Reflections:One Thousand White Women

To write an epic tale of the plains Indians in which the white men are the evil aggressors and the Indians the valiant victims would be so easy. Jim Fergus does not take that path when he tackles the topic in One Thousand White Women. Fergus's rendering of the dispute between settlers and natives shines because of his nuanced sense of the difference between immorality and amorality--and his self-consciousness about how hard readers and settlers alike find it to keep this distinction top of mind.

One Thousand White Women takes as its premise the true request of a Cheyenne leader for one thousand white women to teach them the ways of the white man. In reality, this request shocked Grant and his advisors so thoroughly that all talks broke down. In the novel, Grant publicly refuses but privately goes forward with the project, accepting volunteers and blackmailing women from asylums and prisons to fill out the rosters. One of these women is May Dodd who chose life with a "savage" over unjust imprisonment as a lunatic. Her journal of the year the women spent with the Cheyenne makes up the pages of the story.

May leads the women in her group, giving them courage and pushing the boundaries of what women are allowed to do. Her belief in equality between the sexes urges her to argue, too, for the equality among races. She rails against falling into a missionary role, which takes as its premise the superiority of the white way. At the same time, she suffers from her own biases, having been raised in an upper middle class home with all the "breeding" such a life requires. When her own reason fails, she adopts the position of the others: Phemie, the freed slave; Gretchen, the doughy Swiss immigrant; and Sarah, the silent child who learns the Cheyenne language within weeks of the women's arrival.

In the tradition of the best domestic novels, One Thousand White Women takes seriously the role that domesticity and family alliances play in shaping political decisions. Beyond that, it tells a gripping story and reminds the reader of the benefits and dangers of American exceptionalism.

Reflections: A Suitable Boy

Call me Ishmael—or better, Ahab, for I have sought battle with a great, white whale. Some time ago I learned that of the 100 books that an Anglophone reader was most likely to have read, there were four I hadn’t. To be completely average, I would have to read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I blithely ordered this commonwealth novel (along with the other three titles), and when the box arrived, I feared some mistake. Surely I had not ordered anything of wrought iron with my books—and yet, what else could weigh so much, yet take up so little volume? A Suitable Boy is, in the era of literary compactness, a behemoth at 1,480 pages of low-margin, small print. Yet, I have now read and enjoyed it and would advise others to do the same.

Despite being published in the 1990s, this novel has a nineteenth century feel to it: it’s long, diffuse, weaves in and out of political concerns, and take as its excuse for doing so a basic courtship plot. The setting is India 1951-1952. Gandhi is dead, the country is floundering under the influx of Hindu refugees from the new Pakistan and roiling with religious tensions within its own borders, the first Independent election looms, and yet life for many still centers on the basic milestones of life: getting a husband or job, a baby or a promotion, mourning the dead, praying, eating, drinking, and making merry. Lata Mehra and her friends stand in for the generation of Indians who will become adults in the newly Independent state of India, which, among other things, seeks to give women more and better protections under the law. Lata doubts the intelligence of traditional arranged marriages but is shocked by her best friend’s shameless pursuit of passionate love (including an affair with a married man). She agrees with her mother—who is desperately seeking a suitable boy for her—that soon it will be time to marry. The question is when and to whom.

By a third of the way through the novel, the personnel on the field have become clear. There is handsome and athletic Khalid, with whom Lata sneaks around and shares her first kiss. By her family’s standards, his faith makes him unsuitable, and even Lata doubts the possibility of a happy mixed marriage. Next comes Haresh, an ambitious though uncultured man of her own caste who came to her attention through the traditional channels. Although she won’t agree to a simple meet, greet, and wed, Lata is willing to make his acquaintance and correspond with him to see if she believes they can be compatible. Her mother champions Haresh, while her older brother finds him wanting. Finally, there is Amit, her brother’s brother-in-law. Amit is a Brahmin poet and novelist with whom Lata shares interests. As members of the same large family circle, they freely socialize and discover a great deal in common. One might summarize Lata’s choice thus: she can choose passionate love, a marriage of duty, or a companionate marriage. What gives motivation to the portion of the novel that focuses on this storyline is not who or what she ultimately chooses, but why. Seth draws a fascinating character who is both a product of her traditional culture and a young person seeking the imported ideals of western modernity, with sometimes no clear idea about which of her values or ideas come from where. 

Lata’s story only takes up something like a fifth of the total. In other plots (which I wouldn’t call sub-plots so much as co-plots), a Hindu minister’s son falls desperately in love with a Muslim prostitute-cum-musician with a secret that will bring about death, attempted murder, and political upheaval; a son of wealthy landowners turns socialist and tries to subvert his family’s exploitation; workers strike; festivals become stampedes and riots; politicians balance their ideals, their desires, and the realities of party loyalty.

Each strand of the narration strums a different chord on the instrument of the New India, a complex, brutal, and magical place.    


Reflections: Slammerkin

A young girl, seduced by a ribbon and the viciousness of a ribbon seller, transforms from a working class, charity-school girl to a hardened street walker in eighteenth-century England in Emma Donaghue's Slammerkin. The young girl, impregnated by the ribbon peddlar and consequently banished the home of her mother, develops a contradictory personality. She leeches onto women she meets and seeks their affection and praise. At the same time, she is manifestly incapable of conquering her wholly economic sense of self interest. As a result, women are always the worse for their encounters with young Mary Saunders.

Donaghue's book mines the archives for source material, as befitting the work of a novelist who is also a historian. I resist the label of historical fiction for this novel, however, as that generic title has come to denote a very specific kind of dramatic, sweeping, and painstakingly detailed story. In some respects, Slammerkin boasts more liveliness and deftness than many a "historical fiction," yet gives a lot of historical texture to the narrative that makes it unlike a contemporary tale.

For all that makes it a good read, I will quarrel with Slammerkin all the same. The book relentlessly follows Mary from her first ruin to the standard conclusion of a woman so sullied. A story like this requries the reader's absolute commitment to the protagonist, even if we don't like her--and Mary is very hard to like. The book fails, I think, in its ambition for complexity for the character. Instead of feeling rich and rounded and consistent, the character instead feels contradictory and motorless. We don't know why she makes the decision she does--they are inexplicable, especially the climactic one. Mary's life begins to feel like a game that leaves the reader's emotional involvement on the sidelines.