Homecoming – Yaa Gyazi (2016)

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“Homecoming” is a debut novel that has set the interwebs and reviewers into a bit of spin about how fantastic it is, and so when I spotted it on the shelf, it leaped (leapt?) into my little grubby hands. It’s been hailed as one of the newest darlings of the literary world and as a new tour de force in African-American (or African?) literature.

However one chooses to describe it, it’s a good read. The narrative arc follows the fortunes (or not) of a family in Ghana tracing how slavery impacts its path over the centuries starting back in the 18

Ghana_africa-map Told from an omniscient point of view and traveling through time and across continents, the story starts with two half-sisters who follow very different paths through life unknowingly, one living a life of relative wealth after marrying a white man and one who ends up on the opposite side of the coin, but both affected by the slave trade. The location common to both is that of Cape Coast Castle, one sister living on the upper floors in safety and comfort whilst her sister suffers on the dungeon floor in terrible cramped conditions with the others waiting for their travel on the ships to America or other colony elsewhere.

So it’s not that new a narrative structure or in how it’s presented, but it is well written. I am wondering if many of the other reviewers out on the web are inexperienced with slavery stories and perhaps that is how it’s had this great reception. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great book but not completely unlike others out there. (Am I being mean? I’m trying not to be. I just wasn’t so wowed to quite the same extent as others.)

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(So, I’ve only just now realized that the patriotic English song, “Rule Britannia!”, contains a reference to the slave trade. Partway through, the line goes “And Britons never…shall be slaves”, and growing up hearing this song, I had always thought this to be a call of maintaining national independence etc., when, as I think about it now, it’s more likely a reference to the slave trade. (D’oh.) The song was written in the 1740’s which was slap bang in the middle of slave industrial years for England so it makes sense. Hard to believe that I’ve only just put this together…)

In researching that song, it turns out to have a strong link with the Royal Navy who played a vital role in maintaining the independence of England, the island nation, and over time, the lyrics were edited from being an exhortation (“Britannia! Rule the waves!”) to more of a statement (“Britannia rules the waves!”) and which reflected the historical changes over time as England became more of a nautical powerhouse. This links with the Victorian phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire” which refs the fact that a lot of the world was pink on the world map (signifying British territories or colonies) and the colonies were spread out in such a way that regardless of whatever the time was, it was daylight somewhere in a colony at the time.

Huh. So now I know… Cool.

Back to the book: So, this is a multi-thread narrative from both the perspectives of the enslaved (or soon to be enslaved) and those who run the slave industry, so there are interesting power/powerless dichotomies to look at. It also covers some of the early Ghanaian tribal warfare which also adds another complex layer as humans (especially women/brides) also had a price, but in a different way. How is this way more acceptable than another way…?

So lots to think about. This was a quick read and a good one. Not quite sure why it’s getting all the hoopla vs. other authors out there, but if you’re looking for an interesting read, here you go.

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Carol – Patricia Highsmith (1952)

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I was pondering what to read next when I remembered that I had seen the movie, “Carol”, when it was released earlier in the year and loved that so therefore was interested in reading the book itself. I wasn’t disappointed as it was a very good read.

It’s the story of a young shop girl in 1950’s New York City who meets an older richer woman and how their relationship develops. It’s pegged as an early lesbian book, but after reading it, I would argue that the story covers human relationships more than a lesbian one. However, as it was written in 1952 when same-sex issues were extremely undercover (out of necessity) and seen as morally wrong, there’s no denying that the two women have to have a more complicated relationship than would otherwise be seen in those times. (Ahhh. Those judgy 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s….)

Anyhow, the two women are attracted to each other, but is it authentic? Or is one more authentic than the other? And then who’s to say, anyway?

patricia highsmithThere are other issues involved as well: One of the women is older, more experienced, and very rich (the other the opposite in those ways). One of the women is married with a child (and the other is not), and so there is a lot at stake here if the relationship went public (e.g. probable loss of parental rights, loss of money/support etc.) It’s the 1950’s when women still were seen as property (culturally speaking) – women didn’t tend to work (so no $$), property was probably in husband’s name (so women had few assets) and all that jazz. Divorce is frowned upon and if you add in a same-sex relationship, you end up with an explosive mix.

Plus – who is in love with whom? Is the relationship equal in terms of how one feels for the other or there other reasons involved? And there’s the power issues…

It’s a complex novel (as you can tell), but it reads very quickly. It’s one of those books where you read it and then do most of your thinking about it after you’ve finished it. I loved it.

It’s interesting that I think the novel’s complexity also reflects the author’s own complexity as, according to several people, she could be a rude and misanthropic person who preferred animals (particularly snails*) to people. There were also addiction issues, and her personal life was a bit rocky, relationship-wise. (She had an unsettling childhood life as well which probably played a role.) Add to this the fact that she refused to let people put her into any categories of any kind (at a time when *everyone* was put into a category of one sort or another), and you have one very interesting person.

Regardless of how you pin this novel genre-wise, it’s well regarded and Highsmith described it as one of the first same-sex relationship novels where the protagonist and the lover had not killed themselves by the end due to being gay in a homophobic culture. (The two women in this novel are not happy per se in this story, but at least they are alive and breathing at the end. Baby steps, people.)

Anyway, this was a fascinating read for both the narrative and the cultural meaning that surrounded it at the time so I do recommend it. It’s a passionate love story but then it’s also so much more. I really enjoyed it (especially in combination with the film of the same name) and I think you’d like it.

(Highsmith is well known for her other novels including The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on the Train (neither of which I’ve read yet). Has anyone else read anything by her? What did you think?)

Extra for you: An interesting article from The Guardian (05/13/15) about more background behind the book and film.

* Highsmith once took a handbag full of 100 snails and some lettuce to a dinner party. I’m not sure what to say about that, apart from perhaps it reflects her view of being true to herself. Go her. If you want to bring a  bag o’ snails to a dinner party, then you bring them. More power to you.

The Color Purple – Alice Walker (1982)

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“Wives is like children. You have to let em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating.”

This was a book that I’ve been meaning to reread for ages, and so with my project of African-American History Month, I dug out a copy and dug in. This was definitely one of the best reads that I’ve had so far this year. It was really good and I picked it up at every chance that I could get as I wanted to keep up with Celie, the main character. I was actually pretty riveted to this story and the memorable characters.

Written in 1982, The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award for 1983, and then was made into a film and a musical as well. (In fact, my local cinema is holding a movie series focused on sexism in American movies, and this particular film is one of the selections. I’m interested to hear what the prof says.)

So – to the story itself. Written in an epistolary form (swoon), it is made up of letters (obviously) from Celie to God, from her sister Nettie far away to Celie, and finally from Celie to Nettie. Celie, the main character, has grown up in poverty, having been abused by her father, her stepfather, and then her husband. She is really beaten in how she views the world, and the reader can read this as it’s seen through her eyes. The scene is set in 1930’s rural Georgia and makes no effort to try to sweeten life for poor women of color at that time. There’s violence, some drugs, rampant unemployment and poverty. It’s a tough mix to handle, but it’s much tougher for the characters involved.

alice_walkerIt’s also written in dialect, but this is completely understandable when you take your time, and it’s the dialect that makes the book special as it makes the events immediate and multicolor to the reader. At least it did for me.

Poor Celie. I really wanted to go out and rescue her and teach her that the world doesn’t have to be that horrible all the time. Her father abused her (and maybe slept with her) to produce two children who she hasn’t seen for years. Her stepfather hates her, and then she is made to marry another winner for a husband, a man who continues the abuse because he would rather have married someone else.

This husband of Celie’s is actually in love with another woman, a glamorous lounge singer who, when she gets ill one time, actually moves into the same house with Celie and her husband. Celie adores the singer (named Shug Avery) and is bereft when Shug leaves after getting well. And the story continues over the rest of Celie’s life. Does she ever get a break? You’ll have to read it to see.

It’s a long convoluted story with multiple characters and multiple layers to the narrative which leaves it open to various interpretations. It’s definitely a feminist novel in that Celie learns to take charge of her life and safety, and steps out on her own. Shug and another character called Sofia are independent women who don’t put up with bad behavior from the men in their lives, and then Nettie, Celie’s long-lost sister, also is brave when taking a leap into the unknown when she travels to Africa.

There’s systemic racism (naturally) that plays a huge role in the narrative arc, and there’s the questioning of gender roles throughout. There’s the issue of racial stereotypes (clearly described when Nettie goes to Africa and deals with the African perspective of African-Americans). In fact, I could go on and I imagine professors and teachers have a hay day with this. Interestingly enough, it’s also on the ALA Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books List of 1990-1999 and the years 2000-2009 for “offensive language, sexually explicit and unsuited to age group”.  Strangely, it hasn’t made the Top Ten list since 2009. Perhaps schools have stopped putting it in their curricula? Not sure.

I say this is a darned good read with a protagonist you’ll fall in love with despite her flaws. If you had to read this as part of your school curriculum and didn’t enjoy it, try it again now that you may be older. It’s a fantastic read and I continue to think about Celie even now.

And that in wondering about the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big ones than you start out. The more I wonder, he say, the morel love.

(NOTE: I’m sad that some men still engaged in horribly racist Jim-Crow style killing in Mississippi and just got ordered to pay $840,000 to the estate of the murdered man. See the story here.  Sometimes I wonder about the human race.)

The Country Girls trilogy – Edna O’Brien

The last title in the trilogy.

The last title in the trilogy with this great 1960’s book cover.

 

Wow. This was quite a reading ride with two Irish young women who travel through life with nary a plan except to marry some handsome bloke and have a few gins along the way. This trilogy, written in the early to mid-1960’s, is a wonderful and very gritty look back at Baba and Caithlynn as they manage to leave their small worlds in rural Ireland chasing their own dreams for their lives. It’s very kitchen-sink drama, and there were times when I wanted to just sit them down and have a few choice words with them, but I really did enjoy this read.

Hmm. “Enjoy” is not the word I’m searching for. Perhaps “observe” the two is the more precise verb. I veered from being annoyed with them to feeling sorry with them, so perhaps it’s more than “observe”…

Both the two girls grow up in a small rural village in Ireland, Baba with a more stable and financially comfortable family situation, and Caithlynn with a horribly alcoholic and abusive father and a mother who cannot/will not leave but protects the young girl from her father. (Not many choices available to good Catholic girls who are unhappily married with children at that time of the century.)

Both the girls have an uncomfortable relationship with each other that veers from being good friends to one bullying the other (Baba bullies Caithlynn and gets away with it. Unequal power in a friendship is not a good sign especially in children.)

Stuck with each other due to their small village and school, their friendship changes from day to day (depending on how mean Baba is to Caithlynn) and I found this part of the trilogy very hard to read about. I can’t stand it when someone bullies someone else, and I just wanted to step into the novel and help poor Cat, but I couldn’t.

So – I just had to read and watch as Baba did some despicable things, but it was also with a sense of fascination as you just knew that somewhere along that narrative arc, Cat would get her due. She’d have to after taking all that viciousness for that long. But would she? So my fingers were crossed as I read…

Baba and Cat are both good young Catholic girls (with everything that went along with that in the 1960’s) and they both knew what happened to girls who weren’t good: hellfire, family exile, on the streets… The pair are sent to middle school at a convent a few miles away from home, but having no transportation options that were affordable, they were boarders. Cat had been offered a scholarship (thankfully as there is no way that her family could have afforded it otherwise) and had been relieved at such a good escape from mean Baba, but then Baba decides to apply as well and her family can afford even if there is no scholarship for her.

And this seems to be how it was throughout the whole trilogy: Cat struggling to escape home life and Baba; Baba always somehow beating Cat to the punch whether it’s getting a bicycle or a bedsit. It was really annoying for me to suffer through this, as I can so relate to how mean children and teens can be. This was tortuous.

So why did Baba stick so tenaciously with Cat? Baba needed her to bully and to feel powerful? Cat needed Baba as she had no other friends? They both needed each other as they navigated the rocky shores of adolescence?

This sounds a dreadfully depressing and grey book, and it’s certainly not rainbows and unicorns, but if you like reading kitchen-sink dramas (which I was in the mood for), this is a great read.

The first book covers their childhood and adolescence, the second their escape to a small town with equally tiny jobs and sharing a bedsit, and then the third – had they both escaped their dreary worlds and each other? Do they find their own Mr. Rights? You’ll have to read it to find out, but please do. This was a riveting if uncomfortable read at times. (Rather reminded me of Atwood’s Cat’s Eye in some ways in that both feature young girls getting bullied by their “friends” and yet no one doing anything about it. Gaah.)

Not always the easiest titles to get hold of, but worth the trial. I’m glad I met Cat – perhaps not so much about meeting the other one!

Plus my edition of the final book in the trilogy was great. It had been published in 1965 and had the perfect cover (see above), along with this titillating cover copy:

And then inside was this:

Oooh la la. You can just imagine women reading this under cover. Shocking stuff!

From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties – Philip Oakes (1980)

book363I have no idea where I found this title – probably a random pick at the FoL sale one year – but the title jumped into my hands when I was scanning my bookshelves the other day. What it is, actually, is an autobiography of a man’s childhood in the 1930’s up in Stoke, near what’s called “The Potteries” in England.

It’s a pretty normal childhood – nothing too extremely bad or great – a fact that made it very easy for me to connect to the author and his life as explained by his writing. In fact, this certainly reminded me of “Cider with Rosie” (Laurie Lee, 1960), but this one with a more serious and slightly different tone to it.

Oakes’ childhood mainly took place in the 1930’s in England. It’s a time of childhood fun, but also the time is tinged with the unavoidable memory that WWII is just about to break out (1939), and so there is a persistent and vague sense of anticipation and excitement for Oakes. He is a child after all, and all he knows of war is what he’s read in books and heard from relatives similar, as Oakes describes, as the “excitement before a birthday party”…

Oakes’ family lived in the Potteries in northern England, an area known for its pottery industry (thus the moniker) and all that is associated with that: heavily working class, factories, smoke in the air (and the smell)… His mother was a single mother (a stigma in the 1930’s) who was also struggling with severe ill health, so money was tight.

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left...

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left…

However, the one thing that his relatives put above all else was the importance of a good education, so when young Philip was offered the opportunity to attend an elite private school down south, the family must have been so excited knowing that this was the chance for Philip to leave his childhood to become something more that was possible otherwise. (Not so sure about Philip!)

So he goes to boarding school down south which is of course a different world for him – new friends, new school, new uniform, new rules…

“Dawdling was not allowed. It frayed moral fiber. It encouraged idleness. It was the antithesis of all that Mr. Gibbon [school headmaster] stood for…”

The private boarding school takes both boys and girls, but the genders are divided by living in separate wings of the establishment so they rarely seem to meet. The narrative relates the antics enjoyed by Philip and his new friend Carpenter: they raid the kitchen late at night for midnight feasts (sometimes helped by the maids who were only a few years older), they scrump apples, and have a secret club in the boiler room… Very Enid Blyton (except not so cuddly and warm).

It’s the 1930’s but the school is very old-fashioned with a lengthy history – strict uniforms were the rule, an hour to write home on Sundays and expectations that pupils support their school houses in football/soccer by standing on the lines in the rain on dreary Saturday afternoons.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the memories that Oakes mentions happened to overlap with mine of life in my old private all-girls school (about 650 students) growing up in England even though it was fifty years later. (The more things change…) My twin sister and I attended the same school (along with 90% of our friends) from when we were 6 to until we finished our A-levels when we were 18. We were very lucky in many ways to have this experience and it’s one that I look back on with fondness most of the time.

My old school in England in 1982 - Bedford High School....

My old school in England in 1982 – Bedford High School….

Our school had very strict cultural rules which governed friendship, lunchtime, and all the other important parts of growing up in that milieu. Lunchtime rules and expectations was that whoever sat at the head of the table (and rules decided which end of the table was “head”) would serve lunch to the others sitting there and then after lunch, the playground opened up to another set of generally accepted rules. One lunch rule that I clearly remember was that the first person to touch the salt and pepper and say “veins” would also be immune from doing “the cloth” which referred to wiping down the table after lunch. (Gross at the best of times.) Anyway, these expectations weren’t really talked about but everyone was aware of them and generally followed them to the letter.

Oakes’ descriptions of the school’s morning assembly was really similar to how our school organized ours, even down to the typical hymns that were chosen on special occasions, the organ that accompanied them and the rows of school pupils listening to the headmaster (or mistress in our case) as s/he read the results of the cricket team, the date and topic of the next school debate, and asking who had engaged in minor misdemeanors such as a missing pair of gloves from someone’s coat pocket.

As I look back on that experience of going to a public (which means private in England) school in England, it was idyllic in a lot of ways as an educational experience, but I must admit that I did leave it feeling very unprepared to face the world. (It was generally assumed by the school that most pupils would be going to university, but if you weren’t one of the pupils who followed that well-worn path (i.e. me), the school wasn’t really focused on giving you tools to handle that. If you’re going to go to the Great Unknown such an American university (which we did), then you’re on your own, sister.

It’s great to live in a world with widely accepted rules and most of your friends in the same boat, but when that was the case (as in moi) and you leave that educational vacuum, it’s strange to need to make new friends and not have the comfort of a regimented class schedule.

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978...

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978… (I’m in the middle.)

Don’t get me wrong: I adored the experience of going to a private school and would probably have been eaten alive in a comprehensive if I needed to go there. If I had kids, I would try and replicate the social side of my old school life for them. It’s just that the whole school thing didn’t really give me the tools I would need to succeed once I’d stepped outside into the real world for the first time. (Sink or swim after that, my friends.)

However, lessons were learned, skills were developed, all is well and I expect that the overall school experience is very different now.

Way off track there wrt the book, but if you’re ever curious about life in private school in the early-mid twentieth century (and up to the 70s), then this book will give you a good idea. I really enjoyed it and it brought back many happy memories of school days. Recommend it.

Once Upon a Quinceañera – Julia Alvarez (2007)

book446I live in Texas which has a strong Hispanic Latino/a flavor to the culture for the most part, and I have driven past shops that sell Quinceañera clothing and all the accessories that tend to go along with it, so when I came across this title, I picked it up immediately. In case you’re not sure what a Quinceañera is, it’s a Latino/a celebration of a young girl’s 15th birthday with a similar goal of perhaps a deb at her first ball, you could say.

Not being from a family with any Latino/a connections and growing up in England, I haven’t ever been to one, but since I’m a pretty curious cat, I wanted to know more about this event.  (Side note: Do they have these there for Spanish and other Mediterranean immigrant families on the other side of the Atlantic? Or is it only on this side of the world and in some of Latin America?)

Q2This book was both an autobiography of Alvarez’ childhood and young adult life told alongside a delving into the history and culture of the event as she follows several families in different places across the U.S. in their preparations for their daughters’ own Quinces. With a lot of Latino/a families being first generation and the kids having parents who struggled mightily to give them a better life, Quinces (as they’re sometimes termed) can take on a huge meaning for the family involved, whether they can afford it or not. In fact, one of the Mexican sayings that Alvarez uses was “don’t throw the house out of the window” relating to the idea of only spending what you can afford for the Quince, not get yourself another mortgage. (As with anything else, Quinces can become prohibitively expensive for many families.)

quinceaneraAlong with the varied history of Quinces, Alvarez also delves into the strong gender roles inherent in many Latino/a families, that of machismo (which most people have heard of) and of Marianismo (a new one for me). Machismo is when a culture supports (and defines) men as being the sole leaders of a family or unit, of being extra-manly, of being responsible for the safety and reputation of the family and being in charge.

Marianismo, on the other hand, is the idea that the women in a machismo culture should act along the lines of the Virgin Mary (along Catholic ideals): being pure, virginal, submissive, family first etc. I see machismo all the time, but hadn’t realized that there was actually a name for the female role (for those who buy into it) which was fascinating.

And it’s this Marianismo (according to Alvarez) which is behind the idea of the Quinceañera, that the girl whose birthday is being celebrated is recognized as changing from a girl to a woman, from being a protected child to being open to dating (and ultimately marriage). There is a religious element to this, but generally speaking, the main emphasis is on the party-side of things. This symbolic step into adulthood is represented by several things: the girl changes from flat-soled shoes to shoes with a high heel (that the father puts on her feet); she has a “court” of 14 of her friends (paired into couples for a total of 28 people) who learn and execute formalized dances on the night, and the lighting (and extinguishing) of 15 candles, each flame representing an important woman in her life who has helped her get to where she is now. So – it’s a ritualized ceremony with meaning for a lot of people.

But how do you balance this gender-based ritual with modern-day sensibilities of feminism? Alvarez shares her struggle with this – it’s similar to a traditional Christian marriage with the female presented as a princess who is “given away” by her father (or other male person) to her soon to be spouse etc. I’m not sure this dichotomy was ever balanced in the end, actually, but in having this discussion, Alvarez bought up some interesting points. (She also interviewed some Latina women who are doing their best to honor the Quinceañera tradition but add some leadership and empowerment angles to the ceremony. One was even advocating for the Quince to be open to both boys and girls…)

Along with that, there is also discussion on how much should the family spend on this one event in their daughter’s life. There is an industry built up around Quinces (not surprisingly), so they can become as expensive and spectacular as a wedding can be, and for many families, this can be a huge financial burden. (Thus the saying “Don’t throw the house out of the window”…) Should the financial outlay for the Quince be saved and used instead for the adult wedding (should it come in a few years’ time)? Should it be set aside for the girl’s college education? Or perhaps a house payment?

I'd love to see this movie...

I’d love to see this movie…

Balanced with this is also the idea that many of the parents who are throwing the Quinces may not have had a Quince themselves as their families of origin were too poor or not well established or similar. In fact, they may have immigrated from countries who don’t have this ritual, and then, having been exposed to the idea (and the industry) of Quinces here in their new country, feel that they have to have one to show they belong and have reached a certain level of success. And then one needs to add in the pressure of the girls themselves who are being invited to other girls’ Quinces and want to have their own…

The actual history of Quinces is rather fuzzy, according to Alvarez, although many claim that they have their Quinces (or should have Quinces) to respect the traditions of the Old Country – and yet a lot of Latin America don’t actually have anything similar or on that same level for their teens.

So there’s a lot of vagueness about this ceremony’s history combined with industry consumer pressure (“We have to have EVERYTHING!”) and then combined with expectations from the young women who are having that 15th birthday, that I can only imagine the pressure for many families in this situation nowadays.

So, this was one of the most fascinating reads I’ve experienced this year and now I’m planning to stop by one of the Quince shops and see for myself what they sell. I’ll let you know.

I loved this read. (I could really have done without Alvarez’ own autobiography pieces in this and would have preferred 100% Quince-related material – there was a tenuous link between the two at times.) But if you’re curious about the world in which you live, this is a good introduction to an intriguing ceremony happening around a lot of us.

Qmags

Like One of the Family – Alice Childress (1954)

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(Part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition. The first day of February in 1960 was the first recognized lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, NC, when four college freshmen from North Caroline A&T sat at their local Woolworth’s requesting service. Looking back at this fairly recent history, I continue to be amazed at how people treat at each other – and continue to do so.)

I actually have no idea from where I got this title (probably on a fellow blog or similar), but it was on my TBR shelves and it fit perfectly into my February themed reading for Black History Month (in the U.S.).

Alice Childress

Alice Childress

Although this is fiction, it’s based on how life actually was for many people, and this book recounts the snippets of life for a black domestic worker in the 1950’s. (In fact, Alice Childress the author had experience in this position at times in her life.)

It’s written as a series of one-sided conversations between Mildred and her friend Marge who is also a housekeeper for another white family elsewhere, and, as both women live in the same apartment building, they usually get together for a chat after they get home as they’re friends as well as neighbors. This narrative structure worked really well, for it left a lot unsaid in its writing, which allowed the reader to become particularly engaged. It was like hearing only one side of a telephone call, or perhaps like reading a diary (except more immediate). (And it’s epistolary of sorts and you know how I like those.)

The title, “Like One of the Family”, was taken from a related conversation that Mildred had with the family for whom she cleans (and much more). For example, the (white) woman of the house was having a small gathering of her (white) women friends one morning, and as Mildred passed through the room, refilling plates and coffee cups, the hostess had said “Oh we love Mildred. She’s just like one of  us.”

This, of course, was patently untrue on many levels (and insulting on others), and as you read this part of the book, it’s crystal clear that, although the phrase was meant with benign intention, it was still insensitive. Mildred is not one to hide her feelings, and so once the visitors have left, she talked with the lady of the house and made it patently clear just why she feels it is not so. After you read why, you’ll agree as well as this is such a cogent obvious argument that it’s tough to realize why people did not understand that fact in those days. (Well, there was not a lot of clear race-focused thinking at that point in general, methinks.)

This is not a comfortable book to read as White writes Mildred with a simmering anger that bubbles just under the surface and you’re not quite sure when it’s going to emerge. It’s also difficult because as one looks back to that period in time, you know the life of the African-American person is not going to get better until many years into the future which added a little poignancy (combined with annoyance at the situation) for me. I just do not understand how one group of people could treat another group with such inhumanity. Mildred was not the only one getting angry in this story!

So this was a seething look at the world of domesticity, although this time was viewed through the lens of people who were forced to do it as they had few other options open to them (as opposed to the current New Domesticity crowd who have a wide range of choices). First published in 1956, and then not republished until Beacon Press released it in 1986. 1956 was at the cusp of the U.S. Civil Rights movement and was slap-bang in the middle of Jim Crow. Brown vs. the Board of Education had just happened in 1954, Doris Day was popular, the space race was picking up speed, and the Red Scare of Russian communism was a huge concern. The times they were a-changing and I can well imagine that this unnerved quite a few (white middle class) readers in the US of the 50’s.

This was a good read to begin February and Black History Month as I think it gives the immediacy of how frustrating and horrible the culture was if you were black (or African-American or similar) even a century after slavery had been outlawed. I’m looking forward to reading other titles as the month progresses, so more to come.

If you have titles that you’ve read or have heard of and would like to suggest them, please feel free. I’m always open for ideas, and I know that there are a lot of good reads out there of which I haven’t heard. Suggest away!

black-history-month_2

Those Whacky Fifties Continued…

loyaltyoathFollowing on from yesterday’s post about “The Fifties: A Women’s Oral History”, another aspect of that time that fascinated me was the Loyalty program that was formally instituted by President Truman to try and weed out Communists and those who belonged to other “tainted” organizations. This push is an excellent example of how society was so constricted back then. It’s pretty amazing when I look back at it.

In the early 1950’s with the perceived onslaught of the Red Scare, the Space Race, and societal changes, the Establishment (i.e. rich white men who ran the government and all its agencies at the time) were threatened and like any creature when backed into a corner, started to lash out to protect itself.

U.S. President Harry S. Truman

U.S. President Harry S. Truman

Part of this was illustrated by the institution of this Loyalty Oath program by President Truman. It actually started earlier in 1947 (and even earlier than that in one form or another) with Executive Order 9835 which called for dismissal of any federal worker associated with list of troublesome groups. The goal was to root out any communist influence on the governmental level, but it spread, and by the end of the program, more than three million government employees had been investigated – only 300 or so were dismissed as “security risks”. (McCarthy was a fruit of all this unrest, but he didn’t come to power until 1950.)  And it wasn’t just on the local level — state and local governments followed suite and people had to sign oaths of loyalty to the government to be employed in many places.

This all seems very odd when Truman was the guy who instituted the New Deal, but politics is politics, and Truman’s Democratic Party was facing a huge threat by the Republicans. This was a political maneuver on Truman’s part related to the upcoming election (although it does seem out of character, but perhaps I don’t know him very well.)

As mentioned, the Loyalty program was not new as it had been in existence since 1940 in terms of screening for federal employee loyalty and in keeping lists of names and “subversive” organizations (including, of course, the Communist Party, the Nazi Party, the Ku Klux Klan and others). Also, during WWII, the U.S. War Relocation Authority administered loyalty oaths to interned Japanese Americans, both citizens and not, and any person who said no (or who refused to sign) were classed as “disloyal” and segregated from the 65,000 other internees. What a mess.

This whole program was eventually revoked by President Eisenhower in 1953, but it actually went on in some places until 1964 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Washington law required state employees to take loyalty oaths. And then – get this: the final loyalty oath (mandatory for those in public office in WA) was only invalidated in 1974…. And just found a case in Georgia where an anti-communist oath was given to city council representatives in 2012. Crikey.

cal_univ_refusalAn interesting aside: The Pledge of Allegiance, which is said at a lot of meetings and gatherings, is also a loyalty oath. The “Under God” bit was only added in 1954, by the way. Hmm. Those Fifties. One interesting tidbit: the Regents of the University of California fired 31 professors who refused to take the anti-community oath on the grounds of political and academic freedom.

I researched how the State of Texas responded to this loyalty program – very loyal to it. In fact, the Governor of the time pushed through legislation that made membership in the Communist Party punishable by jail sentences of 20 years and a $20,000 fine. Yikes.

So, this was a good book with voices from the past covering a rather strange time in U.S. social history. There were numerous oral interviews with women who had grown up in the 50’s, and for many of them, looking back, they seemed to have regret that they sometimes didn’t follow through on their dreams and took the “easy route” of marriage, family,  home. It was pretty interesting, especially in view of the New Domesticity craze that peaked a few years ago. And you know, I can’t judge these women in any way. I would hope I would make the choice to follow my dreams (as opposed to societal expectations), but would I have done that in those times? Who knows.

I love having nice clean shiny dishes!

I love having nice clean shiny dishes especially when I’m wearing high heels and a skirt!

The Fifties: A Women’s Oral History – Brett Harvey (1993)

book323Here’s a quote from an early 1950’s Life Magazine trying to convince women to give up the best war jobs now that the men had come back and women should really be back in the house now (or only in certain jobs suited to her female constitution):

“Household skills take her into the garment trades; neat and personable, she becomes office work and saleslady; patient and dexterous, she does well in repetitive, detailed factory work; compassionate, she becomes teacher and nurse.”

Fashion Advice from 1953.

Fashion Advice from 1953.

With current fashions having a focus on Mid-Century Modern (or MCM) – furniture, fashion, cars etc. – it’s interesting to look at how the U.S. really was back then, politically, socially and others. It seems to me that the decade has been idealized somewhat or perhaps that people have this large stereotypical image of how life was back then when it was really much more complicated than martinis and cigarettes. This book addressed some of these issues from the perspective of how it impacted the women who actually lived in this time. It was really fascinating.

The 50’s had a lot going on, worldwide, and the U.S. was smack in the middle of the Red Scare and the arms race between U.S. and Russia. Add to that set-up a frenzied fear about being infiltrated with Communism, and the country was smothered in paranoia on several levels: uppity women who weren’t always satisfied to go home and be a good wife, returning military men (mostly) who had been exposed to radically different viewpoints and now brought that back to infiltrate American communities, the government idea of the Soviet Union taking over the world, the civil rights movement just starting…  and it all turned into a rather weird time.

mccarthyismHarvey, the author, brings up an extremely interesting perspective on this world view, comparing the nation’s political perspective of containment (i.e. keep the Communists out and keep the “American” way of life in) to the societal containment view of the role of women (i.e. keep women out of the workspace and keep women in the domestic arena). It’s as though everyone was very uncomfortable with anyone getting out of their boxes while, at the same time, everyone needs to stay to their allocated historical place in the world.

As American servicemen were still returning from tours overseas from WWII and Korea, women were expected (and sometimes forced) to give up their independent lives (and to hand over the jobs that they had been doing just fine) to the returning troops. That was the patriotic thing to do and the right thing to do, and if anyone didn’t conform to that pattern, then it was seen as almost dangerously rebellious by the Establishment. Quite a few women who had been working were not happy having to go back and try to fit their former lives into a very small box just because people (mostly men) said so. Obviously, this led to a few problems.

The majority of women settled back into their routine, but some didn’t, and these are who are the book focuses on – oral histories of women looking back from present time (well, the 1990’s) to their younger selves and the decisions they made. It was clear that this forced domesticity, if you will, did not sit well for all, and as I read some of the recorded conversations in this book, the common theme was one of regret of chances not risked and paths not taken.

woman_workWomen had been working for many decades, and with two world wars under their belt, the American women knew that they were capable of working many jobs usually considered only to be suitable for men. However, society was such that the expectation was that the women who worked in these formerly unsuitable jobs were temporary and should return to their domestic lifestyles once peace arrived. Women knew that there were jobs out there that would be workable and were not necessarily the usual format of nurse/teacher/shop assistant/menial factory worker, and yet so many elected to fit themselves silently back into their reduced roles post-war. And this is what the book reports: the featured modern older women look back on their younger selves and ask themselves “why?” Why did they give up their foothold in the men’s worlds?

It’s interesting to think about: what would you have done if you were a woman in the 50’s in this set-up? Would you have gone back and fit the accepted mold: college degree/wife/home/children? Or would you have been brave enough to break free and do your own thing? Several women in the book did exactly that, but faced friction almost everywhere, both from men and women, in their early careers. Most continued with their careers and ended up doing just fine, but imagine where these pioneers would be if they hadn’t had to overcome these obstacles. (And the same question would clearly fit with other disenfranchised groups throughout history as well.)

Anyway, as you can see, this book set me off going down several trains of thought and was a fascinating read. Not every woman regretted what they did – some were very happy to remain in the domestic role – so there was a good mix in the book. I have another topic related to this book which I’ll chat about next time, but I’ll keep this post a manageable length. Obviously, this was a good read in that I’m still thinking about it days after.

More to come.

The Hen who Dreamed She could Fly – Sun-Mi Hwang (2014)

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Wow. I’m not sure that I can really verbalize what this little book is about, but suffice to say it’s adorable, charming, sweet and poignant and almost made me cry several times. It’s been a bestseller in South Korea, and was translated earlier this year to English. My particular edition included some wonderful illustrations that *perfectly* matched the narrative in its feel and emotional timbre which definitely added to the whole reading experience.

This is a must-read if you’re looking for an emotionally-punchy poignant fable about a small chicken called Sprout with a big dream of escaping the coop and hatching an egg.

The story revolves around Sprout the chicken who chose her secret name when she watched the acacia tree across the farmyard blossom and bloom every spring. The fact that the tree grew flowers and then leaves throughout the year meant that she too could grow and become more than she was – a not-very-good egg-laying hen in a cage. But the future? The future was hers if only she could escape.

As the plot progresses, Sprout learns how to take life by the combs and then ensues a life of freedom earned in so many hard ways. Although the story sounds like a child’s tale, this is a book which faces the reality of a chicken’s life head-on: there is violence, there is fighting, but there are also love and forgiveness. And does she get her life-long dream of hatching an egg? Aaah, my friends, you’ll have to read to find that out.

Reviewer Adam Johnson describes this book as thus: “the nexus of fable, philosophy, children’s literature, and nature writing…” which is extremely close to how I would describe it.

Honestly, this was one of the quietest and yet most powerful books that I’ve read this year. It will definitely make it on to my “Best Read of 2014” list, and I think you’ll love it as well. It’s a quick read, but one that will leave you thinking about it for days afterward. I just adored Sprout.