Thursday, September 28

Small town II

 

Small towns are miserable places when they let the bullies take control. The bullies are unhappy and yearn for everyone to feel the same. The bullies in The River We Remember by William Kent Krueger openly despise a Japanese immigrant, Native Americans and other minorities. “People who make other people unhappy are generally pretty unhappy themselves,” one character observes. But the opposite holds true, too, that happy people spread happiness.

The characters of Jewel, Minnesota – imperfect like so many people – keep past transgressions a secret. Many of those characters walk along a quiet stretch of the Alabaster River to reflect – the setting for more than one death. That river, tinted brown by day, glows white under the moon, and for one of the narrators, the river is like an old friend. 

Lying is often only way protect privacy in small towns. Sheriff Brody Dern invents an out-of-town girlfriend to hide a long-time love affair and keep townspeople from talking. Of course, one lie is never enough, “One lie to kill another,” Brody concedes, understanding that his life is nothing but "a rickety framework of lies.”

Set in 1958, many of the male characters have returned from fighting in World War II and Korea. A young boy asks one veteran about killing and the newspaper editor tries to explain. “In the end, a soldier kills because all the circumstances of a moment drive him to it. It isn’t for freedom or God or for the people back home. It’s because he has no choice but to kill. And in that moment, he’s not thinking of it as a good thing or a bad thing…. And in all that mess , the only thing he wants is for it to end and for him to be alive to see that end.” 

Some characters lie for the same reason, to stop questions and survive never-ending scrutiny and incomprehension. 

The boy understands the man was trying to communicate a "truth that was essential … of what it was to be a man, to be a soldier,” and he responds politely. But the editor “knew he’d failed in what he’d tried desperately and sincerely to pass down to the boy.” 

Most of the imperfect characters find peace though years later they continue to ask what if and wonder why their lives constantly seemed to point in one direction over which they had little control. Some experiences influence a life forever, even for characters who leave town, as suggested by Kent Krueger's beautiful text: “Our lives and the lives of those we love merge to create a river whose current carries us forward from our beginning to our end. Because we are only one part of the whole, the river each of us remembers is different, and there are many versions of the stores we tell about the past. In all of them there is truth, and in all of them a good deal of innocent misremembering.” 

Sharing truth about past transgressions with loved ones can soften memories and reduce shame, allowing individuals to push forward and appreciate that their past is behind them.   

Monday, September 25

Small town I

 

Seven people happen to be in Lindbergh’ s Pharmacy on the evening of June 24 in the small college town of Athens, Georgia, when a would-be mass shooter with a grudge plans to strike. Former elementary teacher Tina Lamm, beloved by her students, claims that her secret to being a terrific teacher was “always remembering that, at the end of the day, they’re someone else’s problem. You do the best you can, you care of them, you try to educate them, you try to help them, but when the bell rings, you hand them off to someone else…” She treats them like “temporary amusements,” knowing “they’re ultimately on their own like the rest of us.”

The Time Has Come by Will Leitch describes a community confronting the Covid pandemic, climate change, inequality and divided politics. Tina admits she is disturbed. “How can you look around at everything and not be disturbed…. To be disturbed is to be human.”  She reflects on small-town life: “The thing about this little town is that everybody knows everybody, and if you’ve been one of those everybodies longer than people like us have been nobodies, you can get away with whatever you want.”

Tina is wrong though and the novel describes a diverse set of characters who do pull together:  the drugstore’s owner, a judge’s widow, a lawyer who is also an activist for youth, a nurse who is also an army veteran, a local contractor and his gifted son – and an aging music fan who tends bar at an Athens club.

 Only a few characters lack regrets, and some are more engaging than others.

David, the character with the least potential, has the most intriguing story. The middle-aged man has devoted his life to an Athens music club, tending bar and long recognizing that “everyone was right in his face, all of them drunk, mocking him with their perfect youth and their whole lives in front of them, constantly reminding him that everything he was doing was wrong and probably always had been.” His substance abuse prompts his wife to leave with their young daughter and that eventually prompts sobriety. “Part of recovery is understanding that, that you’re just another helpless addict like everybody else. One of the first things you have to do… was recognize that there’s nothing special about you.”

During the pandemic, David helps other addicts with an online group – and one of the most hopeless and belligerent members drives hundreds of miles seeking David’s help. David also revives and treasures his relationship with his daughter, an aspiring musician with a “clear rock-star energy that David knew all too well. That she wanted to talk to him didn’t make him feel like a good dad. Honestly? It just made him fee sort of cool.”

Jason, a contractor and proud parent to a gifted teen, is Republican and often argues with his more liberal son. He concedes that even in a small town, people can generally be unfeeling. “The hardest thing about being a parent, in Jason’s view, was that your children weren’t nearly as special, as protected, as you thought they were…. to you, they were everything. But to the rest of they world, they are just another lump of flesh – one more tick on the tote board, one more person you’re stuck behind in traffic…. If he ever lost any of them, he would crumple into a heap on the floor and never get up. But the rest of the world wouldn’t do anything. Everyone would just walk around like nothing had happened.”

Daphne, the nurse who is also army veteran, has returned to hospital work after five years in the service. The country has changed in those five years, especially with politics representing a bigger part of daily life: “when she got back, out of nowhere, people were screaming whatever their political views were in your face at every opportunity. An they were screaming at you for not screaming yours.”

People were angry, carrying concealed weapons, and “everyone was just on the edge of losing it, all the time.” Daphne is determined to do her small part to restore order in her world, “keep everything in front of her safe, if the person in her care could be better than they had been when they’d come in that room with her.” And perhaps “bring the world back to what it was before.”

The book captures the angry despair of our era with a light touch. Kindness, understanding, listening, cooperation – a rare moment of strangers coming together to achieve understanding – prevents tragedy from compounding and spiraling out of control.

Thursday, September 21

The ever-present past












In Beyond That, The Sea by Laura Spence-Ash, Londoners Reg and Millie Thompson disagree but ultimately decide to protect their daughter at the start of WWII, sending Beatrix to live with a family they do not know. The mother is less sure about this plan, sending the teen to the United States. and the couple frequently argues. Beatrix feels a distance: “I stopped being a child on the day war was declared,” she thinks. “And you both disappeared even as you stayed by my side.”  

The novel follows the connections between two families - the choices, mistakes, dreams and regrets. From all appearances, the Gregory family enjoys a comfortable life in the Boston suburbs with long summers on their own island in Maine, a home Nancy inherited from her wealthy parents. The father teaches at a private school, and the family lives on campus. Nancy always longed for a daughter and embraces Bea as her own, buying her new clothes, praising her schoolwork and anticipating every concern. There is no jealousy, and Bea gets along well with the two Gregory sons, William who is a year older and Gerald a year younger. This family relishes the guest, truly caring about her opinions, and the two boys compete for her attention. 

Maine in summer is one of the world’s gentle places with routines as steady as the waves beating against the shore. As war rages, the three children feel guilty about their good fortune, and each contributes to the war effort in small ways. Bea, the best student of all, understands her family cannot afford college. She especially feels guilty about her parents’ proximity to the war and also not missing her parents more as she falls in love with a new family and way of life that allows freedom and access to the natural world. Her guilt intensifies after her father dies in 1943, and the two boys respond in contrasting ways. Gerald asks what she thinks happens after death: “Do you believe in that stuff from church, about heaven and hell and all that? Or is it just over. Is your dad just gone?” At another point, William overhears her talking with her father in a local cemetery and, blunt like his father, retorts, “He’s not there…. He’s dead.” William, blunt and opinionated like the father with whom he clashes, long regrets his impulse to hurt. 

With war underway, the teenagers are uncertain about a benevolent God and struggle to accept religious teachings. Gerald confides he wants to believe and imagine Bea reuniting with her father. Likewise, he confides that all he wants in life is to return to the island summer after summer and be buried there. Bea understands. “To think that she could have lived her whole life and never seen this island. This place that feels like home.”

The war ends before the males are called to serve. Bea returns to London where she takes up work as a child care provider, remaining upset that her mother remarried before her return and restless about the limitations for her in Britain. She worries about William squandering potential as his letters switch from excitement over classes to parties and bars. After college, while William is in France, his father dies – severe wound for the entire Gregory family. Returning for the funeral, William takes a detour to London to visit Bea and admits that he has a pregnant finance. The two revive their romance, a feeble attempt to revive memories of idyllic childhood, and Bea’s mother arrives home early from a trip, interrupting the couple’s final hours together. During the brief encounter, Bea recognizes how neither fully understands the other’s goals or state of mind, and she muses “how difficult it is to know someone’s past.” And perhaps William could not understand because “she had let her past slip away. She had instead, become part of his world, of the Gregory world.”

Bea sees only a few hints of the William she once knew, admitting that she is at odds, too. “My favorite place? Maine. My favorite food? Your mother’s muffins. And yet here I am. This is my home…. I belong here and yet I’m in limbo, really, caught between two worlds. I can’t seem to find where I fit.” 

By his mid-thirties, Will finds himself stuck in a deadening job and a loveless marriage. He drinks to excess, wandering around beaches and dance clubs, watching others and wanting to warn them: “Enjoy this, he wanted to say. Try to stay in the moment. He wished he could be one of them, to still be in the place where everything seemed possible.” William, having lost all purpose, knows that an idyllic childhood does not guarantee happiness. 

Bea senses William’s darkness from correspondence. “He never said anything, specifically, but under and between the words, she could feel his uneasiness. Not unhappiness, per se, but a feeling that nothing was quite aligned. That the life he’d wanted, the one he’d expected, had failed to appear. It was as though that fire that had once been in his belly – his desire to be in the world – had somehow been extinguished. She wondered whether he’d ever been truly happy.”

William and the rest of the family remain a constant puzzle for Bea. “I just wanted – we all just wanted – you to be happy,” she says out loud, talking up to the blue sky.  Why is that difficult for so many people to achieve?”  

The novel’s chapters are brief – each told from the point of view of one of the parents, children or spouses but most often Bea and William – most ending with characters reaching new insight. Bea visits New York again seventeen years later, yet avoids reaching out to the Gregorys. That following Christmas, she sends gifts to the family and the clerk asks if she has family the States. “No, she starts to say and then changes her mind. Yes, she says, Yes, I do.” 

Millie, long jealous of Bea’s attachment to the Gregorys, accompanied her daughter to New York and gradually begins to understand the attraction. “There was something being there in America, that made Nancy come alive to Millie in a way she never had before. Her openness was a classic American trait, one that Millie had never quite believed. And yet here they were, all these Americans, being loud and friendly and willing to talk to you about almost anything.” Millie admits to admiring Nancy and admits that, had the tables been turned with war in the States, she could not have embraced a stranger’s child as her own. 

Millie and Bea slowly forgive each other with weekly walks in the park. “There’s something to be said for talking while walking. You don’t have to look at the person. You can keep your eyes on the path, on your shoes, on the landscape. And somehow that means that more gets said.” 

After William’s death, Bea attends his funeral and reconnects with Gerald. Nancy observes them together and thinks about how strange it must be for them without William. “Those summers in Maine, those few sweet summers when the three of them were thick as thieves. Those days that passed by far too quickly and that she can only remember snippets of now. The three of them, racing out to the dock, King following behind. Picking blueberries in the hills. Camping out in the woods. Late at night, the world quiet around them, the lights from the house reflecting in the dark sea. Oh, why can’t time be stopped in those moments. Why is it so hard to understand how fleeting it all is?” Desperate to connect with the past, she feels the “need to scramble back in time, to pull up old memories, to regret words, to re-create moments.” 

After finding love with a third husband, Millie feels secure enough to release Bea, and the newlyweds encourage Bea to attend William’s funeral. Bea confides that the Quincy house is “the place that feels like my home” and Gerald asks her to stay, to truly make it her home. Holding his hand, Bea responds, “Let’s take a walk, she says. Let’s take a walk.” 

William’s untimely death along with an incomplete tale from Bea – some might call it a lie, others would argue that the entire past need not be exposed – end the ruthless competition between two brothers. Gerald and Bea marry and repurchase the island home in Maine, presiding over another stretch of perfect summers with Nancy, their child and William’s children. It may be distressing to ponder whether we are each at our purest, our finest, during childhood. Still, this exquisite book on family relations has a happy ending, as Bea lovingly, naturally resumes the matriarch role for the next generation of Gregorys. 

Tuesday, September 12

Trust





















Yellowface by R.F. Kuang is a provocative examination of race relations and career ambitions in the publishing industry that lead to ruthless competition, lying and cheating. More outrageous than humorous, the book garners extra attention by focusing on the publishing industry. 

Athena is a successful author and her former classmate and longtime acquaintance June Hayward is not. Athena is Asian American; June is not. A few years after graduation, the two have a rare get-together when Athena suddenly chokes to death and June does little to save her. June pockets the sole draft of Athena’s latest novel, does extensive revisions and sells it as her own, adopting her mother’s maiden name. “This is what I love most about writing – it offers us endless opportunities to reinvent ourselves, and the stories we tell about ourselves.” Juniper Song becomes the “good friend” who was with Athena during her final moments. “The best way to hide a lie is in plain sight…. I’ve never made a secret of my relationship to Athena… I play up our connections. I mention her name in every interview. My grief over her death becomes a cornerstone of my origin story.” 

 A white woman writing about an obscure part of Chinese history prompts the editing team to worry “cultural authenticity” and getting “ahead of any potential blowups.” June is abrasive about questions and suggestions for a sensitivity review: “Are you saying we’ll get in trouble because I wrote this story and I’m white?” The editor responds, “Of course, anyone should be able to tell any kind of story. We’re just thinking about how to position you so that readers trust the work.” 

 The book is wildly successful and June insists she never lied. “I never pretended to be Chinese or make up life experiences that I didn’t have. It’s not fraud, what we’re doing. We’re just suggesting the right credentials, so that readers take me and my story seriously, so that nobody refuses to pick up my work because of some outdated preconceptions about who can write what. And if anyone makes assumptions, or connects the dots the wrong way, doesn’t that say far more about them than me?” June trusts no one, recalling a philosophy student whom she once dated arguing that the living owe nothing to the dead. “Especially when the dead are thieves and liars, too.” 

 The author cleverly critiques the publishing industry by speaking through a manipulative protagonist: “author efforts have nothing to do with a book’s success. Bestsellers are chosen. Nothing you do matters. You just get the enjoy the perks along the way.” Still, June finds herself missing writing before meeting Athena and making it her career: “suddenly writing is a matter of professional jealousies, obscure marketing budgets, and advances that don’t measure up to those of your peers.” Personality takes priority over content: “You, not your writing, become the product – your looks, your wit, your quippy clapbacks and factional alignments with online beefs that no one the real work [cares] about.”

The industry and readers force writers into narrow genres and roles, “And once you’re writing for the market, it doesn’t matter what stories are burning inside you. It matters what audiences want to see, and no one cares about the inner musings of a plain, straight white girl from Philly. They want new and exotic, the diverse, and if I want to stay afloat, that’s what I have to give them.” 

 Huang also relies on June to criticize ethnic authors who transmit stories that belong to ancestors. Athena once pointed out once that she was ethically troubled by telling stories lived through by her parents and grandparents, worried about “exploiting their pain for my profit” – but not enough to find her own stories: “I remain aware that I can only do this because I am the privileged, lucky generation. I have the indulgence to look back, to be a storyteller.” 

Early on while in school, June relished her friendship with Athena. “For it was so nice to know someone who understood this exact dream, who knew how mere words can become sentences can become a completed masterpiece, how that masterpiece can rocket you into a wholly unrecognizable world where you have everything – a world you wrote for yourself.” But the friendship deteriorates. While freshmen at Yale, Athena turns a confidential conversation about a sexual encounter into a short story. Years later, June observes Athena chat up an American POW from the Korean War at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History – and is blunt with her assessment. “There’s no need to dress it up. We are all vultures and some of us – and I mean Athena, here – are simply better at finding the juiciest morsels of a story, at tripping through bone and gristle to the tender bleeding heart and putting all the gore on display.” Even Athena’s former boyfriend notes, “as time went on all I could think was that she was mining me, using me as fodder.” 

Writers are so hell-bent on keeping up with publishers’ demands that many forget to live life. June frets that she lacks an original voice, capable of only presenting others’ tales. Readers turn pages in horror, waiting for her to get caught – but she is slippery and manages to reinvent herself time and time again, desperate to avoid the mundane lives of her mother and accountant sister: “Living their little and self-contained lives, with no great projects or prospects to propel them from one chapter to the next.” She later admits, “I want my words to last forever, I want to be eternal, permanent; when I’m gone, I want to leave behind a mountain of pages that scream, Juniper Song was here and she told us what was on her mind.” 

The goal is petty, echoing the publishing industry’s embrace of social media and expectations for authors to endlessly build a presence, nurturing popularity and connections with readers. As June points out, “your time in the spotlight never lasts. I’ve seen people who were massive bestsellers not even six years ago, sitting alone and forgotten at neglected signing tables while lines stretched around the corner for their younger, hotter peers…. The rest of us have to keep racing along the hamster wheel of relevance.” 

Unfortunately, social media’s ability to lift or ruin reputations, the pathetic neediness of users, has become a tired literary trope, making these chapters drag. 

In the end, June sets out to write a memoir. “I will craft, and sell, a story about how the pressures of publishing have made it impossible for white and nonwhite authors alike to succeed. About how Athena’s success was entirely manufactured, how she was only ever a token. About how my hoax – because let’s frame it as a hoax, not a theft – was really a way to expose the rotten foundations of the entire industry. About how I am the hero, in the end.” And she hopes that some reviewer might ask, What if we got it all wrong? and, What if Juniper Song is right? 

Juniper Song is a product of the publishing industry, and both have squandered all trust.

In 2014, I wrote more about the publishing industry and readers imposing rigid "purity tests" on storytelling that explores other cultures. 

Friday, September 1

Battles at home

Only the Beautiful, by Susan Meissner, begins in 1938 with Roseanne Maras, a caretaker’s daughter at a Sonoma Valley vineyard who sees colors upon hearing sounds. The condition distracts her at school, and her parents urge her to keep it a secret and eventually allow her to leave school early. Years later, she recalls “A dim memory of my father praying at my bedside when I was little…. He pleaded for a miraculous favor…. For the colors to leave his daughter. He was afraid for me. People will always distrust what they don’t understand. And what they distrust, they cannot love.”

After her parents die in an accident, the owners of the vineyard become guardians, keeping the 16-year-old on as a maid, and the family’s son remembers their childhood and her descriptions of the colors. She becomes pregnant and though she denies seeing colors, the guardians send her to a state home, where she is stripped of all possessions, including an amaryllis bulb that was a gift from the sister of her child’s father. Helen works as a governess for a family in Vienna with a disabled child and regrets her failure to recognize the depths of Nazi evils at the start of World War II and the inability to rescue her charge from the Nazis. The child dies soon afterward, and Helen devotes herself to rescuing and delivering other disabled children to Switzerland.

In California, an escape attempt by Roseanne fails, and soon after delivery, her infant is sent to an orphanage to await adoption. Roseanne is then sterilized by doctors who worry about her condition being hereditary, and she must wait until age 19 for release to a group home. Upon leaving, she softly tells the nurse, “It’s not right what you’re doing here…. I know you’re probably going to say what do I know about what is best for people, but I had to say this before I left.”

She settles in at the group home and finds work at a hotel, where she meets a neurologist who identifies her condition as synesthesia.

The narration resumes with Helen who returns to Vienna at the close of World War II and learns that the father of her young disabled charged arranged for his daughter's mercy killing to avoid experimentation and institutionalization. The father, a Nazi officer himself, argues that “Power like that can’t be stopped,” but Helen disagrees. “Of course it can…. It was stopped when the rest of the world finally said, ‘No more. But we waited too long.”

Helen returns to California and starts asking questions about Roseanne, a child she once befriended, challenging her sister-in-law, the vineyard’s owner, later the doctor who sterilized young women. “But how do you know her life was miserable…. What gives you the right to judge whose life has value and whose doesn’t as if you were–“ The doctor finishes for her: “As if I were God?” He goes onto defend himself to a woman who observed Nazi atrocities first-hand: “I’ve heard that before from people like you who haven’t seen what I’ve seen.”

The doctor refuses to divulge information about Roseanne, but his son who lived on the premises at the time and originally alerted security to the inmate's attempted escape, provides details about the placement.

Helen learns that she is the child’s biological aunt, confronting the doctor and others that, though single herself, she should have been given the chance to adopt the baby. Those involved with Roseanne's case justify their actions by suggesting that they had far more work than time. When leads result in dead ends, Helen does not give up and does find Amaryllis, Roseanne's child, later becoming an activist, speaking out at churches and civic clubs about mistreatment of the disabled including forced sterilization: “I realized I had a story to share about the disabled children of Austria, and at the end of my tale was the perfect entrĂ©e to telling people what was happening right here in California….”

A publisher invites Helen to write a book about her experience, which leads to finding Roseanne and reconnecting the small family.

The novel, like Helen's activism, demonstrates the parallels between the Nazi quest for their version of a perfect population with US medical goals of reducing disabilities through sterilization and poverty associated with young unwed mothers. The historical research is solid, and the characters' circumstances ring true. But Roseanne and Helen - sensible, practical, motivated, generally unflappable and cooperative when confronting horrific injustice and bad luck - are idealized protagonists, almost too good to be true. Such choices perhaps make the story more bearable for readers.

The novel's acknowledgement points out that more than 20,000 people were sterilized in California between 1909 and 1964, one third of all the sterilizations nationwide.

"Eugenic laws in 32 states empowered government officials in public health, social work and state institutions to render people they deemed 'unfit' infertile, explain Nicole L. Novak and Natalie Lira for The Conversation. "California led the nation in this effort at social engineering." The magazine also reports that such programs also targeted specific ethnic groups. 

Tuesday, August 8

Protection












South Boston prepares for school busing in summer 1974, the setting for Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane. The neighborhood is poor, tight and corrupt, the racism constant and overt. Protagonist Mary Pat, middle-aged and tough, finds money for cigarettes and beer, but struggles to pay the utility bills. Her first husband died and the second one left home after finding work at Harvard University’s mailroom. With access to one of the finest libraries in the world, he devours books and develops new interests. He parts by noting, “Your hate embarrasses me.” 

Mary Pat gets it, describing herself as “happiest when she’s opposed, most ecstatic when she’s been wronged.  But she also insists the neighborhood’s anger about busing is not simply about race. “She’d be just as angry if they told her she has to send her kid across the city to Revere or the North End or someplace mostly … Just another case of the rich … in their suburban castles (in their all-white towns) telling the poor people stuck in the city how things are going to be.” At times, she even surprises herself by feeling some kinship with Boston’s black residents. “As a project rat herself, Mary Pat knows all too well what happens when the suspicion that you aren’t good enough gets desperately rebuilt into the conviction that the rest of the world is wrong about you. And if they’re wrong about you, then they’re probably wrong about everything else.” She rails about inequality. “They’re poor because there’s limited amount of good luck in this world, and they’ve never been given any.... There are way more people in the world than there is luck, so you’re either in the right place at the right time at the very second luck shows up, for once and nevermore. Or you aren’t.” 

Mary Pat is not lucky. She has already lost a son to a drug overdose and frets about a pretty, gentle daughter, hoping that Jules will find a somewhat better life, if similar to Mary Pat's.  

The book begins with Mary Pat grilling the quiet teenager after the two enjoy a rare good moment shopping for school supplies. Both are restless, worried about the changes busing will bring. “Change, for those who don’t have a say in it, feels like a pretty word for death,” Mary Pat muses. “Death to what you want, death to whatever plans you’d been making, death to the life you’ve always known.” Jules wonders about not feeling the way others around her do: “You just, you know, you ever have the feeling that things are supposed to be one way but they’re not? And you don’t know why because you’ve never known like anything but what you see?” 

The conversation is their last. The daughter does not come home that night and Mary Pat storms the neighborhood with questions, impatient with platitudes offered by family and friends: “G’bless… It is what it is and Whatta ya gonna do. Phrases that provide comfort by removing the speaker’s power. Phrases that say it’s all up to someone else, you’re blameless. Blameless, sure, but powerless, too.” She reflects on her own role in her daughter’s choices. While questioning a niece, Mary Pat notices the girl is no longer aware and joyful and confident. “What takes that from them? Mary Pat wonders. Is it us?”

Mary Pat soon discovers that she did not know her daughter or the neighborhood all that well. Jules was last seen with a group of friends on a train platform where a young black man is found dead on the tracks. Mary Pat detests Jules’ boyfriend who “thinks he’s kind of smart, and the ones who are like that grow mean when the world laughs at them.”  But Jules' predicament is far worse, as the young man merely served as cover for a secret relationship with a ruthless neighborhood power-broker. 

Neighbors and friends resist Mary Pat's questions. All her life, she relied on the Southie code, neighbors watching out for one another. But she realizes the code really meant protection for the neighborhood hierarchy of corruption and the ease of casting blame on outsiders. Angry, with no one to trust, Mary Pat confronts her own racism, the insistence that “We’re not the same. We’re just not.”  Suddenly, the divisive hatred seems so pointless. “She sits there, overcome suddenly with a fresh horror of the self. Her daughter is dead. Auggie Williamson is dead, the lives of several teenagers on the platform that night are ruined, and her mind grasps with grubby desperation for ways to feel superior to them.” 

She shares her anguish and doubt with police investigator Michael “Bobby” Coyne, a recovering alcoholic. “When you’re a kid and they start in with all the lies, they never tell you they’re lies. They just tell you this is what it is. Whether they’re talking about Santa Claus or God or marriage or what you can or can’t make of yourself…. you can’t trust them…. And they tell you that’s the Way.” And a child thinks, “I want to be part of the Way. I sure don’t want to be outside the Way. I gotta live with these people my whole life.” Home is warm and the outside world is cold. “And then you dig in because now you got kids and you want them to feel warm.” Mary Pat continues, “And you spread the same lies to them, mainline them into their blood. Until they become the kinda people who can chase some poor boy into a train station and bash his head in with a rock.” 

Mary Pat blames herself, suggesting the children recognize the lies at a young age. "But you keep repeating the lies until you wear them down. That’s the worst of it – you wear them down until you scoop all the good out of their hearts and replace it with poison.” At the book's end, Coyne points to a hard reality – parents cannot protect their children. All they can do is consistently model and pass along values and methods for making decisions while keeping baser emotions in check and hateful people at a distance. “I can do what I can, teach you as much as I know. But if I’m not there when the world comes to take its bite – and even if I am – there’s no guarantee I can stop it.  I can love you. I can support you, but I can’t keep you safe.”

Small Mercies is a masterpiece, terse and compelling, from an author driven to expose racism's sources and motivations much as Mary Pat longs to understand the reasons behind the deaths of her two children.

Thursday, August 3

Resilience











A child can develop resilience despite domestic violence, neglect and abandonment, poverty and inequality.

In Hang the Moon by Jeannette Walls, Sallie Kincaid is born into a comfortable life in a small, early 20th century Virginia town that is run by her father, known as the Duke, and his sheriff brother-in-law. Soon after her mother dies, the Duke marries a woman who resents Sallie, especially after she has a son who prefers music and education to fishing, hunting, risk-taking and rough-housing.  

Tough and matter-of-fact, never bitter, Sallie adores her father and accepts that he wants a strong son to resume control of the family business – a general store that organizes county moonshine sales. After the death of her mother, the Duke's second wife, all Sallie wants is to be part of a tight family. So she respects and gets along with her half-brother, Eddie. She follows her father’s orders to mentor Eddie on toughness, and the two have a wagon accident that nearly kills him. Her father sends Sallie away to live with her mother’s sister, providing minimal support. The child assumes the move is temporary, helping her aunt scrub wash to get by. 

Education is an afterthought in the poor community, though a teacher takes a liking to the intelligent girl and relies on her to help with younger students and offering advice that Sallie remembers years later: “teachers don’t know everything, but as long as they stay a step ahead of the students, the students think they do.”

The father sends for Sallie a decade later after the stepmother’s death. Teenaged Sallie is resourceful and loyal, but the father envisions one path for girls, and that is marriage. He expects her to tutor the brother, but Eddie knows far more than she does. She takes advantage of his lessons, but also worries about his values, once asking, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, is it always smart to let everyone know it?” The boy replies, “Absolutely. Nothing is more important than the truth.”  

The father marries a third time. Eddie adores the new stepmother and a baseball player friend, and Sallie longs for a “paycheck job,” one where she showed up, worked the hours, and collected a paycheck, allowing her to send money to her struggling aunt. Sallie convinces her father to let the stepmother tutor the brother and make Sallie wheelman – collecting payments from the many land tenants. 

As an adult, Sallie learns her father kept many secrets. A black tenant is another half-brother. Her aunt resorted to prostitution after losing the wash business and is mother of half-sister/cousin, a long-time servant. Her father shot her mother after a domestic dispute.  

After the Duke’s death, the stepmother quickly remarries the baseball player and agrees that Sallie invite the maternal aunt, a “fallen woman,” into the family home. Eddie and the Duke’s sister protest, and Sadie argues for forgiveness. “People who’ve never gone without find it easy to pass judgment on those who’ve struggled.” 

The Duke’s sister and her sheriff husband take control of the business, battling with the stepmother, regarded as an outsider, for guardianship over Eddie. The aunt makes the stepmother’s life unbearable, prompting the woman to flee and Eddie to commit suicide. 

Next, an older half-sister and preacher husband take control of the family business, insisting on enforcing Prohibition rules and hiring a ruthless security officer to end moonshine production. Profits plummet and tenants become desperate, testing Sallie’s conscience as wheelman. “It’s when the boss asks you to do something you know to be wrong and you do it anyways. That sort of work whittles away at the soul.” 

The sister dies of cancer and Sallie takes control of a failing enterprise, remembering old lessons as she struggles to learn who to trust. She recalls trying to save up for a gun when leaving with her impoverished aunt and a schoolmate offering to let her help his family harvest and sell chestnuts for six cents a basket. “The frost had knocked the nuts out of the trees and the ground was thick with them. Mr. Webb told us we had to make haste, seeing as how bear, deer, boar, and people would all be fighting over these chestnuts and in a couple of days they’d be gone.“ She needs thirty-four large baskets to buy the gun, but comes up a bit short.

Sallie visits the family to collect her share, fulling expecting them to avoid payment. The quiet, stern man advises that the price of chestnuts was not what he had expected, with a blight killing off trees to the north and chestnuts in short supply. The shortage means chestnut prices went up, and he pays her seven cents per basket. “Some folks say they hate to be proved wrong, but I was never happier to be mistaken.” 

Based on such experiences – at times, the novel reads as though a series of short stories – Sallie develops her own moral code, running the illegal business but discouraging lies, corruption and long-time disputes. She is quick to forgive and move on, and that policy applies to the paternal aunt who long made life difficult for Sallie, her mother and her aunt. Sallie leads the family and tenants on producing and running moonshine into nearby Roanoke. “Outlaw. Rumrunner. Bootlegger. Blockader. I don’t for one second forget that what we are doing is illegal, but legal and illegal and right and wrong don’t always line up. Ask a former slave.” She adds: “Sometimes the so-called law is nothing but the haves telling the have-nots to stay in their place.”  

She maintains the operation doesn’t involve stealing or coercion. “Just helping out the people of Claiborne County who through no fault of their own are in an awful bind. Obey the law and starve. Or break the law and eat. Not a lot to ponder there.”  

For Sallie, family is sacred, and she realizes her father “whose approval I so craved” did not feel the same. The Duke “loved being loved, but he never truly loved anyone back. He took what he wanted from people, then once he got it, cast them aside.” 

The historical novel is bittersweet, optimistic and certainly idealistic about bootlegging and a woman running a business in the 1920s. Sallie succeeds by embracing all members of her family and community, wayward in so many ways, as long as they get along and work to love and protect the whole.  

Thursday, July 20

Predator or prey

 












Elinor De Witt in The White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear lives a quiet life, retired after volunteering for the resistance effort in Belgium during World War I and returning to spy for Britain during World War II. Her father leaves the family to join the war effort in the first war, and Elinor makes a silent vow that “she, her mother and sister would do all they could to arm themselves against their obvious weakness; the vulnerability of being female.” After realizing the father has perished at the front, the mother befriends a member of the resistance and allows Elinor and her older sister to observe German train movements and even sabotage the tracks.

Elinor, though younger, is more serious, agreeing to weapon training after the recruiter convinces her that a citizen can either be predator or prey. Elinor soon recognizes that “being a predator filled her with as much fear as being prey,” and the recruiter points out that such fear could keep her safe. Elinor views herself as “a predator who understood what it was to be prey” and armed “with that knowledge, she knew she would survive…” 

After World War I, the three women head to Britain where Elinor excels at her studies and wins admission to Cambridge. Her mother rejects that plan and urges her to remain close in London. The young woman’s curiosity and drive to learn are not vanquished so easily. Elinor masters multiple languages and, feeling distant from her less academically oriented mother and sister, moves to France to work as a teacher.  

Hitler’s rise spurs fears in France, and Elinor returns to Britain, teaching at the boarding school where she often struggled with teachers, including the woman who went on to become headmistress. The older woman viewed Elinor’s behavior as demonstrating resolve and resilience rather than disrespect: “our women in the making will need such qualities to see them through.”

The headmistress points out the tumultuous years of war have been hard on the young, “giving rise to an element of doubt, of unknowing that can in turn lead to undesirable words, thoughts and actions.” She warns, foreshadowing, that “Some of our pupils are the daughters of bankrupt men – and women – and I don’t’ mean bankrupt only in a financial sense…. The years after the war changed our society, and that is reflected in the attitudes and behaviors…”

Elinor is expected to set an example and support high standards that will “become the backbone of everything they do in life. Every. Single. Decision.” The headmistress concludes, “I have found that when one remains true to one’s established values, life’s squalls, storms and doldrums become easier to navigate.” 

Elinor leaves her teaching post to work as an intelligence officer in Belgium, hoping that such values will protect her and villagers who have joined the resistance. Some colleagues, though, are in league with men in the pursuit of power. They betray their country not by cooperating with Nazis, but by prioritizing their careers, adjusting war plans to support a competing group of spies without alerting the full team.

The team barely escapes after a partner orders Elinor to shoot a small child threatening to reveal the position. Elinor refuses, and subsequently endures a month in a mental hospital. She is intelligent enough to cooperate, later awarded with a comfortable cottage in a quiet village.    

Elinor learns the full story about her last day as a spy after mob family attacks a brother, her neighbor. Jim yearns to escape his criminal past, but the family has friends in high places, the same men who betrayed the Belgium villagers. Elinor befriends the mobster’s widowed sister to gather evidence that might end the harassment. 

Protagonists or antagonists – police, spies or mobsters – err by underestimating the capabilities of women. 

Thursday, July 13

Weeds

 

Two women document flora of the Colosseum in Rome, one in 1854 and the other in 2018 in The Weeds by Katy Simpson Smith. The first toils for Richard Deakin, a botanist, and the second is a grad student from Mississippi, struggling to win respect from her advisor and approval to conduct similar research in the Coliseum and fairgrounds of Jackson, Mississippi. Detailing how male superiors belittle the women's observations, the book may upend assumptions about adequate feminist responses across cultures and time periods. 

The first woman, who lacks education and viable career prospects, relishes the work and suggests that definitions uphold sanity. Nuance is key as well as who decides and defines. “The point of botany is not to distinguish between value and waste. (There is no waste.) It’s to be honest about what something is. A part, a whole, a root, a bloom. Conditions, habits.” 

The women lack mentors, role models and intellectual nourishment. The woman in 1854 lost her mother to opiate addiction. The other mother provided solid memories of fortitude, and before her early death, urges her daughter: “Truth is all you have.” The graduate students mulls the female tendency to move through life by rote, automatically pursuing education, marriage, children, “Like I was hoping to prove I deserved the space I took up.”  Love is elusive for each woman. Disrespect in work relationships sows mistrust and challenges in other relationships. The first woman longs for another woman who has since married moved abroad, and the second struggles with commitments, even though her mother once advised: “Know what you want before it comes, so you can get it without being gotten.” For her, finding love is secondary, and her priority is securing research funding, a career.  Yet the mentor rejects her observations, and she wonders, “If I can no longer say true things, and am prohibited from saying false things, what … is left?” 

Both narrators remain anonymous, so often the case for women in science. The women strive for creativity, exploration and novel connections that are discouraged by superiors. The modern-day advisor could well speak for both men when publicly admonishing his graduate student: “Scientists don’t arrive at projects with conclusions in mind; we’re passive. Humble. Unresisting. That’s how you open yourself to answers.” 

The narrators give weeds equal attention in a plot interspersed with species names and descriptions. Great care is used in distinguishing common species like S. oleraceus and S. tenerrimus: “Two sides of a genus, a plant that any ordinary passerby would fail to notice, or, if noticed, would call a dandelion,” notes the woman of 2018. She insists on distinguishing the two. “the only lesson I carry from Deakin – every thing deserves its name.” 

MSU Beal Garden

The discomfort the limited options in responding to bias are similar in 1854 and 2018, so much so that the identity of the narrator is at times unclear: “You can’t demand love. Nor expect it, nor wait for it, nor want it. It comes on air like a scent.” The more poetic comments likely come from the woman with the broken heart: “With lyrate leaves, shaped like those instruments of old, I wonder at their purpose. If they are accompanying songs too green for us to hear. If this is a signature to mark our deafness.”

The woman of 2018 marvels that Deakin, as a man, wrote about the Colosseum’s plant life in such a charming, thoughtful way: An excerpt from Deakin's actual book, not mentioned in The Weeds: “Flowers are perhaps the most graceful and most lovely objects of the creation but are not, at any time, more delightful than when associated with what recalls to the memory time and place, and especially that of generations long passed away. They form a link in the memory, and teach us hopeful and soothing lessons, amid the sadness of bygone ages.” The graduate student finds herself wishing that she had such an advisor, not realizing that, according to the novel, Deakin died before the flora is published and the apprentice applied extensive edits before submission. Deakin published one book, and biographical information about him or a female apprentice is limited. 

Both narrators are fascinated by plants’ defensive mechanisms, especially those that might harm humans. The modern-day woman marvels: “How easy, to eliminate something living from the earth. As simple as turning up the temperature, or slipping a pill in a drink, or touching a leg, or doubting.” One woman sabotages herself, and the other sabotages her superior, slipping bits of a plant that he fails to recognize into his drink. “He hasn’t done the work, so he’s missing all the signs.” 

The Weeds has a weary tone for more reasons than one. The woman stronger in spirit is raped. And each woman senses that she documents a massive decline resulting from a changing climate, feeling an urge, “Write it down before it’s gone.”  In keeping their respective lists, the woman from the 19th century observes how vetch transformed from staple to “crop of last resort,” and the modern-day woman wistfully recalls cattails, her favorite plant as a child: “brown and whistling with red-winged blackbirds. The pond is gone; it became a football field. Could I slow my town’s unrolling ruin by naming what exists? Is that what we’re doing here with these lists, slowing death?” 

The science of botany is in decline, too, even though there are about 300,000 species. "M]ore and more, colleges and universities are getting rid of their botany programs, either by consolidating them with zoology and biology departments, or eliminating them altogether because of a lack of faculty, funds or sometimes interest," reports U.S. News & World Report. 

Some species survive development and destruction, and others go extinct. The same is true of the human spirit. Some women refuse to be broken by inequities and, one way or another, ensure their voices live on. 

Michigan State University's W. J. Beal Botanical Garden, is the oldest, continuously operated botanical garden in the United States, featuring a collection of more than 2000 plants. The photo is courtesy of MSU Today.  

Thursday, July 6

Shame

 











Social media allows individuals to explore feelings about unwanted behavior in both themselves and others. 

In Society of Shame by Jane Roper, a woman’s world falls apart after she arrives home early from a work trip to discover her garage on fire, her US Senate candidate husband hurrying to dress and conceal an affair. Topping off the bad day, photos focus on a menstrual stain on Kathleen Held’s pants. The photograph goes viral, and women become outraged that a period accident captures more attention than a husband’s infidelity. Activists, including Kathleen’s young daughter, embrace the new #StopPeriodShaming movement. Kathleen, annoyed after her husband expresses concern about damage for his campaign, moves out of the house and gives her daughter permission to participate. 

Leaving home, Kathleen steals an elegant invitation from a secret Society of Shame, intended for her husband. All members, shamed over social media for various offenses, hope to restore confidence and reinvent themselves, and Kathleen wonders, “If she was a stronger, more fulfilled version of herself, maybe her marriage wouldn’t have fallen apart.” Maybe she would have published the book she had written years earlier. 

Maybe. 

Shame can be about self-evaluation and social-evaluation, according to philosopher James Laing, who urges rejection of “the widespread assumption that the other-oriented dimension of shame is best understood primarily terms of our concern with the way we appear to others.” He instead urges treating “shame as manifesting our desire primarily for interpersonal connection.” Shamefulness, he maintains, can be used for merited avoidance or rejection. 

But the society in Roper's book turns to shame for the sole purpose of winning attention by any means necessary. The society’s founder orchestrates makeovers, activities and social-media messaging to repair reputations. For Kathleen, that means leaning in to support the new cause while emerging from the most embarrassing and painful moment of her life. Reluctance transforms into reflection and passion, as Kathleen, who decides to go by Kat, realizes that women “were bound together, all of them by this strange and mysterious biological process they shared, with its inconveniences and embarrassments and messes; its power to bring relief (not pregnant!) and heartbreak (not pregnant); the thresholds it marked between child and adult, youth and middle age.”

With new clothes and haircut, Kat becomes an instant celebrity, juggling television appearances, newspaper interviews and a book contract. The society cheers, advising her to “Steer into the swerve.” A quiet member of the group urges Kathleen to enjoy the new popularity, but to “Keep telling the truth.” She finds an agent, and a major publisher insists on a ghostwriter, preferring that the author stay busy with promotion and social-media. 

Of course, social media as a tool can build and destroy reputations. Users take advantage of any connection or problem to advance agendas. Interactions are staged, publicized, with daily activities becoming less genuine. Frustrated, the husband plants a story that Kathleen never cared for the family dog, and activists attack her for living in an illegal Airbnb. Danica, organizer of the Society of Shame, stages a bizarre attack at a book announcement party for Kathleen and then expects that the two pretend to have no relationship at all. Kathleen’s daughter accuses her mom of promoting the movement “all for herself.”  

Weary, Kat frets about everyone expecting her to be "so perfect all the time," and critics abound on the internet. “Maybe it distracted them from their own faults and hypocrisies to constantly point out hers. Why confront your own mistakes when you can attack other people’s instead?” Kathleen's husband long prioritized his role as politician in their family life, and she repeats those errors, expressing disappointment that the child fails to understand “how complex it was to be a public figure and a spokesperson for a cause.” 

The plotting and charades become overwhelming and Kathleen abruptly stops obsessing over what others think. “People I don’t know or even particularly like. The thing we’re all doing here. Controlling narratives and changing conversations and getting back on top instead of trying to actually – I don’t know, grow.”  

Calm people, those who refuse to express anger and insist on playing fair, rarely attract as much public attention as do the outrage-makers. A low profile on social media can be priceless. 

The book captures the extreme language and emotions of our time, reflecting how social media can instigate divisions with no resolution intended. “Everywhere we look, we see values clashing and tempers rising, in ways that seem frenzied, aimless, and cruel,” suggests a review posted by the Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences of How to Do Things With Emotions: The Morality of Anger and Shame Across Cultures by Owen Flanagan. “At the same time, we witness political leaders and others who lack any sense of shame, even as they display carelessness with the truth and the common good.” People can control and adjust emotions, and “Flanagan makes a passionate case for tuning down anger and tuning up shame," while demonstrating "how cultures around the world can show us how to perform these emotions better.”

Forms of shame leading to revenge, anger or harm to others are destructive, the review concludes. Other forms “can protect positive values, including courage, kindness, and honesty.” As suggested by Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, thoughtful and socializing shame starting at a young age, “can promote moral progress where undisciplined anger cannot.”

Anger can strengthen an opponent's resolve.

Thursday, June 29

Choice

 

Machines built by humans reflect human values. In the Lives of Puppets, by T.J. Klune, some machines love and nurture, and others are corrupt and controlling. The robot characters possess super-intelligence, the ability to communicate with one another, and others even yearn for free will.

The story begins long after robots have vanquished the human race. But some advanced machines preserve and collect human artifacts, curious about the creatures and pondering their downfall. “Humanity was lost…. And lonely….Even surrounded by so many of their kind, they still searched for a connection,” sending their machines “away beyond the stars in search of that connection they so desperately wished for.” And the more creative machines loved humans. “Because for all their faults, they created us,” said Gio. “They gave us names. They loved us.” Yet humans “hated as much as they loved. They feared what they didn’t understand… And the further they went, the less control they had…. They poisoned the earth. They had time to change their ways but they didn’t.”

Gio, an advanced inventor robot known as General Innovation Operative, has set up camp in Oregon, far from the machines with fascist tendencies, along with Vic, a human; Nurse Ratched, a healing robot; and Rambo, a cleaning robot. Vic regards the robot as his friends and Gio as father, sharing an interest in inventing. After finding another ruined robot in the trash, Vic secretly makes repairs. Rambo questions why. “If we can fix what’s broken, we should always try,” explains Vic. “Because all things deserve a chance to find out what life could be when they don’t have to serve others.” 

Vic calls the repaired robot Hap, based on the remaining letters stamped on its chest. Gio, learning about the newcomer, is alarmed because he had created that type of robot long ago – a Human Annihilation Response Protocol.  A killer robot is in their midst and the other robots, conditioned to protect their human, are wary. 

But Hap’s memory has been wiped and he must gather new information. The newcomer denies having feelings. Gio explains how robots learn: “We watch. We learn. We process. It wasn’t always this way. But the more complex our minds became, the more choice we are given. Evolution by way of mimicry.” Nurse Ratched, anticipating the worst outcome, is less optimistic. “He is learning,” confirms Nurse Ratched, always anticipating the worst outcome. “Retaining information. He will use it against us.”

A trace of Vic's blood left the trash dump prompts Authority robots to invade and destroy the treehouse encampment. Gio leads the group to a hidden bunker before voluntarily leaving with the invaders for decommissioning or reprogramming. His goal is to save Vic, presumably the only human on the planet. The group watches a video message left by Gio, relaying his history with humans and his assessment of why human civilization failed. “They judged others for not looking like they did. Selfish, cruel, and worse – indifferent. No civilization can survive indifference. It spreads like a poison, turning fire into apathy, a dire infection whose cure requires mor than most are willing to give. But for all their faults, there is beauty in their dissonant design…. In a way they were God, creating us in their own image.”

Humans taught the robots to learn, but did not expect them to evolve, making their own choices and asking why. And humans thought they knew better, refusing to listen to robot warnings. “No matter what we told them – our data showing them they were on the brink with options to course correct before it was too late – they thought themselves immortal.” Every test, every simulation, robots ran “ended with the same result: for the world to survive, humans could not.”

Gio evolved from an emotionless inventor to thoughtful, caring being who lived for enjoyment and experiences, no longer interested in serving his robot master. Gio urges Hap to do the same, doing all he can to protect Vic.

Vic refuses to accept Gio's demise and leads the other robots in a quest to rescue the inventor. Along the way, they meet the Coachman, a corrupt showman who admires humans yet attempts to enslave them. “Your flaws are what make you superior, in all ways. No matter what machines can do, no matter how powerful we become, it is the absence of flaws that will be our undoing…. Our only flaw is that we’ve condemned ourselves to spend eternity mimicking that which we deemed unfit to exit.”

The Coachman is fascinated by the notion of death and abbreviated time. “There must be no greater feeling in the world than to know that this isn’t forever.” 

The group reaches the Electric City and the laboratory where Gio once again toils as a newly reprogrammed machine. To secure assistance in reaching Gio, Hap must endure a session that restores his memories. Vic protests putting Hap through such a session, and the powerful fairy machine retorts: “Let? Let? Do you own him? ….You say he was given a choice. And yet here you are, doing everything in your power to take that from him. How positively human of you.”

Hap complies, enduring memory restoration without killing Vic, and then declines a procedure that would allow him to forget his unpleasant past. 

Turns out, the most advanced machines are conflicted about humans, dismissing their weakness, selfishness and volatility while appreciating the traits of loyalty, love, hope and more. The would-be rescuer hopes to study the concept of friendship and, in particular, why Hap refuses to follow his normal protocol to kill humans. More importantly, the rescue robot seeks to thwart the Authority’s goal of eradicating free will. “Choice. The power to make our own decisions. The Authority wants it removed from all of us.”

Vic comes to realize that machines, like humans, continuously live by trial and error and that existence, even for machines, is marked by death. “Humanity – that nebulous concept he didn’t always understand – had lived and died by its creations.” The provocative book concludes that creation, good or bad, is the essence of existence. Choice is inextricably linked with morality, and mortality comes with the creations and world we choose to leave behind.


Monday, June 19

Utopia











Childhood. Religion. Nature. Love. Each have a magical, spiritual quality, the memories of which can haunt for a lifetime. 

The Magical Kingdom by Russell Banks, a story of early 20th-century Florida loosely based on true events, has a documentary feel. The book begins with a journalist rescuing a set of reel-to-reel tapes from the trash at a library in St. Cloud, all that is left of the life of Harley Mann. Two decades earlier, in 1971, Harley used a tape recorder to recount his unusual childhood. Lonely, old and unsettled, the narrator/protagonist warns that he is well practiced at masking his identity. “It’s as if I never learned to speak like the man I have in fact become, one of those White, lifelong, small-time Florida businessmen with no noticeable religious or political enthusiasm and no discernible class affiliation.” 

Early experiences shape Harley’s ability to conceal and lie. His parents, devotees of philosopher John Ruskin, an early environmentalist and socialist, leave a failing commune in Indiana, where Harley enjoyed an idyllic childhood, for another struggling one in Georgia. The father, a skilled blacksmith, dies of typhoid soon afterward in 1901, leaving a pregnant wife and two sets of twin boys. From his deathbed, the father urges them to find work at a nearby plantation and designates 12-year-old Harley head of the family. The mother dismisses that notion, discouraging discussions or questions about their future.

As the family can no longer contribute to the struggling commune, the mother signs all up as indentured servants at Rosewell Plantation, where they are exploited and become mired in debt. The plantation was “the opening wound in a wounded life.”  Harley felt “as if he had been cast out of Paradise to suffer and perish for having committed an unnamed sin.” He learns about power that came only from the owner’s “control of an unimaginable abundance of money and our lack of it and the terrible, almost unfathomable distance between the two.” 

Harley describes those seven months “as responsible in some way for my lifelong garrulousness and secrecy, my consanguinity and pessimism, my easy sociability and solitude – my paradoxical, conflicted nature.”  

Still, he feels intellectually and morally superior due to the teachings of John Rushkin and other philosophers, poets, and scientists. “[W]hen you’re a child you passively accept your parents’ and their friends’ view of reality, no matter how distorted by ideology or religion.” He observes seeds of inequality and discrimination. “When your worth as a human being is reduced solely to the value of your body’s capacity for labor, you tend to overvalue meaningless physical characteristics, like your body’s skin complexion, or hair texture or the shape of your nose and lips.” Other workers on the planation focus on racial differences, but Harley’s family feel only shame, “for we knew in our heart that those differences were meaningless.” Still, he also feels “different and distinct from everyone I knew and loved and from all the strangers in the world, for I was the child whose father’s dying words had made him the man of the house, separating him from the others, even from his mother, … charging him with a task he could never fulfill.”  

The desperate mother, though not religious, reaches out to a Shaker community in central Florida, near Narcoossee, whose leader agrees to pay off the family’s debt. The belief in celibacy forced Shakers to recruit followers and adopt children who could stay or leave at age 21. “We were not quite free,” Harley concedes, only free to leave the plantation and join the Shaker community of New Bethany. Like the Rushkinites, the Shakers supported communal living, simple lifestyles, pacifism and gender and racial equality and stood by the principles of honesty, continence, faith, hope, charity, innocence, meekness, humility, prudence, thankfulness, patience, simplicity – along with celibacy. The Shakers separated children from parents, assigning them mentors for apprenticeships, and taught that people on the outside world were untrustworthy, living “only for the moment… acquisitive and materialistic and hungry for power and sensual gratification.” 

Rescue by the Shakers was like Paradise restored. Harley promises himself “to find a way never to commit that unnamed sin again,” hoping that “the “Shakers would teach me how to name the sin and would show me all the ways to avoid committing it again.” He becomes judgmental, rigid, suggesting that “Anyone with a lifelong guilty conscience is likely to be a hair-splitting moralist, especially when it comes to other people’s behavior.” He insists that religion is not the source of his guilt. “It had to be my parents’ perfectionist utopian dream, the dream they shared with the hundreds of like-minded dreamers who surrounded them near and far, the dream that made me feel like a failure and weak and morally inadequate.” 

Logical and intelligent, Harley refuses to just accept explanations from others and describes how, like every thoughtful child, he loathed hypocrisy. “A child knows himself to be powerless and thus the most likely member of the community to end up deprived of justice and truth and equality.” From the start, he is skeptical about the elder’s motivation – is it charity, a means to secure free labor, or desire for his mother?

Living with the Shakers the children once again work six hours per day, six days a week, with the profit from their unpaid labor much greater than the cost of support. “I have sometimes asked myself if it was exploitative and unnatural and cruel to work children that way. Exploitative yes…. But it was not unnatural or cruel” as farming communities expect children to work such hours. And the Shakers’ assignments were “interesting and instructive and rarely as onerous or dangerous as work in a factory or mill would have been.”  The men and women who supervise apprenticeships are kind and patient, relaying skills and attitudes that “would prove useful to us for the rest of our lives.” 

His mother becomes a compliant, happy stranger, and Harley questions the sincerity of such converts: “if truth be told, the majority of these supplicants were seeking reliable shelter and regular meals rather than everlasting life. If the price was abstinence from sex and all other stimulants, communal living and participation in Shaker rituals and customs, along with hard manual labor in the fields…, they were willing to pay it.” 

Elder John Bennett selects Harley as a “favorite student, the one whose mind and heart he most wanted to influence.” He lends the boy books of the Western Canon, ones that other Shakers might have viewed as heretical, and teaches the boy how to bend those works with Shaker teachings. The man does discuss the materials or quiz him, “except with a casual, knowing reference to a specific notion or insight.”  A former soldier and prison guard, John advises Harley that “You either surrender your freedom to the system, or you walk away from it. There’s no middle ground…. That’s why and how I became a Shaker.”  Of course, such sentiment is true of any system. “His answer dazzled me both for its illusiveness and for its clarity. Elder John seemed to be saying that there was no essential difference between victim and victimizer, between the oppressed and the oppressor. That both were equally controlled by the system that created and maintained and enforced their relationship.” 

An intelligent child raised within a rigid system might long to flee, yet Harley understood that John “was grooming me to be his successor…. And I wanted to be that person.” Again, he feels superior, “that old familiar feeling had made me into a secretive hypocrite, for I could not let go of it. Separateness and difference – I had come to embrace the feeling… my true self. Despite its discomfort, I have tried since then to preserve it at all costs. Separateness and difference.” 

Such feelings lead Harley to break norms, and he falls in love with Sadie, who is seven years older. They carry on a furtive relationship, though he fears she may be doing the same with Elder John. Harley recognizes that if Sadie was so skillful at concealing her love affair with Harley from others, then she was capable of concealing secrets from him. “When one has taken up lying, as I had done, it’s natural to assume that everyone else is lying, too…. One cannot live a lie without believing that one is surrounded by liars and nothing is what it seems and no one is who he or she claims to be.” 

Jealous, he comes to distrust Elder John in every way, as profiteer and potential rival. He determines the man is not tempted by winning. “For him, life was a contest in which his main goal was to best the other contestants. Making a profit was just one way to do that. People like Elder John make good capitalists, effective salesmen, and successful politicians, but poor religious leaders.” Harley was convinced that serving God required that “One must abandon the belief that life is a contest.” Harley eventually turns on the Elder John, reporting him for an act of euthanasia. John leaves for Fort Myers takes off, taking up another religion, starting an import-export business and entering Florida politics. The rest of the commune, struggling without leaders and its two best workers, shuns Harley before abandoning the commune and relocating to a larger colony in New York. 

Harley lives off the land, taking on a few odd jobs, saving his money. Familiar with property histories throughout the county, he begins buying and selling land, while also accumulating the tracts that once belonged to the commune, a practice he had learned about after out-of-town Shaker leaders discover that Elder John profited from such purchases in fast-growing Florida. During the early part of the 20th century, banks were required to provide equity-free, low-interest loans enabling homeless war veterans to buy a five-acre plot and build a home. Such purchasers often failed to make payments, and speculators like John swooped in to buy the properties and resell for huge profits. 

But Harley targets the commune’s former holdings, refusing to sell for decades: “allowing the marshes and palmetto return, the buildings collapse, and mold and animals creep in “until there remained nothing out there of our once-glorious plantation but scattered heaps of weed-and-kudzu-covered wreckage sinking into the muck and the returning waters of the no-longer ditched- and-drained swamp.” 

Only a small portion of the book focuses on these adult activities.

Years later, regretting his lack of formal education, Harley ponders whether a different type of childhood might have led him to become a theologian or a philosopher. He becomes wealthy, though spends the rest of his life alone, an outsider without purpose. He regards himself once again as cast out of paradise – and the cause for the fall of one magic kingdom, a religious commune where he first fell in love, and the rise of another – Disneyland. Conflicted, he respects Shaker principles but does not believe. “What does it matter, anyhow, if my life remains a mystery to me. Who cares if Harley Mann dies without ever learning how or why his youthful delusions and follies are matched by those in his old age? Or why, in between, from youth to old age, he remained for all intents and purposes a Shaker without a Shaker family,” “a nonbelieving Believer, a Shaker pariah, a man in some perverse but fundamental way affirming the Shaker way of life by building his hut just beyond the closed and locked gate of New Bethany.”

Harley, failing to envision a development like Disney World, eventually sells the Shaker property with the condition that subdivision is forbidden for perpetuity.    

The story ends with Harley’s loss of innocence and community. Childhood, with all its potential, curiosity, and magic, is our only real utopia.