Rose Under Fire meets Scatter, Adapt, and Remember

A few things came into my head tonight that I thought might be interesting to others.

First, I recently read the Book Smugglers’ review of Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein because Code Name Verity was so good and because I have no intention of reading her new book, but at the same time I also wanted to know more about it and readers’ reactions to it. (I don’t read Holocaust fiction. If I read about the Holocaust, my preference is non-fiction because the actual events are so horrific I cannot immerse myself in fiction without thinking about the real people who survived or did not survive what other people did to them. Actually, I generally can’t read fiction about war, US slavery, genocide, ethnic cleansing, famines or rape for the same reasons. I read non-fiction on these topics judiciously and sparingly and only when I have enough spoons.) This is what Thea of the Book Smugglers had to say at the end of her review (bold mine):

Rose Under Fire is one hell of a book. It’s a powerful, emotionally resonant historical novel about remembering and about surviving, and I truly appreciate and value that. That said, it’s also a story about a war that ended nearly 70 years ago. It’s also a story narrated by a beautiful, young, privileged, white girl who literally flies into a terrible situation. Please understand that I am not disparaging or arguing against the value of the rich canon of literature about the Holocaust, or the set of circumstances facing heroine Rose. I am simply saying this: there are so many wars, atrocities, even genocides that have happened in the last 70 years, and that are still happening now. Those truths and those stories are hardly represented today – much less in YA literature. And perhaps this doesn’t belong here in this review, but it’s something I am acutely conscious of, and I vow to do as much as I can to change this. Because I am inspired by Rose’s story and by this book, because I think it’s important to talk, to remember, and to experience that truth through storytelling, I vow to read and review books from other, more contemporary wars, from characters and authors other than that of the white, the privileged, the American and Western European. (I think I’ll start with Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick, or A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah…)

So, there’s that, which I totally agree with.

I’m also reading Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz. I’m up to the section on famines. The author brings up the Irish Potato Famine, the famine of the Great Leap Forward in China, and the famine in Greece during Nazi occupation in WWII. And I’m conflicted. Why those three famines? One very well known to Western readers, one less well known (to me, China) and one slightly obscure (again to me, Greece), and all also 70 years behind us. What about the North Korean famine and the ongoing food aid the country receives to this day? Or Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia? (Like Thea, I feel I have to make the disclaimer. Just apply hers here, too.) The author does not tell us the reason she picked those three famines to discuss.

She goes on to say that mobility, food aid and sustainable use of agricultural land are essential to preventing famines and that “Famines and their accompanying pandemics are problems that we’ve been trying desperately to solve for hundreds of years.” (p 113). And that last part is where I disagree, where I think she dodged her own thesis. Famines are created. They are created by political will, either as the intended objective (as I understand it: North Korea, Stalin’s Great Famine, the Greek famine mentioned in the book) or as the unintended but acceptable (as collateral damage) effect of a different objective (The Great Leap Forward, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, the Irish Potato Famine). Some people may have been trying desperately to solve the problem of famine; others have deliberately pursued famine as a means to an end.

These two reading experiences came together for me and reminded me, once again, that it is SO hard for us to confront the atrocities that are happening right now, in our lifetimes, and it is especially easy when the people suffering Don’t Look Like Us, for a value of “us” that is the dominant one.

How many movies and books have been made in the US about the Holocaust? Compare that to how many books and movies, with the same popular appeal and reach, have been made about US slavery? We in the US live with the after-effects of slavery every day. It is inherent in our gun laws, in who can easily vote, in whose bodies are a battleground, who has access to education and health care, in every aspect of our laws and social institutions. The Holocaust was a terrible thing. Many people continue to live with its after-effects. But it is easier to say it’s over, the Nazis lost, besides, they were German anyway and that’s far away and long ago. If we looked, really looked at the legacy of slavery in this country, we would have to admit it’s not over and it’s not long ago.

I don’t have answers. I have questions. I struggle almost every day with the knowledge that my electronics, clothing and food were produced by slave labor–much of it the labor of children. I struggle with sexism and racism and so many more issues.

Like Thea I want there to be more books about all these things. Even if I personally am not going to read them, because at least they’d be part of our world view, part of the discourse, part of what’s in the public eye.

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Reading Sayer in the 21st Century

Early paperback edition cover

Early paperback edition cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayer took some adjusting to. I had never read any early mysteries so at first the genre conventions were baffling. (Along with the actual 1930s Britishness of it, as opposed to the fake or “translated” Britishness we often get on this side of the pond.) However, it was also exciting to read something with no knowledge of the conventions and consciously compare and contrast them with the ones I’m familiar with, like pages and pages of dialogue without dialogue tags or physical descriptions. Sometimes it’s a bit of a game to figure out who is speaking and what exactly is going on as they react to action that is not described. And pacing. Holy moly is the pacing different. But that’s to be expected, since everything today is super fast paced. Movies from the 80s seem slow.

As a 21st Century reader, my biggest problem was Peter Wimsey’s treatment of Harriet Vane. There’s one scene where she’s in prison and he’s promising to prove her innocence but it hasn’t been going well. He takes out his feelings on Harriet Vane until he feels better and she’s red faced and upset. He leaves whistling, I believe. (I’ve returned the book to the library, so I don’t have the exact quote.) And then there’s, to my mind, the ethical question of whether it’s appropriate for Peter to repeatedly ask a woman in jail to marry him, when he’s the only one trying to prove her innocence. But that wasn’t even on anyone’s radar in the 1930s apparently.

I struggled more to get through Have His Carcase. Maybe because I would have liked more Harriet Vane. Maybe I didn’t care as much about the murder victim and didn’t feel like I could figure out the mystery before the author tells me the answer. Maybe it was the pacing. It also seems a less funny book at the beginning, though it gets funnier as it goes along, to the point where I laughed out loud a few times.

And maybe it’s all that plus some of those 1930s attitudes are less than charming.

Harriet Vane: “There might be a few scattered houses on the road, but they would probably belong to fishermen, and ten to one she would find nobody at home but women and children, who would be useless in the emergency.” (p15)

Really? The women farmers and fishermen’s wives, who run the farms and houses while the men are gone, probably logistically a challenging job, who probably work beside their husbands, doing physical tasks Harriet would be hardpressed to do, who are probably tough and pragmatic and used to taking care of emergencies on their own, wouldn’t be much use in an emergency?

And then there are the casual racial and ethnic slurs. And while I don’t think “dago” has been much used since the mid-20th Century the n-word makes an appearance a few times. Dago was used freely in the book. While it doesn’t have the same visceral impact that current slurs have (no one has ever used it against me, and I’ve never heard anyone called it. I only know it from textbooks, and I probably only remembered it because it was used against my ancestors—but I was already safely considered white by the time I was reading those textbooks), the attitude behind it was shocking. And I don’t think I’ll ever be desensitized to the n-word. It was such a casual othering.

Reading Zelazny in the 21st Century Part II

Reading Nine Princes in Amber at the same time that I’m reading When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins, is illuminating.

She describes the era when women were thrown out of courtrooms for wearing a pants suit (while men wore sweatpants) and the rules for women’s basketball prohibited running because it might hurt their delicate reproductive organs and the ad below (from 1955) was not as foreign to them as it is to us. (“A good wife always knows her place.”)

RetroGoodWifesGuide1955b

(Housekeeping Monthly, 13 May 1955)

Nine Princes of Amber was published in 1970. The four daughters of the king of Amber are so insignificant in the struggle for the throne that they are not even mentioned in the title, while the ninth brother, who never makes an appearance is. The sisters are “girls”, “stupid” and “all bitches”. They cry a lot. And I have to say the image of Moire’s green nipples has stayed with me since I first read the book as a young teenager (and not in a good way).

But the blinders of the time it was written in also results in such convolutions:

“There were four men seated about the fire and two sleeping off in the shadows. The girl who was bound to a stake had her head turned away from us…” (p 67)

“I saw Deirdre raise [a weirwolf] in the air and break its back across her knee with a brittle snapping sound.” (p 71)

So Deirdre, a superhuman child of Amber, can break a weirwolf with one hand but she wasn’t able to fight off at least some of the six men who captured her? Really? (Later, during the fight up the face of the mountain Kolvir, it’s made clear that the ordinary inhabitants of Amber don’t match the royal family in strength or fighting skills.)

To a modern reader it’s a ludicrous flaw in the worldbuilding. To its creator and readers of the time it was invisible.

Reading Zelazny in the 21st Century

At the opening of the Isle of the Dead, Zelazny is setting out a fishing line of strangeness and ambience, reeling me in, word by word, until I trip. On page 2, “[Condoms] are almost gone now, I hear, the way of the Edsel, the klepsydra and the button hook, shot down and punctured by the safety pill, which makes for larger mammaries, too, so who complains?”

I thought, “Wow, this world is going to be weirder than I thought if men have large breasts.”

I contemplated this idea for probably 30 seconds before it hit me that he meant MEN go in for larger breasts on WOMEN.

Maybe I’m not used to reading first person POV for men, written by men, and here’s the kicker, presumably for men. Maybe I’m not used to reading books with this level of assumption about what is understood to be. Maybe I was so wrapped up in the words that I hadn’t kept any distance from them. These are all possibly true.

Now from what I’ve heard, Roger Zelanzy was a kind man. He was most likely not aware of his sexism. After all, 1969 was barely aware of its sexism, at least compared to today. (How many men today are aware of their own sexism unless it is pointed out by someone he will listen to?) Zelanzy could write this line, that to him was a fact of life so unquestionable, he did not see it as contributing to his world building of a foreign future that is still unknown to the reader. He could not envision me, or I assume any of the other 21st century women or men, taking him literally.