The Taser's Edge

Can We Please Just Go Back to the Little House in the Big Woods?

Back in the 1970s version of the the late 1800s, everything seemed so idyllic.  Family values and good-natured frontier hijinks abounded.  (Now really hoping that ‘hijinks’ is not a racial slur that I don’t know about, because it kind of sounds like one.)  The worst thing that could happen was leading a totally normal life even after becoming blind as a teenager on the frontier.

You know your life can’t be that bad if it’s perfectly soundtracked by the Jonas Brothers:

You also know your life can’t be that bad if Michael Landon calls you ‘half pint’ and kisses you on the cheek basically every day.

Contrast this, however, with Russell Banks’ fictional portrayal of roughly the same era of American Western expansion through the real life of John Brown in Cloudsplitter. The italics are excerpts from a son’s letters to his father (John Brown) upon the death of John’s youngest daughter:

Kitty’s untimely death was the result of a simple, blameless accident.  It was in the evening about 7 o’clock & Ruth was heating water, so that the little children could bathe…the water heated to a boil, and when Ruth ran to fetch the pot from the stove, she did not realize it was so hot & as a result dropped it…the boiling water splashed all over little Kitty, who standing naked next to her waiting for her bath, and who evidently swallowed a great gulp of it when it spilled over her body, which was a mercy, for otherwise she would not have died so swifty and would have lingered in terrible pain.  I heard a horrible yowl, the cry of a wild animal, not that of a human being…This was the last utterance made by our baby sister Kitty, who had just began to walk and say our names in ways that made us laugh and re-name ourselves, a blond, pink-skinned, robust child, made suddenly monstrous by her wild, final howl…

Ruth’s eyes had rolled back, and she was making a guttural noise now, as if she were choking.  The baby had already died.  Its scalded, bright, red body was emptied of spirit.  It was a thing, a tiny, shriveled sack, and its small soul was bouncing wildly around the room near the ceiling, like a maddened, dying moth, a bit of quickly diminishing light.

American fiction has rarely bested that level of prose.  But man, is it heart-breaking.  The section continues:

Mary [Kitty’s mother] dressed the body of the child in a tiny flannel nightgown, wrapped it in a blanket, as if preparing it for sleep, and that same night I went into the barn, and as Father had done only a few years before, in that terrible winter of ’43, when four of his children sickened one by one and died, I built for the first time in my life a small pine coffin.

Read a book by Wally Lamb and a whole host of other contemporary American fiction authors, particularly well-infesting Oprah’s Book Club but also (of course) beyond, and you will find the same kind of sadness, the plot where everything that can go wrong will go wrong, and everything that shouldn’t go wrong still does.  It’s nothing new.  Read Thomas Hardy and you find yourself fearing the most when things are going right for Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  You don’t want to turn the page, because you know everything is about to crash even lower than you could have imagined before.  Even the ashes of ashes and charred teeth can burn in a Hardy novel.

This is another post, but I can respect Hardy, because he was expressing the 9.8 earthquake he was experiencing against the foundations of his religious faith, and then imagining a world ruled by Fate and cruelty.  I have no respect for the writings of Lamb, however, because he can’t find real conflict created by real life, so he has to make it up.  Because it is artificial, it reads as artificial.  (Sorry to single Wally out, but he has likely become the richest of those who practice this particular literary offense).

To return to Cloudsplitter, however, what can you do with a life that really is marked by the death of a wife and then nine of your twenty children, even before you lose all that you own to bad investments, even before you decide that the best way to end slavery is to steal arms from the federal government and try to free the slaves by force?

Whatever you can do in such a situation, Banks made a good selection of historical material here.  He doesn’t have to sugarcoat history to make a show suitable for a TGIF lineup.  He doesn’t have to create truth out of synthetic materials.  He just has to tell the truth (not that that’s the same thing as telling ‘objective’ history).  What’s more, he succeeds.

Current and Recent Readings…

are updated.

I’m on a Russell Banks kick.  I liked the movie of The Sweet Hereafter (dir. Atom Egoyan, who also did the previously-adored-here Adoration) when I saw it a few years ago, but I loved and now highly recommend Banks’ original novel, an absolute masterpiece of characterization through multiple narrators trying to make sense of a tragedy and its aftermath in northern rural New York.  (The book, it must be admitted, sadly does lose its sure footing near its end.)

Now I’m moving on to Banks’ more recent Cloudsplitter: A Novel, which is a fictionalized version of the life and death of John Brown (the John Brown whose “body lies a-mold’ring in the grave“).  It got on my ‘Books to Read’ list years ago, because Brown’s massacre and raid are crazy interesting, and now I come back around to the book because its author is crazy talented.  It’s called Fate.