Monday, June 15, 2015

Racism! With Bonus Incest!

Maybe it's best to get the incest out of the way before we get on to the racism. On balance, I don't know which is worse: racism or incest. Incest is more immediately repulsive, but racism and its institutions have ruined lives for centuries. Everyone who has suffered appallingly has suffered appallingly, and the rest of us just stumble blindly around in the bushes wondering why we've never even heard of this Mary Shelley novel. Mathilda's father leaves her mother's birthing- and death-bed without laying eyes on her and she's raised by a maiden aunt until her father comes back when she's seventeen and they become bosom companions and best friendsies and go to London and then he inexplicably won't speak to her for several months. She confronts him by the lake next to the Yorkshire manor house with ivy growing up the walls and asks if she is the cause of his silent anger. He says, "No, but yes;" Mathilda runs up to her room weeping, and I ran to the internet to see if Mathilda had accidentally killed a servant while sleepwalking and her father helped cover it up or something, but no, her father is in love with her. Eeeeeeeew. And having revealed his love, he runs to the sea, which, somehow, kills him. Mathilda is now alone in the world and prays that her death will come without resorting to suicide so she can... be with her father. After spending a night outdoors, she falls ill of consumption, thus ending her miserable life and this short novel which defines Romanticism with a capitol "R."

Read this: If you're hiding out in a neighboring kingdom working incognito as a scullery maid and wearing a donkey skin. If you loved Frankenstein and want to be confused and disappointed.

In further proof that one shouldn't choose novels randomly off of Librivox because they're female-authored and short, I have now spent six hours of my life reading Idomen, or the Vale of Yumuri and can never get those hours back, although, in fairness, I was doing other things while I was listen-reading, mainly washing dishes. Idomen is the semi-autobiographical novel of poetess and big fucking racist Maria Gowen Brooks; it's not completely biographical because Idomen drowns herself in the end, but before it ends, one must suffer the beginning, then the middle. Ah, the blissful, blissful end...

Idomen begins with a long essay about why, unrelatedly, suicide is bad and slavery is good. Suicide bad; slavery good. Probably everyone else who has attempted this novel had the sense to give up right there, but I wanted to see where in the pre-Civil War Americas she was going with this. Nowhere, it turns out. Idomen is structured from the point of view of a traveller in Cuba who stops at the estate of an old man who tells him the story of Idomen. The traveller admires the flowering trees and the comely slaves bringing him drinks and leans back to listen to the tale.. Basically, Idomen, despite her funny name, is of European descent and lives on the East Coast with her husband. The Cuban slave owner comes to visit and is captivated by Idomen. Flash forward several years, and widow Idomen arrives in Cuba because her uncle owns land (and humans) there. After a further nothing, Idomen departs for Canada where she writes long poetry (quite good, for what it's worth) and goes on and on about the, I'm going to garble the spelling because I can't find a text copy of Idomen on the whole, cursorily searched, internet, River Lahaduana, which flows to the St. Lawrence and then the sea. She becomes reacquainted with a man, Ethelwald, a cross between Heath Ledger and a statue, who admires Idomen and her long poetry. What's the problem? Well, he visits daily her until the river freezes over, and then, because crossing frozen rivers is treacherous as hell, he ceases visiting her, plunging her into a jarringly realistic depression which, as the denouement of a better novel, could have hammered my heart into a million crying pieces but doesn't make Idomen any better. Like Mathilda, Idomen manages to sort of not kill herself while dying romantically and leaves her Cuban friend in despair. Nobody is happy, except the slaves. Because they have simple lives and are taken care of by fatherly white people.

Read this book: If you want to advocate for the reinstatement of slavery in the sugar-producing world using the most half-assed arguments imaginable. If you hate drama, and want to read a dramatic novel where nothing happens.

Finally now we have a book that is worth reading but, sticking with our theme, exceedingly problematic. Dan gave me early Carl Barks Lost in the Andes for Christmas several weeks ago! Fantagraphics is publishing classic Disney comics and this is early Donald Duck when Scrooge McDuck was a twinkle of a plot device in Barks' eye. The titular Lost in the Andes is the original story of Donald and the kids' adventure to Plain Awful! I always thought Professor Rhutt Betlah was lost in the mists of time and the high Andes, but this is the thing! It's early Barks yet, but Ducks eat square eggs and are imprisoned for round objects, as in future Plain Awful. Good stuff. All comics are reflected on in essays by important Barks scholars. And we have the fourth and fifth appearances of Uncle Scrooge! In Rosa's The Life and Times of Uncle Scrooge, he discusses at length the contradictions between later canon Uncle Scrooge, who made his fortune by being "tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties, and he made it all square," and this early Scrooge, in Voodoo Hoodoo: A zombie appears in Duckburg, and the academic explains, for those of us who weren't aware, that zombies are a traditionally African bogeyman whose associations with the African diaspora would have been obvious to comics readers in the '40s. The zombie is after Uncle Scrooge, and the boys visit him at his to mansion to find out why. Uncle Scrooge, good old Unca Scrooge, explains, "My eye fell on some wonderful land that I wanted for a rubber plantation! The owners were a tribe of ferocious savages that believed their voodoo gods prized the ground! They wouldn't sell, so I hired a mob of thugs and chased them into the jungle! I got the land, but boy, those savages were mad!" Rosa resolved this appalling piece of Scrooge's early history by invoking Bombie the zombie to haunt Scrooge through his post-Klondike adventures, although here the zombie hasn't seen Scrooge for seventy years and is after a young Scrooge, i.e. Donald. Barks present the voodoo practitioners sympathetically, just like he gives agency to the Awfultonians and twists our assumptions of the native islanders in Race to the South Seas!, but different times and all that. Or, holy shit, that's racist. Lost in the Andes is arranged with epic adventures first, then ten page gags, one page gags, and commentary, which is a queer descent but there are some greats, especially among the ten-pagers like Donald's nightmares and Santa's workshop, and some that are strictly of their time, like the truant officer and the quiz show.

Read this book: Barks fans, obviously. And everybody. Everybody should read Carl Barks. (Everybody might also read How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comics by Dorfman and Mattelart.)

We've been discussing racism a lot here, and as well as commenting on it as a sociological and historical phenomenon, it's important to remember that the real victims of racism are the white people who were just trying to help. Especially when Black people are unable to contextualize or react to their situation. There's no better way to infantalize a character than by making it an infant, and Lurlene McDaniel does a genius job of it in Baby Alicia is Dying. My friend Laura has a penchant for terrible books: sibling gangbang erotic mysteries, Satanist backmasking literature, Zondervan's teen "choice" series, several shades of grey, but her favorite bad author is Lurlene McDaniel, the woman who built a career on diseased teen drama romance. I read at least one of these in junior high and Laura read oodles of them, but lately she's been rereading. She says Baby Alicia is Dying is the worst, so when I pulled it out of the recycling bin and saw that '90s white teenager holding the chubby little Black baby, I knew I sort of wanted to read it in the way that one sort of wants to look at a car accident, so I put it on my hold shelf for a year and finally read it while getting over a brief bout of illiteracy a few weeks ago. In summary, Desi is a freshman in high school who volunteers at the home for HIV-positive babies and Baby Alicia is her favorite. There's a floppy-haired boy in her biology class for love interest, her mother opposes her volunteering with AIDS babies, people at school shun her, and someone even writes hateful things on her locker. Desi rages at the thought of Alicia's mom, a young addict, and tries to talk the volunteer coordinator out of letting her have a pre-custodial visit with Alicia, but it happens anyway. Meanwhile, Alicia is a cooing puddle of dark skinned adorable (Lurlene cannot say "Black"). Desi spends all her Christmas money on a Christmas dress for baby Alicia and her Desi's mom gets angry at her. I was angry too. If Desi had blown all her money on something that would be appreciated by a baby, say teddy bear or some stacking toys, yes, that's a good use of money, but one fancy dress? Babies don't care, and they grow. Lucky for Desi, Alicia still fits the dress when the book's title fulfills itself and Desi resolves her grief with a lot of melodrama and clunky dialogue. Desi also plants a rosebush for Alicia at the children's home, because what better to plant in a garden frequented by toddlers? Baby Alicia is Dying is a cluster of white patronizing on top of Lurlene McDaniel's usual sensationalist schlock about sick kids and their romantic lives, the drama is forced, the conflicts are clumsy, the characters are bland, and the worst thing about Baby Alicia is Dying is that it's not so bad. Desi is a stupid teen with the best of intentions who makes sacrifices for a child. The reveal at the end is that Desi's mom didn't want her volunteering with HIV-positive babies because she lost Desi's brother to SIDS, so not only is there a resolution but Lurlene gives us two-for-one disease tutorials. The shaggy haired boy in Desi's biology class lost a beloved uncle to AIDS. And after Alicia's memorial service, Alicia's mother appears. I needed that to happen so I didn't throw the book across the room. She tells Desi that she's been sober since Alicia was born and trying to go back to school, and get an apartment, and custody, and she's young, and she's HIV-positive too. And Desi finally starts to realize that Alicia was not born of a monster to be Desi's soulmate/dress-up toy, Alicia was a baby with a family who was a victim of poverty and a terrible disease.

Read this book: If you're the one who has to go back in time and explain to Ronald Reagan that anyone can get AIDS.

Guess what's next! Lulu and the Hedgehog in the Rain!!! Guess what it's not?! Racist!!! As we've discussed previously, Lulu is an Afro-British third grader who loves animals and she's going to grow up to be a proud Black woman and a veterinarian and a tea-drinking Brit and not experience these things as a contradiction but for now she's just a responsible child. I was expecting one of Lulu's classmates to fob off an African pygmy hedgehog on her because that's what's been happening in the Lulu books lately and I had completely forgotten that England has its own indigenous hedgehog population with Cockney accents. ("'E was a gen'leman, sir, and 'e fed us off'er china plates.") Lulu is out stomping in rain puddles when she intercepts a hedgepig who's about to be swept down a storm drain. Millie is surprised that Lulu doesn't set up a cage with toys and treats for the hedgie like Lulu has for the rabbits, but Lulu explains quite forcefully that this a wild hedgehog who can come and go as he pleases and make his own choices and forage for his own food, and she has a library book to back it up. That said, Lulu needs to petition Charlie to keep his gate shut, the grumpy man down the street not to burn his yard waste, Henry to keep his cat inside, and the old lady to not feed the hedgehog bread and milk. Safety in all hedgehog things! But winter is coming and hedgehogs hibernate! I demand you read this book, which isn't hard because it's ninety pages long with ample cute pictures.

Read this book: If you are human. If you're not a racist. If you worry that you have internalized racism that you're trying to excise. If you like short books. If you want to know more about the hedgehogs of England. If you are an African pygmy hedgehog who wants to know more about your British cousins. If you are a hedgehog.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome book reviews! I leafed through a couple, maybe I'll even read some ^_^