A Life in Sticky Notes

“I’m trying to be friends with Lera,” Jenny said to me with gravity. “She’s becoming a prep, so she’d be a good person to get attached to now instead of later.” A few of us sat in an upstairs play room, pajama clad and slathering on layers of glittery nail polish faster than the previous ones could dry. We had a pizza coming. The little brother was off to bed. We were twelve.

To hear me tell about it then, I would say I was the ugly girl with no friends, nothing to say, and zero prospect of getting a boyfriend. Ever. Looking back though, I need at least all my fingers and toes to account for the girls I was close enough with to garner frequent sleepover invites or throw together an impromptu game of night Ditch ’em. I had a handful of girls who made up my Tier 1, or Gold Level, friends—a few I’d known since kindergarten, and one I’d met in the third grade—and there were always others caught in the ebb and flow of middle-school circle hopping. We were a modest but happy grouping, and we looked on as the preppy girls spent summers together at the exclusive town RV club or returned from group shopping trips at the far-away and middle-class posh Fox Valley Mall—the one with an Abercrombie and a Sbarro. We were popular in spirit only—we had friends, but not the “right” friends.

It’s a pretty common story for small-town folk like me. With scarcely a hundred kids to a grade, my fellow grown-ups-in-training and I saw the same set of kids since the days of finger paints and nap time. Once in a while, a new student would move in, and the popular kids would harness the glow of this exotic human being and make her one of them. By middle school, the allure of someone new turned to threat, and new kids quickly fell in with the burnouts—losers, everyone called them. It was just a label, every bit as descriptive as “the kids with blue shirts,” and until I heard the word applied to my best friend, I never gave its meaning a second thought.

“I’m a loser, and I’m fine with that,” Tiffani had said. But she wasn’t. She just saw herself as part of the label because she wasn’t in with the popular kids and didn’t buy into their polos and Doc Martens. Thirteen years old and already she was self-defining based on what the center of power chose to name her. But she was cool. She played softball, painted murals, and slayed everyone at Mario Kart. She was funny and kind, and hearing her use the preppies’ word to describe herself, and any outsider, as Less Than made me want to punch all the polo shirts in the world.

With the start of freshman year, we finally blended with other grades, and the social lines began to blur, but only enough to muddy things. Now, instead of clothing, boy-girl relationships and partying seemed to be the new litmus tests. I started as Band Geek and became Tease when I got my first boyfriend. Eager to ditch the tease, I became Slut—who put out with her boyfriend—and then switched over to Goody Goody when Slut didn’t feel right. I tried my hand at art but dropped it when my mother and I agreed that I had always been Music Girl, not Artist Girl. It was like walking through an air tunnel filled with sticky notes, hoping desperately that facing the wrong way for a second wouldn’t plaster on the words that sounded like insults.

What I realize now—and didn’t then—is that I didn’t have to be any of those things if they don’t fit me. It’s society that scribbles all those words onto tiny fluorescent squares and throws them out to whoever falls in the line of fire. I’m still Band Geek, but now people think it’s sort of neat that I used to run around a college football field in a wool suit and stupid hat, blowing movie themes and Gustav Holst through a hunk of brass. Tease and Slut are more like, “I’m the one who decides who and when.” Goody Goody means I try to be smart and level headed, but I still do things I shouldn’t if I feel like it. Artist Girl doesn’t have to churn out frame-ready sunsets in oils—instead, she can draw up the serious book covers and occasional pot leaf illustration that separate pre-literate eras from ours. And she can do that while getting all sentimental about how Wax Fang’s La La Land is the best album you’ve never heard and then switching gears to bitch about how nobody appreciates Anne Brontë. To live is to embrace every scrap of multiplicity and contention that comes with growing into your own, and if done right, being a total scatter brain can really feel like a win.

So who I was to everyone had a lot to do with relational dynamics. On the same day I could have been a loser, or popular, or weird or funny, depending on who’s watching. Back then it meant everything to have those labels to hold onto, like raking together fistfuls of passable words made you a worthwhile part of the collective experience. But today I’m all those things and none of those things. I’m just a person making her way, pausing now and then to cross out a word and write in my own. My pen, my decision.

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My Super Sweet 16

Mysupersweet16“It’s Shika, bitch.” A burst of glitter dances off the screen to reveal this week’s featured sixteen-year-old on MTV’s series My Super Sweet 16. It’s the network’s teenage answer to inexplicable hits like Toddlers in Tiaras and Jersey Shore, a visual escape into the real lives of entitled teenage girls. Reality TV remains popular with teens and particularly girls. It’s a way to see outside of their own social circles into the glam of someone else’s. But for all the show’s ritz and drama, it’s worth a shot for teenage girls to question why this thing is on the air.

On the face of it, there isn’t much wrong with following around a teenager in party-planning mode, chronicling her journey from little girl to the momentous and sexy destination of womanhood. The coming-of-age for girls event is widely celebrated in American culture, reaching everywhere from the sweet sixteen itself, to the religiously grounded bat mitzvah, to the culturally significant quinceañera. There’s a lot to be said for gathering friends and family in a show of mutual support for girls as individuals, a celebration that’s totally separate from the only other big celebration in life: marriage. That said, this isn’t really what’s going on in My Super Sweet 16. And the effect is profoundly damaging.

Today was my first experience with the show, and aside from the major feminist red flags of excess, vanity, entitlement, and overall bitchiness running rampant through the docudrama, the most glaring pitfall about the show is its mode of delivery. The show is billed as reality TV—a term I use very loosely. It’s fairly common knowledge these days that all reality TV is just a big, scripted mess that only exists because some TV producers stumbled upon a gem with shows like The Real World that underpaid aspiring actors to fumble through some day-to-day drama while purporting to be “just living” in front of the camera. Most adults are familiar with the drill: Executives churn out these shows faster than most of us can watch them, and when you compare today’s reality TV with that of the nineties, it seems that the production value is steadily decreasing. The drama is all staged, and the people in the show are just acting, a dimension that seems particularly transparent when you have to find high-school-age contestants. Everything feels fake, and the scripted drama fails to land, giving the educated adult viewer little reason to believe that what she is seeing is real or even worth taking in.

For kids, though, it isn’t quite as clear cut, and that’s where the damage comes in. While it’s valid for girls to want to see other girls their age starring in their own TV shows—as a nod to the fact that their voices are being heard on an international scale—it’s manipulative for adult executives to market a disingenuous product like My Super Sweet 16 to them. Many teenagers are smart enough to see through the facade (that the diva who demands a $150k diamond necklace isn’t really as diva-ish or unreasonable as she performs on screen). But, the show is insulting to those girls in its assumption that it will be viewed as “reality.” In addition to selling girls short, shows like this one do a disservice to the girls who don’t fully understand the show’s fabrication by showing them that it’s okay to be not only entitled and demanding but also cruel and shallow in the pursuit of getting what you want (the party). It takes the positive ideas of something like a quinceañera, a celebration of coming of age and a loving tribute, and uglies it up into a falsely progressive world where the girl is taught to get what she wants using extremely negative means. In the Yashika episode specifically, the party’s theme is Diamonds Are Forever, a campaign that could just as easily be a corporate-driven ad placement (I’m looking at you, De Beers) as the misguided infatuation of teenage girls who are not only tied up in the idea of matrimonial diamonds but also have zero regard for the cost—not to mention the politics—of owning something that exists only to bestow value on its wearer.

More than the obvious damaging content (the diva, the fake drama), the peril ultimately lies in the fact that this is what MTV thinks of their teenage girl market. With all of MTV’s experience breaking out as a new and subversive media outlet for teenagers, this is how they see half of their market?

Erin Learns a Lesson

Kirsten arrived on Christmas. She was a pretty blonde from out of town, sporting a blue prairie dress and an amber necklace. She was smart but a little hard to understand through her thick Swedish accent. Plus, she’d been grieving. Her best friend had been claimed by cholera on her way over and was buried at sea, so even though Kirsten tried her best to have a good time in her new home, anyone could tell that she had a lot on her mind.

The moment I laid eyes on the American Girl books, I was hooked. I remember milling around my grade school library, an eight-year-old looking for something smart to read. It was a tough age when it came to picking out books. I was too big for picture books but not quite ambitious enough for the Brontës or even Louisa May Alcott. But I liked history. And I did not like reading about boys all the time. When I saw a cover featuring this blonde Swedish girl smiling up at me from her life in the 1840s, I knew these books were for me.

KDMC_main_1The Kirsten books were my first experience with the enormously successful American Girl franchise. The doll came later. Having burned through stories about Kirsten, Molly, and Felicity, I found myself sleeping over at a friend’s place—who, looking back, was one of two children and came from a family that was used to spoiling itself. My friend walked around her family’s Midwestern farmhouse with Samantha, the Victorian doll, tucked proudly under her arm. “She comes with the checkered dress, but I also got the party outfit,” Erica said, beaming. “I’m asking for the sailor outfit for Christmas.” A few weeks later, my first American Girl catalog arrived in the mail, and I made a weekend of circling what I wanted and placing my notes indiscreetly before my mom’s dinner plate.

When I look back on my first eighty-dollar doll and her pricey wardrobe, I’ve bounced back and forth about whether I should see American Girl as a positive or negative force for girls. Like anything marketed to children, the company seems to offer good ideas mixed with bad habits.

It’s no small accomplishment that American Girl has been responsible for lighting a flare for reading in little girls. The chapter books are an easy read and have enough illustrations to keep even beginning readers interested. The books dwell in history, revealing social and political dimensions to girls who may not otherwise receive those messages in context. My first time reading Molly I was introduced to the concept of gender stereotypes (Molly’s World War II–era class donated to the war effort by having the boys collect scrap metal and the girls knit socks), and my first read through Samantha showed me the disparate conditions of the wealthy heroine and her best friend, who had to work at a factory so her family could eat. Today, an American Girl reader can learn about girls from the 1760s onward, with a variety of races and traditions represented. The dolls offer diversity that is both historical and contemporary, and the catalog even takes a whack at ableism by offering a doll-sized wheel chair. When a girl connects strongly with her book, she buys the doll, a tool for helping her to actualize the positive stories she’s read and become actors in the drama of play that helps girls develop into who they’ll eventually become.

In addition to the books and dolls, American Girl released a magazine in the early nineties, featuring articles on how to be better friends and community members—just like the figures in our American Girl books. Growing up, I owned an American Girl play kit, complete with script and prop suggestions, so I could gather my friends on the playground and act out a scene that was both historical and good for our collective self-esteem as growing girls. That day I played with girls who I didn’t normally play with but who loved American Girl, so the play helped me build the confidence I needed to expand my social circle.

All of this says a lot for a contemporary toy company, but it makes sense to a feminist critique to dig a little deeper. While I still position the books as extremely positive and fairly diverse tools for girls’ intellectual development, I struggle to look beyond the idea that the books are really just ads for toys. While most every middle-America kid can name the author of Harry Potter, most would be hard pressed to name just one of the American Girl writers, whose names are de-emphasized for the sake of promoting the brand as a monolith. The cynic in me catches on this minimizing of who actually wrote the literature as well as the dolls’ push for materialism among the youngest of female consumers. American Girl has a handful of megastores in the United States, each one catering to what seems to be mostly affluent, mostly white families who can afford not only the pricey doll and endless permutations of accessories, but also the cross-country trip involved in the visit.

“The place was packed, and everyone had their dolls. They brought one out for me to have tea with,” my dad said, after taking my younger sisters to the Chicago store. “It was unreal.” The underlying message issuing from the stores is that American Girl is a special rite of passage, that middle-class American families can be expected to provide this enormous expense for the sake of their daughters’ happiness. My dad saw the store as a fun experience that you sort of owe to your daughters to provide (at least in his case, where the store is only an hour away). And he may be right—it’s all just a good time. But the materialism behind it all tells me that I should at least be careful, if not outright damning, about the message.

The doll itself also comes with gender and social expectations that can be confusing for girls. For starters, the original three dolls were all white and all came from the middle (or upper) class, an idea that clearly illustrates who American Girl thought of as the “American Girl.” The dolls also present girls with the ever-present programming of learning to be mothers over their toys instead of interacting with them as peers—the dolls emulate tween-age girls but look more like toddlers with their adorable tooth gap and self-closing baby-doll eyes. Finally, the whole point of the dolls is to make money, and it’s staggering to realize how much parents are willing to spend to give their daughters a slice of the American Girl experience. This idea instills, at an early age, that not only is shopping fun but it is also necessary in order to fit in with a desired peer group. American Girl seems to have taken an age group that was relatively unmarked by fashion must-haves and expensive fads and introduced an expensive product that these girls must own in order to fit in.

At the end of the day, I see the franchise as, for the most part, another benign addition to aisles of girls’ toys that teach them to perform femininity, and teach boys not to (unless you’re in your fifties, taking your daughters and their dolls to tea). For all the good the books brought me, and for the little bit of socializing that came from owning the doll, I’ve always seen American Girl as more of a positive force in my life than a negative one. But I still wonder why all our parents’ eagerly bought these tokens of affluence and social belonging for us, when just a few years earlier, they would have waved away our requests for some other piece of eighty-dollar junk. Is the doll and the superstore something I’d do for my daughter? Are the dolls really a special rite, or just eighty-dollar excuses to take people’s money? I’ll probably always have questions. Either way, today I’m a feminist, with fond memories of my pint-size Swedish immigrant, lazing in the closet with her anachronistic saddle shoes and a doll-sized iMac.

Sixteen Going on Married

“Lo, and behold, you’re someone’s wife, and you belong to him.” The phrase coos through Julie Andrews’s lips with a buttery smoothness that almost makes me forget what I’m hearing. After all, it’s a comfort to sink into a classic. Musicals were never required viewing at our house, but after seeing my first real Broadway show in middle school (well, “touring-cast Broadway”) I was hooked for life. Ragtime, Little Shop of Horrors, even Disney’s recycled and inflated stage venture Beauty and the Beast—I was dying to see them all. Yet somehow, even while scribbling “Brett and Erin 4-eva” on my planner’s margins during free period one afternoon, I failed to engage with The Sound of Music as it blared from a roll-away TV at the head of the classroom.

And yes, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” is the song that did it. Forget for a second that I was thirteen and nowhere near my current feminist desire to claw apart anything that told me to get married for a living. The song just felt a little ahead and to the side of itself. Why was this sixteen-year-old girl listening to some “older and wiser” boy croon on about his superiority? Why was Maria assuring Liesl tenderly that soon she too would be chosen for marriage? I lacked the vocabulary to spell out why this song rubbed me the wrong way, but it still felt obvious that something crucial was out of place.

To be fair, The Sound of Music is a historical piece that’s widely divorced from the politics of the twenty-first century. Then too, the iconic movie adaptation hit the scene in 1965, when the average American feminist was still dressing like a dowager and shunning the Lavender Menace. Given the franchise’s time, it’s unsurprising that “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” would strike an essentialist note for girls. But instead of dismissing the song’s message as a relic of a crappier era for women, it’s worth analyzing what’s going on in the scene and questioning whether girls should watch it today without being asked what it means.

The reprise between Maria and Liesl is particularly annoying to a feminist critic. It’s an assurance, from the older to the younger, that soon all of Liesl’s boy woes will end. Right now, Liesl is obviously “waiting for life to start,” poised to “jump up and go” when this boy is ready to take her time and company seriously. Inevitably, even if he doesn’t ask her to marry him, someone will. If not next year, then the one after that. And then, she’ll be his.

It’s not the marriage or romance itself that upsets me but the idea that it’s all been laid out for her. The implication, spelled out clearly, is that marriage will be Liesl’s vocation. Because she has to wait for a boy to ask for her hand, her lot rests in staying put—and trying no to be too fidgety—while she waits for someone else to give her the okay to start the next phase of her life.  A lot of movies aimed toward children and families work hard to sell the idea of compulsory marriage, and girls internalize the message most when they’re being told, directly, that marriage is the thing they’ll grow up to be best at. A boy today might view this same sequence and gather that he’ll need to get married, but he learns from the exchange that he decides when and whom to ask. A girl assumes the passive role, learning from this oldish movie that it’s probably a good idea to sit still and wait. Further, the sequence, at its face value, puts the idea of marriage at seventeen or eighteen on a girl’s radar in the first place, leaving boys at least an extra year or two to go and be bachelors (like the earlier part of the song suggests) while girls stand idly by and wait.

So why is all this a big deal? I like to think that most girls today are educated enough to spot the dated concepts without flinching, but I think the most damaging part is how a message like this flies right under the radar for most people. More than a few women I know saw this movie before they were old enough to talk, and reached adolescence with the songs already memorized. When a message is internalized and repeated in a sing-song mantra before an age when reason and critique come into play, it’s a little late to go back and re-program.

A girl might not grow to adulthood thinking she is required to get married by eighteen, but I feel like these messages seem to find a back door in women’s brains. Some years back, I was single and bought my first house, inviting my then-roommate to come and rent a room from me. She excitedly obliged, but when we went furniture shopping to get the things we each needed, she balked a little. “I’ll just get, like, a plastic set of drawers from Walmart,” she said, taking her hand off a polished wood dresser. “I mean, what if I get married?” She didn’t even have a boyfriend but was waiting for the Big Day before buying anything nice or permanent for herself. It was like she was afraid to set up shop and live her life as the established, successful adult she was because, as an un-married person, she wasn’t supposed to. Not yet.

Of course, it’s totally up to her where she keeps her underwear, and it’s entirely possible that I’m reading too far into my friend’s frugality (although she did ultimately walk away with a nice mattress and a pine dresser). It just gave me pause to think about how this woman in her late twenties felt like she had to live a sort of temporary, disposable life until someone emerged from the shadows and gave her permission to start living, like Liesl two years or so from her duet with Maria. My roommate’s hangup probably didn’t come from The Sound of Music, but the movie does present an idea for girls to come along and absorb like scented lotion. The Message comes from all over, but when placed in a popular movie, inflected by Rodger and Hammerstein, and trilled to girls by the would-be nun herself, it’s as catchy as it is ensnaring.

An Introduction

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Hello to all of you! My name is Erin Seaward-Hiatt, and as I write this I am seated in my home office beside my pet shih tzu, Archie. You can learn a lot from a person by looking at her workspace, so here is a brief list of the things that are currently on or around my desk:

  • An artist’s contract for a publisher in Minneapolis
  • A 1950s Russian postage stamp commemorating Sputnik
  • A giant clothespin grasping a Canadian Thanksgiving card
  • A few Instax snapshots of cats
  • Several Kate Spade pocket journals
  • A Soviet-era cinnamon tin with pennies in it
  • The Devil in the White City
  • A Toulouse-Lautrec–style painting of someone’s butt
  • A book about magazine writing

I feel like all of this together paints a reasonably faithful portrait of who I am, which is a freelance graphic designer (and sometimes writer) with too many pets and at least a passing recognition of Canadian holidays. The journals are earmarked as Christmas gifts for friends I haven’t seen since before the late-December publishing-world monsoon hit, and the tin with pennies is just something I shake at the new husky when she’s being too barky. I’m from Chicagoland (with Newfie roots on my dad’s side) but currently live in good, old Provo, Utah, with my screenwriter husband, Neil, (who wrote this Studio C sketch about Santa’s elves forming a union).

For the past year (as of next week) I have been working solo in my home office designing books, books, the occasional flyer, and then more books. The goal was to work unfettered, and leaving my former paper craft design job—of close to seven years—was a necessary first step in both getting where I wanted to be as a book designer and, of course, digging deeper into graduate school. I’m pursuing a master’s degree in English and creative writing, and I occasionally write articles, like this one, about how feminist criticism has a knack for crashing right into religion. I’ve been published sparsely, but my goal is to grow the now-malnourished writing side of my little creative studio. This course will help with that and has the added perk of counting toward the graduate certificate in women and gender studies at Utah State, a credential that won’t scare off any potential feminist clients. I consider myself a feminist on a variety of levels and believe in questioning hegemony, whether we’re talking about a deep, political level or just in everyday subtleties. This course will be an interesting look at what we teach girls and how that information affects them as they grow into their roles as either perpetuators or squashers of negative tropes.

My interests are kind of all over the board, but some of my favorite experiences have been rescuing and caring for our new husky, flipping open the pages of a legit book to read something that I wrote, discovering Anne Brontë and Wax Fang, and watching this scene from Top Secret on a loop.

Oh, and you’re probably wondering whose butt is in that painting. No idea. But it’s a replication of an earlier White Elephant butt painting that my co-workers and I all fought for the Christmas before I resigned. I won but left it in the designers’ mock-up room as a mark of my existence and a commemoration of my tenure as their plucky leader in the unrelenting tempest that is paper crafting. The artist painted me a new one as a going-away present.

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Book Review: Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West

Savage Dreams

In this, her second book, Rebecca Solnit leaves a literary chronicle of her experiences in two stages of western U.S. conflict, the Nevada Test Site and Yosemite. Her prose is part historical and largely memoir, leaving a sterling impression of the battles and consequences on the western landscape and its people. With clarity, Solnit demonstrates a theme of continuity and intersection among the conflicts, land, and people she discusses, from the plight of the “downwinders” living near the test site to the erasure of native culture from the Great Basin region and Yosemite. In her book, Solnit splits her time between the Great Basin and northern California and draws her parallels with fluidity and with purpose.

In the opening section, Solnit sets her landscape with a cruise down Highway 95 and into the maw of the Nevada Test Site. Her style is literary and evocative, and she misses no insight on what it means to be a part of this larger world. She goes on to detail her time spent with the pacifist groups working for disarmament. There, Solnit encounters a striking array of activists who all see unique and personal threats issuing from the bomb. Solnit meets those who preach the ill health effects of fallout as well as environmentalists who seek to protect the rights of the landscape. Many of the players are women, including Janet Gordon, a downwinder who lost more than a few loved ones to radiation poisoning, and three repeat-activists at the site (dubbed the Princesses of Plutonium) who all go by the name Priscilla, after a particularly volatile detonation during the 1950s. Further, Solnit encounters a strong presence from the indigenous Shoshone people, who stand mired in conflict with the federal government over land use rights. All have unique ideologies behind quelling the bomb, yet all causes intersect in a global effort to achieve peace and level the playing field for all people involved in the conflict.

In examining the activists’ varying perspectives, it’s easy to see a range of motivation at play. For the Princesses and for Gordon, Solnit hints how conflict manifests in the form of the patriarchy using the bomb to assume control over the women’s bodies through the bomb’s fallout. There is also a parallel between using the landscape against its will and to its detriment, which places all interconnected systems of earth and humanity in jeopardy. Further, Solnit chronicles how Gordon recalls a 1950s test site propaganda film that sought to mollify a nation by likening a nuclear detonation to a beautiful, God-given sight, akin to a rainbow. Outraged, a now-adult Gordon rejects this manipulative message and sees it as a way of exercising power and privilege to meet terrible ends.

Solnit’s book takes issue most with land-use conflicts between the U.S. federal government and the indigenous people who involuntarily fall within its jurisdiction. The conflicts she describes show a struggle that is fundamentally a racial one but stretches wide to intersect again on the other side with feminist and environmental issues. To illustrate these, Solnit describes at length the decades-long struggle between the Dann sisters and the federal government.

The Dann sisters—Mary and Carrie, hearty Shoshone women—occupied a ranch on their people’s land, situated in the heart of government-controlled testing and mining grounds requisitioned in the latter-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. Solnit describes how one day a federal agent visited the Danns’ ranch and informed them that they were trespassing on federal land that had been purchased from the Shoshone. The ranchers informed the agent that their land, in fact, fell within the Shoshone boundaries dictated in the Treaty of Ruby Valley and had never been up for sale. This event sparked a long and fierce battle between the federal government and the Danns, with the government attempting to run the Danns from their land and with the Danns standing their ground. After decades of fierce battle, another visitor arrives on the Danns’ ranch, a government agent who literally twists the arm of now-fifty-nine-year-old Carrie Dann in an effort to force her to stand down from her land and surrender her livestock to the government. In true feminist fashion, Dann stands firm and fashions an ultimatum for the agent to either produce the bill of sale from the Shoshone to the United States, or stand down and let her people be. Solnit describes Carrie Dann’s fortitude and brings all conflics full circle:

Thus two decades of legal battle came to their culmination. The federal government versus the Western Shoshone boiled down to Joe Leaf twisting Carrie Dann’s arm. I had come to Nevada because of the great apocalyptic end-of-the-world war, a war of great bombs and technologies annihilating cities or continents or species or the weather itself, and it had changed into a man bruising the wrist of a fifty-nine-year-old woman over some cows, but it was still the same war, and in this round, she had won (Solnit, 167).

Solnit goes on to describe the ill treatment of the natives in the late nineteenth century when the treaty was signed, including the rape of Shoshone women and forced cannibalism against the native people. Similar cases arise when the federal government seized control of Yosemite and snuffed out much of the native population of surrounding Mariposa County—a heavy tale discussed at length in the second portion of the book. Through this juxtaposition, Solnit shows how the past atrocities against indigenous peoples are alive and well in modern conflicts that crop up in the same places, as if nothing has been learned at all. In the Great Basin and Yosemite alike, the push is the same at the date of Solnit’s writing as it was a century or more prior: the privileged classes suppress the underprivileged (native peoples, women, and others without a voice) in a power play that transcends a variety of power structures.

In this way, the federal government’s injustice toward the Danns and other indigenous groups represents an intersection of oppression that reaches beyond pacifism and visits heavily upon feminist, environmental, and racial questions (an idea expressed at length in Rosemarie Tong’s chapter on third-wave feminism). Pacifism raises the question of why the bomb must be detonated at all. Feminism asks why a male government worker can feel justified in coercing a Shoshone woman to give up her livelihood against her will, or why the federal government can expect that a native Miwok woman practice her people’s lost crafts as a lookie-loo exhibit for white Yosemite tourists. Environmentalism asks why the Great Basin was long ago depleted of its indigenous plant and animal species in favor of the forced agricultural lifestyle of non-native white settlers, upon which the Danns are now forced to depend. Finally, race explains a keystone in the interplay of all of these ideas: the indigenous peoples, as “fourth-world” citizens, are perceived as having lesser importance than the citizens of the “first world” and must be subjugated to fit the will of the ruling class.

Solnit shows in vivid color how a host of ideas converge to trespass on the basic human rights of the Shoshone, the Miwok, and countless others as well as on the basic natural rights of the landscape. Her wayfaring memoir shines light on the complexities of what seem to be very straightforward conflicts and expose the intricacies with light and courage.

The Flaming Lips of Willa Cather

my-antonia

Walking through a bookshop recently, I did a double-take as I passed a modest grouping of spines boasting a familiar author. I’d heard of Willa Cather before, even tried to read one of her books. But that was back when I was yet too immature to tear myself away from the glow of would-be actresses devouring raw horse rectum or lasting a full minute in a sarcophagus teeming with roaches. Looking back it’s sad that I chose reality TV over a weathered literary classic, but what can I say—there’s no competing with primetime droll when it comes to winning a child’s esteem. So my little-kid mind did the only thing that seemed right in the face of temptation: I dragged my eyes across the pages of my novel without retention, marked on my homework slip that I’d had a book open for a full twenty minutes, and then settled in to watch the future of entertainment unravel.

Back at the bookshop, my maturing hand picked up the copy of My Ántonia—three dollars, used—and brought it home. Since my first try with the novel, I’ve loved, learned, and transplanted myself a world away from my roots. It seemed the perfect mindset to recapture a gem I could have had in youth, this well-penned story to linger in my mind. Love, loss, mobility, and moving on share the leitmotif of the piece. So it’s almost funny now, having read the book clear through, just how much of its clarity and fierce destiny lay in wait for me to come along at twenty-seven, having lived a little and at last eager to see.

The narrative follows Jim, a discerning country boy growing up on the Nebraska prairie shortly before the turn of the twentieth century. His story is interwoven with the novel’s namesake, a rugged and vibrant Bohemian immigrant affectionately called Tony. I hadn’t braced myself for the reality of what I’d assumed would be a fanciful and bumpkinesque book. In the first chunk, Cather deals with the trying themes of immigration, poverty, regret, and suicide. As affection builds between Jim and Tony, the story takes on the nuances of growing up and the resolution that all things, good and bad, are bound to rise and wane as the world spins madly forever.

As with any well-told story, the romance never develops to fruition in time for either of them to get a word in edgewise. Before we know it, Jim is off to Lincoln and then Boston, while Tony meets her own fate on the prairie. Without letting slip a spoiler to those who have not read, the story does not wrap up as you might think. Or at least not as I had thought, knowing that the book is considered a romance and catching on the note of possession in the title. What we get at the end is not the kind of neat wrap-up that satisfies you all the way into a warm bubble bath. The story’s culmination reveals an honesty of living that sends you reminiscing fondly while cursing all your lost opportunities as they pass before your eyes in stark and living color.

Throughout the novel are glimpses, from a variety of perspectives, of human value and its place in the grand drama of progression. On the final page, Jim walks the fields and roads of a youth spent with Ántonia and feels her shadow, nearly forty years distant, egging him on to play.

“The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what little circle man’s experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

As I scribble my thoughts on My Ántonia, my playlist has circled around twice to “Do You Realize,” by the Flaming Lips. Its fury and simple lyricism make it one of my all-time favorite songs. Along with its opening cadence the second time through I was struck with an aha notion that nothing else could sum up Cather’s novel more concisely or more completely. Did Tony realize all the beauty radiating from her singular face? Did Jim ever let her know, in time, that he realized that the fast clip of life makes it all the more important to make the good things last? Did either of them realize that all things must pass way and be borne forever to the eternities?

Smoothing over the many dog-ears that work assignments and buzzing dryers have laid on the pages these past few days, I set the finished book aside and marvel once again at all the humanity I snubbed when I chose horse rectum over honesty. Some books have nothing to tell us but story, but Cather’s is brimming with a life so universal that its recognition strikes you as lightning even a hundred years later.

Luckily for anyone in my shoes—anyone reading this story in the prime of life—it’s a reassuring marvel that the sun doesn’t really go down. Through it all, it’s just an illusion, caused by our worlds spinning ‘round.

Erin Reads a Trashy Romance, pt. 2

Between December’s gauntlet of holiday festivities and several stubborn bouts of illness, I finally managed to soldier through the second half of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Thoughts . . .

I’ve mentioned before that I rarely get fired up over romance in the “classical literature” sense, and that’s mainly because the books tend to be either neat, little bedtime stories that are best served with the final chapter torn out, or cautionary tales that paint doom and hurt for anyone who tries to cast off convention. In reality, we all know that the relationships we build are complex and run the gamut from despair to sheer bliss, so it hurts my pretty little head to see the romantic ideal forced into one of two extremes without showing the nuance of something so fierce and complicated. Easy storytelling has sent more than a few of the classics back into my donation pile, anyway.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a unique read for me because it is one of the few oldish novels I’ve read that doesn’t fall into either camp—at least not very neatly. The second half takes Connie and Oliver from casual lovers to devoted partners and elaborates on the shortfalls of industry, classism, excess, and the Machine that perpetuates it all. Some dicey stuff happens, and in the end the situation ends up as complicated as any daytime soap. To put a fine point on it, the book calls to question what we live for—what we have built our lives around—and sort of asks us to get back to what makes us human. Are you motivated by progress or by happiness? It’s really a lot of little questions that add up to the bigger picture. And in the end, the plot doesn’t end Jane Austen-style with everyone finding someone and riding off into the sunset. It’s more of a mellifluous cliffhanger—satisfying, but far, far from resolution—just like life.

Written nearly a hundred years ago and an ocean away, this book has a hippie streak that still has a lot to say to a twenty-something career girl with a heap of bills and way too many shoes. Whether you’re looking at the philosophical message or strictly the romantic arc, the book takes the whirlwind of life, love, and progress and kind of snaps it all into perspective. Are you living for what’s important, or are you simply racking up the points?

And now, a purely feel-good line from Oliver’s letter to Connie on the closing page: “Well, so many words, because I can’t touch you. If I could sleep with my arms round you, the ink could stay in the bottle.”

So with that, I finally say good night to this book, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart.

Erin Reads a Trashy Romance, pt. 1

So, I swore I’d scribble an update on my most recent read once I ran across the title of the book in line. Lo, on page 150 of the Barnes and Noble 2005 edition: “And this night she was wondering who Lady Chatterley’s lover was.” Blaring horns! Sweeping violins! If this were a movie, my friends and I would be leaning over one another to whisper much too noisily, “They said the name of the movie!

I picked up Lady Chatterley’s Lover in part because I have a thing for banned books. There’s just something enticing about a story that has to be translated into a language that wasn’t the author’s first choice and then marketed only in more permissive foreign lands (Rajaa Alsanea’s The Girls of Riyadh sweeps immediately to mind). It’s hard not to get sucked in by the hype of subversive literature; like anyone else with an Area 51 fetish, I can’t help but die to read about what they didn’t want me to know. I don’t like people choosing my reading material for me or even painting over the ugly parts to shelter me from life—it’s just not my style. Besides, if you rob a book of its humanity by cleaning up what you might consider vulgar, then what do we have but just another tome about the felicity of young marriage followed by a marbled endpaper and nothing more? Totally not my style. So Lady Chatterley’s Lover appealed to me (both the book and the actual hunky lover), and so far I don’t regret the time I’ve spent in its now-uncensored pages.

Of course there’s the other reason I picked up the book: it’s a tad trashy. See, I have never actually finished a romance novel—no, not even Twilight. Books with romance in them are fine (see previous posts), but I find pure romance to be too neat and too unreal. The only time I allow myself to read anything with a horse or a heaving maiden on the cover is to poke fun at the dime-store prose while reading aloud in a bad cowgirl accent. It just doesn’t do it for me if the story isn’t there, so Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the perfect excuse to read something fleshy while asserting my book snob streak. My aversion to sexy romance makes this story relatively virgin seas to me, and it’s kind of cool to see what I’ve been deliberately missing, but in a way that doesn’t force me into titles like Love is a Horseshoe or Enter the Countess. No, thank you.

I already have plenty of guff though—Lawrence can be repetitive in his storytelling and word choice, the woman’s struggle is close to truth but told from a male perspective, and the conflict is a little too easy since the husband is physically unable to perform and mentally detached from his wife. It’s not the novel I would have written, but since there are no glittering spines boasting my name, I’m happy to charge ahead and see what this little book can do. I’m halfway through, and so far what I’m taking from the various characters’ conflicts is a universal thread that tells us it’s okay to be frustrated when you’re in your twenties and thirties and feel like real life has forgotten all about you. It’s revealing to see what people in all times  might do with what we’re experiencing today, in 2012, so I’m eager to see what unravels in the second half.

And now, some passages:

Of Mellors, the roguish keeper and namesake of the book: “What did life offer apart from the care of money? Nothing. Yet he could live alone, in the wan satisfaction of being alone, and raise pheasants to be shot ultimately by fat men after breakfast. It was futility, futility to the nth power. But why care, why bother? And he had not cared nor bothered till now, when this woman had come into his life. . . . The connection between them was growing closer. He could see the day when it would clinch up and they would have to make a life together.”

And an opening passage so brilliant that I’m still kicking myself for not thinking of it first: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up the new little habits, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

Wherein I Review Francine Rivers’ A Voice in the Wind

I have been up to my eye sockets lately in sciencey books. And not just whimsical topics either, like how toothpaste is made or why the yo-yo turned into a fierce legal battle. For some reason I can’t get enough lately of weighty, hopeless tomes about the cold war. You could call this recent interest my way of upholding my personal resolution to be a lifelong learner, but really it’s just because a mildly irritating bout of mono has renewed in me a sense of how much it must suck to get lymphoma from a nuclear weapons factory. So when Tyndale House Publishers sent me the twentieth-anniversary edition of Francine Rivers’ A Voice in the Wind to review, I kind of jumped at the chance to take a break and sink back into our less-depressing, distant history.

As I turned over the final page, I realized I had been right about enjoying the nice foray into history. And I was wrong about the “less-depressing” part. To put a fine point on it, Rivers is a fine writer with oodles of experience turning hearts aflutter with her work in the romance world and a more nascent talent of exploring religious fiction. In public I generally hesitate to be numbered among romance or historical fiction fans. Her book reflects, though, a reasonably on-the-mark sense of what an early Christian might have gone through for her faith, and it might strike modern American sensibilities as absurd to really have to think about the fact that a Christian could be so persecuted. A Voice in the Wind, first published twenty years ago, came at a time in Rivers’ life when her conversion to Christianity begged her look at her writing in a new way. The novel is a well-researched account of early Christians in the first century, a tumultuous period in Judeo-Roman history and one I greatly enjoyed learning. The story moves through violent and often opulent backdrops to show, essentially, our heroine Hadassah’s journey as she loses everything she loves and remains steadfast in her religion. Regardless of the reader’s religious or social background, it’s heartening to follow a character who endures so much simply because she believes in something. So even though the book is full of sword tips tearing holes in tunics or sending half torsos tumbling to the ground, there’s something refreshing in the theme of faith and love.

A little criticism, though. I mentioned Rivers’ standing as a popular novelist, but I found some of the prose lacking in literary charm. Some of the ancillary characters’ dialog bordered on hyperbole or struck me as a little too cartoonishly evil. Nevertheless, the book was written in an accessible way that kept even a literary snob like me enraptured by the plot and historical elements. So even if your walls are full of Ferber and Orwell, make room—if you like history, religion, or just a gripping read, it’s worth your time to pick up A Voice in the Wind.