Archive for the ‘race’ 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.


Powers, J.L.  The Confessional.  New York: Knopf, 2007.

The El Paso Chamber of Commerce must have hit men out gunning for J.L. Powers, the author of this book–or if not, they should have.  It makes life in that city sound completely hellish (and indeed, confirms my own impression of it from a brief stay at a conference a few years ago–at one point, some of the characters even replicated my half-hour trip across the bridge into Juarez in order to be able to say I’ve been in Mexico, and describes exactly the horrific sense of poverty and despair I quickly turned around and fled back to the relative order of El Paso from).  If these characters are to be trusted, residents of El Paso live immersed in the confusions and miseries of life on the border, a life heavily influenced by racial and national prejudice, religious oppression and repression (Catholicism, mainly), family strife, class consciousness, and drugs.  Reading it, I found myself thinking often of Cormier’s The Chocolate War.   Both books are set in a Catholic school for boys, both involve multiple points of view as they follow the trajectory of a number of different boys through a major event  (here it’s six boys all somehow involved in the events surrounding a fight between two boys, the subsequent murder of one of them, and the chaos and conflict that emerges in the days following).  And both focus on the boys in moments when they are revealing either their greatest vulnerabilities or ugliest acts and desires.  There is, then, the sense of world as a hellhole occupied by very bad and/or very weak people, the sense of boys as inherently and always violent crowd-followers threatened by any individual act or characteristic of difference from the boy-approved norm–and also as in The Chocolate War, an undercurrent of theological speculation about the nature of sin and forgiveness.  A number of the focalizing characters seem to lurch peculiarly from what come across as fairly mindless acts of violence to deep thoughts about God and ethics and strong feelings of guilt.

As a result of all that, the book also seems somewhat overwrought and rather melodramatic–like a soap opera more than anything else.  And like a soap opera and in spite of a strong interest in guilt and the consequences of evil actions,  the violence, described as quite intense and damaging, never really seems to have physical consequences.  After some paragraphs of being beaten on, some of the boys show up in later sections with a black eye or so, and no other apparent damage or long-lasting effects, quite able to be further involved in events that move the plot forward.  the damage described in The Chocolate War seems far more effective and therefore, far more important.

And also, here, there’s something more than a little odd about how the boys simply act violently without thought, even in response to acts of violence: they’re very much into revenge at its most basic and primal level.  They seem mostly to be inherently and at heart uncontrollably violent beings whose speculations about guilt and sin represent a veneer of socialization or religionization imposed from without–something acknowledgeably good and worth striving for but also inherently artificial, a willed imposition of repression counter to their real drives and urges.  There is no real drive to goodness or innocence or fellow feeling here, in other words–all of that is something you figure out intellectually and then work to impose on your natural self.  Maybe that’s why the book seems so hellish?  It does believe people (or maybe just boys and men) are inherently rotten and stuck with working out the inevitable problem of their being inherently rotten in a world primarily made rotten by the acts of older people, primarily older men.

Also as in as soap opera and as in The Chocolate War, these characters, who mostly know each other and are, to varying degres, friends, all have secrets from each other or from others.  They are secret weaknesses or vulnerabilities, mainly–especially one boy’s awareness that he is gay in a culture where he is sure it will be exceedingly dangerous to be known as gay.  But other have family situations they’d rather others not know about, one is a drug dealer and always high, one thinks he believes in pacifism but is afraid it means he’s a coward, and so on.  Interestingly, many of these secrets and much of the plot involve questions about what it means to be masculine, and the book offers a range of boys who have problems with different aspects of conventional masculinity–either because they represent it or more often because they don’t.

The plot moves not only around issues of race and nationality, then, but also, around questions of maleness.  And normative masculinity seems to be represented as a socially coded expression of inherent maleness–the male as biologically violent, competitive, lustful, active, etc., etc., with these qualities reformed as the way boys are reassured again and again males ought to be.  Curiously, again, the book seems quite unhappy with how conventional masculinity represses and oppresses males and females, but also seems to assume that that masculinity is an expression of inherent male qualities that need to be curbed rather than a culturally powerful form of behaviour that might not actually or inevitably have tyrannical biological roots.   For that reason, the book seems determined to sentence males to hell–they are who they are, and that’s dangerous to themselves and others, so they have to learn how to control their inherent and unavoidable male tendencies and always be on guard against them, forever after.  there’s no such thing as a non-violent male except in terms of hard fought self-control?

At any rate:  part of how the novel engages its multiple focalizations is both in terms of offering a diverse spectrum of different ways of being male or, more accurately, of confronting the problem of maleness, and in terms of manipulating access to secrets (secrets kept often due to questions of maleness, male bonding, etc.).  Readers, who know at any point everything that all the focalized characters have thought so far,  are privy to secrets that some of the characters don’t know.  Often, the knowledge seems to be engaged as a way of showing the inadequacies of the boy’s perceptions or understanding of each other.  We learn that what bulks large for one matters not at all for some of the others, or that what they interpret one way actually means something quite different to others involved in it or learning about it.  And the last sequence, in which the boys confess their knowledge of the crimes to each other and then to the police, involves strong explicit statements about the value of letting others in on what we keep secret, from shame or guilt or fear of consequences.    The gay boy actually goes to confession (the novel as a whole acts as a sort of confessional, as the characters in turn confess their actions to–who?  the reader?  themselves?).  H e feels unburdened and free after he does, and then confesses also to his best friend whom he has feared might hate him for being gay–or for keeping it a secret for so long.  The novel makes all this positive by having both the priest he confesses to and his friend accept his sexuality without criticism or question, and then the boys all ocnfess everything to each other and to the authorities, and it’s more or less a good thing for almost all of them.  Letting others in on secrets is always and only a good thing, and for a book built on such bleak understandings of the environment and the inherent human condition, the ending is surprisingly upbeat and optimistic–unlike, for instance, The Chocolate War, which makes acting on who you believe you are much less easy, and offer a more ambiguous exploration of the morality and the possible vanity and masochism of public acts of defiance.

And also, on the other hand, by moving from character to character, the author can keep secrets from the reader–which allows the novel to act as a sort of mystery.  As the boys interact with each other, various specific ones of their actions seem to just be conveniently skimmed over, in ways that we and they get to fill in later.  Thus, the actual murders is present in earlier focalization and thinking about many of his actions on the night in question–but never the actual event itself, which then is left as a secret to be uncovered by others later.

The consideration of secrets kept or thoughts or actions hidden also allows another theme to develop–questions about how people observe each other and are observed by others.  They all worry about how others see them or what others have seen them doing, what other know or don’t know.  They all fear and hide from surveillance (the panopticon of a peer group?) and surveillance, it’s clear, is ongoing and universal.  One character, apparently unknown to any of the others even though e is in class with them, seems himself as the detached observer–invisible to others, but others highly visible to him in ways that eventually lead to the outing of the gay guy and the identification of the murderer.   As he becomes more involvewd with others, and as others acknowledge more of what they are and let others see it, more of a community forms.  It’s a community, furthermore, which ends up isolating the murderer–for he emerges as a psychopath incapable of forming actually bonds with others.  In a sort of wish-fulfilment society, all the people who assumed that the murder was racially (or nationally) motivated in a turbulent racial situation are wrong–it was a basic lack of humanity and human involvement that created it, not politics or social issues.  The boy who did the deed did it because he enjoyed doing it and like the idea of getting away with it, and just used the political situation as a pretext.  Evil does not emerge from politics or thinking, it seems, but from a damaged individual human pysche (and Powers make sure we understand, at the end, that this boy is warped not by genetics so much as by the horrors of his bad parenting and upbringing.  This is the sort of logic that says Hitler was inherently evil, a bad person rather than a true believer in a powerful and powerfully dangerous ideology of race).

As the book nears the end, the switches in focalization gradually increase.  The book starts with two or three chapters per each character, then moves to them changing chapter by chapter, and then in a series of different narrative all in just one chapter. This rhyhm replicates andi reinforces their movement from isolation and secretiveness into somethinbg more like a community of shared knowledge.   They interact more as they shift more.

I’ve said surprisingly little about race issues so far, considering the extent to which the book demands attention to question of race and often makes explicit statements about it–it’s the main thing the characters talk to each other about throughout the novel.  The intriguing thing, however, is that race turns out to be less of an issue than nationality–its the Americans versus the Mexicans, eventually, and the Americans include Mexican Americans, and those who have immigrated are confused about who they are or which side they should be on.    So it’s very much a novel about borders and their strange effects on people who might be understood as not firmly placed on one side of a border or the other (and the secrets theme also works in terms of borders, the borders between what we are and what we allow others to know of us, etc.)  The various focalizaitions offer a spectrum of responses to race and naiton issues as well as a spectrum of speculations about masculinity.

I noticed in reading the jacket flap info about the author that there are no pronouns to describe Powers– no “he” or “she” or “him” or “her,”  and the  initials J.L also conceal his or her sex– her sex, as it turns out, a fact I quickly established in a Google search.  So why did the publishers choose to hide it on the jacket?  A clear case of S. E. Hinton-itis, obviously–as with The Outsiders, etc., a book about boys and maleness is likely to be less successful with boy readers if written by a woman?  And indeed, in this case, I suspect it is.  As I was reading the book, something struck me as sort of off about these boys, and precisely in terms of their being boyish, although what it was I couldn’t say, although I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author is female.  Something about the disconnect between their thoughtfulness and their more or less sudden and unthought acts of violence?  As if when they act as boy traditionally do, the author can’t imagine them thinking their way into it, being tohhgtfully violent?  I don’t know, but it’s certainly worth further thinking about.

I’ve said far more about this novel than i thought I would.  There’s a lot to think more about here. An interesting novel.

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.

Thomas, Rob.  Slave Day.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

This novel describes what happens to as group of people on a southern high school’s “Slave Day”–a day in which individuals are auctioned off to then act as slaves for those who bought them for the rest of the day–in particular, a group of eight alternating narrators.  Each of them tells, in the present tense, what’s happening to them and how they feel about it, as it happens.   There’s a very clear sense in this that they are all speaking to someone–there are certain moments of reticence or even downright lies, ones that sometimes only become obvious due to information made available in one of the other characters’ narratives.  But this implied narratee is more than a little strange.  It’s certainly not clear who it is–who they might be telling all these confidences too, except maybe, themselves–and if themselves, then why are they so cagey and secretive about so many things, or so willing to misrepresent things that might make them look bad to others?  And if there is a narratee, where is he or she and what is he or she doing in moments like this one: “So now here I am, underneath him with my uniform half off.  His hands are inching up the backs of my thighs and I can feel his fingertips start prying at the elastic of my panties” (99-100).  She’s talking to the naratee while all this is happening?  And the boy on top doesn’t notice anyone there? This is eye witness reporting with a vengeance–or maybe a partocularly sneaky version of the panopticon.

Nevertheless, despite that always-present naratee, the characters themselves are quite unconscious of what each other are thinking.  Indeed, that seems to be the main point here–that for all the appearance of a communal event, this high school is less a community than a place where isolates jostle against each other with very little sense of connection or understanding of each other.   The focalizing characters who know each other often misunderstand or misjudge each other–or even more often, just simply assign different degrees of importance to the same event, so that what one character finds monumentally significant is more or less meaningless to some of the others.  Often, also, the central focalizing characters have very little knowledge of each other at all–they may or may not even know each others’ names, and see each other as strangers in the background.  One of them, a boy who wants to be an actor, notices for a brief moment of another, the student president who believes he’s the center of everyone’s attention,  as merely “that black dude who’s always on the microphone”–and then immediately moves on to think of things much more important to himself  This is not, then, an interconnected clique or group of friends.  It’s a bunch of disparate people, some connected to each other, some not.  In this way Slave Day is more like, say, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway than it’s like the many novels for young people with large groups of focalized characters, which often seem to begin with relatively isolated characters but then move towards integrating them into some sort of shared community or communal experience.  Yes, there’s a shared communal experience here–life at high school, and the events of Slave Day in particular.  But it means something different to each of them at the start and also, at the end.  What emerges is a pretty bleak sense that groups of people together are really, in essence, groups of people in isolation and mostly apart from each other.  A few small things change here–but very few, and not very much, and the changes actually tend in some cases to drive people further apart rather than bringing them closer together.  The novel believes more in isolation than it does in connection and community.

Part of this sense of isolation is created by the fact that, while there are eight separate narratives all centrally involving events on the same day and in the same place and all engendered by Slave Day, they actually break down into four different sub-stories which really have almost nothing to do with each other.  Two narrators, a cheerleader and a football player, are involved in a situation in which this best friend tries to get her for himself, explored in terms of her becoming his slave for the day.  Another pair of slave/master narratives involve a a black rebel who purchases the back president of the school council, in order to make a point about the racism implicit in the day.  A third involves a would-be actor student who purchases the teacher who failed him in order to get revenge.  And the fourth concerns the beautiful spoiled daughter of the wealthy mayor and the younger boy geek she enslaves almost by accident.   Each of these pairs of master/slave characters is so involved in their dealing with each other that they are not aware of most of what is happening to the other three pairs.  (This is also a way in which Slave Day is unlike Woolf, I think:  while apparently a complex interweaving of disparate characters, it’s actually a much less complex interweaving of four novellas, each with its own plot.  Once more, a YA novelist finds a way of simplifying a theoretically complex and sophisticated narrative technique in order to produce fiction that seems more complex than it actually is. )

Also, the four distinct narratives have a variational relationship with each other, in that each of them involves a different version of power politics or enslavement in human affairs.  The cheerleader plot involves issues of masculinity and the domination of women by male power and male sexuality.  The football player is a somewhat shallow boy who buys into normative ideas about what matters that give him, a white male athlete, great power.  As the day goes on and he becomes ever more frustrated by the cheerleader’s refusal to have sex him, she becomes more and more aware of what’s wrong with her relationship with him (Slave Day, she says, and being his slave, doesn’t feel much different from any other day) –and also, what’s wrong with the other’s boy’s competitive and underhanded struggle for her.  She ends up free of both boys, a happily independent woman.  The rich bitch/geek plot explores both issues of social power (money) and the hierarchical structure of the high school world, in which he is less than meaningless and she is a star.   Each gains a small amount of insight into the other–she about his real worth, he about her real emotions under a veneer of toughness–but he ends up threatening to blackmail her in a way that ends her enslavement of him, threatens his enslavement of her, and provides him not just with independence but with an ugly lesson in how best to survive in a world of dog-eat-dog isolate.  He is less ingenious and tougher, but more dangerous at the end, not just to others but also to himself?  The teacher is enslaved by his loss of energy and insistence on strictness, the actor boy by his inability to do well at school while also helping to support his trailer park family.  Their story explores the power relationships of student/teachers and the power of societal and personal circumstance.  Each comes to know and understand more about the other (as do all these characters, in fact) as a result of the slave game, and in this case, there’s a move towards a very small amount of greater contact that enriches and changes both their lives.   Theirs is the most hopeful and positive of the four stories, and the one most like what you might expect of a YA novel with a group of isolated characters coming together.  The other stories end much less conventionally.

The fourth plot is the one most resonant in terms of ideas of slavery, as one African American boy enslaves another and makes public displays of having him pretend to pick cotton, shine shoes, and such–live out old stereotypes of racial power and enslavement.  It also represents a debate about ways of confronting one’s path in life as a person of colour.  One boy represents resistance to white power, the other acceptance and use of it in order to move ahead himself.   Ironically, the rebel seems to win–we’re told that there’s unlikely to ever be another Slave Day–but the other boy manages to keep his quest for success intact, and even gets the girl the rebel hoped for.  And yet–his winning is like the victory of the young geek, a triumph that defines him as self-centred, dangerous, and isolated.  As he himself says at one point (and what the novel seems to reinforce throughout),  “what’s more important–maybe he’ll learn that whatever else happens today, when all is said and done, I’ll still be me, and he’ll still be him” (47).   And as the rebel says at the end (although not about all these narrators it certainly applies to them), “”In our own ways, each of us got exactly what he wanted”–and that was a gain for some, and a loss for others.

At any rate, all of this amounts to a sizeable and many faceted discussion of how people have power over and are enslaved by each other,  how freedom might be indepedence or isolation, and what the ethical and personal implications of all that are.   It uses the alternating narratives to show how both slaves and masters have power and at the same time disempower themselves and others.

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.

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.

Little, Melanie. The Apprentice’s Masterpiece.  Toronto:  Annick, 2008

Medieval Spain, fifteenth century.  There are two focalizing characters: Ramon, the son of a scribe, a Jew whose family has converted to Christianity but nevertheless experiences an increasing intolerance of “conversos”–those not of longstanding Christian blood; and Amir, a Muslim slave who comes to work for Ramon’s father.  The book presents, first Ramon’s story, then, after a brief repetition of the last events of Ramon’s story from Amir’s point of view, the continuation of Amir’s life separated from Ramon, and then, thirdly Ramon again as he re-meets Amir in different circumstances.  The narratives don’t alternate throughout, in other words, and tend to tell just one side of the story at any given time, so that readers are left without knowledge of what’s going on as the other central character understands it (until much later we learn how Amir understood events he experienced with Ramon in his own later narrative).

Furthermore, the book is set up as a series of poems, each a page or two, and separate enough from each other so that each has its own name.  Each describes a character’s thoughts in one specific moment (and in the present tense), and there is little sense of connection between the moments–indeed, a lot of what happened is left unreported, so it comes as a surprise, for instance, when Amir’s section comes along, to learn that he and Ramon had developed something of a friendly relationship.  Ramon himself hasn’t really thought about that, though, at least not in the moments recorded here; in them, Ramon is almost exclusively a nuisance to Ramon.  And Ramon has other things on his mind more pressing to him, it seems, like a girl he believes he’s in love with–but it’s something of a cheat for the author to leave the other moments unreported so that what didn’t matter to Ramon himself can then become more important to Amir as reported later in Amir’s section and then very important to Ramon himself, as reported in the last section when he tries to save the life of the boy he once, I imagined, just disliked.

It’s a somewhat manipulative trick not to be told of things happening that will turn out to be important later–a trick dependent on the fact that the book presents itself as poetry, so that any narrative flow is implied rather than actually present in the isolated bits of narrative each poem presents, and it’s up to readers to figure out how these moments connect to each other in terms of a plot or connected sequence of events.  Readers get to play connect the dots, sort of, and here, the specific dots simply leave out  other moments that turn out to be important in the characters’ later relationship retrospectively.  This is maybe a way of taking the isolation and then connection inherent in an alternating narrative structure to an extreme: offering deceptively isolated moments only in order to unveil the surprising connections between them later on.  (After having thought about Dr. Atomic, I might call this isolating aspect of alternating narratives, leading to often explosively climactic connection, an atomic bomb effect.)

The book is, of course, about characters somehow isolated (here by racial and religious prejudice, primarily) becoming connected, and about apparently different people discovering their hidden sameness.  In a way, that’s more or less what all stories with alternating narratives are about, or at least, it’s one of the most obvious ways a novelist can make use of this kind of structure, so that either this form inherently suggests that kind of ideological position or else the widespread power of that ideology (especially in terms of how adults want young people to understand the world) leads many writers to the alternating narrative as a good way to express it.  Structure creates substance, or substance invites structure?  I don’t know which, or maybe both.

Here, the issues are both religious and familial.  It’s Jews vs. Christians vs. Muslims, and the sanctity of the individual mind and individual family against all three.  Ramon can’t understand why his father seems more interested in Amir than in himself (although it becomes clear that, despite family blood, Amir has been an equally  obvious successor of Ramon’s father and sharer of his values as is Ramon himself–and it’s Ramon’s own understanding of that and recommitment to those values he hadn’t earlier been able to share that brings him together with Amir   He first, though, has to learn what was hidden from him (and us)–that his father had come to love Amir enough to have actually freed him from slavery, and asked him to call him Pappa, etc.–but that rather than all this being a rejection of Ramon, the father had kept Ramon out of knowing it for fear of its danger to him.  So political circumstances have isolated one boy from the other even while love and empathy were making the members of the same family, and doing it while putting them in enough contact to experience a mutual empathy they can acknowledge and act on only much later.

So external circumstances–politics, religion–separate those who are not truly different.  True community is with those who share our commitments and ideals, not necessarily, as the inquisition would have it, with those who share our blood or our faith.  There’s an implication that religion and politics are the enemy here–what divides and corrupts.  (It’s also interesting that, despite one being a Christian Jew and the other a Muslim, these boys echo many alternating narrative characters by being, in fact, on the same side against a common enemy, in this case the Inquisition.  Alternating narratives rarely pit good guys against bad guys, and tend instead to prefer to show two different [but in the end not-so-different] responses to the evil left unfocalized.)

To begin with, Ramon, as an embattled converso, is set up as a sympathetic sufferer of intolerance and injustice.  He  then reveals his own intolerance for the outsider Amir, and so must learn to be more genuinely tolerant by understanding his own tendency to self-aggrandizement and prejudice, and to act against it.  At first, he sees himself as confused, half-Christian, half-Jew, (and indeed, without really experiencing or expressing any actual faith in anything), while Amir knows who he is–and claims (to himself? it’s unclear who the audience for these monologues is) to be a devout Muslim (even though his texts really give little evidence of that in the way of emotional involvement, etc.; he’s a religious person who doesn’t sound the least bit religious, and who says he’s praying but who never actually prays).

Ramon must be punished, then–for intolerance, though, not for lack of faith: the book seems generally unhappy about faith.  So he falls in love with the wrong girl, and somehow ends up ordering the slave Amir around and into danger and backing himself into the corner of having to become a scribe for the Inquisition. Later, knowing how that led to Amir’s being attacked in the street and then having to flee (and eventually, becoming a slave yet once more) Ramon feels a guilt he must then expunge.  At the end, after Ramon desperately tries to save Amir’s life, it’s Amir who helps save Ramon’s life.  Empathy triumphs over religion.

About difference, the text offers a quote from the poet Hafiz:

How can two different eyes behold you as you are?
Each will see according to what it knows.

That’s a basic principle of the world of alternating narratives.  But often, as again here, the difference is mostly theoretical.  Amir and Ramon don’t really sound different from each other in their different narratives–it’s like the same voice describing different circumstances in the same way.  And neither sounds terribly committed to whatever religious values they’re supposed to espouse.  They seem like twenty-first century people claiming a faith they don’t actually seem to feel or be immersed in.  Religion is referred to, then, but not actually present except as that which divides soul-mates (recognizable to readers as self-centring modern individuals like ourselves) from each other.  And in the end, individual character triumphs over faith and race claims, and two boys who think and sound almost exactly alike acknowledge their allegiance.

Yet once more, also, I have to complain about the so-called poetry that’s so fashionable in novels for young people these days (see also: The Braid and Beating Heart.  These pieces in The Master’s Apprentice just read like personal musings, with little sense of concentration of emotion or of language that particularly expressive–and the line-breaks seem to be there just to make them look like poems, for they don’t add anything to the ideational or emotional structure or rhythm of the pieces.  So the pieces are more like diary entries than what I would be willing to give the name poetry to.  Just being an old-fashioned snob, I guess.  But I do think that a story told in something like real poetry might well have the intensity to survive the distancing and isolation of all these separate little sections, and that doesn’t happen here because the language simply isn’t interesting enough to be worth paying attention to for more than the story it’s telling–the events.

Also, these present tense narratives sound very narrative-like–more like a statement of how someone feels or what he remembers as spoken to an audience than like interior monologue, which is surely less narratively organized, and more dramatically conflicted?  So really, they are more narrative than poetry.  (And it’s weird that these fifteenth century Spanish boy says things like “Here’s what I don’t get” or that something “feels gutsy”–very recent idioms, meant, I suspect, to make the text seem lively but that somehow just stick out like unruly cowlicks and draw attention to themselves, and that end up confirming the unacknowledged similarity of these two theoretically different characters who both share a 21st century mind).

Boy, am I sounding like a grumpy old poop.  But I’m suspecting that the only reason there are so many book set up this way these days, as supposed free verse that’s free of verse, is because, unlike what used to be called poetry, this widely spaced prose is easy to read quickly, and you can say you’ve read a whole fat novel that, laid out in the more traditional way, would be about half the apparent length.   Not verse for language lovers, then, but easy-to-read prose for language haters.  Feh.