses to its resolution.

Such thoughts came to mind as I reflected on two recent books, both good reads, but each quite different in intensity and tension levels.

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles, has a wonderful young girl character, Johanna, whose Texas pioneer family had been ravaged and slain by a Kiowa war party before her eyes when she was only six years-old.   The Kiowa carried her off as a captive, and perhaps as only a resourceful young child might do in such circumstances, came to think of herself as a Kiowa over the next four years she was with them.  She forgot her own English language, as well as the German of her immigrant family.  The U.S. Army eventually wrested her back from the Kiowa when she was ten, another huge disruption in her life, and offered to pay $50 to have Johanna escorted back to her relatives in south Texas.  It was a reasonable sum back then, and Captain Jefferson Kidd, late of the Confederate forces defeated in the Civil War and now a solitary wanderer in the southwest, decides to take the job.  He has otherwise earned his living charging admission to public readings of national newspapers he carries to isolated towns along his travel way.

During the initial journey south, Johanna rarely tries to speak and stays hidden in the wagon whenever they meet with army patrols, or stop near rough towns.  He tries to help her recall English words, and she teaches him Kiowa words.  Their relationship grows steadily.  Gradually in the isolated towns, Johanna begins monitoring admission and collecting the dime fee for the Captain's readings.  In one of the towns, a sleazy businessman tries to buy Johanna from the Captain, to place her in his brothel.  However, they slip out of town that evening.  Later, the man and his cronies follow after them and ambush them on the trail.  The assailants remain out of range of the Captain's pistol and light, 20-gauge bird-hunting shotgun.  However, Johanna has learned how to improvise for warfare from her Kiowa days.  While the Captain keeps the assailants at bay with his pistol, she hand-loads shotgun shells with stacks of dimes from the readings, and adds double powder charges.  When the Captain topples the remaining assailant with his supercharged shotgun, Johanna gives a war cry, grabs a knife, and leaps up to go scalp the enemy.  The Captain has to call back his impetuous warrior.

There is a dilemma awaiting them in south Texas, where it becomes obvious the uncle and aunt are not too keen about taking on the responsibility of an uncivilized young niece.  Johanna doesn't want the Captain to leave her with them, but shall the honorable Captain Kidd now become the child's third kidnapper?

Read this enjoyable, recommended story.  Our girl Johanna possesses great DNA.  I will give it 5 out of 5 stars.

News of the World is probably not going to disturb readers anywhere near as much as My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent, although there was arguably as much violence and moral turpitude implied in the former as is explicitly described in the latter.  The savagery of the rape and mutilation of the pioneer family by the Kiowa was terrible in its brief detail, but the reader might be reminded, too, of the brutal destruction by the army of entire Indian villages, women and children included, contained in other historical sources.  News did not pause to weigh-in on either of those earlier-in-time calamities.  Instead, its story focused on a more recent story time, and the courage, loyalties, and honor of the two admirable main characters: the Captain and Johanna.

The situation is quite different and significantly more complex in Darling, however.  Turtle, a nickname for Julia, is the fourteen year-old daughter of a survivalist, libertarian, hippie, physically powerful, gun culture, somewhat learned philosopher, cynic, and social Neanderthal, named Martin.  They live in a dilapidated, unfinished house in the woods, with plenty of weapons and ammunition at hand, constantly on guard against some indeterminate catastrophe that is presumably expected by Martin in an uncertain future.  He has trained Turtle to carry out a 'house-clearing' tactic on arrival home from school each day when he isn't at home.  This involves her grabbing a weapon and maneuvering from room to room in the house while clearing each room with bursts of actual gunfire.  The ammunition expenses must be horrendous.  It seems a little over the top, but there are probably more than a few unusual folks scattered around the forests and mountains of our rather sparsely settled county.  It's otherwise shockingly abundant in marine and animal wildlife, birds, native plants, and spectacular coastal vistas.  I've lived here more than forty years and treasure it.  The author, Gabriel Tallent, is, I believe, from New Mexico, but describes our Mendocino environment with a knowing familiarity, part of which must owe to one of our college professors of ecology, Teresa Sholars, whom he credits.  Tallents descriptions are quite wonderful.

The eight hundred pound gorilla in the redwoods, though, is the shock revelation that Martin is perpetuating a sexual relationship with Turtle.  It is a consensual thing, but this is a fourteen year-old intellect navigating a vastly uneven power balance, and transgresses one of society's dark taboos.  We're angry with Martin for exploiting her but we endure the tension, waiting for Turtle to recognize him for what he is, and to somehow bring him down.  Turtle has one confidant, Martin's dad, who lives in a nearby trailer.  Grandpa knows his son is bringing Turtle up all wrong with the primitive living paranoia, and may even suspect the worse, but he's an old man and just being critical doesn't do the job.


Angry with life as she sometimes gets, Turtle goes on a long, overnight hike in the woods.  She encounters two lost youths her age, and helps them find their way out.  Though she does attend school, this begins Turtle's first normal association with anyone her age, and she begins to care about one of the boys, Jacob.  Martin eventually finds out about her new interest.  He knows the families of the boys and moves to thwart any further contact, throwing away letters, monitoring telephone calls, and carrying out other contemptuous actions.  About this time Martin also comes home with a new, ten year-old girl, Cayenne, to live with them.  This arouses a jealousy in Turtle, despite her growing confusion about her own relationship with Martin.  Things become increasingly paranoid with Martin, and Turtle fears for Cayenne going through the same history she has had with Martin.  She later flees the house with Cayenne in tow, and instinctively knows Martin will come looking for her at Jacob/s house.  She plans her strategy, and the epic of all shootouts takes place at Jacob's house and along the rocky beach, between the two firearms experts engaged in search and destroy tactics.

This was a stunning read.  It had only been out about a month and I was surprised to note that so many at Goodreads had already read it and written reviews.  Considering the controversial material, it was also interesting to note that the great majority of ratings were quite good.  I would have to agree it was well written and I would give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

cultural appropriation

Pomo Eagle Dancer,     oil pastel
Let’s discuss the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ as applied to fiction writing.  There are some who frown on, or even censor the rights of any author to create characters and speak in the voices of people ethnically or culturally different from themselves.  I had been surprised years ago to encounter such a view from an author who lectured at my writing classes in graduate school, but it seems such a view might may have become more strident in our current era of political correctness.

Such a climate of pc didn’t give any pause to Lionel Shriver, best known for her 2003 bestseller (and movie), We Need to Talk about Kevin.  She gave a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia in 2016, that treated fiction and identity politics, and criticized contemporary forms of political correctness.  A cogent article discussing the lecture and its aftermath was written by Jonathan Foreman in the Journal, COMMENTARY, Nov. 16, 2016.  It appears Shriver’s lecture drew widespread criticism from identity politics activists, but Foreman was generally supportive of Shriver: 

“She (Shriver) excoriated contemporary forms of politically correct censorship with typically astringent fearlessness and rubbished the whole notion of identity politics: “Membership of a larger group is not an identity.  Being Asian is not an identity.  Being gay is not an identity.  Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.” 

Points Foreman made that I think are germane to the discussion include the following arguments opposing the ideas of identity politics:

At the beginning of October, at Britain’s Bristol University, a production of the musical Aida (an adaptation of Verdi by Elton John and Tim Rice) was cancelled because student protesters claimed that having white actors play Ethiopian and Egyptian characters would be “cultural appropriation.”


By their logic, black actors should not be allowed to play Lear, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, or other “white” roles in Shakespeare, and nonwhite performers should be completely excluded from taking part in any opera or classical ballet given that both are “white” European art forms, in the same way that jazz or blues music could be said to belong exclusively to black people.


As Shriver pointed out, literature would be impossible if writers were forbidden from imagining and creating characters of different gender, race, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation to their own


I’m with Shriver in this; writers should be free to imagine whatever fictional character they wish for their story, and there ought to be no realm of ethnicity, race, religion, or whatever, reserved only to writers bearing the same genesis.  I think fiction writing has always been and will continue to be the richer for it.
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