We are approaching the official end of summer. The leaves are beginning to change color and the night air is getting cooler. For some reason, I read some serious books this summer and that included the following.
Kindred by Octavia E Butler
Octavia Butler is known for her science fiction, having won both the Nebula and Hugo awards (this is a big deal in the sci-fi world), but Kindred isn’t a sci-fi novel, it is really an historical fiction novel. In 1976, an African-American woman named Dana is transported back to 1820’s Maryland. She is a slave.
The only “suspension of belief” you need to have here is how Dana is time traveling. But don’t worry, Butler isn’t going to tell you…it just happens. Whatever requirement there might be to “justify” these events also never happens. And that is a good thing, because the focus here is not on time travel, but on what it is like to be a slave, to have one human being owned by another human being.
To paraphrase Hobbes, the life of a slave is poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Butler does a masterful job of bringing the reality of the plantation to life. Being owned means truly being treated as a possession….someone else has the power, will, and ability to hurt, maim, insult, starve, beat, abuse, and sexually abuse you. And it starts when you are born and lasts until you die.
The how’s and why’s are secondary, what is foremost, always present is how vulnerable a slave is, how terrifyingly helpless in the face of the real possibility that you will be raped, that your spouse will be sold and that your children taken from you. At someone else’s whim whether right-minded or not. Octavia Butler does not back away from all of that reality, rather, she puts it right in front of the reader.
The plot devices are clever, without revealing too much suffice to say that there is a construct for why Dana is transported back and forth between the 1820s plantation and her life and husband in 1970s Los Angeles. Butler is a master storyteller and weaves this in seamlessly.
But what you will never forget, what you can never un-remember, is the helplessness and indignity and gut-wrenching danger of being a slave.
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
I have only read the book. I have not watched the television adaptation. However, I can imagine that a sincere and faithful adaptation would be as difficult to watch as 12 Years A Slave. a movie I found totally upsetting.
Mudbound is the story of two families, one white, one black in a small Mississippi town just post-WWII. The white family moves as Henry McAllan fulfills his life’s dream of owning and working a farm. He drags along his college educated and town-loving wife, Laura, and his children to a backwater land of sweat, toil, and mud. Henry also brings along his irascible father, Pappy. The land is sharecropped by the black family, Hap and Florence Jackson and their children.
Hillary Jordan makes this post-war southern farm life come alive. As a reader you will resent the privy as much as Laura, hate the mud as much as Henry, and get sick of the casual bigotry and abuse as Hap and Florence. The day to day life is full of hard work and hard abuses.
Henry has a brother, Jamie who returns from the war as a celebrated pilot, but a bit of a lost soul. Hap and Florence have a son, Ronsel, who returns from the war, having served admirably in an all-black unit attached to General Patton during The Battle of the Bulge only to discover that the color of his skin far outweighs the color of his uniform and its accompanying ribbons. As luck would have it, Jamie and Ronsel become friends….and the real trouble begins.
The three main story lines; making farming and sharecropping work, Laura learning what it takes to survive (both the farm and Pappy), and two veterans trying to adopt to being back (although with very different problems to face all intertwine and weave together as Jordan paints the picture of what racism really looks like, how unbelievably rigid it was, and how horrifying its logical conclusion.
Family secrets get revealed, Pappy turns out to be a senior Klansman, Laura finds a strength she wasn’t sure she had, and the Jacksons suffer through abuse and tragedy.
This is a tough and impactful novel. In many ways, it is hard to read. Not hard to get through, but hard to incorporate into your thinking. The prose is powerful and realistic.
My only nitpick is the ending. But I will leave that to you to decide for yourselves. And you should do so.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
There is an old Russian folktale about a childless couple who have yearned for a child for a long time. They create a snow child, put clothes on it, give it eyes and ears, put a hat on its head and a coat to keep it warm. They go to sleep that night and next morning upon awakening, the old man and the old woman find a real child outside their home and bring her in, and she stays with them as they grow old.
Eowyn Ivey has recreated this folktale in 1920’s post gold-rush Alaska. Mabel and Jack move from a hard, but relatively comfortable and low risk family farm in Pennsylvania to Alaska to escape the gloom of a stillborn child. Jack is 50, Mabel younger and carving out an agricultural existence in rural Alaska is hard, unremitting, tiring, brutal work and Ivey conveys this effortlessly. Friends are few and far between both figuratively and literally, as are trips to civilization.
Jack and Mabel have given up hope of ever having a child, but one evening as it snows, they make a snowman……….
Ivey brings a fairy tale to life in an (almost) believable fashion and I will not spoil the story any more than that. But she also brings Alaska, and farming, and friendship to light. Her prose is wonderful reading and her understanding of what survival in Alaska demands is voluminous. Her ability to create characters where hard work and responsibility do not diminish their hopes and dreams does not strain credibility. I particularly enjoyed her descriptions of Esther and George’s son, Garret (Esther and George are also homesteaders) as he comes of age. She knows something about this, and it shows.
The Snow Child was a Pulitzer Prize finalist with good reason. Enjoy.