The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Doubleday, 2019

Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, is a fictional story that occurs in a real location with GPS coordinates and a name on the map. The author creates a narrative built around verified reports of what happened at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. It was once the largest reform school in the United States. It had a large campus and a polished exterior which veiled the horror show of beatings, molestation, and murder that occurred there. The school operated from 1900 until it was closed in 2011, after inspections uncovered appalling evidence of a longterm pattern of abuses.

Whitehead could have written a non-fiction account; certainly he has the talent as a writer. He could have given us numbers to detail how many boys were detained, and he could have cited coroners’ reports and forensic evidence gathered when a team from the University of Florida excavated the graveyard on the property. The gruesome evidence of their reports has been confirmed in accounts provided by the men who were sent to the school when they were boys, and the stark details are readily available to anyone who bothers to do even an elementary internet search for details about the school.

The Nickel Boys goes deeper than cold facts. Whitehead uses the skills of brilliant fiction writing to walk readers up close to the personal nature of the cruelty suffered by the boy victims of the Dozier School. He introduces us to Elwood, a young boy being raised by a grandmother, who labors as a hotel maid to support him. She suffers for him and clings to the faintest glimmers of hope that his life will someday be something that was never possible for her. He is a smart kid, eager to learn, ready to read anything he can get his hands on. His dream of going to college seems within reach.

Elwood’s fall from hope into despair pivots on an event that could not be predicted. On his way to visit the campus of the college he hopes to attend, Elwood hitchhikes, but the man who picks him up is driving a stolen car. This incident echoes the story of Jefferson told in Ernest Gaine’s A Lesson Before Dying. In that story an innocent man hitches a ride with two men who stop off at a store and end up robbing it. Both Jefferson and Elwood are ruined by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In both stories their mistake is not having their own transportation, as if poverty and lack transportation can honestly be called a mistake.

Whitehead’s ability to juxtapose hope and hopelessness is profound. One Christmas young Elwood had been given a record of the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., and he had listened to them so many times, he knew them from memory. He wants to be the man Dr. King describes, but one ride in the wrong car has turned his fate around. Elwood is torn out of the safe zone of his grandmother’s love, and sent to a reformatory, but the words of Dr. King go along with him, and they run through his mind continuously as if they are his own.

Elwood keeps hearing the voice of Dr. King reminding him never to relinquish his will to be somebody, no matter how much others try to put him down. Locked away in an ugly and cruel place Elwood reviews Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. He hears, recorded indelibly in his own memory, his hero’s promise that nobility comes from the power of love and the will to help others.

At the training school Elwood is starved and overworked. No matter how hard he tries to preserve his own nobility, he is nonetheless subjected to the same despicable treatment that all the boys suffer. When he intervenes to stop a boy who is bullying another, he is taken to the notorious white shed for a beating, along with the bully and the victim. Like the others he is beaten with a leather strap that leaves deep bruises and open wounds. Effort and good intentions make no difference.

It is unsettling to be reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches in tandem with accounts of Elwood’s horrifying experiences. Whitehall forces us to look squarely at hate and venality. We are made to see that where justice is suspended anything can happen. The author will not let us turn our gaze away so that we can avoid the hard questions. What finally has more power, love or hate, innocence or evil?

Locked away in solitary confinement, in a room without light, and aching from a beating he has barely survived, Elwood is forced to rethink Dr. King’s noble words. “The world had whispered its rules to him for his whole life and he refused to listen.” It had told Elwood not to love, or trust, or stand up to be counted, but he resisted and went on believing the message of a higher way. He wanted so earnestly to believe what Reverend King had preached: “Love and the love will be returned, trust the righteous path and it will lead you to deliverance, fight and things will change.” These are the words of Dr. King to which he had been clinging to keep his hope alive.

As Whitehead’s skilled writing brings us into the cell with Elwood, we are told: “In those long hours, he struggled over Reverend King’s equation…. No, he could not make the leap of love. He understood neither the impulse of the proposition nor the will to execute it.”

This might be a place to end a story as tragic as the story of Elwood, but Whitehead does not leave us there. That would be too clear a conclusion. In a sense that would be too easy. The author pushes us on and continues the story. He brings us into the present with an epilogue that makes us realize that, even if we can close the book, the story is not done.


Remembering Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (1788-1879)

Sarah Hale was a remarkable woman. Born in 1788, she was home-schooled and became a teacher. At age twenty-five she married, had five children, and was widowed before her tenth anniversary. It was customary at the time for a widow to dress in black for two years after the death of her husband, but Sarah never gave up her mourning attire. A look at her life would suggest her choice to remain a perpetual widow was less a gesture of grief and more a signal to suitors that she had turned her attention to matters more important to her than marriage.

Soon after the death of her husband, Sarah began to write, publishing a very successful novel four years later. She also wrote poetry, the best known from her collection for children is “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Her own parents had promoted education for both boys and girls, and Sarah herself, as an advocate for the education of women, was one of the founders of Vassar College, the second institution of higher education in the United States to grant degrees to women.

For her entire adult life Sarah Hale was a promoter of causes. She was a tireless abolitionist, an advocate for public health awareness, and a promoter of uniquely American themes in literature. For over forty years she was the editor of one of the most widely read magazines of her time, a role in which she continued until she was ninety.

Sarah Hale was also a letter writer. In 1846 she wrote to President Zachary Taylor asking him to support national unity by declaring a public day of Thanksgiving. Taylor did not respond. She kept up her campaign by writing to successive Presidents: Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. None of them took action. It was seventeen years later when she wrote to Abraham Lincoln that she got the response for which she was hoping. In 1863 he declared a national day of Thanksgiving.

It was a peculiar year to declare Thanksgiving. The United States was still torn apart by the Civil War. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in January of that year, the fighting had continued. In June, at Gettysburg, there had been a battle so bloody it became known as the Harvest of Death, and the invention of photography brought images of the horror to the public.

Neither Sarah Hale nor Abraham Lincoln were naïve optimists, but they both seemed to sense what we have often experienced since: in the worst of times it is especially important to attend to gratitude. During two World Wars the public cut back their rations to assure that service members whose places were vacant at home could have a special meal. Barely a week after the assassination of John F. Kennedy we celebrated a Thanksgiving in 1963. In 2001, still reeling from the shock of 9-11 we celebrated another. And so it goes from year to year both on the national level and in private homes. We do our best to celebrate this holiday no matter what.

This year, in an atmosphere politically fractious enough to bring the possibility of ugly words to many American Thanksgiving tables, ninety-five percent of Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving nonetheless. They will roast up 46 million turkeys and travel 45 million miles to be with family and friends. Once again, as we have done so many times before, we will take the risk of gratitude, even if there may be rough patches in our celebrations. And no matter how it goes this year, we’ll probably celebrate this same holiday all over again next year. It has become part of the fabric of American life.

There is a quote from Sarah Hale that fits Thanksgiving Day, especially in a year in which the celebrations may be under a cloud of discord: “It requires but a few threads of hope, for the heart that is skilled in that secret, to weave a web of happiness.”

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Olive at Last

It’s a delight to have Olive back, a few years older and salty as ever. For readers who first became acquainted with this enigmatic character in Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 novel called Olive Kitteridge, catching up with her a decade later in Olive, Again is like meeting up with an old friend. Although Olive isn’t exactly like a friend; she’s too edgy for that. She is more like an old haunt. Something from the past that lingers, a presence you can’t forget completely because it doesn’t blend in with all the ordinary memories that gradually fade away.

A book is a perfect way to get to know a character like Olive, because you can put a book down. Dealing with a character like Olive in real life would be hard work. Let’s be honest; coping with Olive could be more work than it’s worth if you happen to be one of those people she decides she doesn’t like.

Having other characters share in Olive’s story is intricate work for an author. Olive creates confusion, and her cutting comments chip away to reveal others, like a sculptor’s chisel working in marble. Elizabeth Strout is brilliant at creating interesting secondary characters, who can stand up to and seem real alongside someone as complicated as Olive.

Readers like Olive. We become her fans as we are ushered past her curmudgeonly exterior to get a glimpse of the insecure and lonely person within. In the story Olive regularly embarrasses others, and vicariously she embarrasses us, her readers. We are granted literary distance, however, and that permits us to catch the image of ourselves briefly in her mirror and then move on.

Elizabeth Strout, through the character of Olive Kitteridge, is a brilliant observer of the way we all are when we think no one is watching. Olive is an old woman who has difficulty with bowel control. In her own mind she refuses to use the euphemisms for discreet hygiene products. She calls them “poopie panties,” but she also admits to a friend that she goes to the store early in the morning when there are likely to be fewer customers there to see her purchasing them. Her foibles are out there for us to see, and along with the chuckle we release while observing them, we grow a fondness for Olive.

Olive does not suffer fools gladly. As we read we might wonder if she would suffer us gladly. Talking with a young woman about the death of her father, she reminds her that her father was never quite “right in the head.” Olive describes a respected citizen of her hometown as “an old bat,” and she does so without hesitation or apology. She makes comments about other people in a voice loud enough for them to hear. More important to Olive than being proper is being honest. 

Not all of Olive, Again is about Olive. Some of it is about her hometown of Crosby, Maine. One full chapter is about characters from one of Elizabeth Strout’s other novels. The chapters hold together like a collection of short stories. They move around from one time frame to another. They pull up details from the past and plug them into new stories in the present. This is an interesting feature of Elizabeth Strout’s writing. She seems to create stories about characters who have a life of their own, and it is not limited to the book in which they are revealed.

Some of Elizabeth Strout’s stories are built around passing encounters between characters who are nearly strangers. Her ability to draw us close to those characters reveals a remarkable empathy for her characters, but an equally remarkable empathy for her readers. She knows how to get to us. Sometimes we are drawn into observing scenes that are attention-gettingly awkward or larded with humor. Our peering into them almost seems voyeuristic. We laugh at the awkwardness. We laugh at Olive’s eccentricity. The humor makes us drop our guard, and then it leaves us undefended when the tragedy sweeps in.

One remarkable story begins with Olive’s comments about a woman who once was a guidance counselor in the local high school but now is old and living in a “rest home.” Her husband died in a house fire when their large old home on the edge of town burned to the ground. Olive surmises that the widow in the rest home has “gone completely dopey-dope.” Sometimes Olive is the local gossip, and what she reports in the voice of cold cynicism rings merciless. But there is that other side of Olive. It emerges just as we might be judging her cold exterior. Olive knows tragedy when she sees it. She feels it somewhere deep and wordless. As she is driving past the burnt out house she comments, “Sad, sad, sad.”

From one episode to the next we see Olive’s own life shrinking. She is widowed twice. Her grandchildren outgrow her. Her only child lives at a distance. Her acquaintances die off. She moves into a facility where she can receive supportive care. One afternoon she attends a funeral for an acquaintance named Barbara.

She sat now in the early afternoon on one of the chairs set up in the meeting room for Barbara’s memorial service; she had put on a pair of poopie panties just in case…. About twenty people sat in a room that could hold three times that many. No one was weeping….

After the funeral Olive muses about her own life. She realizes that it is moving toward its end, and that all the things she has lived through and gathered into her memory will soon be gone. She goes to the typewriter on which she has been recording her memories and on a single sheet of paper she writes:

“I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.”

We can assume that the first sentence is Olive’s. It fits the narrative. But whose voice is heard in the second sentence? It is so like Elizabeth Strout to shape-shift voices. All we know is that Olive places the sheet of paper on the top of the stack of memories she has been writing. It closes a story about an old woman we feel we have gotten to know, and it is the end of Olive, Again

In Memory of Ernest J. Gaines

On Tuesday, November 5, 2019 Ernest J. Gaines completed his life. Out of respect for him I decided to reread his novel, A Lesson Before Dying. It is a gripping story with craft and sensitivity that is unforgettable. And it is a story with as much written between the lines as written on the lines. When a story is truly great it is hard to say exactly why — in this case to point out that it is authentic, moving, dignified, tender, deeply spiritual and bluntly honest, all seems redundant. That pile up of words doesn’t say enough. Gaines wouldn’t use abstract words like that anyway. He always kept it simple. In the case of his character, Jefferson, he shows us what it means to be a man. Not a lucky man, but a deep down tested and true one.

I also listened to an  interview with Ernest Gaines in which he talked about his life and his work. He dared to do something that not many authors dare to do anymore. And he used words that not many speakers are inclined to use. He spoke of character. Not snobbery or fame. Not power or rank. He spoke of character as something that can be witnessed by observing a man (or a woman) who has it. I guess it goes without saying that lack of character is also a void that speaks for itself.

I’ve long been convinced that A Lesson Before Dying should be required reading for young people, although the truth of it is that young people will pick their own reading for themselves. But now, in this time of honoring Ernest Gaines at the end of his life, I see in his interview a gift to those who are adding up years. Those who are in a stage of life that merits reflection on their own story.

Ernest J. Gaines has left us a lesson before dying. An unforgettable one. May He Rest in Peace.

Ok Boomer

I saw a kid with a T-shirt that said “Ok Boomer,” and it wasn’t printed just once, but ten times over. I’m a boomer watcher. I’ve written about them, criticized them, and defended them. In the interests of full disclosure, let me admit that I am a boomer, and sometimes I wish I weren’t.

I decided to ask what “Ok Boomer” means, and I got a blunt reply. It’s what someone under twenty-five is thinking when “some old boomer drops their ignorant shit on you.” My first instinct was defensive. I imagined getting a T-shirt printed as a retort.

Whatever Zoomer!
Have it your way!

Fortunately good sense got the better of me, and I immediately realized my mistake. Generation Z looks way better in t-shirts than boomers do. It isn’t an even playing field.

My unidentified source for the meaning of “Ok Boomer” was happy to fill me in on the background of the expression. Apparently it’s a “dank meme.” I thought I got what that meant. The internet has been around long enough that even old folks know what memes are. But dank? Really? In my day dank was what hippies called home grown marijuana that was put into a baggie before it had been thoroughly dried.

Oops. I just did it again. Who cares what dank meant in our day. That “dank” is already fifty years out of date. Dank is like bad. Sometimes bad means good. And sometimes…well enough already. The point is that Zoomers are fed up with us.

Zoomers have heard enough of our tales about how things used to be. They aren’t interested in hearing about what life was like when we were young. Managing life the way it is now is more than enough for them to deal with.

There’s another good reason to hesitate before getting the t-shirts printed. Zoomers have a point. The world we’ve handed over to them isn’t exactly a nifty one. They have a lot of cleaning up to do, and they’re cleaning up after us. We’ve let them down, and they’re letting us know.

I might not feel comfortable saying this to a Zoomer, but I want to remind my fellow boomers that we weren’t the most respectful generation of young adults back in the 1960’s when we were going to set the world straight.

Remember our memes, like “never trust anyone over thirty.” We were proud when we marched in protests, and we felt good when we chanted “the whole world is watching” while police were bashing heads and stuffing our handcuffed friends into paddy wagons. We thought the generations before us had held progress back, and we thought we were pushing the evolution of the human race forward. What’s more, we were confident that future generations would thank us for ushering in the age of Aquarius when all would be peace and love.

What have the Zoomers got to complain about?  Growing national debt, unmanageable educational loans, a conundrum of health insurance, continuous war, an environment groaning under the stresses of our excesses, and growing distrust of elected officials?

Ok Zoomer. Maybe “Ok Boomer” does sum it up.

It’s Halloween Again

It’s Halloween again, the season for seeing little princesses with wands and glitter, dinosaurs with awkward tails, winged fairies who do not fly, and toddling supermen with skinny legs and bulked out chests. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend nine billion dollars this year on Halloween costumes, candy, and decorations.

Costumes for pets is a growing trend. Animals don’t concern themselves with how they are dressed for Halloween, or whether they are costumed at all, but apparently their owners care. Pets, especially dogs, have become surrogate children, and Halloween is their holiday too.

The breeds that once were working dogs, whose task was to guard, hunt, herd, or control rat populations, now have become “companions.” They are adopted not bought. When brought for grooming or veterinary care they are referred to by their owner’s surname: Rufus Doe and FiFi Jones. During working hours when owners are not home, some of them go to doggy daycare.

Many small breeds always were companion dogs, the “lap dogs” of privileged classes who had time to sit around with pets on their laps. More recently some canine friends have graduated to the status of emotional support dogs. These lap dogs can be taken on board airplanes to provide comfort for their anxious owners.

What’s happening? Have people with disposable income become the target of marketers willing to separate them from some of their cash? It’s hard to resist cute advertisements for pets and pet products. Could it also be, however, that the average of two children per family leaves room for more dependents, or that the growing number of childless households has resulted in an abundance of nurturing energy that is looking for an outlet?

Perhaps the restyling of pets that turns them into family members has something to do with the epidemic of loneliness. When polled, half of all Americans report they have less social contact and fewer people to turn to for support than they would like. While this finding is not surprising for older adults who live alone and no longer work, it comes as a shock that the group reporting the highest incidence of loneliness is adults thirty-five and younger.

For lonely people, pets are appealing. Working breeds that are eager to please can be trained to respond to their owners’ wishes. Lap dog breeds that orient naturally to their owner’s scent and seek the comfort of their owner’s touch are cozy. There are few wild dogs anymore; most breeds have been domesticated to serve humans, and the human canine bond is strongly symbiotic.

Who is more likely to greet you when you come home than the dog who has been alone all day and is waiting for your return? At the same time, who is less likely than your canine companion to complain if you come home late? Where else can you find a loyal relationship so oriented around the terms that you set? Dogs are natural codependents. They were bred that way.

Halloween is a season to show off our dogs, especially those who are willing to ingratiate us by letting us dress them up as fantasy figures. And unlike kids, they won’t complain if we don’t share the treats.

Talking Heads or Pasquino

Several times lately I have turned off the TV in the middle of the news just after intentionally turning it on to catch up with the day’s breaking headlines. In short, I’m ambivalent. Sometimes the news is like bread; it’s appealing because it’s fresh but after indulging in just a little, I’ve had my fill.

News highlights the day’s gossip dug up to discredit politicians and financiers. It recounts the day’s political pot-shots aimed at the President, or someone with a Swiss Bank Account, or a candidate whose wife blurted out something too candid. To hold viewer interest the news is sauced up with a Saturday Night Live satire about the tanning mom or tongue-in-cheek speculation about a pro football player who is too good to be true. Really, who cares? Where’s the beef?

The scale of public gossip has gotten out of proportion. It was tough enough in the past when people talked behind the backs of their next door neighbors, but now the most trivial gossip has the potential to go viral. We are treated to a few four letter words stealthily picked up by a microphone mistakenly left on, and are not told about a serious statement outlining a candidate’s platform. We graze on stories about terrible neighbors, careless parents, and horrible teachers, meanwhile forgetting about the multitude of earnest people who work hard each day to share a good life with others.

Lust for news feeds the fantasies of our “inner gossips.” Networks invite viewers to send their video clips. The Internet is a free-for-all where anyone can post anything. All it takes these days to be paparazzi is pocket-size cameras, smart phones, or webcams. Amateur producers of the day’s gossip dream that the dirt they dig up will get millions of hits and ultimately make them rich or famous.

Forgive me for a little swing through nostalgia, but I like the way Romans used to dish dirt on each other. Near one of my favorite marketplaces in Rome is a beat-up statue where for the last five hundred years Romans have posted their opinions. Many of them were written in verse. This odd looking statute with paper notices pasted to its base is fondly known as Pasquino. In the past most of the lampoons (or pasquinades) attached to its base were political attacks or complaints against the Vatican. Today they are about anything that someone wants to grouse about.

What I like most about this odd corner set aside for public complaining is that the majority of pedestrians walk by without a second look. Tourists stop to take pictures because many city guides mention the “talking statue,” but after snapping a picture the visitors too walk on without reading the pasquinades that have been posted. They like the spectacle, but most tourists don’t know Italian.

A few centuries ago creeping though the dark of night to post a complaint at the foot of Pasquino was a risk that could lead to prison or death. Today everyone knows that the gossip posted on the statue is overstated. It’s drama, and little of it is taken seriously. Still almost everyone accepts that it’s good for cranky folks to have somewhere they can let off steam. Actually I am inclined to agree with that sentiment, but I still wish it were not on TV and not called “breaking news.”

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell


Talking to Friends

In his new book, Malcolm Gladwell works with the stories of Bernie Madoff, Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Sandra Bland, Larry Nassar, and others. He walks us through “things misunderstood and overlooked.”

Malcolm Gladwell is a storyteller who easily persuades his listeners that he is an expert. He works nimbly with other people’s ideas and makes them accessible for mass consumption by giving old ideas a catchy new name (outlier, blink, or tipping point) and weaving familiar stories around them. In his new book, Talking with Strangers, he works with the stories of Bernie Madoff, Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Sandra Bland, Larry Nassar, and others. The approach he uses is similar to what he does on his popular podcast, “Revisionist History.” He walks us through “things misunderstood and overlooked.”

The conversation to which Gladwell invites us begins with a conundrum. As our contacts have become more global and our circles of interaction more diverse, we inevitably find ourselves communicating with strangers. How do we know we can trust them? Gladwell asserts that most of us begin with the assumption that strangers are telling us the truth (Truth Default Theory) and that what we see in our first impressions is who the stranger really is (Transparency). At the same time we don’t assume that everything about us is immediately apparent, because we know we are complex and variable. This difference in the way we perceive ourselves and strangers Gladwell calls The Illusion of Assymetric Insight.

Much of the time the assumptions with which we begin work out okay, but sometimes they don’t and communication goes off the rails. Others aren’t as transparent as we think, and we misjudge them. Sometimes we make the wrong gamble in determining truth and falsehood. Gladwell’s stories are demonstrations of how quickly things can go wrong (Sandra Bland and Amanda Knox) and how long the miscommunications can flounder before the house of cards collapses (Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, and Larry Nassar). When things fall apart there is a scramble to assign blame. Why didn’t someone do something to stop the travesty? We refuse to see that the failure to stop bad from going to worse is due to others doing what we ourselves do, most of the time. We assume people are transparent and are revealing the truth about themselves, and we trust our own perceptions.

What gets us off track sometimes is our failure to balance immediate considerations with longer-term considerations. This Gladwell calls myopia, a word play on short-sightedness. Furthermore we often fail to modulate our perceptions by considering their context. It’s as true of others as it is true of us that we act in certain ways because the context allows it. In a different context our actions might be different.

Obviously Gladwell is distressed by those incidents in which matters took a disastrous turn. He grasps for ideas that could help us deal more effectively with strangers. It seems the best he has to offer is that we should accept our limits. We should admit to ourselves that we aren’t very good at figuring out the strangers with whom we interact.

“Whatever it is we are trying to find out about the strangers in our midst is not robust…. The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile. If we tread carelessly it will crumple under our feet. And from that follows a second cautionary note: we need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth. We have to be satisfied with something short of that.” (p. 262)

What if we move beyond what Gladwell is offering and compare the way we deal with strangers and the way we deal with friends. Real friends, deep friends, aren’t all the people in the contact lists of our computers. They aren’t just people we like for the moment. They are people we know well, in many settings over many years, and even through the course of experiences that have changed them.

That’s the way real friends know us too. They’ve been with us in our good and bad moments, in the times when we were shaken and those times when we were steady. They’ve observed us when our characters were shiny and good and also the other times when the tarnish was more visible.
Are we inept dealing with strangers because we are neglecting time engaged with friends? We are spending more time in one dimensional, quickly passing encounters with people we don’t know, and we don’t intend to know. We interact with them because we want to get something done. More and more our lives are organized that way. That’s bad news for the strangers with whom we deal. It’s also bad news for us because over time our own default position shifts, and we are more comfortable acting like a stranger than a friend.

This is not a new idea. It is nearly two decades ago that Robert Putnam suggested in his book Bowling Alone (2000) that our communities are dissolving as we engage in fewer activities together. It is nearly a decade ago that Sherry Turkle warned us in Alone Together (2011) that technology separates us from each other. She followed that up with Reclaiming Conversation (2015) in which she cautioned that the flight from face to face encounters reduces our comfort with relationships and our capacity for empathy.

Is it possible that the more we neglect time spent with others who know us deeply, the more comfortable we become acting like strangers? Is our own default position shifting from that of friend to that of stranger? Our habitual ways of perceiving strangers is one dimension of the problems we have trusting strangers, but an equally important dimension of the problem is our own discomfort acting like a friend. The test is not whether I perceive the other as a friend or a stranger. The real test is what I assume about myself in any given situation. Which persona is my own default? Am I more tuned into being a friend or being a stranger?

Where the Crawdads Sing

When the Crawdads Stopped Singing

When I picked up Delia Owens’ new book, I was charmed by the poetry. Owens has an eye for natural things, and she has an instinct for the rhythms of life and death in the marsh and the swamp. She describes veins in a wasp’s wing, the sound of wind moving through tall grass, the shifting light of daylight and moonlight hours, the smells of the sea and lagoons, and the ever present heaving and shifting of sandflats, estuaries, marshes and the shoreline of the Atlantic. She tugs at our senses, and lures us into the place where the crawdads sing. In this rich setting she introduces us to a feral child.

Kya is the youngest of five children living with a violent father and battered mother in the untamed coastal marshes of North Carolina. One by one the children peel themselves away from their violent family, and when their mother can no longer bear the violence she too walks off, never to return. Little Kya is left with a father who is present less and less, because he feels more at home at the bar. At last when her father stops returning home at all, ten year old Kya is left on her own in a shack tucked away in an isolated place where “the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”

Drawing on her early memories of her mother, Kya is able to light the wood fire stove and cook her own mussels and grits. She catches fish in the places her father showed her. Using the small boat he has left tied up in the channel, Kya navigates to the bait shop where she barters the mussels she gathers and the fish she catches and smokes. Her needs are basic: fuel for her boat, matches and candles, and a few food items such as grits and Crisco. For the rest, much like any animal living in the wild, Kya spends her days uncovering the intricacies of her environs and hiding herself away when anything dangerous intrudes on it. The intruders she fears most are humans.

Ingenuity for survival, this ability to make do with what nature offers, is what makes the story of a little girl living way out “where the crawdads sing” so intriguing. Now and then the reader is likely to pause and consider if it is possible for a child to survive on her own this way, but Owens demonstrates how each challenge is faced one small step at a time. The story stretches credibility, but it does not rupture it.

The second layer to Owens’ story is Kya’s inevitable encounters with other humans. Tate is a boy whom Kya sees fishing in the marsh, and from whom she hides while watching from a distance. When she gets lost navigating through the complex tangle of channels, she sees Tate fishing and has no choice but to ask him to help her find her way home. It turns out he knows who she is and where her shack is because he knew one of her older brothers.

Kya’s encounter with Tate begins a series of delicate communications carried on without a word as they leave feathers for each other in the stump of an old tree. The feathers are curiosities: he leaves the tail feather of a tropicbird and the “eyebrow” feather of a blue heron. She leaves the feather of a young eagle. It is interesting that Owens chooses these particular feathers and these particular birds because they are totem animals. The blue heron finds what it needs by silently waiting, by being determined and unperturbed. The isolative tropicbird spends long hours in flight out over the sea and when on land is hidden in an out of the way nest. Sometimes Owens cannot resist explaining herself. As Kya discovers one of the gifts left for her in the stump, the author writes: “She stood absolutely still, trying to take it in, what it meant. She had watched male birds wooing females by bringing them gifts. But she was pretty young for nesting.” Later Tate leaves some things Kya may need and a note to explain, but Kya has to admit to Tate that she cannot read his note. Rather than shame her illiteracy, he offers her another kind of gift. He teaches her reading and arithmetic. He opens up her world by bringing her books.

When Owens is writing about the natural world, about its creatures and survival, it is clear that she is writing about a world with which she is enchanted. A quick internet search reveals why. She has lived for decades in wild places, in Africa among lions, hyenas, and elephants, where she was embedded as a wildlife researcher. She knows these animals like family. There is both expertise and delight in the way Owens shares the intricacies of nature.

Sadly, scattered throughout her chapters of exquisite nature writing are other chapters that distract from Owens’ talent in portraying the place where the crawdads sing. Kya is accused of murder by bungling local detectives who have decided from the beginning of their investigation that the oddest person around is the guilty one. Owens writes a fairly good trial episode, but in the course of it she loses the character of Kya, who becomes pathetic, passive, and defenseless. Were it not for the men who come to her rescue (the public defender, her brother who reappears, and Tate who believes in her innocence) Kya would be doomed to spend the rest of her life in a dull prison cell.

There is also a romantic triangle woven through Owens’ story. The flashy, charming town boy pursues Kya because she is beautiful and wild. Bedding her earns him bragging rights. And there is Tate, the friend too good to be true, whom Kya underestimates. Owens plays these two characters off against each other in a clichéd plot that has the elements of a 1950’s good boy vs. bad boy movie script. These themes do not fit the character we first meet as an amazing feral child.

The murder mystery and the courtroom drama are not Owens’ forte. They are unoriginal. It seems that Owens fell into the trap of stereotyping her female protagonist. The brave male who survives in the wild does not need to be rescued by love, why does the female? Similarly the male who is judged unfairly because he is a marginal or invisible person survives by flight or fight. Why must an accused female collapse in defeat and be rescued?

This is Delia Owens’ first novel. One can hope that her next novel will work with what she knows best, i.e. the natural world and the quest for survival. If this comment is offensive to Delia Owens, I apologize, because the world of critics is often unfair to debut novelists. Now that Delia Owens has made the best seller lists, she has earned for herself the right to craft the story that will showcase what is the best in her writing. I’m eager to read it. I hope she will let her imagination go back to where the crawdads sing.

Things We Refuse to See

Téa Obreht’s new novel  is a many layered work of imagination, into which she leads the reader by introducing two powerful characters and a setting so vivid the reader is viscerally drawn into events, even though not able to understand them.

Lurie, a boy of six, immigrates to the United States in the 1850’s with his father, who dies soon after their arrival. In Oliver Twist fashion Lurie survives through crime: first as a pick-pocket, then a grave robber, and finally a highway robber, who falls in with a notorious gang that holds up stagecoaches. After Lurie commits a senseless murder, bounty hunters pursue him, and his life of crime turns into a life on the run.

In his wanderings Lurie crosses paths with the United States Camel Corp (an actual historic unit of the US army), whose camel drivers were recruited from the nations of the Ottoman Empire. Among them Lurie feels kinship, and traveling with them allows him to take cover under a new identity. In what Lurie describes as a pivotal point in his life, he is given charge of a camel named Burke.

Obreht’s other main character is Nora, a woman who has followed the man she loves to the frontier town of Amargo (the word for bitter) where he is the newspaperman. Nora homesteads their farm and is the mainstay of the family, providing for her impractical husband, her two rowdy sons, her mute mother-in-law, a daft niece who is given to swoons and séances, and her youngest son who becomes half-blind and inclined to hearing voices and seeing things after he strikes his head in a fall from a horse. The territory in which they live has been stricken by drought, and Nora’s household is close to the end of its reserves of water. She is impatient about small things and uses harsh words with her children, but Nora continues judiciously doling out the precious water drop by drop, taking none for herself. She is desperate and parched.

What these two stories have to do with each other is not obvious at first. Obreht offers them to us in tandem without making the connections clear. Lurie is a wanderer; Nora is a settler. The Arizona territory of Inland where they struggle to survive is not the cowboy country of old movies. There are no heroes or winners in Obreht’s stories. It is a violent and ugly place where death lurks on every side, and survival is random.

We are with Lurie when he slides his skinny boyish arm down into a grave to twist loose from a corpse what he wants to steal. We watch over Nora’s shoulder as she examines the dried up corpse of a young girl who has crawled into the shelter of a cave after suffering sunstroke. We watch wolves feed on the dead and buzzards pick the bones clean. In the purgatorial territory where Lurie is hiding out and Nora is searching for water, these ghoulish events are common, and Obreht’s descriptions of them are brilliant.

These noir adventures have another layer. The stories are riddled with haunts and wandering spirits. Evelyn, Nora’s five month old daughter, dies of sunstroke, but Nora never relinquishes her to death. This gritty woman who is outspokenly cynical about the spiritualism of her niece Josie and chides her son for his belief that their farm is visited by a monster and the ghost of a dead man, preserves for herself the phantom company of her dead daughter. Year by year Evelyn grows up in Nora’s imagination, and their ongoing communication is the soft edge of consolation in Nora’s harsh life of isolation and duty.

Lurie also has haunts. He sees specters of dead children buried along the roadsides of the wagon trail. The corpses he touched while robbing graves haunt him, and the young man he murdered remains with him. Lurie’s boyhood friends, Hobb and Donovan, continue to pass their wants into him, so that Lurie feels compelled to act for them. In Lurie’s world the living and dead are not kept separate.

Among the living Lurie’s closest companion is Burke, his camel. Durable and faithful, Burke becomes the steady ground that moves along under Lurie, the one sure thing from which he knows he must never be parted. Lurie shares his inner thoughts with Burke, and in these dialogues the shattered memories of Lurie’s childhood are gradually reassembled.

Names are important in the two stories of Inland. Lurie recalls that his immigrant father, Hadziosman Djurić, changed his name to Hodgeman Drury because he resented being mistaken for a Turk. When the landlady released his father’s body to the undertaker, the best approximation of his name she could offer was Hodge Lurie. That is the origin of Lurie’s own name. Years later Lurie discovers that his father’s name was Hadji Osman, and that Hadji was the honorific granted after his father made the Hadj to Mecca in fulfillment of his religious obligation as a Muslim. Lurie’s friend, the camel driver Hadji Ali, has endured similar distortions of his name and honor. In America he is called Hi Jolly because his name and its meaning are foreign. With the help of Ali, Lurie is able to recall the place of his birth in Herzegovina, and from that day forward Ali calls him Misafir (sojourner). “We have all been called this or that over the years,” says Ali, “but now we are who we are.”

Given that names are so important, why would Obreht name a camel Burke? He is not a minor character. In fact he is a hero, the steadfast one who plods on and never gives up. He is the one who carries the burdens and endures the trials. Much of Lurie’s story is told in the form of conversations with Burke. Why then the name?

Could Obreht be referencing Edmund Burke, who promoted an aesthetic of the sublime and held that great mysteries, which surpass beauty and are beyond the bounds of reason, are experienced in astonishment? In Nora’s story it is her niece Josie who is most open to astonishment. She calls in conversations with the “other living” (the dead) and bends the limits of time to see back into the hidden past and forward into the unknown future. With regard to everything practical Josie is incompetent, but she is fearlessly open to mystery because “What we see with our hearts is often far truer than what we see with our eyes.”

When at last the two stories that Obreht has been spinning side by side come crashing together, Lurie’s story becomes Nora’s story, and her story completes his. In this too Josie is the medium. Things not seen before can be seen, and things denied are acknowledged. The reader is left standing in the rubble of the stories, seeing for the first time clearly what was in plain sight all along. The reader is also left wondering about things we refuse to see, when like Nora we flee from mystery and hold on to falsehoods because they seem more manageable than the truth.