2017-02-04

sovay: (Haruspex: Autumn War)
I have not slept; I do not have time to sleep before the Somerville sanctuary city rally. It has not been a good night for it. In the meantime—

1. [personal profile] skygiants sent me an archive of songs collected from Holocaust survivors. It's amazing stuff. You might expect the songs of resistance, grief, and Zionism, but I think it is very important to everyone's understanding of Jewish history that I just finished listening to a fragmentary parody of "Tumbalalaika" in which the boy gleefully answers the riddling girl that the German army is melting like clouds in the rain, the Germans are lying deeper in the earth than a well, and Hitler is spitting up gall with the Red Army coming to finish him off. I am also really fond of the song of the Warsaw thieves. It's half a minute long and very catchy and has a line about shaking down suckers on streetcars. I wish I'd written the song about the other world as the backstage of a theater, Jacob the director, Adam the costumer, Eve doing a snake act. "I think of these songs as voices from a lost world, like Atlantis." Then I found that another, similar archive—thought lost—had been recovered last year. My night has been very full of ghost voices in Yiddish, cut with One Night Stand in North Dakota thanks to a tip-off from [livejournal.com profile] ladymondegreen, because sometimes that happens to a person.

2. I did not manage to get any pictures from Thursday's vigil in support of Black Lives Matter at First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain first because my camera went all smeary in the after-sunset light and then because I was using both hands to hold a sign which read "You Don't Have to Be Black to Be Outraged!", but there were at least three people with professional-looking cameras in the streets photographing the estimated 500 participants in the silent vigil, so there is a half-decent chance that [livejournal.com profile] gaudior and Fox or I will turn up on someone's Flickr account. People held candles in the night wind; people held signs. Some (like Fox's cardboard medallion reading simply "Black Lives Matter") were brought by participants and others (like mine) provided by the church. There were so many people on either side of Centre Street that we were recruited from a double line on the church side of the street and sent off to the corner of Green Street, where drivers waiting for the lights to change would see our presence. Three students passed a microphone to read a list of names like Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, memorial and synecdoche for all the dead of anti-Black violence; the silence of the vigil was for them. The vigil leaders sang "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" to call us back to the church afterward. Speaker Martin Henson minced no words about the fact that it is a great start to hold a sign and feel like part of a community, but what you do after you put the sign down is really essential. It is a monthly vigil; I plan to return next month. If Trump is gone by the second of March, that will be glorious and I'll make the "unpresidented" joke even if all the newspapers go with "You're fired!", but I expect that black lives will still mattter and I will still want to say so. And next time I'll remember to bring glove liners—in the twenty minutes of the vigil proper, my fingers in their rabbit-lined gloves went past normal Raynaud's-in-winter hurting into numb to the point that I had trouble keeping hold of my sign. Naturally, afterward, we got ice cream from the FōMū on the next block because despite their pretentious macrons, they make some of the best coconut ice cream I have ever eaten and it is winter in New England.

3. Mostly reproduced from comments in Skygiants' journal because I completely failed to write about Anya Seton's Foxfire (1950) when I picked it up last winter in the basement of the Harvard Book Store despite really liking it:

I treasure Foxfire for being a Western mystery-romance between a white woman and a Native* man where their difficulties as a couple have nothing to do with a clash of cultures. Amanda Lawrence is twenty years old in the winter of 1932 when she meets Jonathan "Dart" Dartland on the steamer they're both taking from Cherbourg to New York; she's a well-bred Vassar ex-student returning from what would have been a school vacation if she had the money to finish her degree (the crash of '29 having taken out her family's fortunes, if not their social expectations for her), he's a mining engineer seven years old than herself on his way from one job in the Transvaal to another in Arizona, by New Year's Day of 1933 they are married on little more than the strength of their astonishing sexual chemistry and move immediately to Lodestone, the hardscrabble company town where he's engaged as foreman at the Shamrock Mine. To the reader's total unsurprise, it goes terribly. Amanda has no friends in Lodestone, no place beyond being Dart's wife, no experience of living in clapboard shack levels of poverty in a community where she has no obvious allies, and while she's willing to try her best to adapt, Dart appears to give her no praise or encouragement for it. It's not indifference or insensitivity on his part, but it is a particular kind of self-centeredness: he's so used to fending for himself that it doesn't occur to him that other people—like his previously class-sheltered, physically petite, actually rather shy wife—don't have the same resources or practice and he doesn't recognize that the same behavior which he believes is demonstrating an absolute trust in her self-reliance and capacity to handle whatever crises or inconveniences are thrown her way is in point of fact indistinguishable from totally fucking hanging her out to dry. This is not an insoluble relationship problem! But it is the kind that requires some dedicated talking to resolve and between Amanda having no idea how to initiate the conversation and Dart being terrified of revealing emotional vulnerability (patriarchal bullshit ahoy), their relationship continues to spin out until there are mistaken beliefs on both sides and people saying things they either don't mean or don't understand mean different things to the person hearing them and everybody haring off on a damn-fool hunt for legendary Anasazi gold in the Mazatzal Mountains which Dart and Amanda and the reader all know is likely to get them killed, but by then there are too many complicating factors like money and pride and jealousy and cutting off one's nose to spite one's face tangled into the argument for either of them to back down. That Seton pulls a plausible happy ending out of all of this plus a subplot concerning Dart's position with the mining company explains to me absolutely why she has the reputation she does as a historical novelist. Also I read Dragonwyck (1944) shortly afterward and that book is gonzo.

What I like about Foxfire, in addition to the obvious points like style, characterization, and the ability to contain both legendary Anasazi gold and realistic marital problems, is that it's very careful to represent Dart's stoic macho bullshit behavior as a problem he's having because of his particular issues intersecting with good old American patriarchy, not because Apache men are all naturally stoic and macho and this is a Tragic Cultural Divide, even when other (white) characters try to frame it this way. Seton is amazingly good about not exoticizing Dart or his mother. Any time a (white) character tries, Amanda included, the narrative shoots them down. Dart being mixed-race is not irrelevant to the novel, but it is relevant mostly in terms of the decisions he makes because of his image of himself and as a factor in the very kindly meant, but actually very racist attempts at support on the part of Amanda's family. The scenes on the reservation are a serious attempt by Seton to write about Native characters without falling off either side of the stereotype fence; for writing in 1950, being white, and never having lived in the Southwest, I think she does not do a terrible job. I also enjoy that the narrative takes a character who is usually a favorite archetype of mine and deliberately implodes him. Hugh Slater is the doctor in Lodestone, sandy-haired, sawed-off, and sarcastic, and after he's been a jerk to Amanda for almost his entire brief introductory scene she laughs at him: "I've read you in a hundred stories; the surly woman-hater, the embittered doctor, drowning his troubles in bad temper and drink. Underneath there beats a heart of gold." Later he drops by with a grudging gift for her, lampshading his own change of heart: "Peace offering . . . Embittered doctor demonstrates heart of gold." The thing is, he doesn't have one, really. He's actually just kind of a jerk. He's sympathetically drawn in that he's an intelligent, complicated, and unhappy character who can recognize if not change some of his own self-destructive behavior, but Seton cuts him no slack for his obsession with his actress ex-wife, his abusive treatment of his current girlfriend, or the misogyny which colors his interactions with Dart and Amanda even when he's trying to be nice. The reader, primed by the same literary familiarity as Amanda, keeps waiting for him to redeem himself. The reader is going to be waiting a long time.

I have not seen the 1955 film version, which stars Jane Russell and Jeff Chandler. As far as I can tell from reviews, it strips a lot of the weirdness out of the plot and reorients the central conflict into an actual cultural issue with Dart's respecting women and therefore despite the co-starring presence of Dan Duryea (as Hugh, naturally; Duryea could do attractive and corrosive with one hand tied behind his back) is not a movie I ever plan to watch. I am sorry, but mostly because of Duryea and because the novel's dedicated efforts toward not being full of racist stereotypes deserved the same consideration in a film treatment. Yeah, okay, I have trouble typing that with a straight face, but it would have been nice. Dart and Amanda are interesting, credible, not simple people. I liked them both. I cared that they solved their problems. This is unusual enough in my experience of traditional romances that I feel the book should get a shout-out on these grounds alone.

* His father was white; his mother is Apache. Strictly speaking she's also mixed-race, but she ignores it completely and passes for full-blood as far as the BIA is concerned. I respect her for actively dodging the tragic mulatto stereotype which her son sometimes seems determined to inflict on himself. There is a meaningful but also delightful—and deliberate—sequence where the hero and heroine visit the reservation he grew up on and his relatives and neighbors, while somber about the fact that he's there to see his dying mother, are uniformly talkative, cheerful, and welcoming toward his new wife. Anya Seton has seen the noble savage stereotype and is not interested.
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