Today is the eighth anniversary of Necromancy Never Pays.
I am celebrating by leaving winter behind in Ohio and flying to Oahu today! You will get photos upon my return.
In the spirit of hobbit birthday presents, are there other requests can I grant for you during the next year? Books you want me to read? Poems you’d like to see me discuss? More photos of my cats?
Among the Lost, by Seth Steinzor, is a timely reminder of what we must struggle with on earth if we ever want to get a glimpse of paradise. Not ostensibly religious, it is a re-imagining of Dante’s Purgatorio for the modern era, a follow-up to his modern version of the Inferno (To Join the Lost), although you don’t have to have read the first in order to enjoy this second volume. (I got my copy of Among the Lost from the author, who wanted my response to it after reading my response to his first volume.)
Because it is told from a very personal point of view, the details may not seem to invite a female reader or anyone under the age of fifty in, at first, but the universality of the struggle to move past each of the seven deadly sins is inescapable. We are recognized and are each complicit:
“You, who scrape the tops off mountains for coal,
who fill the valleys with garbage, who scrape the
meadows level for parking, who fill the marshes with
concrete and pylons, who build and tear down,
who level the high places and raise the low…”
Our struggles to do better are the point of this journey. The viewpoint is from outside, where we can recognize ourselves, as in the description of rush hour:
“A man is annoyed by this big-assed pickup truck
he can’t see over or around
and all the other things that block his view.
A man is anxious he’ll be late.
And another. And a woman. And a
string of them, anxious; anxiety tinged with
anger or nibbled by fear or just barely controlled or
writhing like a restless sleeper
in the pit of this man’s stomach. He punches his
radio’s scan button every time it
settles on a station. There’s a trucker
pondering where she’ll be at lunch time.
And, boxed in behind the eighteen wheeler, a
ton and a half of SUV to his
left (the driver’s wondering did he leave the
stove turned on) and two blue tons of
SUV to his right (the driver’s regretting
what she did with her hair) and a hungover
twenty-year-old in a bread truck close behind…”
The poem gives us images of our world from outside of it, like a “pro-life” protestor:
“’Honey,’ she says, ‘Please don’t kill your baby.’
What she thinks she is feeling, she would
like to label ‘love,’ this mixture of stage fright,
sentimental fantasy (the
infant pink and mild), and iron compulsion to
bear her witness into the world.”
References to the current affairs of yesterday–scandals ranging from hurricane Katrina to the welfare fraud of the woman who accused Michael Jackson of being a pedophile–are listed, and in an attempt to remind us of how inured we have become to such evils, the guide comments:
“Where I live, to witness violent death
stops us where we stand, startled.”
In some of the cantos, the “deadly sin” that we struggle with is explicit, as in Canto XI: “We’re Talking Proud!” which describes a school that has a
a white rectangle like a movie marquee.
Its block letters spell ‘WELCOME
TO ROMAN HRUSKA ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
EXEL ENCE IS NUMBER 1”
The irony of this image, with its comment on the public school system, is almost unbearable in the wake of the nomination of Betsy DeVos for US Secretary of Education.
In the section on overcoming wrath, a former union worker, a black man, recalls
“I kept my head down, did my job as good
as I could do it, never, never
let them pathetic cracker bastards rile me
to where they could see it. Bought myself
a damn fine case of hypertension!”
The section on how to battle avarice seems oddly prescient, given the current state of the nation:
“They make government their bitch and plaything,
and claim it’s for the common good.
They keep to themselves what the poor most need, and when
from lacking the means to soften their lives
the poor are toughened, stunted, and deformed
they damn the poor for being so damaged.”
Working through gluttony, however, is just about the same in any age:
“I watch the people
feeding appetites that have nothing to
do with food. Comfort? Mmmm. Safety?
Stretch your belly. Spirituality?
Chew, chew, chew.
Fuggedaboutit. They’ve forgotten
what food is and where it comes from and why
their maws can’t get no satisfaction…”
The cumulative effect of the volume is to wake readers to the nightmares we’ve been helping to create in our country by ignorance and inaction, the nightmares that many of us have finally been forced to confront in the wake of the last presidential election:
“How hard can it
be to care for one another? Your rich
begrudge the poor their mite. Your poor
begrudge each other. The ones in the middle fear
the ones below them, bend the knee to the
moneyed, and keep an eye on their neighbors. The space a
dollar takes is more than you would
spare the creatures around you. You’re free with this:
you shit your nest and everywhere else. You
stomp around the world with an anxious smile and a
big knife, taking whatever you
want, and whoever gets in your way had better
look to god for help…”
Like the characters in Little Women read and think about Pilgrim’s Progress, today’s Americans could stand to read and consider this volume, reminding themselves at each stop, each “deadly sin,” of how far we have let things slide in this country, and how much work we’re going to have to do to be able to catch up, much less offer a new version of the “city upon a hill.”
The Fireman is a satisfyingly long page-turner of a novel by Joe Hill. It features a plague that causes people to spontaneously combust, characters who learn to cope with being sick–they learn how to glow instead of burn–and other characters whose fear causes them to act like monsters, and it shows the power of faith in pop culture icons as diverse as Mary Poppins, John Wyndham, and Martha Quinn (have you ever heard of Martha Quinn? I hadn’t, before reading this novel).
The protagonist is a nurse named Harper Grayson who
“associated English accents with singing teapots, schools for witchcraft, and the science of deduction. This wasn’t, she knew, terribly sophisticated of her, but she had no real guilt about it. She felt the English were themselves to blame for her feelings. They had spent a century relentlessly marketing their detectives and wizards and nannies, and they had to live with the results.”
Harper meets several of the other characters in the course of her work at the hospital, among them Renee, who suffers from the incendiary plague they call “Dragonscale” and loans books to the other patients:
“Why The Bridge of San Luis Rey?” Harper asked.
“Partly because it’s about why inexplicable tragedies occur,” Renee said. “But also it’s short. I feel like most folks want a book they feel like they have time to finish. You don’t want to start A Game of Thrones when you might catch fire all of a sudden. There’s something horribly unfair about dying in the middle of a good story, before you have a chance to see how it all comes out. Of course, I supposed everyone always dies in the middle of a good story, in a sense. Your own story. Or the story of your children. Or your grandchildren. Death is a raw deal for narrative junkies.”
After Harper is infected with Dragonscale, she takes refuge at a formerly abandoned summer camp called Camp Wyndham, where she is told that all she has to do to avoid burning up is to “join the Bright” because “once you’re really one of us—part of the group—the Dragonscale won’t ever hurt you.” Harper’s first reaction is disbelief. She thinks
“such folk had given up their curiosity about the universe for a comforting children’s story. Harper could understand the impulse. She was a fan of children’s stories herself. But it was one thing to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon reading Mary Poppins and quite another to think she might actually turn up at your house to apply for the babysitting job.”
Eventually, however, Harper finds out that the little society at Camp Wyndham has stumbled onto some basic truths about how Dragonscale affects the human body, and that the kindness and community they believe in works for a while. As the fireman tells her “It’s easy to dismiss religion as bloody, cruel, and tribal. I’ve done it myself. But it isn’t religion that’s wired that way—it’s man himself. At bottom every faith is a form of instruction in common decency.”
The last third of the novel is the story of Harper’s journey with the fireman and Renee after Camp Wyndham goes up in flames. They are looking for the rumored island off the coast of Maine, where Martha Quinn is said to be offering shelter to those suffering from Dragonscale. As they approach the island, uninfected people leave out food and medicine along their way:
“So much kindness,” Renee said. “So many people looking after us. They don’t know a thing about us except we’re in need. I read a Cormac McCarthy novel once, about the end of the world. People hunting dogs and each other and frying up babies, and it was awful. But we need kindness like we need to eat. It satisfies something in us we can’t do without.”
At the end of the novel, Harper finds out that some of the people actually are kind, while others (as the fireman suspected, mentioning Hansel and Gretel) have more sinister motives.
There are lots of fun details I don’t want to give away because discovering them as you go along is part of the pleasure of reading this book. Did you know that Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King? I didn’t, until after I had read The Fireman.
Like a lot of Americans, I woke up on the morning of November 10 thinking that the world is not what I thought it was. The morning of Jan. 21 reassured many of us that maybe it is more like we thought it was, but it also made us aware that we are each required to make an effort to see that it remains bearable and habitable.
My daughter was at the march in Washington, D.C., wearing a pink “pussy” hat crocheted by a friend of mine, who ended up making about 160 more so that everyone going to the march from our college had one to wear. Even I had one, knitted by another friend of mine, to wear as I read the “blessing for the women’s march” at our local send-off.
This morning I started calling and emailing my representative and one of my senators, letting them know that I am paying attention to the issues and noting how they vote. It’s going to be daily work, and that gets difficult. It’s much like my daily work at physical therapy; I go only twice a week now, and have to do a long list of exercises on my own in between visits. It takes a lot of repetitions to build up the large muscles that support the knee, and it’s painful.
I’ve finally put my crutches back into the closet, not because I don’t still want something to lean on, especially when I have to get up in the middle of the night, but because I was tired of looking at them. The surgery wasn’t a cure, as I’d hoped. I may have to walk with a cane for the next few years. It’s very discouraging, but if I quit trying to walk, then I might not be able to walk ever again.
It sometimes seems like it would be easier to deal with a big disaster, instead of having to do the daily work. The title poem of Shane McCrae’s volume “The Animal Too Big to Kill” talks about this feeling:
Lord I have eaten and I think I won’t
anymore eat / Animals
many times my weight / In animals
enough that were they resurrected and combined
Like the heroic robot in that cartoon I somehow always missed
And always looked forward to as a child
Lord they would be an animal / Finally too big to kill
Except by You who would
Shatter the sky and hurl the burning blue whale-sized shards down to do it
Lord even though You wouldn’t have to break the sky to do it
And I accept I need to be reminded
I can’t escape responsibility
for being the kind of creature that requires signs Lord from You
Merely by now refusing to participate
in the killing of some of the sometimes instruments through which Your signs / Pass
as they pass through every creature Lord and every object You I know
Killing the animal too big to kill would be a sign
And I accept I can’t escape being grateful for Your signs
Being the kind of creature
That requires Your signs / Because You Lord have made me wondrous
Beginning with my always I imagine it to be
an ugly mush but really it’s
I think I’ve read /Harder than that
brain and the thinking it might someday do
Because Lord I might someday think
Until that day and after I require signs / Lord and I can’t escape
Being grateful for Your signs
Because my body not my brain responds to them and You I know
Killing the animal too big to kill would be a sign
Lord as I took it for a sign
When fifteen years ago I prayed to be convinced
and drove to the monastery in Mount Angel and
Two tall firs
across from each other on either side of the narrow road to the monastery
Were struck by lightning
rare Oregon lightning on a barely misting afternoon
And fell across the road and Lord I couldn’t leave
I took it for a sign and I believed
And that was when the moment when I understand the language now
The moment I was born again
The moment I believed I
Had seen God kill for me
Lord was the moment I became a human being
As You I know
killing the animal too big to kill would be a sign
We all want a sign, but after we’ve gotten one then we have to get to work and keep going, hour after hour, day after day—and if you’re like me, you can’t take too many breaks, or you’ll never get back to it.
I like the way the last poem in the volume, “The Calf,” acknowledges how hard it is to act on your convictions and keep acting on them:
Lord I have eaten and I don’t
Want to and have to
Anyway / Sometimes because I can’t afford to eat
According to my conscience animals
Lord many time my weight
in animals in the past / But since I started
eating animals again it hasn’t been that much
I’m sure it hasn’t been that much
Maybe if all the meat I’ve eaten since I started
eating animals again were piled and weighed
It would weigh as much as maybe if my leg were cut off
Below the knee the calf the shin the foot
Were laid in a scale opposite the meat
Maybe the scales would balance.
We all do many kinds of daily work, and in my experience it’s easier to do something than to refrain from doing something, especially when it comes to eating.
What most of us have to weigh when it comes to daily life is how much of the day we can stand to use up doing things we don’t enjoy but we think are good for us or good for the world. Now, as in my own too-heavy and weak-kneed life, a lot of us are going through a reassessment of that balance in order to try to help make the world what we thought it was and more of what we want it to be.
I’m going to be limping along for a while, hoping that practice will build up my muscles without too much grinding of the bones. How about you?
The label advertising 50% off should have been my first clue about the quality of Jennifer Weiner’s biography Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing. I didn’t heed it, however.
The first page, quoting the first line of Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse,” starts the book out well, and the second chapter follows with an appeal to anyone who “read voraciously, indiscriminately, gulping down anything….” That’s us, right?
When you start to look closer, though, Weiner’s version of “indiscriminate” reading began with pictures of naked people in her dad’s medical textbooks. She breezes by the title page of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar on the way to an extended description of her reaction to Erica Jong’s How to Save Your Own Life, “with its scene about a couple having uninhibited sex during the woman’s menstrual period.” There’s a focus here that doesn’t seem indiscriminate to me.
We find out that it took young Jennifer until her junior year of high school before she could “stop saving up my money to buy the Tretorn sneakers or the Benetton sweaters” and “stop lying about the music that I liked.” As readers, we suspect she’s right when she says “I suspect that my teenage years have a lot in common with the episode of 30 Rock when Liz Lemon goes to her high school reunion, complaining that nobody was nice to her and learning that, in fact, she wasn’t nice to anyone.”
There are chapters about her quirky family and her first few jobs to illustrate the growth of her ambition: “I wanted fame and fortune…or, at least, I wanted to publish a book and earn enough money that my kids would never be pulled out of a college class-registration line.” If you’re reading her book (and this review) you probably know enough about her to know already that her hopes for her first novel included wanting representation for her plus-size female protagonist and “to toss the book like a life buoy to those girls and women, and to the girl I’d been, and tell them, Hold on to this, and I promise you, it’ll be all right.”
She talk about her failed attempts to be a perfect mother when her first child was born and how
“these days, I try, in my own small way, to be a corrective to the culture that makes women feel like they’re disgraces if they can’t do it all by themselves, to the magazines stuffed with shots of celebrities where the kids and mom are all clean and perfectly clothed and coiffed and there’s never a nanny or paid caregiver in sight. Whenever people ask about the work-life balance, or how to manage a writing career with motherhood—and unlike male authors with young children, I get asked about it all the time—I don’t lie. ‘I have a ton of help,’ I tell them.”
There’s a chapter of advice for new moms, most of it sounding like it comes from experience, especially “Do not be surprised when the instant your kid pulls off her socks on a thirty-degree day, or you give her a sip of your iced coffee…someone will appear out of nowhere to judge you.”
I found what she says about dieting to be the best part of the book, at least at first. She’s obviously been in the trenches, and more than once:
“You deprive yourself until you’re weak, faint, embarrassing yourself by drooling every time an Applebee’s commercial comes on. Then you cram whatever’s handy down your throat, and you don’t even taste it, and you eat more of it than you’d intended, and you hate yourself even more.”
Eventually, though, Weiner reveals that she had lap-band surgery in 2008 and admits that “it’s true that some of my decision was motivated by health and comfort…but some of it was caving in to external pressure, to everything the world said about larger bodies. Maybe, if I’d been stronger or happier, I could have figured out how to be in the world at a size twenty-eight instead of a sixteen; how to deal with not fitting into airplane seats or not being able to buy clothes even at the plus-size shops at the mall; how to let it roll off my back when snarky local bloggers posted pictures of me at my heaviest….”
I can’t blame her for having weight loss surgery, but there’s no help for me in reading about her journey, either, since that’s not a measure I contemplate. It doesn’t much matter, after that, that I identify with her when she says “the one constant in my life is hunger. I will never be able to take food or leave it; instead, I’ll take it, and then take more.” Because her answer to the morons who say things like “she could stop eating so much” is to have surgery.
Then there are big swathes of the book about topics that don’t interest me, like her ideas about the importance of Twitter and her love of little dogs and a television show called The Bachelor.
Even Weiner’s personal recounting of the big “chick lit” feud with Franzen is curiously brief and low-key. She doesn’t so much defend chick lit as make fun of the idea that there are such things as “serious works of fiction.”
If you’re still curious, I’d be glad to send you my copy of this book, but I’m telling you that you’d be better off reading something else. Read Good In Bed, Weiner’s first novel, instead–it’s fun. This one isn’t.
“Why do people often feel so bad in good environments that they prefer bad environments? Why does a man [or woman] often feel better in a bad environment? Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?” –Walker Percy, The Message In the Bottle
It’s an ordinary Wednesday afternoon as I’m writing this, and I’ve just finished reading Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, which is 306 pages of bad, in addition to worse, terrible, and absolutely unthinkable. Some of the terrible images (including actual brandings) are branded into my mind forever. Why should you read such a novel?
I think a Walker Percy-like response is that in the twenty-first century, language is the way we examine what earlier centuries called the “soul” or “mind, freedom, will, Godlikeness.” How else but with language can we move forward from the events of the past, when, as William Faulkner says in Requiem for a Nun, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past”?
Whitehead’s novel has gotten a lot of attention for the actual railroad he invents for runaway slaves in this novel, complete with engines and passenger cars. Even this image—of an America riddled with secret underground passages—works to convey the idea of a country literally undermined by secrets of its past.
Rather than making them imaginable, the brisk and steady way Whitehead relates the inhumanities visited on the slaves makes them count in the way that pain is always counted, from one moment you believe you can’t bear to the next:
“Her last husband had his ears bored for stealing honey” (7).
“She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft” (33).
“Shackles to prevent a person from absconding, from moving their hands, or to suspend a body in the air for a beating.” (65).
Even for those who are not slaves, inhumanity is inescapable:
Mandatory sterilization for “colored women who have already birthed more than two children, in the name of population control. Imbeciles and the otherwise mentally unfit, for obvious reasons. Habitual criminals” (113).
Race laws which forbid “colored men and women from setting foot” in some states (165).
Slave catchers who ensure that “a black boy has no future, free papers or no. Not in this country. Some disreputable character would snatch him and put him on the block lickety-split” (202-203).
Whitehead’s protagonist Cora learns to read after she escapes from slavery, but she cannot use it as an escape because “poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world” (251).
The final revelation of the novel is spoken in heartbreaking circumstances by a character who we thought was “safe” in a world where no one can be: “The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse” (294).
Refusing to be mean… it’s more difficult than some of us believe, occasionally making fun of ideas like “micro-aggression” on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon. Language counts in the bad environment that we’ve created in America in 2017. To the rest of the world, I’m afraid we appear to believe in “the divine thread connecting all human endeavor—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.” So if you’re an American and interested in trying to move forward from here, you should read this novel.
I can’t imagine reading it more than once, however, and so I am willing to send my copy to someone who comments and says they’d like to read it. (Updated: Care of Care’s Books and Pie won my copy.)
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.