The Logan Family Saga: The Land, The Well, Song of the Trees, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle be Unbroken, The Road to Memphis
I’d read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry when my children were in elementary school and we were reading all the books on a list for fifth-graders. Recently, though, Jenny at Shelflove wrote about reading Let the Circle Be Unbroken and said that it’s in a series of books about the same family, the Logans. These books are by Mildred D. Taylor and all for children, with young protagonists telling the story from the point of view of different generations, starting with young Paul-Edward, who was an infant when slavery was abolished, passing the torch to young David, Paul-Edward’s son, who inherited the land his father worked to buy, and ending with Cassie, David’s daughter, who grows up on that land. Cassie’s point of view informs the last four books, starting with a short book for young readers, Song of the Trees, and carrying on throughout Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle be Unbroken, and The Road to Memphis.
Taylor’s genius in writing these books for children is that they will react to the prejudice as innocently as Cassie does, having grown up insulated by her own father’s land. Those around her are less fortunate, which exposes her gradually–as she grows up and learns to understand more about how the world works outside her family’s home–to the cruelties of the American Jim Crow era, explaining them to children in a way that makes them clear, but still possible for a child to read about.
In The Land, readers initially sympathize and identify with Paul-Edward Logan, and it gradually becomes clear that he is “colored.” He explains that his mother was a slave and “my daddy took a liking to her soon after she came into her womanhood and he took her for his colored woman, and that’s how my older sister Cassie and I came to be. Cassie and I were our daddy’s children, and both of us were born into slavery. Now, there were a lot of white men who fathered colored children in those days, even though the law said no white man could legally father a black child; that was in part so no child of color could inherit from his white daddy. Some white men took care of their colored children; most didn’t. My daddy was one who did. Not only did he take care of Cassie and me, but he acknowledged that we were his, though it was quietly spoken, and he raised us as his, pretty much the same as his white children, and that’s what made us different, what made me different.”
Paul-Edward feels betrayed when his white brother Robert sides with some white friends in what begins as a childish sibling quarrel and ends in lifelong estrangement between the two brothers. His father explains to him:
“’I know there were some things I’ve been wrong about in the way I’ve brought up you and Cassie, but I’ve tried to do the best I could by you. I’ve whipped you for doing wrong before. They were always whippings meant to teach you something, make you remember not to do it again. Difference today was I not only wanted you to remember that whipping, but to think on the fact that no matter how bad that strap hurt you today, what can come to you if you go hitting another white man, not just your brother and his friends, will be worse than that. Son, hitting a white man could cost you your life, and it won’t necessarily be an easy death. I’ve seen men lynched. I’ve seen men quartered. I’ve seen men burned.’ He shook his head. ‘I’d rather whip you every day of your life and have you hate me every day for the rest of it than see that happen to you.’”
What Paul-Edward does is find ways to buy his own land and keep his family as safe as they can be on it. The next book, The Well, a short book for younger readers, tells a story from his son David’s childhood in which David remembers his daddy telling him what his own father told him, that if he was going to survive in a white man’s world he would have to learn how to use his head, and not his fists. One of the continuing ironies of this saga is that the frightened parents in each generation are forced to whip their own children in order to teach them never to raise a hand to a white person.
One of the most memorable scenes in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is when young Cassie (named after her great-aunt) goes to town for the first time and is confronted by prejudice. She is trying to understand the odd behavior of a shopkeeper and has turned to go back and ask him why he had acted the way he had when, she says:
I actually turned once and headed toward the store, then remembering what Mr. Barnett had said about my returning, I swung back around, kicking at the sidewalk, my head bowed.
It was then that I bumped into Lillian Jean Simms.
“Why don’t you look where you’re going?” she asked huffily. Jeremy and her two younger brothers were with her. “Hey, Cassie,” said Jeremy.
“Hey, Jeremy,” I said solemnly, keeping my eyes on Lillian Jean.
“Well, apologize,” she ordered.
“You bumped into me. Now you apologize.”
I did not feel like messing with Lillian Jean. I had other things on my mind. “Okay,” I said, starting past, “I’m sorry.”
Lillian Jean sidestepped in front of me. “That ain’t enough. Get down in the road.”
I looked up at her. “You crazy?”
“You can’t watch where you going, get in the road. Maybe that way you won’t be bumping into decent white folks with your little nasty self.”
The reader is about as surprised as Cassie herself, witnessing this kind of behavior. The apology goes on for pages, including the white father’s demand that she address the other little girl as “Miz Lillian Jean,” until Cassie concludes that “no day in all my life has ever been as cruel as this one.” There are bigger cruelties in the book, of course, but Cassie’s point of view is an innocent one.
In Let the Circle Be Unbroken, David explains prejudice to Cassie and tells her “There’s colored folks and there’s white folks. They don’t want nothing to do with us ‘cepting what we can do for them, and Lord knows I don’t want nothin’ to do with them. They leave us alone, we leave them alone. And it wouldn’t worry me one bit if a whole year’d go by and I wouldn’t have to see a one of ‘em.”
Cassie sees a little colored boy almost lynched and then condemned to death by a court of law for a series of mistakes that began when he thought two white boys could be his friends. She sees casual brutality towards animals visited by people who have seen brutality visited upon other people. She sees an old woman, beloved by her community, whose entire family is turned out of their house for her audacity in learning the entire US Constitution by heart in the hope that she will be allowed to register to vote. She sees her older cousin, who can pass for white, try to stay out of the way of local white boys, who could do anything they wanted to with her if they caught her out alone. She sees struggles with unions during the Great Depression, and the way the rich white people set the poor whites against the idea of “schooling with nigras, socializing with nigras…marrying with nigras!”
In The Road to Memphis, a friend of the Logan family finally gives in to the overwhelming temptation to use his fists against a white boy and has to be rushed out of Mississippi to Memphis and put on a train to Chicago in order to save his life. Along the way, readers learn what it was like for people of color to have to take a road trip in 1941.
Although they have a basket with food and drink, they have nowhere to go when one of them gets so sick he needs a hospital, finally leaving him at the home of a kind (colored) stranger. They have even more trouble when they are forced to stop at a gas station. They are minding their own business and keeping their heads down when a group of young white men decide to give them a hard time, calling Cassie’s brother Stacey “boy” and ordering them around, complete with completely uncalled-for comments about how “Niggers get a bit of a machine under they butt, and they start to feeling they can back-talk a white man whenever they get a mind.” When Cassie has the audacity to look into the gas station restroom because she is scared to go into the bushes at night, a white woman accuses her of using it and the attendant tells her off for “putting your black butt where white ladies got t’sit. Oughta call the sheriff and have him take you down to that jail” before scaring her so badly she falls down on the pavement trying to run away from him, which he takes as an opportunity to put his foot on her purse so she can’t get it and kick her “like somebody with no heart would kick a dog.”
When they reach Memphis, it’s December 7, 1941. One of Cassie’s friends says he is going to sign up to go overseas and fight and when she asks why says “Haven’t you heard his [Hitler’s] talk about the master race? Way he figure, nobody is as good as folks of that so-called superior race!” She replies that “White folks figure the same here.”
It’s a grim series because readers care about the characters, feeling the insults, the blows, and the generations of unfair acts they suffer. I think it might work as a good introduction for readers of any age or color who don’t understand the how the bitterness of a book like Between the World and Me might have been grown and shaped by generations of fear and resentment.
We’re back from our trip to Chicago to see Hamilton with my brother and sister-in-law who stood in line all day to get the tickets. We went with my nieces and also my sister-in-law’s brother and his wife, and it was a great day. We woke up early because we were excited and also because we had signed up for turns in the shower at specific times before 9:30 am, when we left for the suburban train station. We rode the train downtown, stopped for lunch, and were at the PrivateBank Theater a few minutes before the doors opened at 1 pm for the matinee. I was using my toucan-head cane, so the ushers showed our party of six to the elevator (four of us sat in pairs elsewhere in the theater). Our seats were in the middle of the mezzanine, which is a great place to watch a musical.
We had played the “Hamilton Mixtape” in our car on the way to Chicago, which made me eager to hear the songs performed as I knew them, and we were not disappointed, even though the cast members are all different (some of us had to be repeatedly cautioned that singing along was not allowed).
Some of our favorite moments from seeing the show:
–Hamilton intercepting Jefferson’s handshake in “What Did I Miss?”
–Every time the King comes onstage everyone starts laughing and no one stops until after his exit; he is the mad king we rebelled against.
–During “I’m so blue” in “What Comes Next” he stomps and the light goes blue.
–Madison is a repeater of phrases and a yes man, and this gets increasingly funnier.
–The dancing during the “Reynolds Pamphlet” is ridiculous and it makes the whiplash that follows much worse.
–Hamilton is so small, and when he tries to climb onto the soapbox during “Farmer Refuted” it’s great.
–In “Non Stop” when he sings the “one more thing!” line it seems completely gratuitous and then he starts miming another monologue to the court while Burr sings.
–In “Your Obedient Servant,” Burr sends Hamilton one piece of paper and then Hamilton sends back about a hundred and the dancers carry each one individually to Burr until he has a huge stack.
–“Talk less, smile more” in the “Room Where It Happens” is delivered with the most insanely over-the-top Burr imitation motions.
–When Hercules Mulligan is revealed during the second act, he suddenly swings down from the rafters and bursts onto the scene.
–The “Southern Motherfucking Democratic Republicans” lead a little parade.
To top off our great day we went to dinner at an Italian restaurant and afterwards I did a double-take, looking at one of the servers. I asked Eleanor if she thought it really was, and we weren’t sure, but then my brother finally went over and asked her if she was one of the Starkids–Rachael Soglin, who played Jasmine in Twisted and Emberley in Firebringer. It really was her, and she signed Walker’s Hamilton program!
As one of our last holiday events, after we got back home, we had a poetry reading. I read a Maggie Smith poem (author of the increasingly famous “Good Bones”). This one is about a mother, contains several very familiar Ohio references, and begins with an image of cornfields that made me sing a line from Oklahoma (“the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye”):
Home-free by Maggie Smith
There’s no rhyme for how high the corn should be
in September, but I can see it, and I’m telling you
it’s up to my chest, maybe even my neck—
it’s hard to tell from the road—and it’s brown,
and judging by the sibilance when the wind
rubs the husks together, it must feel like paper.
I didn’t see myself living among husks. I didn’t
see myself here, not once I’d left my mother
and father’s house. Not Ohio, not round on the ends,
not high in the middle, not where some creeks
are called cricks. I always thought I would leave,
home-free, and go anywhere: land of silver
mesquite branches, land of dry riverbeds
with stones a horse could spark its hooves on.
Not here, not knee-high by July, not in the heart
of it all, not where some cricks are creeks:
Alum, Big Darby, Blacklick. I didn’t see myself
raising children here, raising as if they could
levitate if we focused our attention. I didn’t
see myself dying in my hometown, not a few
miles from where I was born, not surrounded
by my children, their feet planted on the ground.
I can see them. They’ll say they always knew
where to find me. They’ll say I was always here.
Maybe a lot of the people who find themselves in Ohio always thought they would leave. I certainly did, and yet here I am after two decades, still singing “Don’t Let Me Die Here” by Uncle Bonsai.
Have you lived anywhere for two decades or more, and do you like where you live?
Have you read other poems by Maggie Smith?
Have you seen Hamilton, or do you want to?
Are you a fan of the Starkids?
The first literature class I got to teach, in 1984, was a sophomore-level class called “The Short Story.” I was allowed to pick my own anthology, and I read many of the stories in it for the first time.
Since then I’ve taught short stories for many years of my life–but since 2008, when I started this blog and quit commuting to a suburban Columbus college, I hadn’t written much about them. That is, until a friend of mine, still an adjunct at the state university in the town where we grew up, asked me which stories I would teach from the anthology she has to work with for a class that will meet for the first time two weeks from the day she found out she was going to teach it.
Making the list for her was so much fun for me that I thought I’d share it here, as a list of essential short stories most readers would love:
Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Bradbury, August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains
Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (and Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank)
Chekhov, The Darling
Chopin, The Story of an Hour
Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Ellison, Battle Royal
Faulkner, A Rose For Emily
Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper
Hawthorne, Young Goodman Brown
Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants
Jackson, The Lottery
LeGuin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
de Maupassant, The Necklace
Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener
Oates, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?
O’Brien, The Things They Carried
O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find
Poe, The Cask of Amontillado
Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron
Walker, Everyday Use
David Foster Wallace, Everything is Green
Wright, The Man Who Was Almost a Man
As I said to my friend, these are the most famous ones, the ones you don’t want to miss, the ones most rewarding to teach.
I picked “A Good Man is Hard to Find” for O’Connor because it’s fun to ask college students questions about the grandmother, whose motives usually get overlooked when a young person first reads the story.
The ones by science fiction authors are particularly easy to teach because SF is so much about ideas–“August 2026” is one of my favorites, because you go through and ask about details and the picture builds up. Whose are those shadows on the wall outside? Where is the dog?
I once wrote a blog post about “Araby.” I see it as a story about being made to feel stupid for wanting what you want, and it’s probably my favorite short story ever.
“The Necklace” and “The Cask of Amontillado” have inspired memes, so if students know about those, they will recognize the story. I especially love the Amontillado memes, about luring a person you don’t like into the basement with the promise of something nice.
I love each of these stories. Do you love any of them?
After reading its praises from several different people, I finally decided to read News of the World, by Paulette Jiles, and discovered my favorite book of the year. The subject matter of this novel didn’t immediately interest me, but the way it is written, especially the kindness exhibited by the two main characters, reminded me a little bit of last year’s favorite, St John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
The novel follows the actions of an old man who has already lived through three wars, most recently the War Between the States, and who “had been at one time a printer but the war had taken his press and everything else” so now he makes a living from the dimes his audience members put in a can while he reads from newspapers and journals in the small towns of north Texas. He was a captain in the military and his name is Kidd, so he is known as Captain Kidd.
After a reading in Wichita Falls, Captain Kidd meets an acquaintance, Britt Johnson, a free black man who goes after Indian captives since recapturing his own son after a year with the Kiowa. Both because there is no one else to do it and because “his life seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled,” Captain Kidd finds himself agreeing to transport a ten-year-old girl who had been captured at six years of age by Kiowas back to what is left of her family, an aunt and uncle in San Antonio, where he once lived. He is told her name is Johanna Leonberger and that both of her parents were killed in the raid when she was taken, but she doesn’t speak any English or remember her life before she was six. What she knows is that “my name is Cicada. My father’s name is Turning Water. My Mother’s name is Three Spotted. I want to go home.”
What the girl doesn’t know is that, as Britt tells the captain, “the Kiowa don’t want her. They finally woke up to the fact that having a white captive gets you run down by the cav. The Agent said to bring all the captives in or he was cutting off their rations and sending the Twelfth and the Ninth out after them. They brought her in and sold her for fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware….Her mother cut her arms to pieces and you could hear her crying for a mile.”
Taking the information that the girl “jumped out of the wagon twice between Fort Sill and here” and the gold piece the girl’s relatives have sent for her return, Captain Kidd arranges to have the girl washed and dressed in western clothes while he goes to buy a wagon for them to ride in, finding one that says “Curative Waters East Mineral Springs Texas” on the side, planning that “his roan mare packhorse could pull it and his bay saddle horse could come behind.” The girl is left at “Lottie’s establishment” where
“It cost them two hours to get her into a bathtub and washed and to dispose of her Kiowa dress. One of the women threw the glass beads and the deerskin dress with its valuable elk teeth out the window. They pulled the feathers from her hair, which was crawling with graybacks….At the end, the tub lay on its side and the water drained between the cracks of the floorboards into the receiving parlor below and stained the red flocking on the wallpaper while the girl’s flat and glassy eyes regarded them all from the floor where she crouched.”
Captain Kidd also dresses for the road, putting his reading suit and hat carefully away because “young people could get away with rough clothing but unless the elderly dressed with care they looked like homeless vagabonds,” an observation that still seems to me to be, largely, true.
After this unpromising start, the old man and the young girl gradually become friends, and then allies. The story of how that happens is marvelous–from their first run-in with an army patrol, when “it was clear that the Captain was not going to let them have her,” through his refusal to give her up when a kindly woman who understands some of what the child is going through offers to take over the journey to her relatives, which makes the old man reflect that “no one wants her for herself,” and then to their defense of themselves and the “Curative Waters” wagon with dimes as ammunition against armed men who want the girl because, as they say, “blond girls are premium.” The Captain fights to keep the girl safe, and the girl fights because that is what she knows.
Watching over this ten-year-old girl and thinking of his adult daughters, the Captain reflects on his life and thinks:
“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”
Through all their travels, the Captain reads from the newspapers, “of far places and frozen climes, of reports of revolution in Chile, trying to bring them distant magic that was not only marvelous but true.” He avoids conflict, gives advice and quotes pieces he remembers from his former life as a printer. He is kind and slow to judge others, even the girl’s relatives, when he finds them at the end of the trail.
The story of their journey is like the sign on the wall of a printing office they visit:
“CROSSROADS OF CIVILIZATION
Refuge of all the arts against the ravages of time.”
It’s a story that will give you hope that kindness can prevail, even through the dark days in the history of what we regard as civilization.
When I was a graduate student, we talked a little about imposter syndrome, although I don’t believe we called it that; most of the English graduate students I knew at the University of Maryland felt that we were trying to live up to something, some idea of ourselves as potential movers and shakers in the intellectual world.
One of the stories we told among ourselves was a kind of progression joke, about the person who woke up one day and suddenly found she had her PhD—what do I do, she wondered, what do I know? How do I teach these classes? Then she woke up and found she was president of the university. And then she woke up and found she was president of the United States. The speed of the progression was supposed to restore our perspective.
Perspective is skewed, though, after November 2016. When we were told as kids that anyone could grow up to be president, I don’t think we thought that meant this… we thought you had to be smart.
The presidential election is only one of the things that happened since I was a graduate student that has shaken my faith in the idea that the people in charge know what they are doing. I know professors and college presidents. My generation is starting to take over some of what was done by the previous generation, the “baby boomers” who have always been ahead of us, always seeming to know everything already. Never good at moving aside, however, not enough of them have retired to let us actually take over; they are moving aside reluctantly, as their wits falter or their bodies no longer carry them where they want to go.
Now it looks like there is no one ahead of me, guiding the way. There are people too obsessed with making a living to pay much attention to how they are living, and too old to continue doing things the way they’ve always done them before. It makes me think of the poem “The Star-splitter,” by Robert Frost:
“You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me
Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something
I should have done by daylight, and indeed,
After the ground is frozen, I should have done
Before it froze, and a gust flings a handful
Of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney
To make fun of my way of doing things,
Or else fun of Orion’s having caught me.
Has a man, I should like to ask, no rights
These forces are obliged to pay respect to?”
So Brad McLaughlin mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming,
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a lifelong curiosity
About our place among the infinities.
“What do you want with one of those blame things?”
I asked him well beforehand. “Don’t you get one!”
“Don’t call it blamed; there isn’t anything
More blameless in the sense of being less
A weapon in our human fight,” he said.
“I’ll have one if I sell my farm to buy it.”
There where he moved the rocks to plow the ground
And plowed between the rocks he couldn’t move,
Few farms changed hands; so rather than spend years
Trying to sell his farm and then not selling,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And bought the telescope with what it came to.
He had been heard to say by several:
“The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see;
The strongest thing that’s given us to see with’s
A telescope. Someone in every town
Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.
In Littleton it may as well be me.”
After such loose talk it was no surprise
When he did what he did and burned his house down.
Mean laughter went about the town that day
To let him know we weren’t the least imposed on,
And he could wait—we’d see to him tomorrow.
But the first thing next morning we reflected
If one by one we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn’t take us long
To get so we had no one left to live with.
For to be social is to be forgiving.
Our thief, the one who does our stealing from us,
We don’t cut off from coming to church suppers,
But what we miss we go to him and ask for.
He promptly gives it back, that is if still
Uneaten, unworn out, or undisposed of.
It wouldn’t do to be too hard on Brad
About his telescope. Beyond the age
Of being given one for Christmas gift,
He had to take the best way he knew how
To find himself in one. Well, all we said was
He took a strange thing to be roguish over.
Some sympathy was wasted on the house,
A good old-timer dating back along;
But a house isn’t sentient; the house
Didn’t feel anything. And if it did,
Why not regard it as a sacrifice,
And an old-fashioned sacrifice by fire,
Instead of a new-fashioned one at auction?
Out of a house and so out of a farm
At one stroke (of a match), Brad had to turn
To earn a living on the Concord railroad,
As under-ticket-agent at a station
Where his job, when he wasn’t selling tickets,
Was setting out up track and down, not plants
As on a farm, but planets, evening stars
That varied in their hue from red to green.
He got a good glass for six hundred dollars.
His new job gave him leisure for stargazing.
Often he bid me come and have a look
Up the brass barrel, velvet black inside,
At a star quaking in the other end.
I recollect a night of broken clouds
And underfoot snow melted down to ice,
And melting further in the wind to mud.
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.
That telescope was christened the Star-Splitter,
Because it didn’t do a thing but split
A star in two or three the way you split
A globule of quicksilver in your hand
With one stroke of your finger in the middle.
It’s a star-splitter if there ever was one,
And ought to do some good if splitting stars
‘Sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.
We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?
I like the line “the best thing that we’re put here for’s to see.” That’s how I like to think I’ve lived my life. In the last few years, though, while I haven’t succumbed to the temptation to install the app that replaces news stories with pictures of cats, I have avoided the news, to some extent. I haven’t made time to see, nor have I steeled myself to deal with the consequences of seeing. Instead, I’ve often contented myself with “mean laughter” at people I considered more ignorant.
What are the consequences of seeing? When you get much of your news reposted from social media, it can be something like in the poem: “If one by one we counted people out/For the least sin, it wouldn’t take us long/To get so we had no one left to live with.” So finally I decided it was time to subscribe to newspapers again, starting with the New York Times and the Washington Post. Right now I don’t much like reading them; I’ve fallen out of the habit. But I’m making myself do it, as it’s one of the best ways to support efforts to find out the truth and for a reader to figure out what is true in an era of fake news.
A lot of my friends are devoting themselves to one political cause—education or local government or environmental issues, and that seems like a good response to their need to do something. My response doesn’t seem as good. It’s what “ought to do some good if splitting stars/ ‘sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.” It’s not practical. It’s not much of an action.
But it is a worthwhile endeavor–to try to become more wise instead of just more curmudgeonly as I get older, here in this small town in “flyover country,” in a “red state.”
It’s the way I know how to continue to work towards becoming a person others can follow. It’s like when my kids got old enough to start picking out a catnip toy to drop into the cat’s Christmas stocking, and then as they got older, we let them put a few things into other peoples’ stockings, and then we finally gave them a turn at what we call “dropping in” on Christmas Eve night, when all the stockings get mysteriously full. If you want to believe in Santa, then your family has to create a Santa tradition to believe in.
If I want a star to follow, then I guess eventually I’ve got to find a way to give off more light. And the only way I really know how to do that is to keep learning more, keep learning and looking for new ways to share it.
Both Walker and Eleanor are home for Christmas break! We celebrated by going to see Rogue One, which was excellent fun, and then Arrival, which is a movie that I wish more people would see. It has aliens and spaceships and interesting ideas about language and thought.
So does Dark Orbit, by Carolyn Ives Gilman. Her protagonist is Sara Callicot, who works in outer space as an “exoethnologist,” and who has accepted a job watching out for Thora Lassiter, a person who, we are told, had some sort of psychological breakdown on her previous job as a “sensualist” studying new forms of human perception. They are on an old spaceship called the Escher, as:
“The ancient designer had taken playful advantage of the fact that in the spin-gravity created by the ship’s rotation, down was always the outside of the ship, which formed a 360-degree arc. Instead of tactfully hiding that disconcerting fact for the comfort of the inhabitants, the builders had left open atriums and skylights where you could catch seemingly impossible vistas of other residents walking on walls or drinking coffee at tables affixed to the ceilings.”
Sara and Thora are on a scientific mission to study a mysterious planet with dark matter. Sara is employed by a corporation called Epco, who have hired all the scientists on the ship. As it is explained to Sara, “we’re not going to be discipline based, but method based. Our departments are Descriptive Sciences, System Sciences, Intuitive Sciences, and Corroborative Sciences.” When she asks what that last one is, she is told that they are “the people who are trying to combine scientific method with already-formed systems of thought, mostly about the creation of the universe.”
On the first survey mission of the planet, Thora discovers that the planet is inhabited by blind people who live underground and have a mysterious extra sense (and kind of super-power) they call “the Ground.” One of them, a little girl named Moth, uses her ability to “wend” to take herself aboard the spaceship with Sara, who teaches her how to use her eyes, although she is ultimately unsuccessful at teaching her to see:
“It took several frustrating days before she realized that Moth did not understand that a close thing could hide objects that were farther away. Moth had already begun to figure it out before Sara realized the problem, but her interpretation was creative. As they stood looking into Sara’s office one morning, she said, ‘Thy desk is very loud.’
Since the desk was being no noisier than usual, Sara asked what she meant. ‘It doth drown out the chair and the cabinet,’ she said.
‘No, it hides the chair and the cabinet, because they are behind it.’ Moth looked quite puzzled, so Sara asked, ‘You only see part of the chair now, right?’
‘What would you do if you wanted to see more of it?’
Hesitantly, she said, ‘Wait for the desk to be quieter?’
‘No, this is as quiet as it gets. Just walk forward.’
This defied Moth’s common sense. ‘How can my moving affect the desk?’”
While Moth is on the spaceship learning about a different culture, Thora is learning more about the blind peoples’ civilization, and beginning to learn about wending. This process involves such a change in perception that, at one point, Thora comments that her teacher “spoke in such a matter-of-fact tone that I realized he was teaching me practical knowledge, though my culture saw it as the most recondite philosophy.” Learning about wending requires Thora to enlarge her perception, much like the main character in Arrival is forced to enlarge hers. “In the Ground,” Thora’s teacher tells her, “all times are present at once, and all places. It is not many places, it is one….In the Ground we cannot travel, because it is all one place. We cannot go back in time because it is all one moment, now.”
Epco, of course, would be interested in this method of instantaneous arrival at any place in the galaxy where someone is thinking of the “wender.” The end of the adventure consists of Thora and Sara working to preserve what is left of Moth’s culture while keeping the secret of wending away from the corporation who has already dismissed it as some sort of psychological breakdown.
One of the most revealing ideas from this marvelously alien world is how difficult it is for humans to be able to look at new things without preconceptions:
“When you lot were down on the planet, every one of you called those things you encountered ‘trees.’ They didn’t look like trees, they didn’t sound like trees, they obviously weren’t trees. But because you called them that, everyone who comes after us is going to shrug and say, ‘Oh, that’s just a tree.’ We’ve undiscovered them.”
If you see Arrival and like it, try reading Dark Orbit afterwards, for a book that goes even farther with intriguing ideas about perception.
I first read about Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace, at Rhapsody in Books, where Jill wrote a concise and accurate synopsis bound to lure me in, on account of its mention that Wasp’s job is trying to get information from ghosts (otherwise known as “necromancy”):
“This gripping story, set in a time far into the future, is about the latest girl to be marked as “Archivist” by the Catchkeep Priest. The Archivist is someone whose job is trapping the many ghosts that wander through the area, and trying to get information from them on who they were and what happened to the old world. After she is done interrogating them, she is supposed to “dispatch” them. She is trained to be brutal; she becomes Archivist only after killing other “upstarts” wanting the job.
But this is not at all a ‘ghost story.’ The ghosts provide a frame for the picture of life in this post-apocalyptic world, and eventually, answers about how it came about.”
I soon found that the story begins when Wasp finds a ghost who can communicate with her, a first not only in her own experience, but in the archival notes handed down over the past 400 years. Wasp has a list,
“worn and soiled from the hands of countless Archivists, of questions one was supposed to ask a ghost, if a ghost was ever found who could reply. Name of specimen. Age of specimen. Description of surrounding environment during specimen’s lifetime. Description of specimen’s life, work, family, friends, enemies. Does the specimen recognize other ghosts? How does the specimen decide where to appear in the living world? Where does it come from when it appears? Where does it go? How many found objects in the Waste can the specimen identify? Did the world die during the specimen’s lifetime? Place and manner of specimen’s death. Manner of the world’s death, if known, in as much detail as possible.”
As Jill’s synopsis notes, Wasp is not brutal by nature; in fact she jumps at the first chance to leave her life and the job she has to fight to keep, in order to stay alive. When the ghost who can talk offers her a device that he used to instantly heal her broken ankle, she thinks “what couldn’t she get in trade for this thing? It could keep her in real food and fresh water for years. It could buy her seeds and compost and planting soil, and she could feed herself for years to come.” The ghost asks her to come with him into the underworld to find another ghost, “a ghost I need to find,” he says.
Wasp has a tether to the world of the living as she enters the underworld, a place where she has to literally battle her fears and work to get rid of some of the deadweight that has been dragging her down. She explains to the ghost that
“for every upstart she had fought and killed, a large part of the dead girl’s hair was cut off and interwoven into Wasp’s. Three per year for three years….And some from the Archivist she had killed to get there. She explained how every year, after the fight, before she’d even recovered from her wounds, it all was unwoven, the new growth of her own hair trimmed, then everyone else’s plaited back in and glued where the plaits didn’t hold. How every year her head grew heavier, and if she were too successful for too long, the weight would blind her with migraines, slow her movements, level the field between her and the upstarts who would eventually tear her down.”
Wasp cuts off all of the hair, to leave it as part of an underworld bridge made out of things the dead have left: “from their pockets, from their coffins. From their mouths and eyes.” She thinks to herself that “she liked the idea of laying all those murdered girls down to rest here after carrying them through the upper world so long.”
Wasp has learned how to perform spells with blood and salt, to bind ghosts. She eventually figures out how to improvise a spell for finding a particular ghost, using some blood on a piece of paper carried by the ghost who has asked her help. As they travel through the underworld, fighting their way through obstacles, Wasp learns more of the ghost’s story, which is the story of the end of the technological world and the beginning of the subsistence existence that led to the Catchkeep religion and Wasp’s job as archivist.
The ghost tells Wasp “I need to talk to her. One last time” and Wasp thinks “Of course you do….You’re a ghost. You need answers. You need closure. You need them like the living need air to breathe. You think it’s just you, but from what I’ve seen, most of us die without getting either.
And maybe that’s all a ghost is, in the end. Regret, grown legs, gone walking.”
This is the first time in the story that the existence of ghosts in Wasp’s world is really addressed, and at last we understand why her job has been to destroy them. To put it less elegantly than it is gradually revealed by the story, a subsistence society can’t keep going if everyone is too weighed down by regret over how the world, with its myth and religion, came into being on the bones of a former, more technologically advanced, society.
This is not, as Jill’s synopsis notes, a ghost story. It is, however, a story in which a kind of necromancy pays. For Wasp–who turns out to have another name, Isabel–finding out about the past points her towards the future by helping her see how to free herself and the “upstarts” from superstition and ignorance. I’d say that’s an atypical reward for the use of necromancy.