A Review of Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King

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In this novel, protagonist Alan Clay is a salesman facing bankruptcy and ruin who travels to Saudi Arabia with the goal of selling a hologram (and the larger business package that goes with it) to King Abdullah. This novel is an absurdist comedy, as King Abdullah consistently fails to show up, leaving Alan and his three young co-workers to languish in a tent in the middle of a city that is planned but mostly not yet built. It’s also a work of social satire and a midlife cri de coeur in the vein of Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, and at times I even felt as if I were reading a parable of sorts.

As a young salesman working for Schwinn, Alan learned that all sales are driven by four human insecurities: the compulsions toward money, romance, self-preservation, and recognition. While I don’t remember Eggers making any direct references to Death of a Salesman, I certainly felt the presence of Willy Loman in this novel’s flashbacks to Alan’s years of learning salesmanship and gaining confidence and authority in a world whose rules he understood. In the novel’s present day, however, Schwinn’s bicycles have long been outsourced, and Alan is suffering from the poor effects of several ventures he made in attempts to regain his status and capital. He has a bitchy ex-wife, a daughter whose college tuition he can’t pay, a home that was depleted of all its character during the real estate “staging” process but still didn’t sell, and a growth of some kind on the back of his neck that he assumes (and possibly hopes) is malignant, and he’s also afflicted by insomnia, alcoholism, and a risky and aggravating tendency to wander.

The book begins with Alan sleeping through his alarm. He has missed the shuttle bus to the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, pronounced “cake”), where he thinks he and his colleagues will be giving their presentation to the king later that day. Hung over and preoccupied with his neck growth, he arranges for a ride and meets Yousef, a young, amusing Saudi man and a friend-of-a-friend of the hotel concierge. Of course getting into Yousef’s car is ill-advised, but Alan – who has no qualms about doing ill-advised things – accepts the ride anyway. It happens that Yousef is a good guy and the only truly likeable character in the novel, though he always seems to be tiptoeing around the edges of moneylending, corruption, and organized violence. By the time Alan reaches the KAEC, it is early afternoon.

This is an ongoing pattern in this book: Alan is never quite where he should be. He seems to be a wanderer by nature, so even when he does catch the shuttle to the KAEC on time, he has a way of wandering off to odd places. Even Alan himself is confused by his tendency to wander off: “Alan wondered, continually, about his own behavior. No sooner had he done something, something like hide behind a hill of dirt by the Red Sea, when he would wonder, Who is this man who leaves the presentation to hide behind a hill of dirt?” (158).

When he wanders, Alan tends to stumble upon little subworlds that are kept apart from the public eye. When a real estate developer at the KAEC tries to sell him a condo in an on-site building and invites him to take an elevator to a specific floor, where he’ll be able to see the condo unit, Alan spontaneously exits the elevator at a different floor, which has barely been touched architecturally – it’s still a skeleton-like framework of support beams – where a throng of shirtless Saudi men are fighting over a cell phone. Alan intervenes in the fight (??) and discovers that the phone is one that his co-worker Cayley threw in the garbage the day before, after she replaced it. On the floor above, as promised, an immaculate and luxuriously appointed condo awaits his inspection.

A sense of incongruity and wrongness is everywhere in this novel. Alan is the wrong man for the wrong job in the wrong country, and over and over again he makes bad decisions and is surprised when the world around him is incongruous with how it “should” be. Even the geographical incongruity of Saudi Arabia – of a civilization springing up in the most barren of deserts – disturbs and fascinates Alan: “My God, he thought, did people belong in this part of the world? The earth is an animal that shakes off its fleas when they dig too deep, bite too hard. It shifts and our cities fall; it sighs and the coasts are overtaken. We really shouldn’t be here at all” (102). Shortly after he is tempted by the luxury condo (his bankruptcy apparently forgotten), Alan accompanies Yousef to his family’s ancestral home, where Yousef will be hiding from some thugs to whom he owes money. Once again, Alan is totally out of place here and finds the mountain village not only antithetical to the rest of Saudi Arabia but to Yousef’s father, who otherwise strikes Alan as a close-minded, rodent-like Philistine with no room in his life for anything aesthetic. At the same time, though Alan is overtaken by a sort of pastoral longing and even contemplates moving to Saudi Arabia himself: “He decided he could live here. He decided he could be content this way, if he’d built a home like this. All he needed was some space, somewhere removed from anywhere, where the land was cheap and building was easy. He shared the dreams of Yousef’s father, the need to return to one’s origins, build something lasting, something open and strange like this fortress, something that could be shared by family and friends, everyone who had helped nurture him. But what were Alan’s origins? He had no ancestral village. He had Dedham. Was Dedham an ancestral village? No one there had any idea who he was. Was he from Duxbury? Was he attached at all to that town, or anyone to him? In Duxbury, Alan couldn’t even build a wall” (234). Yet just twelve pages later, Alan is back to his suspicions about the relationship of man to geography: “People should not settle in a rocky terrain devoid of water and rain. But where should they live? Nature tells man that she will kill him anywhere. In flat land, she will kill him with tornadoes. Live near a coast and she will send tsunamis to erase centuries of work. Earthquakes mock all engineering, all notions of permanence. Nature wants to kill, kill, kill, laugh at our work, wipe itself clean. But people lived wherever they wanted, and they lived here too, in this impossible valley, and they thrived. Thrived? They lived. They survived, reproduced, sent their children to the cities to make money. The children made money and came back to level hillsides and build castles in the same impossible valley. The work of man is done behind the back of the natural world. When nature notices, and can muster the energy, it wipes the slate clean again” (246).

As portrayed in this novel, Saudi Arabia is a hollow place – all plans and no execution, all gloss and no substance. The KAEC – which a Saudi businessman admits to Alan is no longer the king’s pet project and will likely never be completed – is a great symbol for global industrialization gone wrong, and Alan is the poster child for rootlessness, for a world where building a stable life is less important than outrunning one’s creditors and keeping one’s secret failures hidden. It’s the world, honestly, that I fear Donald Trump will build here – a world made on the cheap, gilded walls enclosing hollow centers.

I enjoyed this novel on many levels. Like Eggers’ other work, this little racecar can move – I read it over a few days but am sure I could have read it in one sitting if I had had time. Alan is the kind of protagonist that is riveting specifically because he makes such horrible choices (think Bigger Thomas in Part I of Native Son), and much of the entertainment value of this novel is of the rubbernecking variety. For example, one night in the hotel, a drunken Alan decides to investigate the growth on his neck using a variety of improvised tools made from the contents of his hotel bathroom and carry-on bag. When Yousef takes him to the doctor (another side trip that keeps Alan away from the KAEC for most of a day), Alan for some reason agrees to allow this doctor – a female doctor, unusual for Saudi Arabia – to operate on his tumor, and later she becomes his love interest. This part of the plot stretched my willingness to suspend my disbelief, but overall Alan’s hapless wanderings made for a compelling read.

Besides Alan and Yousef, most of the characters in this novel are flat, and this novel makes no claims to be character-driven. It’s two parts tragedy – with Alan as the tragic hero and only important character, since his decline is his own fault – one part comedy of errors, and one part novel of ideas and social satire about globalization. I know that Tom Hanks played Alan in the recent movie adaptation, which strikes me as a horrible choice. Every character Hanks plays – dating all the way back to Buffy in Bosom Buddies (and NO, I didn’t have to look up the name of his character; what do you think I did during my childhood, played outside?) – has a certain inner wisdom, and Alan has no inner wisdom at all. Like the KAEC, he’s all surface, no substance.

I recommend this novel to a wide variety of readers, and it strikes me as a particularly good text to introduce teenagers and young adults to the practice of social satire. I recommend it for summer reading lists and school libraries, as well as to individual readers.

Posted in Authors, Dave Eggers, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

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On the one hand, reacting to the Trump victory by immediately reading a bunch of books about poor people is a condescending and despicable thing to do. I feel a little dirty about it, honestly. On the other hand, the performance of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy on various bestseller lists suggests that I am not the only one drawn to retroactive study of the forces behind Trump’s recent coup.

Remember the time, right after Trump won the Republican primary in Nevada, when he leaned forward over the podium, scanned his audience, and enunciated every syllable of “I LOVE the poorly educated”? I remember looking up from my knitting and thinking, “Well, THAT was a dog whistle” – but then we were on to the next appalling scandal and I (mostly) forgot. Just to indicate that I’m not alone, I’ll share that “When did Trump say I love the poorly educated” was the fourth item that pops up under the search bar when I typed in “When did Trump.” Numbers 1, 2, and 3 were “When did Trump go to Mexico,” “When did Trump say bigly” (N.B. When DIDN’T he?), and “When did Trump get married” – all of which are general-interest tabloid-type questions, meaning that the question about his praise of the poorly educated* is the most commonly Googled** question about the details of Trump’s political timeline.

(* My reaction to this statement would be different, by the way, if Trump had said, “I support the poorly educated,” “I will fight for the needs of the poorly educated,” or something similar. It was the tone, the pace, and the emphasis he gave to the word “love” that gave me the willies. Also the word “poorly,” which implies a negative judgment but is then canceled out according to some weird Trumpian algebra when he counterbalanced it with the word “love.”)

(** I am skeptical of everything the internet does these days and have no doubt that a person of a different demographic and search history would get different results.)

Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s memoir of growing up as part of an extended family with roots in Jackson, Kentucky. Like many “hillbillies” – which is not a word I would use on my own, but I’ll use it in this review because Vance seems to identify with it – Vance’s grandparents left Appalachia in the post-World War II years to work for Armco Kawasaki, a steel company in southern Ohio. Vance describes this migration as a resettlement of entire Appalachian families, much like the migration of black families and individuals to Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and other northern cities during and after Reconstruction, and he indicates that at first AK Steel did a good job of rewarding family members who moved as large, presumptively-stable units and individuals who logged long careers with the company. Over time, though, management of the company changed hands and changes in demographics and other factors caused the company to downsize and move entire divisions out of the area, leaving a vacuum behind in which thousands were left unemployed.

A person would have to live under a rock not to know the bare bones of this story. I think I became aware of the decline of Midwestern industry when I first saw Roger and Me, the film that made Michael Moore’s reputation back in the late 1980’s. This region – especially the auto industry – was decimated by the economic crash, and of course we know, at least in general terms, of all the jobs that have been “shipped overseas to Mexico and China,” which I place in quotation marks because I’m taking the word of various loud people on television. I don’t have my own statistics on this matter, though I wish I did.

This book is extremely well written – I read it over two days, staying up late last night to finish it – and populated with wonderful characters. Vance had to walk a tough line here, boldly sketching out the lines of his hard-living, gun-toting grandparents, eccentric uncles, drug-addicted mother and her parade of underachieving boyfriends. He approaches the realm of cliché, acknowledges it, and then transcends it. He pulls off this feat over and over again, on every page. He balances his feelings of frustration, love, and empathy for his flawed family with an academic approach, citing studies here and there to indicate his understanding of how his own experience fits into the context of the country as a whole. A fiction professor of mine once told our class that what we had to understand about “mountain people” (in our context this meant the people of the Arkansas Ozarks, but it applies in Vance’s memoir too) is that they are both much better and much worse than outsiders believe them to be. I remember embracing this idea and seeing what this understanding could do for me as a fiction writer, though I was also uncomfortable with the word “mountain.” Didn’t this truism apply to all people, regardless of origin? Aren’t we all both angels and beasts?

Early in his memoir, Vance addresses this question tangentially by pointing to the common ethnicity of Appalachian “hillbillies” – who, apparently, are of Scots-Irish descent. “In traveling across America,” Vance quotes a source, “the Scots-Irish have consistently blown my mind as far and away the most persistent and unchanging regional subculture in the country. Their family structures, religion and politics, and social lives all remain unchanged compared to the wholesale abandonment of tradition that’s occurred nearly everywhere else” (3). Vance goes on to explain that while this cultural continuity exists, the ethnic Scots-Irish Americans of Appalachia have made one major demographic shift in the past 30 years that reverberates through today’s politics: they switched their allegiance, en masse, from Democratic to Republican. They seemed to blame the failed steel industry on various social programs that promised them a brighter future – programs embodied by the New Deal and FDR’s Democratic ethos, which they saw as failed and hollow.

Vance reports that his family’s demographic is also the most pessimistic group in the contemporary U.S. – even among individuals that do not suffer financially. Vance recalls the jobs he held as a young man – good jobs that paid decent wages – and the way so many of his co-workers sabotaged their own success through constant absences and other inappropriate behavior on the job, even when their bosses were initially forgiving, and even when they had spouses and children at home who relied on their wages and benefits. Vance agrees that corporations have created some problems by shipping jobs overseas, but his focus is on “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it… There is a lack of agency here – a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself” (6).

My only real complaint about this book is that I wish Vance had spent more time on the cultural critique implied in the above statement. I would have happily read more about the cultural continuity among Americans of Scots-Irish descent – even going so far as to investigate the often horrible circumstances under which their ancestors immigrated to the U.S. I admire Vance’s book so much that I am loath to compare it to Outlander, but I couldn’t help thinking of one of the few bright spots in The Fiery Cross when Diana Gabaldon incorporates into her narrative that Highland Scots immigrants brought along their tradition of setting a large cross on fire as a signal that the clan leader had called a meeting – a tradition that evolved into the cross burning made notorious by the KKK. I would have loved to see Vance delve into this connection in a more scholarly and/or more personal sort of way. However, I do understand why he backed away from this topic. Arguments based on ethnicity are a touchy thing, for one thing, and ultimately this memoir is a story about the very well rounded and richly textured people Vance grew up with. I wouldn’t want to lose one sentence of the story he tells, and while I would enjoy more cultural analysis I suspect that approach might cause some readers to back away – and I do think this is a book that Americans should read – with care, with sympathy, and with an open mind – whether or not they’re game for scholarly analysis.

I haven’t really followed through on my promise to connect Vance’s memoir to the results of our election. Over and over again, Vance recreates the pessimism his family and friends fell constant victim to – the tendency to escape from problems, either physically or via drugs and alcohol, rather than confront them, as well as an apparent need to blame others (e.g. immigrants who steal jobs) for one’s problems. Vance credits his grandparents for the fact that he was able to escape his community’s usual; cycle of failure and blame, and the portrait he paints of them alone makes this memoir worth reading. I’m not finished with my Grand Tour of Poverty Books – next up is George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America – and I will be back soon to share my thoughts.

Posted in Authors, Bethany's Grand Tour of Poverty Books, J.D. Vance, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Nonfiction - Politics/Current Events, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yarn Along

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It’s official: no one cares about book blogs in Trump’s America.

I’m exaggerating a little, of course. After all, you’re here. But the fact is that our daily page views are lower than they’ve been since the pre-Outlander years. For myself, I haven’t read more than 20 pages of the same book since Election Day – unless you count that I read the first 20 pages of Gods without Men twice.

What I have done is write. Holy crap, have I been writing. And planning to write. And jotting down first lines and last lines and metaphors and character names and opening scenes and strangely aggressive little nuggets like this:

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Yes, the election of Donald Trump has made me question the judgment and decency of somewhat less than half of my fellow Americans, and it has also made me consider the possibility that I have been seeking answers in the wrong places – that we all have, and that relearning where to look for answers is our central task from here on out. But on a personal note, the confusion of the past week has made me want to get busy. Finish revising the novel and write like a million more. Compose first drafts of short stories in the Notes section of my phone. Seek out collaborators. Try out new genres. Dust off my iambic pentameter. And maybe, on occasion, finish something.

And by finish something, I am not referring to the Obnoxiously Orange scarf, which is still plugging along at the rate of a few rows a day. But it makes a nice backdrop for my Kindle in the photo, no? J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy comes highly recommended, and I’m enjoying it so far. I’ve read exactly 20 pages.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her beautiful blog, Small Things.

Posted in Uncategorized, Yarn Along | 11 Comments

Yarn Along

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I’m just a few chapters into Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, and I’m loving it. I’ve wanted to read this novel ever since it was published four-ish years ago, but the first chapter is sort of a meditation on some aspect of Native American mythology – something about Coyote the Trickster or some such, and I had enough of Coyote the Trickster on a third grade field trip to the Miwok Village* and just couldn’t bring myself to move on. This is a drawback of Kindle books, I think. When I read a hard copy (and, often, before I even purchase it), I take myself on a little tour. How long are the chapters? Are they numbered, titled, dated, epigraphed, not delineated at all? Does the book jump around in time? Are there long passages of italics, and if so, why? Are there 80 pages of Power Point slides?** If I were reading a hard copy of Gods Without Men, I would have seen immediately that the mythology in the first chapter was only a few pages long and that immediately afterwards there are actual human characters – really compelling ones. But I was reading my Kindle, and even though it is possible (though less convenient) to browse around in a Kindle book, I don’t think to do it. But anyway. Good book. I’ll tell you more soon.

(*I mean no disrespect to Native American mythology – and yes, I do know that Coyote the Trickster is part of Navajo mythology, not Miwok. My tolerance for anthropomorphized animals is low in general, regardless of origin.)

(**Yeah, I know this one only applies to A Visit from the Goon Squad, but a girl can dream.)

This orange cowl will be finished any minute. I may even stop back in later and post a finished photo. This project has been a tortoise rather than a hare – and when I started it I promised myself a trip to someplace cold enough*** for me to wear it. And now winter approaches again. We’ll see…

(***Canada?????)

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

 

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A Review of Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice; Or, On the Segregation of the Queen

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This is the first installment in a series about a young woman who becomes Sherlock Holmes’ apprentice and, later, his lover and wife. The fact that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character is pooh-poohed at the beginning of the novel, which I suppose is how these sorts of suspension-of-disbelief matters ought to be handled. The premise is that Holmes retired at the end of his sleuthing career and retreated to his rural home to take care of his beehives – which sounds like a euphemism but isn’t. Mary Russell is a young women about to begin her collegiate studies at the women’s college at Oxford sometime in the late nineteen-teens. The war years pass in a few short chapters, during which Holmes’ intensive lessons in detective work are summarized, and then Mary emerges as a smart and mostly-trained, mostly-trusted associate of Holmes’, who has decided to hang up his shingle once again as a detective. “It is, I can even say, a new and occasionally remarkable experience to work with a person who inspires, not by vacuum, but by actual contribution” (122), croons Holmes. Take that, Watson.

I’ve never read any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels or stories, though of course I know who Watson is. I had even heard of Professor Moriarty somehow, though I missed the fact that Holmes sometimes likes to dress up as a woman. I had no idea, though, that Watson is the narrator of Doyle’s stories and novels, and that his general obtuseness gives these narratives a lot of their irony. When I discovered this, I was amazed that Doyle’s work never made its way onto any of my college syllabi, since ironic narration was by far the most common preoccupation of the Dartmouth English department in the mid-‘90’s – in my experience at least. I definitely want to read the original stories now, and I even dug my copy of Doyle’s collected stories out of its basement box last night. It is now sitting on the dining room table, which is sort of the on-deck circle of my book collection.

Once Holmes and Russell start solving cases, I became temporarily bored and annoyed. For a while it seemed as if the plot was going to be entirely episodic, with each chapter or two covering a single case. I didn’t see any signs that the plot was going anywhere. Past the novel’s midpoint, though, the plot begins to congeal around some bombs that are planted at Holmes’, Russell’s, and Watson’s homes. Holmes’ beehives explode, and in his attempt to get to them before the bomb detonates, Holmes receives severe abrasions on his back. Nevertheless, he makes it (in drag) to Russell’s rooms at Oxford in time to defuse the bomb there, and together they manage to rescue Watson, with help from Holmes’ fat brother Mycroft. Then the hunt for the person(s) who planted the bombs takes over the second half of the novel, and the plot has a distinct shape from here on out.

This is not a perfect novel by any means. Set mostly in the early 1920’s, it’s crawling with anachronisms: the use of B.C.E. and C.E. instead of B.C. and A.D. and King’s absolutely maddening insistence on expressing time digitally – nine forty-five, three-oh-five, etc. – when no one used these terms until digital clocks were the norm. Elsewhere the writing descends into adverb soup. I know that these are fixable problems, and I have no doubt that King irons the kinks out of her prose in the remaining novels in the series. However, my primary quarrel is with the idea that there is something “revolutionary” about the way Holmes takes Russell under his wing – and the related misconception that the relationship between Holmes and Russell is an equal one. Holmes likes and grows to love Russell, but HIS assertions that he treats her as his equal are self-congratulatory and not at all correct. The relationship between these two characters is not new; it’s part of a longstanding paradigm that includes Kate and Petruchio, Jane and Rochester, Darcy and Elizabeth, and so forth. On several occasions Holmes uses his penchant for dressing up in disguises to mess with Russell’s emotions, and I thought immediately of the parallel scene in Jane Eyre. To be honest, I thought most often of the parallels between this novel and the Fifty Shades trilogy, both because of the push-and-pull struggle for equality that is central to each narrative but also because Holmes, like Christian, is maniacally obsessed with providing superhuman protection for Russell and for the others in their small circle. There is nothing wrong with people protecting one another, of course, but when age and/or gender get mixed up in the compulsion to protect, things can get really condescending, really fast. I’m not sure yet whether King realizes that her characters come off this way, and I am 100% willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that her characters will work through these stumbling blocks for the remainder of the series – and I do, by the way, plan to read at least one more, just to see how things progress.

I know that this is mostly a negative review, but I do recommend this book to people who enjoy mysteries. I enjoyed watching the detectives track down the person who planted the bombs, though I was a little annoyed when the villain gave a self-incriminating, cackling-evil confession speech worthy of an episode of Scooby Doo because that speech negates all the work the detectives have done to find the bomber’s identity and motives. I’m not a huge reader of mysteries, but I know that this kind of speech is a convention of the genre*. Maybe avid readers of mysteries would be disappointed if an author left it out? I don’t know – but I thought the ending would have felt more organic if the author had approached it in another way. I’m very curious to see how these characters and their world are developed in the next installment.

P.S. Speaking of conventions of the genre, there is chess in this novel, and it’s a metaphor. Fair warning.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - Mystery, Fiction - Young Adult, Laurie R. King, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Yarn Along

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Here’s a quick photo of the folded-up Obnoxiously Orange scarf, which is getting so long it’s hard to fit the whole thing into a photo. The book in the photo is oversized as well. In addition to some silliness on my Kindle, I’m re-reading Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On. I loved it when I read it in college and am loving it even more this time. With an unbelievable level of detail, Shilts examines the 1980-85 AIDS outbreak from every possible angle – from the Danish researcher who got sick and died after working in Africa to the patients, doctors, politicians, and others who managed the outbreak in those terrifying and mysterious early years. I am reading it as research for a writing project I’m working on, but it doesn’t feel like work. I’ll tell you more soon – probably over a series of posts because I’ll be reading this book for several weeks.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

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A Review of Gary Paulsen’s The Haymeadow

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I came to this novel by accident, when a student I tutor chose it for a book report. We agreed to read the first six chapters before our next meeting. He read ten pages or so, declared it two thumbs down, and chose another book. I, on the other hand, read this young adult novel in a couple of sittings. I was captivated by it.

Think of this novel as a PG-rated Brokeback Mountain. It also falls into the genre of “novels that would be about a paragraph long if the protagonist had a cell phone” – a genre I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, since another student is reading The Catcher in the Rye, which has to be the grand wizard of the NTWBAAPLIAPHACP genre. The premise is that Tink, one of the Barron family’s longtime hired workers, gets cancer and can’t spend the summer in the haymeadow with the sheep as per usual. The other hired man, Cawley, is needed back at the farm for other work, so fourteen year-old John Barron’s father decides that it is time for John to take the sheep to the haymeadow. When John protests, his father rattles off the sorts of badass things he himself used to do when he was fourteen, and for good measure he throws in some references to “the old man,” the family patriarch – John’s great-grandfather – who settled the family’s land in Montana when it was nothing but wilderness, all when he wasn’t much older than John is now. So John agrees – and the only advice he’s given is “sheep have a way of dying for no reason.”

Cawley escorts John and the dogs, sheep, and horses to the meadow, and almost immediately after he leaves the shit show starts. We’re talking coyotes. We’re talking rattlesnakes. We’re talking bears. We’re talking flash floods. We’re talking fourteen year-old boys doing emergency surgery on dogs. The majority of the novel takes place during the first two days John spends on the mountain. The writing in this section is quick, simple, and immediate – Gary Paulsen pulls off “show, don’t tell” better than any writer I’ve read in recent months. Ironically, a week before my student introduced me to this novel, I had been trying to help him understand that fast-paced scenes should be written with short, simple sentences and slower, more thoughtful scenes are best written with longer and more grammatically complex sentences. I know it’s hard for a ten year-old to internalize a principle like this one, but I usually get around this stumbling block by having them write fast-paced scenes with short sentences and then pointing out the effect after they’re finished. My student was having trouble understanding this idea even after writing his own fast-paced scene, and like any good student he was refusing to just take my word for it. This novel proved to be a perfect model of this principle – though my student did not reap the benefit of the example because he refused to read it. Kids are funny that way.

But seriously, take my word for it. This book is good. I think my 21st-century Silicon Valley student saw the notion of a father sending a son to spend three months in an isolated meadow with three hundred sheep as a step away from hobbits and dementors, but this is all the more reason for children (and adults) to read this novel. I think many children think of “the old days” as one large monolithic thing, existing only as counterpoint to “now,” and reading is one of the best ways to train a person away from this kind of thinking. When I was reading this novel, I couldn’t possibly imagine how it would end. Even with only a few short chapters to go, John was still wrangling sheep and dogs and floods on his second day in the haymeadow. But the novel does resolve, and resolve well. John has grown up fetishizing “the old man” – the great-grandfather who secured the family’s land using nothing but resolve and rugged individualism, constantly comparing himself to his ancestor and coming up short. At the end of the novel, John’s father visits. He debunks much of the mythology about the old man and about the Wild West in general, and while this is never stated I got the impression that John’s father understands that there is something a little bit cruel (empowering, yes – but also cruel) about isolating a fourteen year-old on a mountain for three months. By extension, this novel suggests that tradition and custom are no reason to continue to do things that are destructive and unkind. John’s father is a cowboy of the old school and does not verbalize these thoughts, but his visit itself and the family history he shares with John while he’s there made them clear for me.

I recommend this novel to both children and adults without hesitation – it’s a model of excellent writing in the old-fashioned show-don’t-tell, limited-omniscient style.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - Children's, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Young Adult, Gary Paulsen, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | 4 Comments