Archive for the ‘aboriginality’ Category

Lawson, Julie.  White Jade Tiger.  1993.  Toronto: Sandcastle Dundurn, 2006.

The text is a traditional third person past narrative, usually focalized through the central character, Jasmine, but frequently interspersing sections involving not only Keung, a Chinese boy who comes to BC to find his father in the nineteenth century but also other Chinese characters connected to Keung, such as his ancestress Bright Jade, and ones describing the spirit of white jade tiger of the title–a piece of jade in the shape of a tiger, but representing something larger than that–the fortune of a village and a family, ruined because the white jade tiger has been stolen form its required resitng place.  Most of these sections are separate, but there are a few places here and there where the focalization shifts from Jasmine to Keung within a section.

The novel operate in the tradition of time-slip fantasy: after putting on an old Chinese coolie outfit and visiting Victoria’s Chinatown, Jasmine finds herself back in Keung’s time, helping him to find his father, whose possession of the piece of jade has doomed his family to bad luck, and return him and it to China.  At the end, it turns out that the bad luck that doomed Keung’s family because of the jade has extended to Jasmine herself, who thought she was all white but turns out to have had a Chinese great-great grandfather–Keung himself.  At the end, then, she heads off to China to see her father, a professor there, and will return the jade and end the curse that earlier in the novel, it seems, killed her mother.  She will be her own saviour–as the novel implies in its use of spirits of the past, etc., she was always fated to be..

Like just about all time-slip books, this one allows two young people to meet across time in order for them to help each other in bad situations.  Here, Jasmine helps Keung find his father and learn the possibility of a kind, humane white person–which, it seems to suggest, leads to his settling in BC and marrying a white woman and thus leading to Jasmine’s own existence (there’s the unsettling sense that Jasmine and her ancestor feel attracted to each other in a way that eventually leads to her own birth).   So Jasmine brings her current tolerant attitudes to the past and teaches them to Keung.  Meanwhile, Jasmine, who wants to control everything and who hasn’t managed to control the accident that led to her mother’s death, gets healing from her adventure in the past–and concern for and even love for a boy, and as a result of all that, finally, an end to the family curse.  The past helps the present by providing an opportunity to right wrongs, the present heals the past, by being wiser, and readers see it happen through alternating eyes in a way that confirms their actual lack of isolation from each other: because we know both and see as both see, we are already aware of the connection unknown to the two characters before they realize it.  We are outside and above time in a situation which laways implies that time is illusory or its apparent limitations conquerable.

There is, nevertheless, something strange and a little creepy going on here.–not just because of the incestuous overtones of the feelings not asserted but implied between Jasmine and Keung, but that those feelings lead to her coming into existence, and her coming into existence then guaranteeing an end to an ages-long curse–as if she has somehow ended up engineering her own existence and controlled the existence of others, as if she is a sort of divine being resident over her own fate (there are places where Keung confuses her with the ancestor spirit Bright Jade, now also more than just a mere human, and also a controlling spirit in the book).  There something of an ultimate wish-fulfilling egocentricity here–the girl who wanted control ends up in control of just about everything, and fixes up everything all by her little self, and by being such a contemporary kind of liberal, tolerant, evolved self.

And then, that all gets mixed up with issues of race–and of claiming.  Jasmine, the nice normal suburban white girl, is the ideal young Canadian of her time–without a glimmer of prejudice against people of another culture.  indeed, she adores Chinatown, adores Chinese food–eats it with pleasure in the past when she finds white man’s food almost inedible.   But the basis of all that tolerance for difference in thrown into question when it turns out she’s actually in part Chinese already.  So she is discovering a forgotten past, that makes her one with the other, and not someone representing a tolerance for otherness–she was always already Chinese, as a post-modernist might say.  Her claim on Chines culture is her own previously unknown Chinese-ness.  This weirdly parallels the way a lot of novels for young people about whites and aboriginal children solves problems of difference or discrimination by allowing the white children to think of themselves and of all good people as ones who share aboriginal values.  In becoming “aboriginal,” they are meant to represent fellow-feeling, universal humanity; but in doing so they deprive actual aboriginals of any specific claim to, say, land, or the past, etc.: it belongs to all the universal aboriginals, not just to genetic Indians.  So, too, here, I think, except there is an blood claim made, one that then implies that the only real tolerance can be for someone like yourself, a group you are already part of.  Jasmine, it weirdly seems yo imply, can actually be part Chinese because she is in fact a tolerant representative of universal contemporary humanity–already one with all forms of humainty.  All of which is to say: for all its celebration of Chinese culture and horrors at the treatment of the Chinese men who built the railways, there’s something here that makes me unnecessarily uncomfortable.

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Hughes, Monica.  Log Jam.  Toronto: Irwin, 1987.

Opposite to what tends to happen in novels presenting similar situations written more recently, Monica Hughes Log Jam rejects the power of Aboriginality in favour of white middle-class values.  The novel’s  pair of intertwined narratives involve a white middle class girl with family problems and an Aboriginal boy in quest of his heritage–so that its rejection of that heritage is surpringly straightforward.

The Aboriginal character, Isaac, having messed up life in the city and then escaped from a detention centre, begins by turning his back on the white world in what is represented as an effort to return to the past, to find “the way back to his grandmother’s country” (5).  The white girl, Lenora hates her new blended family and the wilderness the camping trip meant to bond them together has led her to, and longs for the life back home in the city.   But while one character seeks the wild and the other the city, and while one seems to represent the personal problems of being a middle class girl with a new family and the other the social problems of being Aboriginal in the context of contemporary Canada, their paths are parallel.  Both are “in prison” and flee it for what once was, a golden time past. Despite their clearly enunciated differences–her whiteness, his aboriginality, her wealthy, his poverty, her law-abiding, his criminality–there is a connection between them they are unaware of. At one point, Lenora

struggled with a bitter concept.  Maybe all of us are alone most of the time,.  Each one in his or her own prison.  No matter how hard you try, you can’t really share your thoughts, the things that matter most.   . . . . Maybe life is really about understanding this prison and trying to break free of it, any way you can. . . . Maybe just reaching out to someone else who’s trying too get free would do” (153).

Not surprisingly, then, the story brings the two together in a way that allows them to understand each other and solve their individual problems together.  But the solution is for both of them to return to where they were at the start–her to a family she no longer understands as imprisoning, but him to an actual prison.  If it’s wrong of Lenora’s new relatives to be “an indestructible threesome, needing no outsiders” (45), and self-indulgent of one of her new stepbrothers to speak of his canoe trip with his father and brother as “one last chance to go back to the old days, when there were just the three of us” (69), then it’s equally foolish of Isaac to separate himself from the white world and want to return to the old Aboriginal life.  If it’s wise of Lenora to adapt to her new situation, then it’s equally wise of him to accept his.  The paralleling works to erase the assimilationist political implications of the non-Aboriginal fate Hughes imagines for Isaac and for the Aboriginality he clearly represents generally.

Lenora is a reformer, and what she wants is right–so it’s right to believe that “[f]amily traditions have to be adapted to family changes” (44), and she is right about the non-Aboriginal future she encourages Isaac to seek.  The strangest aspect of the book, however, is that Isaac, wanting a return to his Aboriginality, believes himself to be on a traditional vision quest:

When his spirit showed itself, whether it was a rabbit or bear, eagle or deer, the young man would know that he was to live under the protection of that animal, learn its cunning or strength, its keen eyes or its swiftness.” (75)

But what comes to him is a young white girl, Lenora–“she had been sent to him, there was no doubt about that” (118)–and he does in fact learn to live under the protection of her people and in terms of her values.  In his mind, therefore, she takes on Aboriginality, but in a distressingly deceptive way that the book clearly approves, for what she has to teach him in that guise is the virtue of renouncing Aboriginality. She quite literally tells him to do just that: “I mean, it’s no good talking about sun dances and spirit searches and stuff like that.  They’re yours, anyway.  Private and nobody else’s business . . .” (157).  As in Welewyn Katz’s False Face or or Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth or so many other novels of htis sort, aboriginality is to be kept safely separate from a contemporary world that has no place or need for it.
Lenora offers Isaac this advice in the context of assuming that only one person can help him–her practical-minded new stepfather, a stereotypical patriarch of the old school whom she at first despises.  First she must acknowledge that she herself needs and wants his protection. She remembers “that instinctive feeling when she had first met Harry.  That here at last was someone steady and secure.  Someone who could be trusted not to throw over a job for a dream . . .” (107), as her own impractical father did.  And later, “With a rush of thankfulness, Lenora realized that indeed Harry could be counted on to do something to help . . . how comfortable it was, how safe it felt to have someone in the family you could trust to really help you” (156).  In order to get that help, Lenora tells Isaac, “What we’ve got to do is work out exactly what to tell him so that he understands” (1570.  The novel not only requires a renouncement of the Aboriginal, then, but does so as the price for obtaining the desirable approval of a paternalistic white man.
In the light of that, it’s not surprisingly that the novel confirms the rightness of Isaac’s acceptance of white values by denying him the land he claims as his.  His wish is to “[g]o back to the river and the lake.  Find your spirit and live the way your grandmother taught you” (31).  But as he says later, “I think that then I was running away from reality” (166); seeking Aboriginal roots in a traditional Aboriginal place is unrealistic.  It turns out that Isaac’s grandmother’s house is underwater, caused by a dam–there is in fact no land to flee back to: “Kind of funny, isn’t it?  All those years I was dreaming about the place I wanted to be, the place where I thought I belonged, it wasn’t there.  It was under water” (167).
Furthermore, the traditional life Isaac seeks is one he views as being in tune with the wilderness–a lifestyle he views, like so many other characters in these novels–as being at odds with white ideas about property and even home; “If Grandmother’s stories were right, his people had done pretty well for thousands of years with no fixed address . . . . the earth under his back was his home.  This spruce above his head was home. This forest was his address” (41).   But once more, Lenora’s views of the forest are wiser.  Like so many characters throughout the history of Canadian literature, She finds it “terrifying” (19), and sees that “The shadows of the trees fell across a more open stretch of road, like prison bars” (23).  She therefore flees this too-wild place for the safety of a traditional Canadian garrison under the governorship of a typical patriarch–the exact opposite journey to what Isaac wrongly hoped for. The novel offers only these two alternatives–the non-Aboriginal life of contemporary society in the present or the now-impossible Aboriginal life of the wilderness in the past.  As more or less happens in Katz’s False Face and Rice’s The Place at the Edge of theEarth and Kevin Major’s Red Blood Ochre, there is no acknowledgement of a possible middle term–no apparent way an Aboriginal can live Aboriginally and in the present.

Marsh, Richard.  The Joss:  A Reversion. 1901.  Chicago:  Valancourt, 2007

Marsh, best known as author of the scary and truly unsettling novel The Beetle (1897), was a writer of popular junk for inexperienced or unsophisticated adult readers–and not always a very good one.  His stories, for instance, collected in The Seen and the Unseen (1900) often start well, and then sort of just poop out, as if he’d lost interest, or couldn’t think of another twist to maintain the suspense.  and something similar, unfortunately, happens in The Joss, which starts incredibly well and then goes pretty steeply downhill, and ends without ever offering an adequate explanation of its main mysteries.

Indeed, the main reason for that descent in The Joss seems to be the presence within it of alternating narratives–or, I guess more accurately, not so much alternating ones as successive ones.  The novels consists of four sections or books, followed by an “Author’s Postscript.”  Each of these is identified not just with a title, but following the title, with a sentence identifying the narrator; thus, in Book I, “Mary Blyth Tells the Story,” whereas in Book II, we have “The Facts of the Case According to Emiuly Purvis,” followed by Book III, “Mr. Frank Paine Tells the Story . . .” and Book IV, “Captain Max Lander Sets forth the Curious Adventure . . .”  Mary Blyth, the first of these narrators, is lively and entertaining, and Marsh does an excellent job of communicating her stubbornness and fearlessness and vitality as she confronts some truly weird and fascinating occurrences.  But then, the other three narrators are much less lively and even kind of vapid, and while they communicate more of the events that involve Mary so centrally,  they never actually do clarify what they’re all about.  It remains a sort of Orientalist mystery, the mere fact of characters having allowed themselves to become involved in strange Asiatic religions and their godless gods apparently enohg to allow for all the mysteriously inexplicable happenings that occur in a dark houses in central London.  Readers learn how strangeness became imported into that house form the mysterious and clearly repellent East–but not exactly what the mystery is or why it’s so repulsive.  Perhaps this wouldn’t have been so disappointing if the first section hadn’t been so involving, for really there’s nothing spectacularly or unusually wrong here.  The second narrator is a typical frightened damsel in distress–only annoyingly weak in comparison to her strong friend Msry, and the narrator of the last section tells a quite typical story of intrigue and adventure and violence at sea.  It just somehow doesn’t seem enough because what happens to Mary is so truly disturbing, ands because she responds to it with such character and vitality.    Marsh seems to have figured out just how a story told by an interesting character in a personal way can add energy and dimension to a novel–and then, more or less, forgotten about it.

Nevertheless,  The Joss seems important to think about here because it is, as far as I know or have been able to figure out so far, the first example of explicitly asserting the names of different narrators for different sections of a novel.  I can’t think of another, in fact, until Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, published in 1930.  As most people usually think about it, As I Lay Dying would seem to be a much more typical kind of book to feature alternating narratives–it’s experimental, demanding, stream-of-consciousness, highly literary, an artifact of high culture.  So it’s intriguing that it should be preceded in this particular innovative technique by a book so clearly of the genre of junk literature.   And for that reason, it might be a particularly significant novel for me to be aware of in thinking about alternating narratives for young people.

One thing occurs to me if I think of the differing effects Faulkner achieves in The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying.  Both offer parts of the story narrated from different points of view, but the first of them is more like The Joss than the second, in that it presents a series of four narratives from differing points of view, without ever actually alternating the narrators.  Unlike The Joss, The second Faulkner novel does alternate narrators, bringing each of them back again more than once, and has a lot more of them–which seems to be what might have spurred Faulkner to label each of their sections with their names, as he hand;t odne in the earlier novel; otherwise, As I Lay Dying would be much more difficult to figure out than it already is.  So the names are a way of communicating hard stuff to readers–a sort of didactic device.  No wonder, then, that they should appear in a book like The Joss, intended for less experienced or sophisticated readers whom one might well assume would have trouble figuring out that different people are supposed to be telling of different events unless it’s clearly spelled out–even when the stories being told are the easy and conventional thriller adventure ones.  That this sort of name-labelling occurs so often in alternating narrative for young readers might then equally reveal how their writers seem to he conscious of how this writing style might be stretching the abilities of inexperienced young readers. the names, in effect, make these novels a sort of theoretically sophisticated writing technique offered in its most simple and most available way.–the genre of writing for young people, once more, pulling back the unexpected and innovative into the area of what’s relatively easily knowable and acceptable.  And the names label sections in most writing for young people that are much more easy to make sense of that Faulkner’s streams of consciousness in As I Lay Dying.  The clear line between the popular novel of a century ago and the supposedly more experimental writing for young people of today is, I think, very illuminating.

One other thing that The Joss shares with a lot of alternating narratives for young people is that, while there’s a clear binary oppositions between good people and bad ones, with the bad ones all being very clearly identified as being from or being tainted by the mysterious Orient,  no bad characters is allowed to present a point if view of his or her own.  So we get four people all on the same side telling of events and confirming the same or similar impressions of the badness of the truly bad Orientals, just as many YA novels involves significant oppositions–between slave-owners ands slaver, or Nazi and Jews, etc.,–but never offer one of the people on the clearly wrong side as as focalizing narrator.   So a clearly binary oppositional world-view is not represented in a nevertheless binary narrative, as two people on more or less the same side disagree a little but agree in their opposition to the one clear and obvious enemy.  Once more, the clear line of similarity between a popular fiction of an earlier day and supposedly sophsiticated fiction for young people now is highly instructive.

Why, if they don’t present oppositional points of view, are there different narrators in The Joss?  It’s more a question of plot considerations, I think.  The four narratng characters don’t have exactly the same experiences, and each knows of parts of the mystery that the others don’t, or has experiences to report that the others don’t.  There’s a sort of filling in, going on then,  as readers learn more than any of the individual characters know of the story they’re all helping to tell.  Also, there are comparison being made, especially between the two female narrators, who are really quite opposite in character despite their friendship. And the all show us how the others seem to people outside themselves as well as what they individually feel and think inside–so there are other comparisons and contrasts available also.

The Beetle also has four successive narrators; more on that, possibly, later.

Carvell, Marlene.  Sweetgrass Basket.  New York: Dutton, 2005

In this novel of what claims to be free verse, two young Mohawk sisters leave the reserve to attend a boarding school, and tell of their experiences there in alternating “poems.”  As is typical of texts of this sort, the sections are in the first-person present tense, as the two alternating characters report (to themselves apparently, for these are not thoughts shared with other people) events and their responses to them as they happen.   The effect is of alternating solitudes or isolations–only readers can know what goes on in both girl’s minds, and they are deprived of knowledge of each other.  But here that hardly matters–there is very little to distinguish the two girls, whose thoughts are “poetic” in exactly the same way as each other.  Indeed, I can’t see any reason why there are actually two characters here–or at least I didn’t for a long time, until one of them died, and so it became clear that they’d have two separate fates and one would have to deal with the death of her sister.  But before then, it just seemed like an unnecessary duplication–a way of loading even more misery into the book as we read how two characters suffer rather than just one.

In that way, Sweetgrass Basket follows the pattern I’ve noticed in books written by Aboriginals or people who claim contact with aboriginality.  Unlike books by people of European descent, which tend to involve a central white character and a central native one, these books tend to have two aboriginal characters as alternating focalizers, as here, and have less to do with conflicts between different people (standard in the books by white people) than they do with two people playing different parts in the same experience, but not often or intensely in conflict with each other.  so these two sisters have their occasional differences, but really are more alike than not, and combine to convey more of the experience they share than fight with each other.  They are then both on the same side, with their white enemies–cruel teachers who mistreat them–not provided with focalizaitons so that we can get their version of events.   The result is certainly one-sided, in that there is no positive or justifying view of why the white people think the school is a good idea or how they see it as beneficial–they’re just mean old cranks and sadists, and that’s that.

A stronger book might have allowed them to have at least their own view of how they were doing the right thing for good ends–even if it turned out they were wrong about it.  Here I just find myself being crankily dismissive because the authorities are all just plain evil through and through, and even seem to be aware of their own evil and revel in it.   I’d be more likely to be persuaded if the bad guys thought they were the good guys. In other words, this book just reverse the old Hollywood good cowby/bad Indian stereotypes, and so seems equally shallow and melodramatic.

Carvell, by the way, claims only to have been inspired by her husband’s Great Aunt’s experience at a residential school–a pretty distant way of claiming some aboriginal authenticity, although she does make a fairly typical sort of property claim when in her acknowledgments she thanks her husband “for letting his family be mine.”   She does, though, avoid the usual white claiming of aboriginality by not having any terribly predominant white characters to make such claims within the text–but it does seem a book mainly designed to make white readers feel bad about what our ancestors did  (I do sense a primarily non-aboriginal readership as the main intended audience–I’m not exactly sure why.  Maybe because it’s just about how awful white people in power are, with very little sense of what an aboriginal reader might do about it or learn from it.).   The few helpful older people seem to be immigrants or minorities or of African American descent.   In other words, every aspect of the book insists on white mainstream guilt, unrelievedly.  and so it mostly avoids the possible implications of difference in alternating narrators, and the possible subtleties in presenting differing points of view.  It is simply and determinedly one-sided and monological.

Godfrey, Martyn.  Alien War Games.  Richmond hill, ON:  Scholastic TAB, 1984

This is the third book I’ve read which describes an encounter of people from earth and an alien civilization in terms of alternating narratives, one human, the other alien; the other two, both discussed in earlier entries on this blog,  are Bruce Coville’s I Was a Sixth Grade Alien and Pamela Service’s Under Alien Stars.  The first two both involve aliens coming to earth, and deal with questions of how earthlings will deal with knowledge of a wider culture out there amongst the stars (although admittedly, that’s sort of buried by the front-and-centre opportunities for jokes and such in Coville and therefore only minimally significant).   But in this one, earthlings have come to an alien planet–which, intriguingly, puts the earth people in the position of being the colonizers and invaders.

In Coville and Service,  young people of both species turn out to have more in common than they first supposed, and are able, through their friendship and working together, to move past the potential disputes and disagreements of their elders.  And in both, that leads to great co-operation between two alien peoples, but also makes the human earthlings a smaller and less advanced partner in an interplanetary civilization–a necessary accepter of colonization by as more powerful group.  And for all the talk of equality and the movement of the plot from feelings of alien difference to acceptance of a basic shared similarity, it’s clear in both cases that the aliens retain the power and the humans must to some extent at least bend to their will (but of course, only after the events of the novel have revealed their basic core of recognizable and humane humanity).  In other words, allowing Us to recognize Them as being like Us allows Them to rightfully maintain power over Us and attempt to make Us ore like Them.  As I pointed out in my entry on Under Alien Stars, the colonialist implications of this are pretty obvious.  as all of that happens, furthermore, it’s clear that the apparent dialogue implied by the presence of two narrative focalizations is an illusion, and actually a bit of scam.  It’s obviously the human beings that readers will be more prone to identfiy with; and while the aliens learn to respect humans more than they did, the more significant message for human readers related to what the humans in the novel learn.

But what happens when the situation is reversed? Alien War Games begins with a prologue from the point of view of the central alien character, which means that the first sentence “The aliens have come,” refers ironically to the landing of Earth people, as viewed by outsiders.  That seems an invitation to identify first with this alien character, Darsa; and once the human protagonist, Gravis, is introduced, and turns out to be self-centred, petulant, and prone to racist assumptions about the aliens whom we already know are undeserving of his prejudice, the sense is confirmed that it’s the aliens whose side readers are likely to be on.  Sure enough, Darsa turns out to be strong, brave, selfless, etc., etc.–a perfectly identifiable-with heroine; and Gravis just continues to be a malevolent jerk who deserves and eventually gets his comeuppance.   So this novel, despite or because of its alternating focalizations, is as even more obviously one-sided than the other two novels; but, it;’s one-sided in favour of the aliens, who are more humane, and against the vicious, racist, human colonizers.

That’s significant, I think,  because the alien civilization readers are being invited to identify with and admire is described in terms that make it share many of the characteristics of North American aboriginal cultures, and because the relationships between the aliens and the earthlings are made to sound very much like those between aboriginal people and European colonists.  I suggested in my entry on Under Alien Stars that that novel might be read in terms of whiter/aborginal relationships; in this case that sort of reading seems almost unavoidable.   Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the author is Canadian; and the novel seems to replicate the themes and conclusions of many of the books I discussed in my essay on Canadian novels for young people with alternating narratives involving white and Aboriginal characters.   It identifies aboriginality with an understanding of the earth (or in this case, the home planet) and a cultural commitment to it.  It centrally involves disputes over land and where the natives will end up living and under whose control.   Gravis’s father tells him, “They’re pretty primitive, hunting and gathering most of their food.  We’re in the process of moving them onto specified homelands, so they won’t be much of a bother in the future”; and also, :”they do seem to be a simple and jovial people.”  All of this, and the implied identification with this alien species I discussed earlier, is bound to invite readers to identify with the aliens and perceive aboriginal values and lifestyles as superior to those of the conquering colonialist earth forces and their imperialist arrogance.

On the other hand, however, the earth forces are indeed more powerful, so that a tragedy of being conquered seems almost inevitable.  The novel does, however offer a way out of that, albeit very minimally–a friend of Darsa’s, who seems throughout to be the white Indian, the red apple who wants to learn the invader’s ways, become like them, and join the big world beyond (like the characters in the other two alien novels).  Throughout, that’s made to seem like a bad choice–Gravis, who befriends this character, makes it clear in his sections that he’s only using him to delude him, and Darsa, whom we admire, is constantly trying to talk him out of his co-option by the colonists.  But at the end, it turns out it was all a trick he was playing, to get the goods on the evil Gravis and reveal his underhandedness to more sympathetic earthlings, who will, we are told at the end, thus respect the alien culture more and work to treat them more fairly.  Just how that more fair treatment will not involve their gradual absorption into them or powerful colonial culture is not made clear, or indeed, even a subject that’s raised.   So once more, as in the other two alien novels, young readers are asked to identify with an underdog group doomed to become as much as possible like its other–but only after that other understands and adopts the underdog’s group better understanding of how to live in nature  and be at one with the planet.  Once everyone adopts what is understood as aboriginality, then the aboriginals can join the mainstream and be at one with powerful people who have co-opted and transformed their values into something less alien.  This is a pattern so prevalent in discourse by white North Americans about aborginals as to be almost universally present in all the alternating narrative novels with aborignal concerns.

Service, Pamela F. Under Alien Stars.  New York:  Atheneum, 1990.

In a future that sounds much like now, an alien civilization has been occupying earth for the last decade or so.  The alternating focalizing characters are a human boy, Jason, and an alien girl, Aryl.  To begin with the observe each other with disgust–her maroon skins and clawed hands and feet disturb him, and he seems soft and pale to her.  (Note how the alternating narratives put readers in the position of comparing their responses and seeing the similarity between their attitudes.)  So skin matters a lot here, and you’d have to be pretty ingenuous about American educational obsessions and the nature and purpose of books for young people not to suspect that an allegory about racial tolerance is going to develop.   When it does, though, it has its problems.

The basic and thoroughly unsurprising thrust of the plot is that, when forced by circumstances to work together, this boy and girl develop an admiration for each other’s skills and courage, and find a common ground in their love and concern for their parents–his mother, her father–that allows them to be see past their apparent difference to their essential similarity and fight for the same cause.  In other words, this book follows the absolutely most obvious path a novel for young people with alternating narratives might follow.

But in this case, they are forced to come together because an enemy of the aliens has now invaded Earth and humans and aliens need to come together to oppose it.  And while the original alien group is mostly humanoid in appearance and even to some extent in character, this new one is purely and utterly alien, disturbingly asymmetrical in appearance (they are described as looking like Swiss army knives wiht many appendages) and prone to an utterly uncompromised and clearly, we are asked to believe, inhuman violence against their enemies.  In comparison, the original group the girl belongs to seem almost human–yes, the blew up a few neighbourhoods here and there, but otherwise, they just rule the earth in as peaceful a way any superior alien force with powerful weapons might manage–and are therefore, it seems possible to tolerate and work with.  They may be Nazis, they may have a firm commitment to the superiority of those higher-up in a hierarchical society, they may misunderstand and feel disgust for the ways humans feel concern for and brotherhood with lower species like pets and even houseplants–but they’re not as awful as the really, really bad Nazis.  In other words, tolerance emerge beyond prejudice in a realization of fellowship and likeness made possible by the presence of something truly intolerable, something it is wise and just to oppose and feel horror at.  Tolerance depends on a larger intolerance–a just abhorrence of what is truly not like us.  If I were to follow the logic of this, I’d have to conclude that the Danish, say, might get over their prejudice against Norwegians by uniting with them against the truly awful Finns.   So much for tolerance and anti-racism.

But that apparent ideological contradiction is undermined by yet another one.  The original alien race is described as being highly organized and regimented, and not much valuing anything that isn’t rational, etc.  For that reason,  our heroine’s father thinks that maybe his people have something to learn from the humans of earth they have conquered:  “they’re quite spunky, really, and there’s much they could offer our philosophers and artists” (24).  That “much” includes a loving concern for others, like pets and such.  As often happens in SF involving alien races, we earthlings turn out to be more capable of feeling, more thoughtful, more sensitive–nicer than the others.   But as it happens, when it comes to uniting against the really bad guys, human art and philosophy are hardly what saves the day: its just lots of spunky bravado.  Jason is good at surviving and fighting, and so is Aryl, and that’s actually what bonds them: their mutual aggressive spunkiness.  So much for the special humaneness of the human contribution.  (And there’s something in that word “spunky”of that superior dismissiveness Mr. Grant had for Mary on the Mary Tyler Moore show–spunky things are cute and little and so surprising and endearing for their vociferousness.)

Under Alien Stars is very upfront also about another aspect of its allegory–its representation of what happens when one group colonizes another.  Aryl’s father belongs to what is identified as an “Empire,” refers to “imperial” matters, and calls earthlings “natives.”  This makes the gradual coming together of our two main characters problematic.  While the novel pretends that its a matter of discovering their similarity and thus equality, the facts of the original setup remain: one group is vastly powerful, the other is a conquered race on its own home ground.   At the end, Aryl’s father will recommend on the basis of the novel’s events that earth will become part of the Empire–i.e., although unstated at the point, a colony, and still held by force and in the control of the Empire, safe only in its agreement to be conquered and behaving as others think best.  Yet Jason sees this, at the end, in a surprisingly optimistic way:  “In a strange way, they [the human race] had won after all.  They had won back the stars.”

The abject defeat hidden by this unthnking cheerfulness becomes more obvious if I think of what the allegory here allegorizes.  In particular, what happens if I think of Under Alien Stars in terms of the aboriginal issues I’ve recently been considering in other entries here?  A homeland invaded by more powerful, more bureaucratic people with a more hierarchal world-view and less close ties to and respect for the earth and other species; and a developing understanding that, in these circumstances, accepting the lifestyle and power of your conqueror and becoming more like them in the hope that they might then become a little more like you: that’s the kind of thinking about native cultures that led to the creation in North America of the much-despised residential schools and other attempts to destory aboriginal cultures.

It seems to me, then. that this novel reveals, perhaps more clearly than many others with similar implications do,  some of the ugly underside of the conventions of literature for young people: the fostering of the idea that the best thing to do for less powerful beings with less experience of the larger universe out there is to accept the power and wisdom of those with power over you, and try to become more like them and at one with their interests.  That sounds like a repressive way of thinking about young people and adults–and a way that is surprisingly common in literature adults write for young people.  What’s particularly instructive about Under Alien Stars is how that conventional wisdom of literature for young people here gets applied to questions of oppressed and conquered people.  The usual happy ending of literature for the young–they get more like older people–now has clear and unfortunate political implications about racial and cultural supremacy, and those implications reveal the potential oppressiveness of the same ideas in our adult thinking about the young.

What I’d like to do now is take a look at the books on aboriginality I listed in my last entry and see if I can begin to do some organizing of my thinking about them. I can do that by going through my various blog entries and notes on them and seeing if I can identify any ongoing themes in them or repeating ideas of my own about them.

In my published essay on the Canadian novels, I focused on the idea that property played a central role in the novels–that traditional objects or parcels of land were in dispute, and that the possession of them at the end of the novel implied a symbolic solution to questions of native land claims in the political world of real-life Canada outside the novels. A number of threads become intertwined in this matter: among them, the relationship between aboriginal cultures and mainstream ideas about multiculturalism, and how that affects ideas about the significance of the past in the lives of people in the present (offiucal multiculturalism in Canada often involves a celebration of heritage as what one has come from but left behind in another place, an idea not stretchable to include aboriginal peoples, whose originating place is their own and everyone else’s current place also. There are also questions about the use of aboriginality in relation to environmental and ecological concerns–the ideas of native spirituality as a celebration of the earth and such.

Property then, and the associated questions about the current status of aboriginality might be key issues in other novels. Among ones I haven’t yet discussed in my earlier essay, Welwyn Katz’s Out of the Dark and Martha Brook’s The Bone Dance, seem most interesting, and for opposite reasons. Out of the Dark involves two focalized characters in two different time periods coming to a new places and dealing with the natives there, while Bone Dance‘s two focalizing characters are of mixed race, and both partially aboriginal. The American novel that comes closest to echoing the property concerns of these Canadian books is Lisa Ketchum’s Where the Great Hawk Flies, since it involves a dispute over who ought to be allowed to live in the community it is set in, and, like Bone Dance, requires its focalizing characters to come to terms with the value of traditional aboriginal culture. It might be that the novel’s conclusions about such matters might represent an American way of dealing with them as opposed to a Canadian one. Also, questions about how aboriginality becomes connected with traditions past and over arise, in Canadian books like False Face, Out of the Dark, Bone Dance, Clark’s The Hand of Robin Squires, etc. and in others like Virginia Frances Schwartz’s Initiation (american/Canadian?), Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth, (American) Greg Jackson-Davis’s Digging for Philip (Canadian), and David Hill’s Treasure Deep (from New Zealand).

The Canadian books I discussed earlier significantly involved questions of borders, and thus I could suggest that they took part in what W.H. New calls the “boundary rhetoric” prevalent in Canadian writing, an interest in the borders between people and the ways they might be crossed. By and large, most novels with alternating narratives inevitably imply in their differing versions of similar events an interest in that kind of concern. The question, then, is whether or not the border rhetoric in alternating narratives for young people has a specific resonance in a Canadian context: or can books of this sort set outside of Canada be read in much the same way? They might, simply because, as a literature always aware of the borders its mere existence draws between young people and adults, literature for young people is equally involved with boundary rhetoric. I could explore these matters in terms of aboriginality in books that involve alternating white and aboriginal focalizing characters: Joseph Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door and Sacajawea, and once more, Where the Great Hawk Flies, two that involve a white girl showing the way to an aboriginal boy: Monica Hughes’s Log Jam (a Canadian book) and Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth (an American one; and one that involves an aboriginal girl showing the way to a white boy: William Mayne’s Drift.

A lot of these books involve writers of European descent using focalizing characters who are aboriginal, and so raise questions about voice appropriation: what happens when writers try to show the world as viewed by people of cultural backgrounds different from their own? In alternating narrative questions like that inevitably relate to a key concern raised by alternating narratives generally: do they really offer alternate versions of reality, or is there something inherently one-sided about them? Does one side always win, or are there genuine compromises and/or acceptances of ongoing difference? In order to discuss these matters, I can look at books about relationships between white and Indian characters that are in fact monological–focalized through just one of the two central characters. These would include Digging for Philip, Treasure Deep, Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens and The Curse of the Viking Grave, John Craig’s No Word for Goodbye, and Ted Stenhouse’s Across the Steel River and The Dirty Deed, all focalized from a white point of view; and Lee Maracle’s Will’s Garden, focalized from an aboriginal point of view. I might here also want to take a look at book with alternating narratives where the central characters are both aboriginal: Bruchac’s Children of the Longhouse, Michael Dorris’s Morning Girl, Virginia Frances Schwartz’s Initiation, and John Smelcer’s The Trap. Here I might also want to look at some adult novels: Richard Wagamese’s Keeper ‘N Me and Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road. (and his new, related novel, Through Black Spruce, which also has alternating narratives but which I haven’t read yet).

Finally, I think, i’d like to look at Terry Patchett’s Nation, a novel which engages all these differing threads in terms of an aboriginal culture invented by the white author–and how it reveals the ongoing persistence of the various ideological assumptions about aboriginality made by the other white writers I’ve been looking at here–and perhaps, undermines them?

I’ve now made my way through what I’ve been able to find so far of novels for young people with alternating narratives that relate in some way or other to aboriginal characters or issues, and I’d like to take a look over them as a group and see what themes or patterns might be emerging and what lines of further thinking I should be pursuing.   In previous entries on this blog, I’ve looked at the following:

I’ve discussed two books by authors identified as aboriginal:

Joseph Bruchac’s Children of the Longhouse
John Smelcer’s The Trap

I should note, however, that Smelcer’s claims to an aboriginal background and by implication, insider knowledge of aboriginal culture have been challenged, as I discussed in another blog entry.  Nevertheless, these books do seem to focus on exploring the value of traditional culture and the need for preserving it.  Indeed, I think I can safely say that all of these books do that–that being publicly aboriginal or writing about Native North American characters seems almost automatically to make the value of aboriginality central.   that may seem to be too obvious to e even worth saying, except that it;s not true of fiction by or about mainstream white characters of various European backgrounds, in which the overall validity of the ethnic or racial background in, usually, simply taken for gratned.  It is not an issue, then, just a taken-for-granted ideology.  And that might simply be an accurate representation of the way things are: genetic background and its associated cultural values are inevitably a significant factor in the lives of aboriginals and other minorities (especially people of colour), and an equally significant but usually unacknowledged and unthohgt-about factor in the lives of the mainstream “white” majority.

I’ve also written here about these books for young people centrally about aboriginal characters by non-aborignal writers:

Liza Ketchum’s Where the Great Hawk Flies
William Mayne’s Drift
Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth

And while it’s not about North American aboriginals, I discussed one other novel that deals with similar issues, this time in terms of a tropical island aboriginal culture invented by the author:

Terry Pratchett’s Nation

I’ve also discussed a couple of texts with alternating narratives for adults that relate to issues of aboriginality:

Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road
John Adams and Peter Sellars’s opera Dr. Atomic

While Boyden makes claim to a small amount of aboriginal heritage, it is indeed very small–so it fits uneasily into either of two categories: books by aboriginals, and ones by non-aboriginals.  The relationship between the depiction of aboriginality and alternating narrativers in Dr. Atomic is perhaps a little tenuous, but, i think, revealing.

Later,after I gather together lists of other books I’ve read but not yet discussed here on the blog,  I’ll consider the extent to which these books have similar themes, patterns, and implications.  I’ll also explore whether or not the novels for young people engage the alternating narrative form differently from the novels for adult audiences,  and also, whether the novels by aboriginals do so different from the ones by non-aborginals.  And there might be a third set of distinctions based on national provenance: the possible differences between authors located in Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere.

Books I’ve Read But Not Discussed Here

My earlier work on aboriginality and alternating narratives in books for young people focussed on texts published in Canada by Canadian publishers, all of them by non-aboriginal writers.  These all dealt centrally with encounters and/or friendships between white and aboriginal characters.  Some of them, however, told their stories as focalized through and understood by the white character:

Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens
Farley Mowat’s Curse of the Viking Grave
John Craig’s No Word for Goodbye
Ted Stenhouse’s Across the Steel River
Ted Stenhouse’s The Dirty Deed

While the first three of these were published some decades ago, Stenhouse’s books appeared in 2001 and 2003.

A larger group of books offer varying degrees of alternating narration from a character of European background and one of aboriginal background:

Joan Clark’s Hand of Robin Squires (a brief intrusion of an aboriginal focalization into what is otherwise the story of an English boy as told from his point of view)
Joan Clark’s The Dream Carvers
Monica Hughes Log Jam
Welywn Katz’s False Face
Welwyn Katz’s Out of the Dark
Martha Brooks’s Bone Dance
Kevin Major’s Blood Red Ochre
Greg Jackson-Davis’s Digging for Philip

I’ve already written in some detail about a number of these in “”At Home on Native Land: A Non-Aboriginal Canadian Scholar Discusses Aboriginality and Property in Canadian Double-Focalized Novels for Young Adults,” a chapter of Home Words: Discourses of Children’s Literature in Canada, ed. Mavis Reimer. (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier UP, 2008): Clark’s The Dream Carvers, Katz’s False Face, and Major’s Blood Red Ochre.

In addition to these Canadian novels, I’ve also read the following:

Virginia Frances Schwartz’s Initiation (which, while about the Kwakiutl people who live on Canada’s west coast, was published ion the U.S. by an author who lives in the U.S.; also, unlike the group above, its alternating focalizers are both Kwakiutl, and there are no characters of European descent, it being set in times previous to European contact)
Michael Dorris’s Morning Girl (alternating between a brother and sister who live on an island in the Caribbean just prior to Columbus’s arrival).
Joseph Bruchac’s Sacajawea (alternating between the Indian Sacajawea and the white Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition)
Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door (alternating between an Abenaki boy and a Quaker one)

I’ve also looked at a few other books by Canadians:

David Richards’s Soldier Boy
David Richards’s Lady of Batoche
Richard Wagamese’s Keeper ‘N Me (for adults).

There’s also:

Lee Maracle’s Will’s Garden

This book is not an alternating narrative, but presents white/Indian relationships from an aboriginal viewpoint–Stenhouse, etc., turned upside down.  Upside up, there’s a New Zealand novel:

David Hill’s Treasure Deep (Maori/Paheka relationships form a Paheka point of view).

And another book that might be relevant, discussed earlier on this blog is:

Berlie Doherty’s  Abela: the Girl Who Saw Lions.

I’m thinking of it in this context because it involves the same kind of colonial relationships between a European group and an indigenous one as North American aboriginal stories often do.

That’s it so far.  If anyone reading this entry knows of other books with alternating narratives that involve issues of aboriginality, I’d be pleased to hear about them.  And I’ll do some further exploration of this group of books as a whole soon.

Pratchett, Terry.  Nation.  London: Doubleday, 2008.

Nation is most interesting (in the context of my alternating narratives project) as a very messy version of the alternating narrative novel.  There are, yes, two central characters whose points of view alternate throughout the book.  They are, yes, representative of apparently opposite groups or cultures.  They do, yes, turn out to be surprisingly similar under their apparent difference, and they do, yes, find themselves united as a new community against people who represent the two older communities they are supposed to be members of.  Thus far, all as is might be expected in a conventional alternating narrative novel for young people, complete with the expectable themes about the importance of tolerance for otherness and the sanctity of individual character and individual empathy beyond the stultification of conformity.

But all that happens in the midst of other, less formulaic things happening.  There is, every once in a while, another focalized character or narrative section involving characters other than the central two–and that seems to happen whenever the novelist needs it to in order to move the plot forward or make something happen that couldn’t happen within the narrower confines of a strict adherence to the alternating pattern.  And there are also many elements introduced that seem to move far beyond the expectable thematic territory mapped out by the basic alternating narrative structure: a kind of free-flowing thematic ebullience that introduces the forgotten history of the island group as a once-world-dominating culture, perhaps as a way of raising questions about what’s primitive and what’s valuable; and also, a lengthy exploration of what faith means and what the consequences of losing it are; and also again, a theory of alternative universes that both accounts for the book’s divergences from known geography and becomes itself a thematic exploration of ideas of choice.  And so on.  It’s clear that Pratchett’s conception of what this book might be about is a lot more complicated than its more immediately obvious structural elements might imply–and that he has a liberating lack of concern for moving away from those elements when the drift of the book moves him that way.  It’s bravely anarchic, then–except not really, for I’m convinced it all makes sense and fits together in a subtler way. that creates a less obvious and more complicated pattern.  And in being that and doing that, it reveals how constricting the alternating narrative form can be, and how tightly and restrictively so many other novels make use of it.  What appears on first glance to be daringly complex in the context of literature for young people-the use of alternating narratives or alternating focalizers–is in fact as heavily formulaic as that literature most often is, with few exceptions as bravely tending to free form as Nation does.

In terms of the basic central alternators, Nation has a lot to say about cultural difference that isn’t particularly surprising.  The two central characters are Mau, a boy who is, after a tsunami,  the last surviving member of a people who have been the inhabitant on an island in the South Pacific, known in the alternate universe of this novel as the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean), and Daphne, an English girl whose father is 139th in line for the throne of England until a plague kills them all and makes him king, and who ends up shipwrecked on Mau’s island.  To begin with, the two are the only living people on the island; but as the alternating sections that focalize them reveal, both have their heads full of the patterns and constrictions and demands of their cultures.  His head is full of the grandfathers’ his dewad ancestors’  voices making demands of him to do as has always been done, hers of the intricate systems of repressive etiquette and class assumptions that her education has provided her.  These two systems of repressive communal values are then seen in relation to each other, their apparent differences (and the one’s understanding of the other as foolish superstition or incomprehensible silliness) undermined in the obvious parallels between them).

As a result of the alternations, readers are able to see the two characters understanding the same situations quite different’y, and understanding each other quite incorrectly.  There’s a kind of Rashomon affect, then, as two differing versions of the same event can each be seen through in terms of a reader’s knowledge of the alternative version.  Here that’s used for comedy more often than not, especially in terms of how the non-English misunderstand Daphne’s behaviour as a representative of a culture most readers are likely to be more familiar with, and how, on the other hand, contemporary readers can appreciate the absurdity of Victorian English customs and manners as perceived by the non-English characters.

But the tsunami has separated these two from the old ways, which no longer make any sense.  They must, then, move beyond them–and in doing so, not surprisingly, find themselves capable of behaviour that previously would not have been allowed them, find themselves liking it–and find themselves developing what is for them, if not for readers accustomed to this form, a surprising amount of empathy for and understanding of each other.  And as more survivors land on the island, they begin to form a new nation whose values emerge from their new situation and represent modifications and combinations and re-inventions of the old ways–and also, to a certain extent, a Terry Patchett version of of an improvisational, free-formed utopia.   It’s interesting, in terms of patterns and variatons, that there are extreme representatives of both the repressiveness of each of the cultures (the grandfathers and an old priest for one, Daphne’s the impossibly arrogant grandmother for the other) and the most unconstrained of its members (evil sailors for one, evil cannibals for the other)–and all meet their counterparts at the end, and are conquered by the improvisational but not ever anarchic new middle ground.

(Furthermore, this thematic focus on improvisational moves past repressive patterning, etc., nicely justifies the messiness of the novel’s structure along with its use of conventional alternatng narrative, so that its both imprivational and somewhat traditional.  it is itself a version of the central values of the new nation it describes, and repsents a similar compromise between two extremes of order and anarchy.)

Meanwhile, Mau and Daphne find themselves a new team together against the prejudices and constrictions of each of their backgrounds, and so there’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet thing happening also–and one that ends, surprisingly here in the context of a novel for young adults, in the traditional fashion: the loves are ot together.  She must return home to help her father rule his people, he must stay to rule his, so that their duty to their individual communities (and more importantly, to the new values they have forged together and want to keep afloat), trumps their feelings for each other.

I’m not sure what to think about the long history of Mau’s people that’s uncovered in their descent into the cave of dead ancestors.  It works to reinforce the equality of his supposedly primitive people and her supposedly more civilized people; but it does so by giving them a history of scientific rational knowledge and world travel that makes them sound a lot like the European colonizers of actual history, as if to imply that that sort of knowledge and that sort of world-encompassing culture is indeed a superior one.  On the other hand, it happened and is now over, its superiority forgotten as the current European one will be also?

One way or the other, this is a rich, ambiguous, funny, serious, thought-provoking novel, a pleasure to read and a pleasure to think about and still feel uncertain about because there’s still more yet to think about.

Having gone to the Cineplex last Saturday to see John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic “live” from the Met, I find myself thinking about it in terms of this alternating narratives project.  What struck me was that, while much of the music is evocative and interesting, there really isn’t much else very involving going on in what we saw on screen.  Part of the problem was simply not being at the Met–not just not being there, but not being there and therefore in the hands of a camera crew with strange ideas.  Perhaps on the theory that, being on screen, it should look as much like a movie as possible, everything was shot as close up as possible, so that the audience developed an intimate knowledge of the singer’s nostrils and sweat.  That quickly ruined the illusion of authenticity, at least in terms of believing in the characters as opposed to being aware of an on-stage experience–and so it was hard to feel empathy for the characters.  The fetishistic dwelling on faces also tended to undermine the kind of experience I most enjoy opera for providing–the interactions between the performers, between the performers and the set, between the singers and the orchestra, between the words and the music, etc., etc.  It’s an experience of semiotic intermingling and undermining, an ongoing set of complex and entertainingly crosscutting interactions.  But when you’re looking down someone’s throat at their uvula wiggling, you tend to miss the relationships between the words being sung and the other actions going on onstage, the shifts in the setting, etc., etc.  It was like staring obsessively at one piece of a complex jigsaw puzzle without being able to develop much sense of its part in a larger whole.

But all that might have mattered less in a different opera. Here, though, the composer John Adams and the liberettist Peter Sellars had already constructed an experience that seemed to be deliberately striving for a lack of audience involvement.  The libretto is made up of bits and pieces of other texts–some from interviews and diaries, etc., of the actual people involved in the atomic bomb project, some poems and prose passages by John Donne, Muriel Rukeyser, Baudelaire and others, and sections of the Bhagavad Gita and a traditional Tewa song.  As the singers move from one such fragment to another, one character’s thoughts or feelings to another’s expressed in terms of a different text originally written by a different person, there is little in the way of actual dialogue or interaction between the characters, then–the piece is set up as a series of alternating narratives, which is why I’m exploring my response to it here.

In a scene in the first act, Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, expresses her feeling’s about her husband’s absorption in his work by singing words a poem by Rukeyser:

Am I in your light?
No, go on reading
(the hackneyed light of evening quarrelling with the bulbs;
the book’s bent rectangle solid on your knees)
only my fingers in your hair, only, my eyes
splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love
in a slow caress blurring the mind,
kissing your mouth awake
opening the body’s mouth stopping the words.

.  As the composer Mark Adamo suggests in his blog entry on Dr. Atomic, “in this bedroom scene . . . Kitty Oppenheimer sings language from Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Three Sides of a Coin,” which describes the very scene we’re seeing: a wife trying to distract her husband as he reads.  Puzzlingly, though, the character narrates herself: she tells us what she’s doing even as she’s doing it.”  So there’s a distance created, a character explaining herself at one remove from herself; and then Oppenheimer responds in words by Baudelaire to describe his own state of mind:

If you could know all that I see!
all that I feel!
all that I hear in your hair!
My soul floats upon perfumes
as the souls of other men
float upon music.

It’s as if we know what each of these characters is thinking (albeit expressed through the filter of other people’s heightened language), but have little sense of what their actual dialogue or interaction consists of.  It’s two solitudes lightly and gingerly touching, two particles that remain in their separate spheres and barely interact if they interact at all.

That makes me wonder about the effect of alternating narratives in fiction.  I’m often aware of how they distance readers from characters.  You can’t, at the same time or in sequence, really identify equally with two different characters whose stories and thoughts cut across each other, and there’s a tendency to invite readers to stand back from both characters whose narrative alternate, to see what can be learned from one narrative about the truth of the other character’s perceptions, etc.  And as in Doctor Atomic, the sense of a conversation is apparent to the audience only: for it seems that Oppeneimer doesn’t know the Rukeyserian thoughts of Kitty, nor Kitty much of the Baudelairian thoughts of Oppenheimer.  A perception of how the fragments fit together–how a pattern emerges from all the isolated bits and people (and, I guess, atoms), is possible only for an audience observing outside the events of the story.

And yet–it seems to me that proficient storytellers are aware of that distancing quality when they make use of this sort of story construction, and work hard to combat it. They organize the alternations and their contents in a way that itself creates suspense,and invites emotional involvement, encourages understanding of the effects of each character’s actions on others even when the characters themselves are unaware ofr all that.  I sensed little of that in Doctor Atomic, which seems to want to keep all its characters isolated in their own concerns (and in terms of the set, inside their own little boxes) until the climactic explosion at the end.   (And if the bomb is the only image of mingling, then isolation and lack of involvement does somehow end up seeming superior, safer.)  Throughout, nobody actually does anything to anybody, or even says anything to anybody.  There is, in a literal sense, no plot–no series of interactions that develops into anything.  It’s a drama without drama.  So it’s effective, this opera, but its effectiveness has a kind of glacial, unmoving quality–a quality I actually sense in few of the novels with alternating narratives I’ve been exploring.

One sidenote, since I’ve been thinking so much lately about depictions of Native Americans in alternating narratives for young people, I have to record my dismay at the way Doctor Atomic engages the Tewa material it makes use of.   In a plot that works for an opposition between the organic ordering of the unviverse and the interfering meddling of scientists, the introduction of the Tewa  seems to demand an identfication of this Native American group with Mother Earth (and healing and wholeness and sanity)–and the maid who sings the Tewa song repeatedly throughout Act II has the kind of stance and subtance that inevitably imply that Mother-Earthiness.  As Adamo rightly says, “If this is characterization, what on earth is stereotype?”  Yet once more, the aborginal is what science and progress and civilization moves against or in ignorance of–and even if you want to suggest that science might be at fault, it’s still an insulting kind of unconscious identification of an actual people with what is being perceived as negatively or positively uncivilzed, less human, somehow–more “natural.”  All that gets exacerbated by a line of extras in Act II standing stolidly and solidly above the action, dressed up in horns and apparently aborginal costumes in the background of what is happening to real people below–the aboriginal made inhuman and symbolic and outside of but suposedly above things and, I have to add, very silly.  All this suggests a surprising insensitivity to issues of race and cultural appropriation in opera that goes back at least as far as Aida and Madame Butterfly and Turandot, and still seems, here, at least, surprisingly unchanged now–the exoticism of the othered still being made use of in the saqme old cheesily operatic way.  And much as it is used in so many novels for young people also.