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.

Laugh until you can’t read!

So Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is this month’s book club read–and when it was chosen, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to read it. When my copy arrived in the mail, the teaser was a little more intriguing: “Not long after Rhoda Janzen turned forty, her world turned upside down. It was bad enough that her husband of fifteen years left her for Bob, a guy he met on Gay.com, but that same week a car accident left her seriously injured” .  And so Janzen returns to her Mennonite family to recuperate, both physically and emotionally. Okay, so a memoir a little out of the ordinary–probably no “I-had-a-horrible-childhood” here. I did, however, seriously doubt the blurbs that assured me the book was laugh-out-loud funny. Cute, maybe. Sweet and endearing, sure. Crack-a-smile, of course.

I was wrong. By the time I read Janzen’s description of her cat trying to “catch” a drip of urine trailing down the catheter tubing (gross, I know, but I don’t do the scene justice), I couldn’t continue for the tears in my eyes from laughing so hard. While I have no experience being Mennonite, I do have the childhood experience of living in a frugal household where almost everything was reused, recycled, or bought on sale. Janzen had the lunchbox horror of Cotletten sandwhiches–I had “gooseliver”. Janzen wore pants extended by strips of cloth sewed along the hem–birdboned me wore “husky” elastic waist jeans my mom got on sale from Sears catalog. And while not Mennonite, anyone who grew up in an evangelical household can relate (at list a little bit) to the emphasis on Christian music and youth group “fun”.

Even though this is Janzen’s story, it is perhaps her mother Mary who most endeared herself to me. Mary Janzen is the queen of non-sequitur and so incredibly accepting of her daughter it almost broke my heart. When Janzen decides to accompany Mary on a visit to an eighty-six-year-old shut in, she asks her mom, “Is [Mrs.Wiebe] mentally alert?” To which her mom replies, “Oh yes! She wears a wig!” And Mary Janzen’s unconditional love is touchingly sweet. Janzen’s life outside the Mennonite community has had the biggest impact on her relationship with her adult brothers. Questioning her mother on why her brothers are more conservative even than her parents, Mary Janzen replies, “Oh, they’ll mellow over time. When you’re young, faith is a matter of rules … But as you get older, you realize that fiath is really a matter of relationship–with God, with the people around you, with the members of your community.” Would that all people of God showed such compassion and humility.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress takes a peek back into Janzen’s childhood, and also details the joys and struggles she had when she reached her twenties and made the decision to leave her community. Janzen talks openly about her abusive husband. And in her return home, Janzen finds that maybe accepting and incorporating her roots is more valuable and healthy than rejecting them outright. I had the pleasure of attending a book reading Rhoda Janzen gave at the public library one evening. When I went, I had only read fifty pages–but her strong voice, wry and sardonic tone, and effervescence made me run home and read the book even more quickly. And laugh out loud I did.

Next up: The Color of Lightening by Paulette Jiles. I’ve only read a couple chapters, but it’s already tempting me away from doing school work for next year!

86 years and counting …

The NPR reviewer who critiqued Iain Pears’ Stone’s Fall last spring found it hard to put this nearly 600-pager down. And while I DID finally find it difficult to put down, it took a few days for the novel to work its magic. The historical novel is vast, starting in 1953 with the death of Madame Robillard (aka Lady Ravenscliff, Elizabeth, Virginie, and Countess Von Futak). The list of Lady Ravenscliff’s aliases alone should give warning to just how complex is the storyline.

Stone’s Fall is really three books–the same story is told by three different characters in three different time periods: London,1909; Paris, 1890; and Venice, 1867. All three stories revolved in some way around the death or life of John Stone, an English business magnate who controlled armament production for much of Europe. Part One, which took place immediately following Stone’s death, followed a young journalist as he tried to make sense of Stone’s business holdings and banking practices of the day. Admittedly, this bored me to death. Stock options, bank trusts, and Fleet Street machinations are not the stuff of fiction for me! By Part Two is was evident that, although the book’s title was Stone’s Fall, is was really the story of his wife, Elizabeth. As Countess Von Futak, she ruled the salon’s of Paris–and how she came to that position was revealed in Part Three. I often found myself  paging back through the previous sections to determine whether or not I had “met” a character before, and under what circumstances. I also longed for a  timeline to unravel the characters’ connections to each other.

Poverty, prostitution, espionage, suicide, and insanity reared their ugly heads in Stone’s Fall–all the dirty laundry that make up the best reads. But it was the unraveling of Stone’s death that satisfied the most.The novel’s ending was powerful, if not by the last ten pages, predictable. No need for a HUGE spoiler alert here–I won’t spill any details–but suffice it to say I’m curious about the number of novels that include incest as a plot device. I was also pleased as a reader that Elizabeth, the character whom I thought I had figured out, turned out to be more complex than I presumed–and, in fact, wasn’t the woman I thought I knew. And for me, that is a good ending!

A young Odysseus

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
by Reif Larsen

I had no idea when I opened this beautiful, quirky, and imaginative novel what awaited me–every page is embellished with hand-drawn maps, drawings, schematics, sidebars, and footnotes that follow up on some reference in the narrative. Supposedly the story of twelve-year-old T.S. (Tecumseh Sparrow) Spivet, map maker extraordinaire, the novel follows T.S. on his hobo trip from Montana to Washington, D.C. to collect the coveted Baird Award from the Smithsonian Museum. But the tale is so outlandish, so unbelievable, it holds all the power of an epic. And perhaps in the end, it is best to read the book that way.

All epic heroes come from a homeland that shaped and molded him or her and T.S. is not different. T.S. and his family live on the Coppertop, a ranch nestled against the Great Divide. T.S’s mother, Dr. Claire, is a dedicated scientist (and distracted mother) who seeks the never-seen tiger beetle. Dad is a throwback to the Old West–a man who speaks cowboy-ese, drinks whiskey, and watches old westerns in the settin’ room. T.S. has two siblings … or had. For the death of his younger brother Layton looms like a dark shadow over the Spivet’s lives. Gracie, his teenaged sister, tolerates her odd family–barely.

What sets T.S. apart is his genius for diagramming and mapping nearly every aspect of life. Some of his maps are ordinary–Scratch of the Nib, Walking Chart, Concentration of Litter in Chicago–; some, sublime–Identification of Cow Path Tiger Beetle Subspecies, Sound Drawing of Brahm’s Hungarian Dance No. 10. T.S.’s mentor, Dr. Terrance Yorn, has been submitting his work to the Smithsonian for some time and T.S.’s work has been published in journals such as Science and Scientific American–no one, however, suspects that the elegant graphics were drawn by a twelve-year-old.  The labyrinth of T.S.’s mind (that’s another map!) is amazing (pun intended). He is curious and insightful–surely a genius. And perhaps this super human feat is what points in the direction of an epic reading of his story.

After first refusing the Baird, T.S. decides to set off on his own to claim the prize, certain that his family is better off without him: Dr. Claire is preoccupied, his father ashamed of him, sister Gracie is, well, a teenager, and Layton dead in a freak shooting accident. T.S. jumps (or rather grabs on by his fingernails) loaded with an unwieldy suitcase filled with mapping pens, notebooks, a sparrow skeleton, and other non-sequiturs. Almost magically, T.S. finds that the car on which he has stowed away hauls a motor home. And it is from the relative comfort of the camper that T.S. makes his way across country.

The trip is a series of misadventures that could (or could not) be true: T.S. enters a worm hole on the Great Plains; he discovers a  Hobo Hotline number that is one easy phone call away from the destination of any railroad train in the U.S.; he encounters a ranting homeless man who wounds him severely; he joins the secretive Megatherium club; he is invited to the President’s State of the Union Address–only to skip out on it. This could all be simple fun, an unabashed rollick of a story … or these could be adventures every bit as significant as Odysseus’ encounters with the Cyclops, Scylla and Charibydis, and the Sirens. That just takes a little more effort than I was willing to on a hot and humid summer day … so perilous adventure tale it was.

Just started: Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears (And it’s good already after only a chapter.)

Summer daze

Uglies
by Scott Westerfield

It was during a classroom discussion of Fahrenheit 451 that one of my students said, “This is just like the Uglies.” What followed was a rather confusing rush of plot tidbits from two or three of the girls. I’m not sure the novel even sounded interesting to me at that point, but I made the promise to read it this summer–just as I did last summer with Twilight.

Uglies is a dystopian young adult novel (a kind of Giver for teens) about a world divided into groups based on looks and age: littlies, uglies, new-Pretties, mid-Pretties, and finally, Crumblies. At age sixteen everyone undergoes an operation to become a Pretty–bones are lengthened or shortened, skin removed, iris’ implanted, cheekbones sculpted, eyes widened. Pretties are then segregated into Pretty Town where they party wildly and indulge their passions.

As the story opens, Tally Youngblood is lonely, having lost her best friend Peris a few months before when he “turned”. Once prettified, Pretties no longer associate with Uglies. Then Tally meets Shay and the two Uglies become fast friends. Shay, however, has plans to escape her turning–she claims not to want the operation–and has made a few inroads with runaways who live in the Smoke. While Tally tries to convince Shay not to run, Shay is true to her word and disappears only days before her turning. Though saddened at the loss of yet another friend, Tally is still eager for her own operation.

Special Operations, however, has other plans. Tally is blackmailed into leading the authorities to Shay and the Smoke–her refusal would mean she would stay ugly forever. Tally eventually makes her way to Shay and is intrigued by life in the secret settlement. In the Smoke she reads magazines in the library and sees that hundreds of years in the past everyone was ugly–weight, height, eye and skin color all differed from person t0 person. Tally finds satisfaction in the Smoke, and falls in love with David, an ugly who has never lived in a city. A twist of fate brings down the Smoke and the rest of the book sees Tally trying to free those captured by Special Operations (such a blatant pun!)–and in the process Tally discovers the awful secret David’s parents had uncovered.

[spoiler alert]

Westerfield attacks our preoccupation with outer beauty and touches on the idea of lookism. Teens who are bombarded (and often overwhelmed) by media and social pressure to measure up to a certain standard of beauty will find the novel compelling. And while I rarely read the second volume of these teen trilogies, I found myself wondering … what will happen to Tally after her operation? Will she remember the promise she made to find a cure …

… to be continued?! Whatever the case, on a cloudy summer afternoon I was pleased to find myself in that reading fog that only comes from reading for hours and hours–oblivious to the demands of the everyday. It is truly summer.