Archives for posts with tag: racial tension

the round houseIn 1988 thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts learns that his mother, Geraldine, has been brutally raped near the old round house on their North Dakota reservation. Geraldine tries to carry on but plunges into a deep depression. She knows who is responsible for her attack but for some reason refuses to talk about it. Despite Geraldine’s fears, Joe and his father, Bazil, try to find the culprit. But crimes committed near Indian reservations have their own unique set of difficulties. Is it a case for tribal police, state troopers, or local officers? Where a crime is committed can make all the difference to how justice is sought. Geraldine knows her attack took place near the round house but she was blindfolded, she never saw exactly where she was. This ambiguity allows countless criminals to get away on technicalities, and sometimes the only justice anyone can get is vengeance.

The Round House calls to mind To Kill a Mockingbird, Jasper Jones, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter – small town life, a bygone era, a search for justice and truth, and the painful process of being inducted into the adult world. That’s not to say The Round House is derivative, it just evokes a timeless feeling. I guess ‘coming-of-age’ would be the trite way to put it.

The Indian reservation setting and Louise Erdrich’s potent prose make The Round House unique. Erdrich, herself, is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Her embrace of her Indian ancestry has given her the insight to produce a rich, fully realised portrait of reservation life – jokes about rez steak sandwiches (baloney on white bread), pow wows, traditional Indian costumes, old Indian stories about the wiindogoo (if a human resorts to cannibalism to stay alive they will be possessed by the spirit of a wiindigoo, forever craving human flesh). Erdrich writes powerfully about the injustices as well – rape, racism, Native Americans being forced off their land and dying of smallpox.

I felt Joe’s pain, frustration and confusion after his mother’s rape. He just wants his mother to come back to him, for life to be how it was. Joe is convinced that his family will never have peace until her attacker is caught. Both of Joe’s parents are responsible for upholding law and order within their community – Joe’s father is a tribal judge, his mother works for the tribal council, collecting information needed to register people as Native American. Yet, in Joe’s mind, neither are doing what’s needed to find Geraldine’s rapist. So Joe takes the responsibility on himself. Bazil is a moral, wise man, doing what he can as a judge to uphold the law, despite finding the way to justice barricaded at every turn. Now, Joe’s father has transformed from his hero to a joke, dispensing justice to hotdog thieves and violators of parking restrictions. The vividness of the emotion Erdrich conjures up is formidable, and all in keeping with the feelings of a thirteen-year-old boy facing extraordinary circumstances.

Erdrich writes from Joe’s perspective. He’s writing down his memories of that time, as a grown man. Joe slips in references to his future wife and his career as a lawyer, so you know he doesn’t let his experiences ruin his future. And I’m glad. I don’t know that I could’ve read The Round House not knowing whether his mother’s tragic assault would cause him to unravel as well.

The Round House comes out strong, the horror of Geraldine’s attack commands your attention but there are slow parts. Some of my favourite books (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, American Gods, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) have unrelated asides and contemplative portions – slow parts, for those that aren’t fans – that I either loved for their languorous pace or barely noticed because I was enjoying myself so much. The Round House wasn’t up to that level for me, I noticed it drag sometimes. But at its best it’s excellent.

Erdrich’s writing subtly claws at you, tearing you up inside. It’s so restrained in its devastation. Right alongside Joe’s bleak pursuit of vengeance is a portrait of ordinary boyhood – getting drunk, riding bikes, running from irate adults, falling in love. I barely realised how dark it was or how much I worried for Joe. Then it hit me, Joe’s life was never going to be the same again.


The Secret Life of BeesFourteen year-old Lily lives on a peach farm in South Carolina with her father, T. Ray and her only friend, a black servant named Rosaleen. Lily has grown up being told by her bitter, cold-hearted father that she accidentally killed her mother when she was four. One afternoon, when she accompanies Rosaleen to register to vote, Rosaleen gets arrested and beaten. Lily and Rosaleen become fugitives from justice, travelling to Tiburon, South Carolina in the hopes of uncovering the mystery surrounding Lily’s mother. While in Tiburon they find sanctuary with the three beekeeping Boatwright sisters – austere June, wise August and child-like, sensitive May.

I’d say The Secret Life of Bees is definitely one of the more feminine books I’ve read. I had a feeling it would be too sweet for me. I always like a bit of grit in my books. And it is full of warmth and heart, about the bonds between women, redemption, and finding family in unexpected places. It’s also charming and uplifting. But The Secret Life of Bees is spirited, tenacious and eccentric enough that I won’t hold that against it. Sue Monk Kidd’s writing is lush and evocative. Every scene feels like it’s bathed in an eerie golden glow. Yet her writing can also be surprisingly harsh: ‘The wall brought to my mind the bleeding slabs of meat Rosaleen used to cook, the gashes she made up and down them, stuffing them with pieces of wild, bitter garlic.’ I’m always looking for that contrast in the novels I read – hope sitting alongside loss, violence seen against beauty.

Even though The Secret Life of Bees is Lily’s story it does touch on the civil rights movement and racial tension in the South – there’s the animosity and violence Rosaleen experiences while registering to vote, the integration of the schools, Zach’s arrest, the reaction of the Tiburon townspeople to Lily living in a house with black women. Lily learns about racism from the experiences of the Boatwright sisters, Rosaleen and her new friend Zach, challenging her view of the world. Zach wants to go to college, so automatically Lily suggests he could get a football scholarship. He says what he really wants is to be a lawyer. Lily replies that that’s fine but

‘I’ve just never heard of a Negro lawyer, that’s all. You’ve got to hear of these things before you can imagine them.’

‘Bullshit. You gotta imagine what’s never been.’

Lily’s voice is so strong I feel like I could almost hear her speak. I couldn’t help thinking of the stark contrast to lifeless Marina in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. There’s so much character and life in Lily and that’s a big part of why The Secret Life of Bees works. Lily is a great heroine – tough, not afraid to break the rules, smart, and sassy: ‘I should’ve been in my room right then crying my eyeballs out, and here I was having the stupidest conversation of my life.’

Kidd’s novel was frustrating at times. Lily desperately wants to ask the Boatwright sisters whether they knew her mother but she doesn’t. Over and over again she gets close to asking, guessing what the answer might be, but she keeps losing her nerve. Now, that’s understandable, Lily’s young and confused but it was hard to see her keep chickening out.

The Secret Life of Bees is heavy on the spirituality. Prior to this novel Sue Monk Kidd wrote two memoirs detailing her spiritual journey from Christianity to a more feminine spirituality. And her experience in suffusing Christianity with the sacred feminine shows in The Secret Life of Bees. Not being a religious person myself, I didn’t love the focus on spirituality. But I responded to the way the women felt free to take the parts of Christianity that worked for them, that made them feel connected to God and nature, and blended them with something new. There’s something almost magical about the faith the women create for themselves – their ceremonies involving the statue of Our Lady in Chains, coating the statue in honey, placing their hand on her heart, chanting.

The Secret Life of Bees has a mystical feel in general; it’s a lot like a grown-up fairy tale. There’s good versus evil (T. Ray), finding sanctuary with strange fairy godmother-types (the Boatwright sisters), and the final confrontation with evil and ‘vanquishing’ of the creature. In the past I’ve been critical when characters’ actions neatly fit a plot archetype but don’t feel genuine (Mister Pip) but here Kidd handles it well (aside from some frustration at Lily not just asking straight-out about her mother). The characters still feel real. If you’re in the mood for a warm, funny, sad book about civil rights, spirituality, sisterhood, and growing up then you can’t go past The Secret Life of Bees.

Jasper JonesI never would have thought I’d read Jasper Jones. It’s just not my thing. I don’t like the cover (a photograph of a boy making it, to my mind, look like a children’s book), it’s set in a small mining town in Western Australia (country Australia doesn’t usually interest me), and it has in-depth descriptions of cricket (the world’s most boring sport). Jasper Jones recently made ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club’s 10 Aussie Books to Read Before You Die list but given that I don’t normally pay the show much attention anyway, that wouldn’t have been enough to convince me (in fact the judging panel were divided over its inclusion). But I was told by a friend that it is a brilliant book. I was looking to try something a bit more grounded and real, perhaps a bit outside my comfort zone (which funnily enough led me to read a book that seems to be in everyone else’s). Especially after the madness of Kraken, Jasper Jones seemed the right fit.

The plot is relatively sparse. In the summer of 1965, teenage town bad seed and scapegoat Jasper finds a girl dead, strung up in a tree and beaten, and knows he will be held responsible. He goes to Charlie Bucktin for help, the secret creating a close friendship. The rest of the novel is about Charlie dealing with his guilt at covering up a murder, and experiencing his first love, while sometimes trying to find out how Laura Wishart died. Craig Silvey does sometimes go to easy places, plot-wise, but I don’t know that solving the mystery is truly the point.

Jasper Jones has wonderful characters and pitch-perfect dialogue. It’s much like an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps a little too much. But I was far from disappointed. It does have the Australianisms and aforementioned cricket sequences I was afraid of, but it’s a heartfelt book. The dialogue is a wonder (the conversations between thirteen year-olds Jeffrey Lu and Charlie in particular, they drift from the Vietnam War to which superhero is best, with depth and insight). Silvey’s protagonists are imbued with a beguiling sense of innocence and wisdom. About Jeffrey, Silvey says, ‘I think Jeffrey might well be my proudest literary creation.’ I haven’t read anything else he’s written but I loved Jeffrey so much I can’t argue with that statement. Every hero needs a best friend to steer and cajole them and Jeffrey is tenacious and spirited, without being cloying, contrasting beautifully with the careworn melancholy of Charlie’s young love, Eliza.

When I read the blurb, Jasper Jones reminded me of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Two young boys from different worlds dealing with secrets, a missing girl, racial tension, first love, and small town life in decades past, but one takes place in Western Australia, the other in Mississippi. Craig Silvey has always been attracted to Southern Gothic fiction:

There’s something very warm and generous about those regional American writers like Twain and Lee and Capote, and it seemed to be a literary ilk that would lend itself well to the Australian condition.

I’d never thought of that before but he’s absolutely right. I’m a bit ashamed that perhaps my cultural cringe blinded me to it. I’ll admit I’m often affected by the idea that other countries and cultures are more exotic and exciting than my own. However, even after adjusting for that phenomenon I still did enjoy Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter more than Silvey’s novel. Harkening back to another country’s literary traditions is great, blending cultures, blurring boundaries and whatnot, but at the same time it’s nice when we can create our own.

Jasper Jones made me smile. Silvey has an amazingly deft touch when it comes to dialogue and poignant portrayals of youth. It’s a lovely book, not groundbreaking, especially its conscious mirroring of To Kill a Mockingbird (right down to the Boo Radley-like neighbour, Mad Jack Lionel) but undoubtedly lovely.