Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Two Strong Women

Then I read a hiking book that absolutely nailed it. Wow. The only problem with books this good is that they end too quickly, and this one is short to begin with. Halfway to the Sky by Kimberly Brubaker-Bradley is a hiking book, but I bet people in the multiple sclerosis community think it's an MS book with a hiking bent. I keep complaining about books where people go hiking because they have Problems and Pain and Tragedy and Loss, but Halfway to the Sky makes it work. (I may not be complaining about those books in my blog because I always throw them against the wall after one chapter, Cheryl Strayed.) The twelve-year-old protagonist Dani, short for Katahdin, is young enough not to know better than to walk two thousand miles to solve her problems, while still being smart enough to do her hiking homework. Dani's brother died and her parents divorced and everything is horrible and she's twelve, and she's such a damn twelve-year-old in the book, but she pulls it together. A twelve-year-old can research, and train, and buy boots. A twelve-year-old can choose a camp stove and forget matches.

Dani leaves a message for her mom saying that she's going to her dad's house and gets herself to Springer Mountain, start of the Appalachian Trail. She's twelve. People give her funny looks. She tells a seventeen-year-old that her parents gave her permission to hike the Trail alone, of course she does. He's young enough not to question, and they hike together until in the shelter on the third night Dani's mom wakes her up with a flashlight beam in the face and says, "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Katahdin and her deceased brother Springer are products of thru-hiking parents who met and married on the Trail, but in recent years have become boring. Dani responds to her mom's, "Why are you hiking the Trail?" with a, "You hiked it." Dani can hike the Trail but she's under-prepared, twelve, and formerly alone. She begs and whines and invokes her brother's death and acts like a stubborn toad, and her mother agrees that they can hike on twenty miles to the next town. They do, mom in tennis shoes and jeans, sleeping in one bag with her mom's coat thrown over the gap where the zipper can't close. Dani is unsatisfied in her little twelve-year-old heart, but she also understands, and her mom reiterates, that she was terrible for running away in the first place and they can't go farther. At Suches, Dani's furious dad picks them up and gives Dani a piece of his mind, though she's entitled to be as angry as she is with him because he left her mom and has just remarried a now-pregnant woman she doesn't much care for. And mom says, "I've been thinking."

Mom's job at the bank allows sabbaticals of up to three months. Mom takes two; it's asking a lot considering that she already took off stacks of time for Springer, and for the funeral, but Dani can have two months. They can go to Catawba but that's it.

Nothing earth shattering happens on the hike, of course. If it did, we would have a rescue book, not a hiking book. Dani and her mom mostly keep to themselves. There's a dearth of over-forties and under-eighteens on the Trail.  Dani and her mom hang around with Vivi, a retired breast cancer survivor, and Trailhead, who's taking a year off from teaching. They meet when Dani is hanging the food at a campsite.
"'I'll have to take your photograph," he said. "I teach high school English and a self-sufficient adolescent is something of a miracle to me." He bugged me, and I guess mom could tell.
'Self-sufficiency is made, not born,' she said."

But Trailhead sticks to them. When he blows his ACL, Dani helps carry him down the mountain and knows his loss: he won't make it to Katahdin and she won't either.

Dani and her mom get into the trail routine. The "eat some oatmeal, witness the miracle of God's creation, tape a blister, eat some peanut butter" of hiking, and then they start having time to talk about Dani's brother who died that winter. Vivi helps. Sullen Dani isn't wandering around sharing the tragedy of her life with strangers but mom is.  Vivi says, "I'm having trouble getting a sense of Springer as a person." Dani resents her mom because she works too much, because she hasn't been there, because her dad left, because her brother is dead. There's an insane only-in-America conversations about health insurance. When Dani and Springer were younger, mom got a job at the bank just to bring in some extra money while they were saving up for the house, and the bank had better insurance so the family switched. Then Springer was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. You can't buy insurance for a terminally ill child, so mom kept working. Dani makes peace, and with Springer not watching her soccer games. She says, "Why wouldn't you let him go to my soccer games?" and mom says, "He didn't want to go. He was embarrassed. He hated it when people stared at him."

When they meet some local kids camping at a shelter, Dani's flattered that they're impressed because they're doing a seven hundred mile segment. They do. They make it. Dani counts herself as one of the AT hiker drop-outs for now, but she has years. She'll go back. Meanwhile, her dad's new child is named Harper and she and her take time to breathe.  I don't know if I've done justice to how splendid this book is, but I can't name a truer book about hiking. Even Bill Bryson's classic A Walk in the Woods doesn't pull you into the act of hiking like Halfway to the Sky. Feet, boots, stoves, water, trees, wind, pack weight, blisters. 

Unless you want to stay home and get married. Amelia Alderson Opie wrote Adeline Mowbray in 1804, partly inspired by her friend Mary Wollstonecraft's extra-marital union with a minor radical. The subtitle The Mother and the Daughter references Adeline's submission to and rejection by her mother, which takes up less page space than the scandal but weighs on Adeline's soul. Mrs. Mowbray is a self-educated woman of no discretion: "For her, history, biography, poetry, and discoveries in natural philosophy, had few attractions, while she pored with still unsatisfied delight over abstruse systems of morals and metaphysics, or new theories in politics." Her daughter Adeline is early inducted into the theories of these radical new men, and, taking the season in Bath, the mother-daughter pair meet one of the authors they so admire, a Mr. Glenmurray, who at nineteen penned a tract against marriage which has rumbled him out so that he leads a lonely existence on the margins of high society while trying to recover from consumption. Adeline's mother, being socially obnoxious and out of touch, visits Mr. Glenmurray and allows Adeline to socialize with him, shocking though it is to the better inhabitants of the town. They also make the acquaintance of Sir Patrick, a scoundrel, and it is in this company that Adeline announces that she agrees with Mr. Glenmurray: Marriage is wrong. A tumult of events follow: Sir Patrick says dishonorable things, he and Glenmurray duel even though Glenmurray wrote a tract against dueling, Mrs. Mowbray marries Sir Patrick, Sir Patrick assaults Adeline, Adeline runs away and into Glenmurray's arms, Mrs. Mowbray disowns Adeline, and Sir Patrick dies on a boat. So Adeline and Glenmurray are together, friendless, in a town by the sea waiting to make the crossing to France, when, walking in the park, they run into Glenmurray's old school friend and his wife and sister. The school friend is charmed by Glenmurray's dear wife, and shocked when Glenmurray writes him a letter explaining that Adeline is not his wife at all and that they have fled in the night. This happens again in France and the friend who has met Glenmurray and Adeline walking together feels so deeply that allowing his sisters to meet Glenmurray's mistress has besmirched their honor that he wants to fight a duel with Glenmurray, but Adeline and Glenmurray have fled again. Adeline's maidservant quits and can't find a new position because her old mistress is a mistress. A Quaker woman agrees to hire the maidservant and tells Adeline about the wages of sin at the same time. These passages made me take an inventory all the dishonorable women I know, because speaking or otherwise associating with a dishonorable woman dishonors even the most honorable woman. Fornication, of course, is not limited to the marital, as it were, act, but includes the suspicion of such an act, or similar acts, or letting a certainly-not-a-gentleman-friend sleep over because he respects boundaries. I know who's been doing that lately. The shame! From now on I can only talk to fifteen-year-olds, and Laura because she's married to a girl.

Glenmurray dies willing to marry Adeline, but Adeline believes in Glenmurray's principles and won't call his bluff. On his deathbed, he implores her to marry his cousin Douchemurray and she concedes for his sake. The marriage is an unhappy one, as husbandface has jerky habits that Glenmurray never noticed at Thanksgiving. He doesn't respect Adeline and Adeline, rather than realizing that she was right all along and 1804 marriage is a ridiculous institution, takes her husband's treatment as punishment for her former sin. Their daughter is born and he's disappointed. When business calls him to Jamaica, Adeline realizes the ideal of a "protector" six months away by sailboat and lets him go. But worsening health and a series of mix-ups cause Adeline to lie dying penniless in a cottage near the estate where her mother lives. When the Quaker woman is careening down the road in a runaway oxcart quite nearby, Mrs. Mowbray grabs the reigns. Finding that they are concerned with the same wayward woman, Adeline's mother having long forgiven her, they search for Adeline and find her in time to watch her die. Because that's what happens when you break the rules: you die.

Adeline Mowbray expands and contracts randomly. Big events happen in tiny paragraphs, minutes of conversation take pages. Sir Patrick dies mysteriously on a boat and one assumes he'll be back for a final sword fight, but he stays gone. Despite that, and the crazy moral backwardness, Adeline Mowbray was a good read. How often does one get any insight into the life of a free-thinking woman in 1804? The author refused to articulate Adeline's arguments against marriage, and arguments against marriage are different nowadays, but Adeline's arguments for marriage at the end of the book translate to problems of our time. Marriage for protection and control is a terrible thing and one weeps at the hardship Adeline went through because she did not succumb to a half-hour ceremony mandated by the Church of England to happen before breakfast. A few hundred years before, marriage was contracted between two individuals and the church had nothing to do with it. Adeline has legal autonomy as an heiress, but none as a wife. Because she was one man's life partner, every man she meets thinks she is sexually available. In that kind of world, one understands why marriage is mandatory and cursed. For a better analysis of Adeline Mowbray, please read the Evening All Afternoon blog (http://www.eveningallafternoon.com/2010/11/adeline-mowbray.html).

I have a theory that will blow English literature wide open. Remember when the Quaker woman was careening down the road in an oxcart and Mrs. Mowbray caught the reigns? Adeline's only two friends in the world? What are the chances of that happening? Remember when Nicholas Nickleby overheard those blokes talking about his sister? Remember when the Indian gentleman found Sara Crewe next door? Remember when Darcy and Elizabeth turned up at the same country house? Remember how quickly Sherlock Holmes solved those crimes? How likely is any of that to happen in a normal country full of people? Not very, huh? But, I've figured it out: England only had five hundred people living there during the nineteenth century. Some scholars will argue seven hundred, maybe even one thousand, but the population must have been tiny for coincidences like that to happen with such regularity. And how else did England manage to colonize Arabia, Australia, the Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Belize, Borneo, Botswana, British Guiana, Brunei, Canada, Egypt, the Falklands, Gambia, Ghana, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Kuwait, Malawi, Malaysia, Malta, Minorca, Namibia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Palestine, Rhodesia, Samoa, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Virgin Islands and leave that many people at home? As long as the colonial population was sending money and letters, they wouldn't be missed. The middle 97% must have gone abroad, leaving the top one and bottom two percents at home to do the things that people do in nineteenth century British novels. Am I right or are Opie, Hodgson Burnett, Conan Doyle, Austen, Dickens and countless others ineffably lazy authors?

No comments:

Post a Comment