The other side of the coin

Wench
by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Author Dolen Perkins-Valdez peels away another layer of the slave narrative we all know existed–that of the black women, treated “well”, who were mistresses of their white owners. Even school children know of  Thomas Jefferson’s Sally Hemings, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs rose in popularity twenty years ago. In Wench, we meet four women–Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu–who accompany their masters each summer to vacation in Ohio at Tawawa House, a vacation spot and hunting resort. There, they live in cottages as “couples”, leaving behind the glares of white wives and the murmurs of field slaves.

A white reader might be torn, conflicted, by the life presented, much as I was on my first reading of Jacobs Slave Girl. Relief–some masters cared for their slave lovers and biracial children. See? The women–in free Ohio–could not bring themselves to run, summer after summe after summer. Some “loved” their masters. And yet the white men kept their children enslaved, refusing to emancipate them; they tied those mistresses to the porch rails when fearful they would flee. No love here.  I found the women’s reluctance to admit their “status” afforded them no protection difficult to accept–I wanted them to rail against the injustice and rise up against their enslavers. But I am not scheming to have my children freed, or even calculating how to keep them close; I am not trying to avoid the lash, or keep my belly full. And so the women bide their time, bending under the yoke of slavery–cracking, maybe, but never breaking, waiting, waiting, for just the right time …

Ambivalence

The Postmistress
by Sarah Blake

Nineteen-forty, small Massachusetts village, the London blitz, a single Postmistress … it all had the sound of  the charming Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And like many who didn’t experience the war, I’ve encountered World War II through my dreamy Tales of South Pacific and Norman Rockwell goggles. Granted, the past several years have given us movies like Saving Private Ryan–but for those of us with tender sensibilities, Michener was more comfortable. But no fairy tale here–author Sarah Blake presented the Second World War as the ambiguous moral battle it surely was for some Americans.

Told through the eyes of three women, the reader comes to see that all America probably wasn’t as unabashedly patriotic as old newsreels would have us believe. Iris James is forty, single, a bit standoffish, and runs the Franklin post office with friendly efficiency; Emma Trask wants to keep her little light of family happiness hidden under a bushel; and Frankie Bard, girl reporter, works right alongside the great Edward R. Murrow. Each watches the war unfold with ambivalence. It is the men in their lives who die as a result of war–a situation that would make anyone face life with uncertainty. While I thought that Blake probably made these characters a bit too forward thinking, they were, overall, believable. (As is always my complaint, I grew quite weary of Emma’s whining and Frankie’s inability to make up her mind–but that’s probably just me.) I did think the undelivered letter motif was a bit overwrought and didn’t quite deserve attention it got on the book’s blurb. I was also more than a bit disappointed that Blake titled the book The Postmistress when Iris herself corrected those who did, and told them her title was simply “postmaster”.

Perhaps the most serendipitous  discovery came not from the book itself, but from the bookmark I used. With about fifty pages of reading left, I idly turned over the vintage linen postcard cum bookmark I had stuck between the pages and even more casually began to read the message written on the back. (I’ve spent several months collecting Michigan postcards from the 30’s and 40’s to use as a border above the wainscoting in my kitchen.) Imagine my surprise when I read the following, dated 1946. written in back-slanted precise script: “My husband and brother both arrived from overseas in time for Christmas [sic] as you can imagine the happy holidays. My brother went back to college.” Surely a reference to returning vets–two soldiers returned home, safe at last.

Last, but not least

One Thousand White Women
by Jim Fergus

I fear I may be the last woman standing who hasn’t read the popular novel by Jim Fergus, One Thousand White Women. I’ve read the reviews, heard the scuttlebutt among friends, but it seemed too much of a good thing, considering I’d read Thirteen Moons and Color of Lightening over the past year or so. But read it I finally did.

The novel’s subtitle is in the tradition of good historical fiction: The Journal of May Dodd. Starting in 1875 we follow May Dodd in her sanctioned “escape” from an insane asylum where her family had  imprisoned her for promiscuous behavior. May’s crime? The wealthy Chicago socialite fell in love with a man below her social station, found herself pregnant, and, subsequently lived with him. Fergus gives us enough description of life in the asylum for the reader to understand that if May wasn’t insane when she arrived at the mental institution, she soon would be.

After searching a bit, it seems the story is entirely fiction, although some Internet sources purport that an Indian leader did indeed suggest an exchange of white brides for horses. I doubt the xenophobic sensitivities of 19th century white Americans, however, would ever permit this to come about.

As I expected (with some disappointment, I must admit), the women, all social outcasts of some sort, find personal freedom and often fulfillment  with their Indian families in a fairytale type of way. May Dodd is often puzzled by the customs of her new husband Little Wolf, and she sometimes asserts the values of an independent white woman in ways that probably wouldn’t have been so blithely accepted (for instance, swimming with the men in the morning and riding next to her husband on the trail). Fergus makes the tribe’s polygamy seem reasonable, and May comes to hold dear the companionship of Little Wolf’s other wives. It was all a bit too pat for me.

That was my biggest frustration with this novel. I think romanticizing the life of Native Americans is just as reprehensible as demonizing them. Paulette Jiles presented a very different picture of white Indian wives in her Color of Lightening.

The problem lies in determining the truth.

The Man Standing

Last Guard Out
by Jim Albright

On our trip to San Francisco last summer, one of the most “touristy” thing we did was tour Alcatraz. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise; the self-guided tour was well-organized, paced just right, and heavy on history. The only problem I had was turning left when the recording said “right” … and vice-versa! More than once I found myself turned around.

When we got off the ferry, the ranger previewed some of what we would see, and promised that at the end of the tour we’d have an opportunity to talk to the “last guard out”–the guard to escort the final few prisoners as they were relocated to prisons around the country. Alcatraz, closed in 1963, was an aging prison, expensive to run: all food, supplies, employees, visitors, and even waste took the 30 minute trip across the Bay to “the Rock”.

Jim Albright began his tenure at Alcatraz as a young 24-year-old husband and father. Seeking secure employment to support his family, Albright was hired by the Federal prison system, and the young family traveled from Colorado to San Francisco to begin their new life. Alcatraz was his first job as a guard, and he was understandably apprehensive–Alcatraz’s reputation was one of hardened criminals and even harsher conditions. But, for the most part, Albright seems to think the reputation was not always deserved.

While he maintained a stern demeanor and followed the prison rules strictly, Albright found the prison well-run and disciplined. The problems that occurred during Albright’s term–attempted escapes, prisoner self-injury, a hunger strike–were nothing that the staff couldn’t manage. Albright retold first hand one of the most famous Alcatraz escapes, the 1962 Frank Morris escape through a hand-made tunnel, up utility pipes, and out on to the roof. While the stuff of legends (and a Clint Eastwood movie), to Albright, such events were all in a days work.

I found most interesting the life of families on the island–most guard families lived in apartments on the island, and life was a cycle of coffee klatches, movie nights, card parties, and ice cream socials … these in the prisoners’ exercise yard! The children played in the shadow of the three story prison block, and prisoners sometimes told Albright when his wife had baked a cake or pie, having seen it cooling on the window ledge of their apartment.

Quaint and colloquial, Albright’s writing will win no awards, but the story he tells is priceless. When I had Mr. Albright autograph my book I asked him if he missed prison work. The 74-year-old replied that he would go back tomorrow if he could.


Heat Lightening

The Color of Lightening
by Paulette Jiles

I’ve heard that there really is no such thing as heat lightening–but when I was little, those flashes that lit up the night sky with no thunder, no discernible bolt of lightening, and usually when the weather was hot and humid, we called “heat lightening”. Paulette Jiles novel The Color of Lightening is a little like that. The novel flashed with insight and beauty, a powerful story … but in the end, lacked thunder  and so it fizzled out quietly. 


The Color of Lightening is the story of Britt Johnson, a freed black man, who emigrates from Kentucky to Texas Territory to carve out a new life for himself and his family. We get to know their family very little before the event around which the novel turns: the capture of his wife, Mary, and children Cherry and Jube, by a raiding band of Kiowa Indians. Jiles tells us the story through a prism. The reader sees Mary and the children as captives; Britt, as he races to find them and negotiate their release; and Samuel Hammond, a Quaker sent from the Indian Bureau to “manage” both the Native people and the white settlers.  Taken also in the raid were the Johnson’s white neighbor, Elizabeth Fitzgerald and her two granddaughters, for whom Britt returns.


[spoiler alert]

Jiles’ narrative is perhaps strongest when she writes about the captives Mary, Elizabeth, and the children. Some of the young captives were adopted and treated with great tenderness. Childless wives often took the youngest prisoners in as their own children. The older women were used as slaves; some even took Native husbands. Mary Johnson was savagely raped and beaten at the beginning of her capture, and she lost the ability to speak clearly. Mary works alongside the wife of her captor and waits with longing for what she is sure will be her rescue at Britt’s hands. Jube Johnson, almost ten, comes to relish the life of the Kiowa; children have incredible freedom, young boys are taught early on the skills of a warrior, and were even at a young age waited on by women. It is Jube, perhaps, who has the most trouble returning home–in fact, he initially refuses to go home with his family.


In introducing the character of Samuel Hammond, Jiles is able to investigate the ideas of non-violence in the face of violence, cultural arrogance, and personal freedom. Hammond, a Quaker, comes to doubt his belief in non-violence and cannot reconcile what he feels are his rational offers with the Indian’s rejection of them. Samuel also learns of white captives who will not return to their families after years with the Indians, and of returned captives who mourn the loss of their Indian way of life. While Samuel’s story is secondary, it could have been stronger;
 he sometimes seems to be a vehicle to speak for the author’s own beliefs.


I raced through the novel initially–Jiles’ tale was compelling and she wove the stories together seamlessly. However, by the last quarter of the book, the story’s pace merely plodded along. And the last fifty pages read more like a history text–all event, no narrative. It was almost as if Jiles needed to make the book much longer (so she could continue her storytelling all the way to the end) or much shorter (so she could end on a powerful note).  Sadly, I seem to remember feeling the same with Jiles’ earlier book Enemy Women–also a fantastic story that just faded away.  That’s not to say the novel isn’t worth reading–it is–but any reader who is a plot fanatic should be forewarned.