Letter From Peking

I love diving into lesser known works of famous authors; you never know what pearls you might come up with. Letter from Peking is one such pearl of a book written by the legendary Pearl S. Buck. She is most famous for The Good Earth, a novel about rural pre-revolutionary China that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. She went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, earning the distinction of being the first American woman to be honored with the award. I may be one of the rare readers who preferred Letter From Peking to her popular and award winning novels. Letter From Peking, published in 1957, has an unusual plot and a sad and haunting tone. I was moved to tears several times while reading.

The story is about long distance love and a family caught between two countries, two continents and two cultures. The setting is Vermont and the novel is written in the form of a dateless diary with a lot of flashback to Peking. Elizabeth has been separated from her beloved husband for five years and has been raising their son alone on her family’s farm in Vermont. While studying at Radcliffe College, she had met Gerald MacLeod, a half-Chinese half-American doctoral student at Harvard. They got married and returned to Peking where they spent many happy years together until the rise of the Communist regime when it was no longer safe for Elizabeth and her son to stay there. Gerald is the President of the University in Peking and it is not clear if and when he will return to the US to join his family.

Elizabeth leads a quiet life in Vermont managing her farm and devoting her days to her son Rennie and Gerald’s father, Baba, a Scotsman from Virginia whom she is looking after in his old age. The caretaker of the farm and his wife, the single doctor who takes a romantic interest in Elizabeth and summer residents are among the few people who revolve in their orbit. She pines for her husband and reminisces about the beautiful love they shared. In fact, they were each other’s first love. “The first run of maple syrup, John Burroughs says, is like first love, “always the best, always the fullest, always the sweetest, while there is a purity and delicacy of flavor about the sugar that far surpasses any subsequent yield.”

Now she lives on the strength of her memories and on the hope that they will be reunited again which seems like a dim prospect in the political climate of the time. She reassures herself:“Gerald has not deserted me nor I him. We are divided by history, past and present.” Letters are the only form of communication between them. They have to be sent clandestinely as communication with westerners is banned by the Communists. At first fairly frequent, they start dwindling in number until a final one comes along. The contents of the last letter are not revealed till the end.

Although not a widow, the sad reality is that Elizabeth is one in many ways. I felt a lot of sympathy and compassion for her. Can you imagine not seeing your spouse for years and living life without knowing if you’ll ever meet again? There is so much uncertainty coupled with the loneliness but yet Eve as Gerald used to call his beloved Elizabeth, takes it all in stride with so much grace. There are men vying for her attention but she fends off their advances staying loyal to her husband. I think what appealed to me in the book was the gentleness in the tone despite the sadness. There is something very moving about Elizabeth’s serene acceptance of her situation and resignation to her fate. Her loneliness is described with poignancy:

Oh, the awful silence of the valley at night! No one comes near me and I am as alone as though I lived solitary upon a planet. Here and there in the distance a light burns. It means a house, a home, two people, perhaps children. The oil lamp burns yellow in Matt’s little house, and far down at the end of the valley the bright single light is the naked electric bulb that never goes out above the office door of Bruce Spaulden. I know, too, the intermittent flares of summer folk. None of them burns for me. Sometimes I light every lamp in my empty house and a stranger passing by could believe the house is full of guests. But I have no guests.”

I loved the Vermont setting and its juxtaposition with Peking; the grandeur of Chinese civilization offers an interesting contrast to the gentle beauty of Vermont and captures the essence of the novel. Elizabeth cherishes her husband’s Chinese heritage and wants her son to appreciate it too and wants him to have a life partner who would accept and understand it too. Baba lives in the past and still wears Chinese silk robes and reads Chinese books. As Elizabeth says, he still lives in the world of Confucius and Chinese emperors. I think that’s an important distinction- there is the grand old China- one of the oldest civilizations of the world and the new Communist regime which is entirely different. Her father-in-law is the only link to her husband and it is interesting that though Baba and Elizabeth are not Chinese by blood, they are proud to be linked to the rich culture.

Being quarter Chinese, Rennie, on the other hand, wrestles with his identity. Which country do you claim as your own when you can’t embrace both? It was a period of Sino-American geo-political tensions and there was a real fear of China and suspicion of anyone favorable to it and a similar distrust on the part of the authoritarian Chinese government towards Americans. Besides, in those days mixed families were not as common. Rennie has to choose between America and China and sadly between his mother and father. Unlike his mother, it is not so easy for him to forgive his father and it is safer for him to reject his heritage.

He falls in love with a girl in the neighborhood named Allegra and he is worried that revealing his Chinese identity will keep her from liking him. Elizabeth is harsh and judgmental about his relationship with the white girl. She wonders how Rennie could love a girl whose heart can “only hold one cup”. Pearl S. Buck beautifully depicts the complicated mother-son relationship.“Yet no mother can save her son. She can only watch and wait and wring her hands.” I thought her feelings arose from her loneliness. Her son was the only constant person in her life and she seemed jealous like any over protective mother. But later on I realized that maybe she was on to something as she seemed to readily accept his relationship with Mary, a girl she thought to be better suited to him and who would understand and embrace his Chinese heritage.

Gerald and Elizabeth’s relationship is tender and sweet no doubt, but I felt that she could have been idealizing it at times. Time and distance can make you lose perspective. When a person is absent, we tend to focus on their positive qualities and overlook their flaws. We only remember the good times. The bitter truth is that Gerald chose his country over her. Gerald’s patriotism and love for China prevented him from leaving his country. He had the opportunity to return to the US with her but didn’t and then it became too late. Even her son points it out to her but she is in some kind of denial mode. She continues to be fiercely protective of him.

I was struck by the dignity and poise Elizabeth had in the face of suffering but I do think she had a slight ‘holier than thou‘ attitude- she felt that no relationship could compare to this sublime love of theirs and she is steadfast in her belief that this true perfect love can withstand barriers of time, distance, race and culture. Her attitude seems like a coping mechanism. She needed something to cling on to, to give her hope to continue waiting.

In spite of some annoying traits, Elizabeth is on the whole a sympathetic character and I think it is because she is a lot like a modern day single mom who is self-reliant and has to raise her son singlehandedly. She is an independent woman who lives alone, works hard and makes her own money by managing a big farm by herself. She interacts mostly with men and like a single woman sometimes has to deal with their romantic interest in her. She also takes care of her father-in- law like a lot of women who end up taking the responsibility of caregiving. I am not going to reveal what happens in the end; what the final letter disclosed and whether Elizabeth is reunited with her husband. I hope I have piqued your curiosity enough to want to read the book.

When Pearl S. Buck died in 1973, former President Richard Nixon called her “a human bridge between the civilizations of the East and the West.”Though there are critics who believe that she perpetuated stereotypes about the Chinese, there is no doubt that she was instrumental in making China and the Chinese real and relevant to many people. This ‘pearl’ of a novel is more than a story about interracial conflict. It is a story about the love a woman is capable of- a love in its myriad complex forms-the undying love that she has for an absent husband, the protective love she has for her son, the filial duty and affection for her in-laws and most of all the love for a country that she has no ties of blood to but has embraced with her heart and soul. Imagine all this tumult of emotion soaked up in the quiet and gentle beauty of Vermont!

Have you read this novel or any other novel by Pearl S. Buck? And have you enjoyed reading any lesser known works of popular authors?

 

The Innocents Or Not So Innocent Abroad

Click on the link below to access a hypertext map that traces the route of The Quaker City excursion: https://twain.lib.virginia.edu/innocent/iamaphp.html

I recently read The Innocents Abroad, a travelogue of a journey by ship to Europe and the Holy Land, undertaken by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pseudonym Mark Twain. When you hear the name Mark Twain, you immediately think of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Not many people know that he was a prolific travel writer well before he published his two famous novels. In 1867, he embarked on a pleasure excursion with a group of fellow Americans from New York aboard Quaker City, a retired Civil War ship, for a five and a half month long trip around the Mediterranean. At the time he was a travel correspondent for the San Francisco newspaper, “The Alta California” and sent dispatches about his travels to them and to “The New York Tribune” and “The New York Herald” too. The Innocents Abroad was published two years later, in 1869. It was a perfect pick for the pandemic as it let me indulge in some armchair travel! It made me reminisce nostalgically about the places I have already visited and compare notes with his experiences and also made me dream of places I have yet to visit.

Mark Twain’s incomparable humor sets this book apart from the countless run of the mill travel guides. I laughed out aloud innumerable times while reading and at times I was practically in stitches. I would say Mark Twain is right up there with Oscar Wilde as one of the wittiest writers I have ever read! Whether the group is traversing through the countryside of the Middle East on recalcitrant donkeys or horses, looking in desperation for soap anywhere in Europe, having a disappointing shaving experience in France, being dragged up the Pyramids by ‘draggers’ asking for ‘baksheesh’, sneaking into the Parthenon at night and stealing grapes along the way, having a private rendezvous with the Czar of Russia or playing pranks on the tourist guides by acting dumb, every experience is recounted with caustic humor.

The group’s language troubles with the French provides a good example of a humorous quip:

“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language. One of our passengers said to a shopkeeper, in reference to a proposed return to buy a pair of gloves, “Allong restay trankeel—may be ve coom Moonday;” and would you believe it, that shopkeeper, a born Frenchman, had to ask what it was that had been said. Sometimes it seems to me, somehow, that there must be a difference between Parisian French and Quaker City French.”

I fell over the floor laughing when I read his description of the famed Turkish bath. Turkey was a country that had conjured up visions of the Arabian Nights for him. He had imagined the voluptuousness of the perfumes of Araby, the richness of the silks and carpets and the sensuousness of a luxuriating bath but instead he was in a dark, dingy and slippery corner from where he was taken to a place that resembled a chicken coop and served a Turkish drink which turned out to be the most execrable coffee:

“He took me back and flooded me with hot water, then turbaned my head, swathed me with dry table-cloths, and conducted me to a latticed chicken-coop in one of the galleries, and pointed to one of those Arkansas beds. I mounted it, and vaguely expected the odors of Araby again. They did not come.The blank, unornamented coop had nothing about it of that oriental voluptuousness one reads of so much. It was more suggestive of the county hospital than any thing else. The skinny servitor brought a narghili, and I got him to take it out again without wasting any time about it. Then he brought the world-renowned Turkish coffee that poets have sung so rapturously for many generations, and I seized upon it as the last hope that was left of my old dreams of Eastern luxury. It was another fraud. Of all the unchristian beverages that ever passed my lips, Turkish coffee is the worst. “

I have only picked a handful of examples from the book of his scintillating wit. Practically every page is full of bantering remarks and railleries. Unfortunately, some of the humor degenerates into appallingly racist and xenophobic comments. At first I gave him the benefit of the doubt for living in a different time when people were not politically correct and when there was no concept of cultural relativity. But as I continued reading, I felt that some of the racist diatribes were offensive. He is disgusted by the poverty around him in Bashan, Syria and describes the crippled, the lepers, the vermin infested children with eye sores and beggars distressed with hunger in very unflattering terms :“They sat in silence, and with tireless patience watched our every motion with that vile, uncomplaining impoliteness which is so truly Indian, and which makes a white man so nervous and uncomfortable and savage that he wants to exterminate the whole tribe.”

Some of his remarks are downright misogynistic. “She was the only Syrian female we have seen yet who was not so sinfully ugly that she couldn’t smile after ten o’clock Saturday night without breaking the Sabbath.” He comes across a ‘monster headed dwarf’ and a ‘mustached woman’ inside a railway car leaving Milan. He makes it clear that they were not show people for “Alas, deformity and female beards are too common in Italy to attract attention.” Along with the misogyny and racism, there is animal cruelty thrown in for good measure. His ingenious and refreshing wit and the fact that he did not spare anyone- not even himself or his fellow Americans made me forgive him for some of the over top comments. Maybe the book is a product of its time but it is as infuriating as it is funny.

He cracked me up with the descriptions of all the artwork he comes across in Europe. He was not that moved by the famous paintings and sculptures of the Old masters. According to him, it is difficult to admire them when the place is full of them from ceiling to walls. He does not think much of the Hagia Sophia either and calls it “the rustiest old barn in heathendom”. He ridicules the inflated tales of travel writers as reality does not meet the expectations you have after reading their accounts. He is scathing in his criticisms about the Catholic Church and their penchant for obsessively collecting relics including skulls many of which are of dubious origin. It is amusing how a part of the original crown of thorns shows up in every church.

The book inadvertently highlights the stereotype of the ugly American abroad. Every tour guide is called Ferguson and every place Jackson because they can’t be bothered learning new names. There are many examples of American ethnocentrism throughout the book. Twain feels the beautiful Lake Como and the Sea of Galilee pale in comparison to Lake Tahoe. I was shocked that the American ‘pilgrims’ chipped away pieces of monuments and ruins to bring back home as souvenirs! What a different time! We even hesitate to pick a seashell from a beach these days. Twain mocks their behavior but suggests that the reverse would never be tolerated. “Suppose a party of armed foreigners were to enter a village church in America and break ornaments from altar railings for curiosities, and climb and walk upon the Bible and pulpit cushions? However, the cases are different. One is the profanation of a temple of our faith — the other only the profanation of a pagan one.”How preposterous is that statement! The ‘innocents abroad’ even shamelessly flouted quarantine rules. It was interesting that some countries did not allow them to disembark because of cholera or the plague. Living through the pandemic right now made that detail more meaningful to me. Twain makes self deprecating jokes too and lampoons Americans who behave badly abroad: “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad.” 

Twain’s prose is rich and lyrical too along with being humorous. Here’s a poetic description of the Sphinx in Egypt:

The great face was so sad, so earnest, so longing, so patient. There was a dignity not of earth in its mien, and in its countenance a benignity such as never any thing human wore. It was stone, but it seemed sentient. If ever image of stone thought, it was thinking. It was looking toward the verge of the landscape, yet looking at nothing—nothing but distance and vacancy. It was looking over and beyond every thing of the present, and far into the past. It was gazing out over the ocean of Time—over lines of century-waves which, further and further receding, closed nearer and nearer together, and blended at last into one unbroken tide, away toward the horizon of remote antiquity. It was thinking of the wars of departed ages; of the empires it had seen created and destroyed; of the nations whose birth it had witnessed, whose progress it had watched, whose annihilation it had noted; of the joy and sorrow, the life and death, the grandeur and decay, of five thousand slow revolving years. It was the type of an attribute of man—of a faculty of his heart and brain. It was MEMORY—RETROSPECTION—wrought into visible, tangible form…….The Sphynx is grand in its loneliness; it is imposing in its magnitude; it is impressive in the mystery that hangs over its story. And there is that in the overshadowing majesty of this eternal figure of stone, with its accusing memory of the deeds of all ages, which reveals to one something of what he shall feel when he shall stand at last in the awful presence of God.”

I noticed that Twain and his fellow travelers mellowed down towards the end of the journey. They experienced travel fatigue from having traveled so long and extensively. In fact Twain does not linger over his descriptions of Spain or the places they visit on the way back. The book ends with these oft quoted lines: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Over time, the memory of disagreeable incidents faded away and Twain states that he would happily undertake the same journey if given a chance again.

I highly recommend this satirically humorous account of Twain’s travels. Make sure you are reading an edition with illustrations by True Williams which are as amusing as the text. This is a long book and I took my time to read it. It is informative and illuminating and Twain digresses at times to regale the readers with interesting legends and stories. Although I found the sojourns in Italy and France to be the most humorous, I enjoyed the parts about the Middle East as I haven’t been there. It was fascinating to journey through Syria and Palestine and see all the Biblical places and people come alive. I interrupted the reading to google some of the information and returned to the page lingering over every detail. At one point in the book, he describes Venetians enjoying granita ( a distant cousin of Italian ice) on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I felt reading this book was like slowing down to savor every bite of the delicious granita offered by Mark Twain.

 

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents

As another year comes to a close, I reflect on the books that had the greatest impact on me in 2020. In the genre of non fiction, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson is the most powerful book I have read this year. The title itself piqued my interest. The premise of the book is that ‘caste’, a term traditionally associated with India, is a better word to describe racism in the US. As someone who has grown up in India, caste is not just a term I am familiar with, but something that has seeped into every aspect of my existence, knowingly or unknowingly. It is so deeply ingrained in the psyche that often people are not even aware of how they are perpetuating the caste system even if they openly and truly condemn it. In that aspect, caste is very similar to white supremacy and Wilkerson posits that African Americans in the United States are at the lowest rung in a hierarchy analogous to both the caste system in India and the Nazi rule in Germany. She claims that “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste…. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

One might wonder if these cross cultural comparisons have any merit for how do we compare 400 years of American history with 12 years of Nazi rule and 3000 years of a complex system of social stratification in India? The three share basic methods of subjugation and the underlying feeling of dehumanization is the same. So caste and not race is the lens though which we should view America, according to Wilkerson. It is not just a matter of semantics but a better framework to understand and analyze the inequities. Wilkerson says that Nazi Germany was inspired by American segregation laws and believe it or not, they thought the American system was too extreme. I have often wondered why people are only shocked by Nazis and their brutality when what African Americans endured as slaves was no less. Even the Nazis thought that determining the percentage of blood that made you black to be too harsh. It is only on reading this book I realized that there was no basis to the one drop of blood rule ( which even black people have come to believe- so deep is the brainwashing or rather whitewashing) and that theory was touted just to keep black people in their place.

Wilkerson delineates 8 pillars of caste that are common across the three societies and gives examples from each category to illustrate her point. Endomagy is one of the pillars of caste I found fascinating as a comparison. She equates the past ban on interracial marriages in the US to the control of marriage and mating in India where traditionally people married into their own caste. Alabama was the last state in the union to overturn the ban on interracial marriage in 2000, 33 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs Virginia that such laws were unconstitutional in all states. And yet, more than 40% of Alabamians voted against overturning it. Now, in the US and in India, legally you are allowed to marry any one you want. But only 10% of the population in India marries outside its caste and only 15% of marriages in the US are interracial. This number includes Hispanics and Asians as well. The percentage would be a lot lower if it were only blacks. Sadly, the figures speak for themselves.

Another pillar of caste that I found striking to compare is the emphasis on pollution and purity. Black people were considered impure and dirty just as Dalits who belong to the lowest echelons of the caste system in India and whose very shadows were once considered polluting and who often eat and drink from separate containers to this day. It was no different for black people till a few decades ago when they drank water from separate fountains and were not allowed to use swimming pools frequented by white people. Wilkerson cites the example of Al Bright, the only black child on the Little League Team in the town of Youngston, Ohio who was banned from using a swimming pool when his team went on a celebration outing. When parents and coaches protested, he was allowed to float on a raft without his feet touching the water, towed around the pool by the manager only after all the white kids had vacated the pool. This incident took place in 1951.   

The book traces the history of enslavement in the South from 1619 when the first Africans were brought to Virginia to the Civil War and subsequent period when the caste system was perpetuated through the Jim Crow South. Even after the abolition of slavery, the country found ways to keep black people subjugated. Wilkerson describes in detail discriminatory housing policies, unethical medical experiments and horrific lynchings where the white community would come to view the spectacle, collect body parts as souvenirs and send postcards of the event to family and friends. This was an astounding revelation to me for as a recent immigrant, I didn’t fully know or understand the extent of the horrors African Americans were subjected to in the past. I had always viewed America as the leader of the free world. But what a paradox then that the country that espouses the values of liberty and justice for all fails many of its citizens on just those counts? For unless the racism inherent in society is acknowledged and addressed, any claim to be the beacon of democracy rings hollow.

“Americans are loathe to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world. Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history, It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces.”  

We are loathe to talk about past horrors but events that happened long ago still color our thinking. The book depicts current realities too with the backlash to Obama’s election and the rise of Trump and Trumpism. Wilkerson believes that white voters vote against their own self interest when the power they hold is threatened for the reality is that in a few decades, they will no longer be the majority of the population. She goes on to ask this uncomfortable question: ”..if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” In the US, there is controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments whereas Germany has no statues or memorials to Nazi officers and looks back upon the Third Reich as a shameful part of its history. Americans not willing to dismantle monuments is emblematic of the larger unwillingness to dismantle the system.

Wilkerson lays bare some stark and painful truths about race relations with scholarly research and compelling personal anecdotes. She describes how she was viewed with suspicion while traveling business class. She was followed in the airport and questioned by agents on a car rental company’s shuttle bus and not one passenger came to her defense. Throughout the book she employs striking metaphors to drive home her point. She likens caste variously to the foundation of an old house, to a computer operating system, and to a staged performance. “Caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.”

There are some gaps in the arguments Wilkerson puts forth. She tends to view caste as a binary and has omitted the plight of Native Americans and other minorities and does not dwell much on how class operates within caste- for instance how do we explain the success of Asian immigrants in the US who are not white? Some of the comparisons of the treatment of African American to Jews seem tenuous too. The Nazis wanted to eliminate Jews and not dominate them while black people in the US and Dalits in India were needed by the dominant class for economic exploitation. 

In addressing the caste system in India, Wilkerson focuses mainly on Brahmins and Dalits but caste is far from a two tier system in India. It is an extremely complex dynamic whose definition is broader and more nuanced. There are four main castes or ‘varna’. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word varna itself means color indicating that originally skin color was used to determine place in a hierarchy. The four castes are Brahmin, Kshatriya,Vaishya and Shudra or the priestly, the warrior, the merchant and the laborer respectively and each caste is further divided into sub castes. Dalits once known as ‘ untouchables’ and whose work involves removal of garbage and animal carcasses, cleaning toilets and sewers, are the most oppressed group. They are even excluded from the traditional classification and form a fifth caste.

There could be more than 5000 castes and sub castes in India and often a subjugated group also subjugates in turn, those they perceive to be lower on the rung. Besides the caste system is not restricted to Hindus but is practiced in some form or other by Muslims and Christians too. Caste is not the exclusive domain of religion but has insidiously seeped into Indian culture. Wilkerson cites sociological research and discusses the activism of Dalit scholar B. R. Ambedkar but does not take into account current realities in India where the government has implemented affirmative action initiatives for the marginalized and where we witness the evolution of a rapidly growing Dalit political movement to fight caste hegemony and Hindu nationalism as they continue to be targets of lynching and rape.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is illuminating. It inspired me to do some soul searching about my own heritage and my complicity in keeping the machinery going. Call it unconscious or silent bias, in the end the discrimination whether in the US or in India is part of an underlying unspoken system of hierarchy. We have accepted this system and adapted to it. I naively believed that caste was not something that was all that prevalent in urban India where I grew up and was mostly confined to rural pockets of the country. I didn’t care what castes my friends belonged to or what last names they went by. Yet, I was guilty of not protesting when the domestic helpers drank water from separate glasses or were not allowed to use the bathrooms at home. Often in a high rise I would come across separate lifts- one for the residents of the building and one ‘ for servants and dogs’. I remember being shocked and angered by it but not enough to do anything about it. Not only do we need to have empathy but ‘radical empathy’, to borrow Wilkerson’s words, to bring about social change.

Caste is an eye opening book especially for those born into privilege who need to shoulder the responsibility for the inequities in society and work to eradicate the deeply entrenched social malady but the sad part is that not everyone is willing to open their eyes to the truth. Although the book ends on a note of hope, it is a long and tortuous road ahead. And there was a part of me that wondered despondently if it is truly possible to live in a world without any implicit hierarchy of race, caste or class!

Maria Lactans- The Nursing Madonna

The Virgin Nursing The Child-Pompeo Batoni- Circa 1760- 1780

I recently came across a raw and powerful poem on the internet which describes Mary’s experience of breastfeeding the Infant Jesus to illustrate how women are unfairly excluded from the pulpit. The poem was penned by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler who belongs to the evangelical group ‘Churches of Christ’ which prevents women from occupying positions of authority in the church and even from actively participating in worship services. The poem went viral as it struck a chord with many women all over the world. And I am one of those women:

A Christmas Poem
by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler

sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus,
birthing Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
feeling lonely
and tired
hungry
annoyed
overwhelmed
loving

and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
honestly preached
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.

because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
to lead.

The poem illustrates the absurdity of preventing women from occupying the pulpit. A woman is barred from priesthood because of her biology but it is her biology that makes her experience more meaningful and personal. A woman who had the visceral and moving experience of giving birth to the Lord would surely understand what faith is all about. And Mary, who experiences the discomfort and fatigue of childbirth and nursing, represents all women. Although Kaitlin Shetler describes an experience with a particular church, the exclusion of women from positions of religious authority is an issue that crosses over denominations and religions.

Women cannot be ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Women’s ordination is a controversial issue in Buddhist communities too. There is also a misogynistic belief that a woman is polluting because of her body. Menstrual taboos of Hinduism result in male only religious spaces and male specific religious duties. Traditionally, it is only a male priest who has had the right to conduct weddings and religious functions. Often the only reason cited is that there is no precedent and that it is divinely ordained. But the truth of the matter is that these are man made restrictions which have distorted the original teachings of all the major religions and reflect the oppressive structures of patriarchy. Many Hindu women are challenging the traditional notions of priesthood and some have begun officiating at ceremonies. Muslim women have also been fighting for the right to be appointed as imams. We have a growing number of women of all faiths who refuse to be held back from the full expression of their spirituality and are fighting for gender equity in religious matters.

I was struck by the description of the nursing Madonna in the poem. It made me wonder why we hardly see images of Mary breastfeeding in art and that led me to conduct some research on the topic. After all, those were days before formula use and we would not have survived as a species without this natural function. I discovered that the motif of Maria Lactans or the Nursing Madonna was predominant in religious iconography in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The Virgin Nursing the Child with St. John the Baptist in Adoration- Giampietrino- Circa 1500-20
Madonna Litta- Disputed attribution to Leonardo da Vinci, possibly the work of one of his pupils- 1490

Mother Mary was even associated with lactation miracles. There is a belief that the floor of the Milk Grotto, a chapel in Bethlehem, changed its color to white when a drop of Mary’s milk fell on it. The shrine is visited to this day by women trying to conceive and new mothers who wish to increase the quantity of their milk. There is a lot of artwork dedicated to the lactation of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century Cistercian monk and abbott. Legend has it that Mary squirted breastmilk into his mouth to reveal herself as the mother of mankind and to either cure him of an eye infection or to grant him spiritual wisdom, depending on the variant of the story. There was nothing scandalous about exposing a breast till the 18th century but later on as the breast became more and more sexualized, people became squeamish about it and the image of the lactating virgin fell out of fashion.

Miraculous Lactation of Saint Bernard by Alonso Cano, 1650

Christmas is essentially a story about birth and the bond between a mother and child. Kaitlin Shetler, in this poem, humanizes the divine Virgin Mary who is doing what millions of women have been doing since time immemorial. I felt a connection with Mary and with all women across the world in the simple yet sacred acts of birthing and nurturing. We are part of this ancient sisterhood spanning millennia. And there is a primal priestess in every woman, buried under centuries of oppression, who needs to rightfully reclaim her place.

Galaktotrophousa by Master Ioannis, 1778

All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain.

Olive, Again!

When you get old, you become invisible. It’s just the truth. And yet it’s freeing in a way…You go through life and you think you are something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something, and then you see that you are no longer anything.– Olive, Again

Oh Godfrey, our crotchety and cantankerous Olive is back and it is a pleasure to visit this old friend again, who, in the interim, has become even older and a tad wiser. Olive Kitteridge left us with a widowed Olive, estranged from her only son Christopher and enjoying a budding friendship with fellow senior citizen, Jack Kennison. You can read my blog post on Olive Kitteridge here: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/olive-kitteridge/

The dreary quotidian life of this retired high school math teacher resumes in this new book, Olive, Again which I wouldn’t call a sequel but a continuation for it picks up where Olive Kitteridge left and has the same flavor as its predecessor. The only difference is that the considerably older Olive suffers a lot more loneliness now and is faced with the frightening and impending prospect of death. She is still the same old opinionated and outspoken Olive who has retained most of her ‘oliveness’ but seems just a little more mellowed by life.

The structure of the new book is pretty much the same like the previous one- a series of stories or rather snapshots of life of the residents of the fictitious seaside town of Crosby, Maine, pivoting around the protagonist Olive, who, at times, only makes a passing appearance. These interconnected vignettes depict the ordinary lives of ordinary people who go about their humdrum lives and routines with aplomb but struggle and hide their sadness behind masks. In the course of the book, Olive Kitteridge ages from her seventies well into her eighties, becomes widowed twice and moves to an assisted living facility.

What do you do when life throws curveballs at you? The stories are about people struggling with alcoholism, infidelity, suicide, illness and the painful complexity of relationships. To add to those problems are the inevitable indignities of aging- from the nuisance and embarrassment of incontinence and buying adult diapers furtively to facing a decline in faculties and physical mobility and dealing with the ensuing isolation and depression. When Olive consoles Cindy Combs who is battling cancer, she says: “You know, Cindy, if you should be dying, if you do die, the truth is—we’re all just a few steps behind you. Twenty minutes behind you, and that’s the truth.” It’s not a matter of if but a question of when and what we can do to live our last days with as much dignity as possible.

Olive marries Jack, a former professor at Harvard who was kicked out on allegations of sexual assault. Along with the humiliation, he is now grappling with guilt for having cheated on his deceased wife. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander too. He is suddenly faced with the crushing realization that his wife cheated on him too. Olive herself admits that she had an ‘almost affair’ while married to Henry. Whether they cheated or were tempted to cheat, they still love and miss their former spouses. And that’s the beauty of the novel-it addresses all the grey areas and paradoxes of life. Olive and Jack are both grieving their spouses and come together in their loneliness. It is never too late to love even if age has taken a toll on their bodies- even if Jack admits that being with Olive was like ”kissing a barnacle covered whale” and even if he is mortified by his own expanding and very conspicuous girth.

Both Olive and Jack try to repair their fractured relationships with their children. The homophobic Jack comes to terms with his daughter’s sexual orientation. In “The Motherless Child”, Christopher visits Olive with his wife Annabelle and four children, in an attempt at reconciliation. Olive tries her best despite some uneasy moments and is frustrated that the grandchildren are not warming up to her. She overhears Ann call her a narcissist. Ann has recently lost her mother and Olive wonders if she herself raised a motherless child. She has become more self aware and introspective and confronts her own imperfections. Yet when she is hospitalized later, Christopher visits her so frequently that the doctor remarks that she must have been a very good mother to him, leaving Olive confused and unconvinced.

Olive has the capacity to make you laugh and to break your heart too. At a ‘stupid” baby shower where she shows up without a gift and is annoyed by the tacky modern rituals of youngsters, she helps a woman deliver her baby in the back of her own car. Olive visits Cindy Combs who is suffering from cancer and craves company. No one visits her out of awkwardness or fear. But Olive shows up and is there for her. In “Heart”, she suffers a heart attack and befriends two of the nurse’s aides who take care of her; Halima a Somali girl who lives in the nearby town of Shirley Falls where Somali refugees have settled and experience xenophobia and Betty, a Trump supporter who gets on her nerves. Olive is very kind to Halima and in spite of her political differences with Betty, she feels compassion for her when she hears that she has carried a torch secretly for Jerry Skyler all her life and wonders “the way people can love those they barely know, and how abiding that love can be, and also how deep that love can be.” And even Olive felt this love for Betty despite the bumper sticker on her truck.

In the end it all comes down to the power of connection- feeling heard and emotionally supported by another human being.When life doesn’t make sense, these bonds give a meaning and purpose to it. And sometimes you make the discovery that there are kindred spirits. Cindy Combs and Olive realize that they both have a similar appreciation for the February light in the winter sky. In “Helped”, Suzanne Larkins is adapting to the death of her father and is plagued with guilt over an affair she had. Her mother who is suffering from dementia makes a devastating revelation. She reaches out to her family lawyer Bernie Green in a moment of tenderness and they discover they have a lot in common. In “The Poet”, Olive has lunch with a former student Andrea L’Rieux who has become the Poet Laureate and who depicts Olive and her loneliness in a poem. Even if it is not a flattering image, Olive recognizes that:  “Andrea had gotten it better than she had, the experience of being another.”  

   After being widowed again, in her assisted living facility she befriends Isabelle Daigneault, a character from one of her previous novels, Amy and Isabelle and it is touching when the two ladies come up with a schedule of checking on each other twice a day to make sure they have not fallen dead or fainted in their rooms. Characters from other novels like The Burgess Boys put in appearances reinforcing the idea of a community of familiar people, that not only Olive bumps into in town but that the reader encounters again like a long lost friend.

 There are two stories that add a discordant note to the collection. In “Cleaning”, Kayley Callaghan, an eighth grader cleans house for Mrs.  Ringrose and regularly unbuttons her blouse for Mr. Ringrose in exchange for money. There is a hint of pedophilia and I can’t imagine a young girl enjoying doing this for a much older man. In “The End of Civil War Days”, a  daughter reveals to her estranged parents that she is a dominatrix and is going to star in a new documentary. One wonders why Strout felt compelled to add these two stories considerably different in tone from the others and in which Olive hardly plays a role.

The new book is very similar to the first one. Her creator herself exclaims: “That Olive! She continues to surprise me, continues to enrage me, continues to sadden me, and continues to make me love her.” Olive is unabashedly and unapologetically herself- a curmudgeon. The only difference is that “that old bag, ‘that pickle’ is just a little bit softer and reveals a vulnerable side to her. She has positively impacted students who still remember her little nuggets of wisdom. We’ve all encountered Olives. And who knows, maybe we have a bit of her within us too?

There is sadness pervading the whole work with little rays of hope here and there like the sunlight streaming in through the windows which seems to be a cherished leitmotiv in Strout’s works. Life is hard and we can only make it bearable seeking those few evanescent moments of love and connection and reveling in the beauties of nature. The beautiful cover with falling leaves illustrates the impermanence of life. Life is enigmatic and ephemeral just as each passing season in New England and the only thing we can do, to borrow the words of Suzanne Larkin in “Helped’ is “To bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.”

 

Crocus Focus

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Crocuses in my garden!

I am finally greeted with the first splash of color in the garden! When I stepped out today, out of the blue ( or rather purple), I saw violet and lavender crocuses waking up from their slumber, stretching their delicate heads out through patches of dry grass and moss, slush and fallen pine needles, and turning their faces upwards to the sky. These cheerful blooms are always the first ones to lead the spring parade of flowers.

Somewhat serendipitously I came across an uplifting poem about crocuses. I am happy to share it with you as it is timely not only because it is spring and the first day of National Poetry Month in the US, but also because it could easily apply to our current situation of social distancing and isolation in these gloomy times.

The poem was penned by Hannah Flagg Gould, a late 18th and early 19th century American poet. She was a prolific poet from Newburyport, MA but never gained much recognition as her other New England contemporary, Emily Dickinson. Like the latter, she led a quiet secluded life and never married. Her mother had died when she was a child and she spent most of her youth caring for her father who was a Revolutionary war veteran.

Her friends collected the poems she contributed to periodicals and published them as Poems in 1832. Inspired by the success of the collection, she went on to pen several more volumes of poetry. Her poems, simple and gentle in expression, and infused with a deep spiritual sensibility, deal with a wide range of themes ranging from American history, religion and war, to poems for children and poems about nature.

The Crocus’s Soliloquy

Down in my solitude under the snow,
Where nothing cheering can reach me;
Here, without light to see how to grow,
I’ll trust to nature to teach me.

I will not despair–nor be idle, nor frown,
Locked in so gloomy a dwelling;
My leaves shall run up, and my roots shall run down,
While the bud in my bosom is swelling.

Soon as the frost will get out of my bed,
From this cold dungeon to free me,
I will peer up with my little bright head,
And all will be joyful to see me.

Then from my heart will young petals diverge,
As rays of the sun from their focus;
I from the darkness of earth shall emerge,
A happy and beautiful Crocus!

Many, perhaps, from so simple a flower,
This little lesson may borrow,
Patient today, through its gloomiest hour,
We come out the brighter tomorrow.

~ Hannah F. Gould

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Crocuses blooming in the garden right now!

The crocus is one of the first to spring to life from the bare and barren earth signaling the end of winter and ushering in a new season. There are always a few flowers that don’t make it in the spring; some trees that die and some birds that don’t return home. Nature is filled with uncertainty but the rhythm and recurring patterns continue and keep us going. We can learn a lot about rebirth and renewal from the cycles of nature.

It is fascinating how every verse of this simple 19th century poem resonates with our current reality. I hope we never lose hope and have faith that the trying times we are going through with the global pandemic will be behind us soon even as we lose some of our citizens. Hocus pocus, may we be like the crocus! May we emerge unscathed on the morrow from the darkness of the earth with patience and tenacity like these bright little blooms!

Hannah Gould’s most popular poem is ” A Name in the Sand”, but, unfortunately, it has been erroneously attributed to other people. I hope there is a revival of interest in this poet and that she is lifted out of obscurity. She deserves to come back to life like the crocus she so beautifully describes!

 

 

Olive Kitteridge

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Olive Kitteridge is a book that has been lying neglected on my bookshelf for years. I had always meant to get to it as I had heard a lot about it and it had even won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. I finally read it as I wanted to read the recently published Olive, Again which is not technically a sequel, but I thought reading Olive Kitteridge first would get me acquainted with the eponymous character. I have to warn you that it is not the best book to read during a global pandemic. In one word, it is DEPRESSING! 

Olive Kitteridge is a collection of thirteen disparate short stories set around the mundane lives of the residents of the fictional New England coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a grumpy retired school teacher who features in some form or the other in every story.  In some stories, she is the main character while in others she is a peripheral presence or just mentioned in passing. The structure is disjointed and the stories are not in chronological order. They span decades in the life of our protagonist- from middle age through old age- first as wife and mother, eventually caretaker of her husband who suffers a stroke and finally as a widow. More than stories, these are vignettes weaving a tapestry of senior life with its small town gossip, banal routines, simple joys and profound sorrows. If there is one overarching theme, it is loneliness…loneliness despite the presence of others. The reader is the voyeur who has a window into the unremarkable lives of these unremarkable people. 

Olive lives with her husband Henry Kitteridge, a pharmacist and her son Christopher, a podiatrist. She loves them both but she is unable to express her affection and treats them rather brusquely. In fact, she is a curmudgeon who is loud, aggressive and unkind to everyone in town. “She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people.”

She has a sadistic streak to her. In A Little Burst, on the day of her son’s wedding, she overhears her daughter- in- law Suzanne discussing her with a friend. In a fit of rage, she steals Suzanne’s shoes and bra and ruins her cashmere sweater and this surreptitious act is her ‘little burst of happiness’. In the story entitled Tulips, Olive visits Louise and Roger Larkin who lead a reclusive existence after their son was implicated in a murder. The visit is not that of a friendly concerned neighbor or even one prompted by morbid curiosity. She visits them in order to feel better about her own life. Louise is on to her and accuses her thus: “ You came here for a nice dose of schadenfreude, and it didn’t work.”

 How can a reader commiserate with such an intimidating and irascible woman? The stucture of the book is interesting as we get to see how Olive is perceived by the different residents of her town. As I come to know her better, I see her in a new light. People are complex and I was quick to judge Olive just as she is quick to judge others. She is capable of empathy for behind that mask of a cantankerous woman lie sadness, insecurity and fear. She is moved by the plight of an anorexic girl and bursts into tears:

Olive shook her head again, blew her nose. She looked at Nina and said quietly, ‘I don’t know who you are, but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.’
‘I’m not trying to,’ said Nina, defensively. ‘It’s not like I can help it.’
‘Oh, I know that. I know.’ Olive nodded.

  And she, very profoundly, adds: “We are all starving.” 

There aren’t too many older women depicted in fiction and it’s refreshing to get a peek into the autumn of life. We forgive Olive for although she is flawed, she is human. We feel sorry for the immeasurable loneliness she experiences in the emptiness of her home after Christopher moves away from her physically to California and then to New York and drifts apart emotionally too and when Henry is at a nursing home and after he dies. Along with Olive’s increasing self- awareness, the reader’s empathy and understanding deepen too. We learn later on that though Olive and Henry loved each other, they both had secret crushes on other people and were aware of it but didn’t talk about it. The truth is that there are a lot of Olives and Henrys around us, starved of attention and affection. 

On the surface, the residents lead a quiet life but delve deeper and you realize that the specter of death hangs over every story. Just like Olive, death is an omnipresent force that inserts itself insidiously in every story and in every uneventful life. Olive’s father had committed suicide and she herself has contemplated it on occasion. In Incoming Tide, Kevin Coulson, sits in his car near the marina, on the verge of taking his life. And then there are other sorrows like having a son imprisoned for stabbing a woman twenty nine times, finding out that your husband was unfaithful on the day of his funeral and being jilted at the altar by your fiancé. 

Life is difficult. And sometimes it is unbearably difficult. This is the human condition. In the midst of all the sorrow, there are a few moments here and there that provide a ray of hope like the sunlight that comes streaming in through the window slats of a dark home- a motif that recurs in this work. Ultimately, humans seek connection in a lonely existence, to make life slightly less unbearable. Olive, after the death of her husband, meets Jack Kennison and finds a new purpose in life. It is never too late to love. Lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies are as needy as young, firm ones, Olive thought : “But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union-what pieces life took out of you.”  

 Like Olive, the novel is not without its flaws. A Different Road stands apart from the other stories as its plot is implausible, in contrast to the stark realism of the other stories. The fact that Olive stops with Henry at a hospital to use the restroom and is forcibly examined by the nurses and that men armed with guns show up and hold them hostage seems too far fetched. This is the only ludicrous story in an otherwise brilliant collection. 

 There is a distinct New England sensibility to the work. The people reflect the weather and its moods, Yet, this small town is a microcosm of the larger world outside. We all inhabit this suffocating world and are familiar with its alienation to some degree. The beauty of this ‘novel in stories’ is how Elizabeth Strout with her lyrical phrases infuses the prosaic lives of these residents with poetry. 

 If I could paraphrase this book in one or two sentences, I would say: Don’t grow old along with me. The worst is yet to be. That’s how distressing it is! I certainly don’t look forward to growing old after reading Olive Kitteridge. Now on to Olive, Again. But before picking up that book, I need something lighter in the interim like a humorous Sophie Kinsella or a feel good romance novel. 

 

 

 

 

 

Flight Behavior

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Cluster of overwintering monarch butterflies in Pacific Grove, CA.   Photo Credit: Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History

” Just as the butterfly, I too will awaken in my own time. ” ~ Deborah Chaskin

I am mesmerized by monarch butterflies. They are charming creatures whose iridescent wings remind me of stained glass windows in an old church. More extraordinary than the graceful beauty of these winged wonders, is their unique phenomenon of migration. In North America, they overwinter east and west of the Rockies, in the mountains of Central Mexico and the central coast of California, respectively. It is amazing that they make the trajectory to the same destination where previous generations of monarchs have congregated, without ever having been there before. It is simply programmed in their DNA. Apart from the biological marvel of migration, their metamorphosis is a great symbol and inspiration for poets and artists.

I recently visited Pacific Grove in California, which is the winter migratory stop for hordes of monarch butterflies. Until recently, it was a veritable mecca for the monarchs. Now their numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate. While I was at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary there, a lady noticed my enthusiasm for the butterflies and suggested I read a book called Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. I hadn’t read any book by her although I had always been meaning to read The Poisonwood Bible. On my return, I immediately checked out the book from my library. Flight Behavior is a wonderful work of fiction which also addresses the pressing issue of global warming which results in migration collapse of the monarchs.

Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman who lives in the fictitious Appalachian town of Feathertown, Tennessee, is fleeing from her husband and family and is on her way to embark on her first extra- marital affair when she encounters a ‘miracle’ on the mountain where she is supposed to have a tryst with her would- be lover. She accidentally stumbles upon “a sea of orange fire”. The woman who was ready to take flight from her marriage is stopped in her tracks by this dazzling vision and returns home in a daze. She only realizes later that what she saw were millions upon millions of monarch butterflies. They were supposed to overwinter in Mexico as they usually do but instead take up residence on the Turnbow property in Tennessee, a site that could prove fatal to their survival. The locals interpret the off -course migratory pattern of the butterflies as divine intervention and Dellarobia, the witness to this supernatural phenomenon, returns, much to her surprise, to unexpected fame both in town and in the media.

As soon as I started reading the book, I was captivated by the poetic descriptions. Butterflies are beautiful creatures and Kingsolver endows them with even more beauty with her lyrical language which is as enchanting as the monarchs her protagonist happens upon:

“The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountains seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange glaze.”

“Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something. She could save herself.”

I was also intrigued by the unique name of the heroine- Dellarobia. Its meaning becomes clear as you read the novel. Dellarobia is a bright young woman leading a life of drudgery as a poor sheep farmer’s wife. Her husband Cub is a dull, unimaginative and passive man. They married at a young age due to an unexpected unpregnancy which subsequently resulted in a miscarriage. They probably wouldn’t have married otherwise. They stayed married and went on to have two more children, Preston and Cordelia. Cub is a decent and devoted man who cares about Dellarobia and their children. Yet she is unhappy as they are not compatible. Her in- laws who own the farm are struggling to keep it going. She maintains a cordial relationship with them but they have never warmed up to her. Her mother- in- law Hester is cold and sarcastic to her. Her only confidante and support is her best friend Dovey.

Dellarobia is a stay at home mother which “was the loneliest kind of lonely in which she was always and never by herself.” She has a roving eye and seems to be attracted easily to other men. She has had a lot of crushes but has not acted on them. How she longs to escape from the small town life, the gossip and the poverty!

Into her confined world, enters a charismatic African- American lepidopterist by the name of Ovid Byron who bears a likeness from his charming personality and erudition down to his initials to a former President although Kingsolver insists that any resemblance is fortuitous. He shows up in town with some post graduate students to study the erratic behavior of the butterflies and stays on the Turnbows’ farm. He sets up his RV in Dellarobia’s backyard and converts a sheep shed into a lab. Dellarobia herself is eventually hired to work on his project and her world view widens. Needless to say, our protagonist who has a propensity to develop crushes is immediately attracted to this young, intelligent and educated man. Along with giving her explanations about the behavior of butterflies, he also gives her butterflies in her stomach and makes her heart flutter.

Ovid Byron is the spokesperson through whom Kingsolver, who is a biologist herself, expounds her thoughts on climate change which could lead to the potential extinction of the butterflies. The only drawback to the novel is that at times Byron seems to be pontificating on the horrors of climate change which gives the novel a didactic and almost text book feel to it like it were a lecture from Biology 101.

Most of the people in the small town are suspicious of scientists. The locals interpret the vagaries of the weather as being in the hands of Providence. Biblical metaphors abound like Dellarobia’s Moses- like vision on the mountain and the massive floods reminiscent of Noah’s Ark to explain the people’s beliefs. There are two distinct worlds- the rural and  the God fearing community rigid in its views and the urban and progressive one aware of the dangers of climate change and Dellarobia bridges the two worlds. People who live paycheck to paycheck couldn’t care less about the environment. There is a funny and ironical moment in the story when an environmental activist reads out from a list the different ways to lessen your carbon footprint. Although ignorant about science, Dellarobia and her neighbors are so poor that they don’t really even have a carbon footprint.

Dellarobia is willing to leave her children and run away with someone. She seems flighty and impetuous, ready to ruin her reputation as good wife and mother but at the same time she is a caring and responsible wife and mother. These are inherent contradictions faced by every woman. Some act on their impulses or are close to acting on them while most of them carry on in their constrained and unhappy lives.

Dellarobia like the butterflies is undergoing a metamorphosis of her own. Dr.Byron is the catalyst to this awakening but does he reciprocate the ardent feelings Dellarobia has for him? Will this shepherdess in southern Appalachia leave her husband and move on to greener pastures? Will she burst forth from her cocoon in a blaze of glory and spread her wings? There is a moving scene towards the end where she appreciates her husband and knows that he will always be there for her. You feel sorry for him as he is a good guy. They are two decent people who just happen to be wrong for each other. There are two small plot twists at the end that I did not fully anticipate and that enhanced my reading pleasure.

I found this book fascinating as it addresses the larger issue of climate change within the smaller human dramas of family life and relationships. It asks two important but distinct questions: Do we as human beings have a responsibility towards our planet? Does a woman have a right to lead a fulfilling life and to indulge in her own ‘flight behavior’? It makes us ponder over them with the metaphor of the monarch butterfly which brings the two together. And what results is a brilliant novel as bedazzling as clusters of amber and onyx butterflies hanging from trees!

 

 

 

 

In The Footsteps of Steinbeck- A Stroll Through Cannery Row

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Cannery Row is the street parallel to the bustling waterfront of Monterey Bay.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.”

Thus begins Cannery Row in one of the best opening paragraphs of literature which concisely captures the essence of the novel! Steinbeck immortalizes a bygone area and era of Monterey during the Depression and World War 2 years when sardine canning operation was a thriving industry. Eventually sardines disappeared from the waters due to overfishing and other environmental reasons. Cannery Row preserves that brief moment in time when Monterey was the sardine capital of the world. Imagine my delight then when on a recent trip to CA, I had the opportunity to visit Cannery Row and retrace the steps of the author and the real people who willed the fictitious personages into existence. The book captured the people and the pulse of the place in that momentous time in history so well that even the street name in Monterey was changed from Ocean View to Cannery Row to honor its creator.

I read Cannery Row more than two decades ago. The novel has a simple plot. Mack and his ruffian friends decide to throw a party for Doc which unfortunately goes out of control. They end up ruining his lab and leaving his home in shambles. They decide to throw another party to get back in his good graces. Interwoven within the main plot, is a series of vignettes describing the other residents of the row. I have forgotten a lot of the plot details but what has stayed with me is the rich and teeming  portrait of a town featuring a panoply of characters from every walk of life. They are simple people living ordinary lives who accept the cards life has dealt them. These people living on the edge of the Pacific and on the margins of society navigate through the morass of human existence with grace and compassion despite the shortage of money.

Take Lee Chong for instance. He’s a shrewd and manipulative businessman who runs a successful grocery store but he trusts his clients and gives them huge amounts of credit. He never fails to come to the rescue of Mack and the boys who are constantly asking him for favors. Or Dora Flood. She manages The Bear Flag restaurant which is actually a whorehouse. She is in a so called disreputable profession but she takes good care of her employees, contributes generously to charitable organizations and helps families in need during the Depression. Steinbeck makes us examine our own stereotypical notions of morality through the selfless actions of these poor and marginalized characters. As Doc muses:

“It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”  

The present day Cannery Row only carries vestiges of its past. Many of the old cannery buildings have been refurbished as restaurants, galleries and kitschy souvenir shops. The only things packed as sardines are the tourists who descend in droves during the summer months. Yet remnants of history can be found throughout the city to a discerning eye whether in the form of dilapidated steel sheds, decrepit buildings or elevated walkways which were once used to move canned fish from the processing site to the warehouses near the train tracks.

There is the historic Cannery Row. And then, there is the literary Cannery Row. And the two intersect and there is nostalgia for both. Here are some of the authentic locales and some modern day tributes if you want to walk in the footsteps of the author and the people who inspired the plot:

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The Monterey Bay Aquarium-  View From The Bay Side

Hovden Cannnery- The site that attracts the most tourists to Monterey is undoubtedly the world- renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium which not only overlooks the beautiful bay but also seamlessly integrates with the shore. The building originally housed the largest and the last cannery on the row to shut down. When the building was transformed into the aquarium in 1984, it was designed in such a way as to preserve its historical significance. The cookers and boilers were retained inside and some of the original wood and iron corrugated exteriors of the building outside. There are two tall smokestacks  which although sealed, still remain on the roof. Inside the aquarium, near the entrance is a Hovden cannery interpretative exhibit about the sardine industry and a small biological lab formerly owned and operated by Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist who inspired the character of ‘ Doc’.

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Pacific Biological Laboratories

If you want to see the main lab, you have to walk down the street from the aquarium to 800 Cannery Row where you will find the building that was known as the Pacific Biological Laboratories and called Western Biological in the novel. Steinbeck’s friend, Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist who collected and stored specimens of marine creatures was the model for the character of Doc. Apart from being a scientist and a connoisseur of art and music, Ricketts much like Doc was also a philosopher who made profound observations on life and was much admired by the community. He died in 1948 hit by a train after his car stalled on the tracks. There is a memorial on a recreational trail near the accident site honoring his life and work.

Across the street from the lab is the building that housed Wing Chong market and became Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower grocery of the novel. It has become a souvenir shop now but you can still see the Wing Chong Market sign outside. I almost walked by  without making the connection and I forgot to take a picture when it finally dawned on me that this was the inspiration for Lee Chong’s store. It is sometimes hard to separate Steinbeck’s Cannery Row from the real Cannery Row.

The building next to Wing Chong market was known as Edith’s restaurant which inspired La Ida Café of the novel where Eddie, the bartender poured all the leftover drinks into a jug for Mack and the boys to enjoy at the flophouse. Today there is a bakery on the premises.

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Bruce Ariss Mural

Bruce Ariss Mural- Across from Doc’s lab is a mural entitled ‘Across from Doc’s Lab’ which commemorates the characters and setting of Cannery Row.  You can see the train tracks and the train and the discarded boilers that became homes. You can also see Wing Chong’s grocery store and The Lone Star Restaurant that morphed into the Lee Chong store and the Bear Flag restaurant respectively. Bruce Ariss, the original painter was a contemporary of Steinbeck and the mural is a microcosm of the larger world of Cannery Row, a snapshot of what life was like back in its heyday.

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Cannery Row Cottages

Cannery Cottages-  Further up the hill are three restored cottages or shacks that once housed workers. They are a reminder of the time when immigrant workers from Mexico, China, Italy, Portugal, Japan and the Philippines worked in the canneries and fisheries.

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The Cannery Row Monument in Steinbeck Plaza

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The four local entrepreneurs of Monterey!

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A section of the monument with a Chinese fisherman and ladies of the night.

Steinback Plaza-

The Cannery Row monument  sculpted by artist Steven Whyte of Carmel and unveiled in 2014 is a tribute to the people, real and fictional who played a pivotal role in Cannery Row’s history. John Steinbeck is on top of the rocky structure and his friend Ed Ricketts is at the base.

The sculpture also pays homage to four entrepreneurs who were instrumental in developing the town. A Chinese fisherman represents the  thriving 19thcentury fishing industry and the two women are Madam Flora Woods of Lone Star Café and one of the girls of her bordello. A whimsical detail is the placing of bronze frogs throughout the monument, a reminder of Mack and the boys who earned money by catching frogs and selling them to the lab.

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A bronze bust of John Steinbeck  at Steinbeck Plaza overlooking Monterey Bay!

Steinbeck found poetry in the mundane and the quotidian. In spite of the gritty reality of poverty, his characters demonstrate resilience and an indomitable spirit. Many of the characters and the locales of the novel also found their way into the sequel entitled Sweet Thursday.

With gentrification and a booming tourist economy, Cannery Row is a far cry from its dingy and seedy origins. One wonders if Steinbeck himself would recognize the place. Cannery Row itself has become like one of Doc’s lab specimens on display for the tourists.

Yet, under the veneer of tourism, it is the same tang of salt in the air that tickles your nostrils, the same cry of seagulls that greets you and the same sight of craggy cliffs with otters basking in the sun that meets your sight. You just have to let your imagination fill in the rest. If you close your eyes and ponder for a moment about life in the old fishing village, be it real or fictional, you just might catch a whiff of the fishy stench that once pervaded the air and hear the screeching whistles that once summoned the workers to the canneries.

  

 

 

 

 

The Testaments: The Sequel To The Handmaid’s Tale

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I read The Testaments, the long- awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale and one of the joint winners of the 2019 Booker Prize vowing that I would cut the author some slack as sequels are seldom as compelling as their predecessors. Just think of Go Set A Watchman which was published decades after To Kill A Mockingbird, one of America’s most beloved classics and fell far short of the public’s expectations. One would have hardly imagined at the time of the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 that the dystopian fantasy would end up being prescient of the current political turmoil.

With the rise of the Christian Right and the misogyny in general of all organized religions, the novel has turned out to be hugely prophetic. In fact, in political rallies you often see activists dressed in the red cloaks and white bonnets of handmaidens to protest bills that would restrict abortions. The handmaid’s costume has also become a powerful symbol of the Me Too movement. Many women showed up in Washington donning the habit in protest of the swearing- in of the Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh.

The Handmaid’s Tale also resulted in a tremendously successful television series adaptation on Hulu ,which, incidentally, seems to have influenced the writing of the sequel. So Margaret Atwood had a lot to live up to and in spite of allowing for this latitude, I was still disappointed as the new novel which transports us once again into the totalitarian theocracy of the Republic of Gilead has an entirely different tone and structure from the original.

The Republic of Gilead portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale was founded on a literal and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible and emerged after the collapse of America in a society that witnessed a drop in fertility due to environmental reasons. Consequently, in this despotic society, women became prized for their fertility.

They were placed into strict classes with barely any prospects for mobility: the Wives or the spouses of the high-ranking commanders, the Marthas or servants, the Handmaids or former sluts forced into childbearing for other couples, the Pearl Girls or the missionaries, the Jezebels or the prostitutes, the Econowives or the wives of less wealthy and less powerful men, the Aunts or the moral guardians of the society who were the only women allowed to read and write and the most dehumanized of them all, the Unwomen or women like nuns and lesbians who could not perform any of the roles delegated by the patriarchy and were sent off to the colonies or forced labour camps where they died exposed to toxic levels of radiation.

Women were considered vessels and treated as chattel and often the Aunts and Wives were complicit in the oppression of their own gender. In the end and in their own way, both fertile and barren women were devalued and debased.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of one such woman told by a first person narrator threading together narratives from the past and the present. Offred, who has been stripped of her name and all her civil rights has forcibly been separated from her husband and daughter to become a reproductive surrogate. The Testaments picks up approximately 15 years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale when the pregnant Offred gets into a van and goes either on the road to freedom or to be arrested for treason. The novel ends on a ambiguous note and a lot is left to the reader’s imagination.

In The Testaments, the separate stories or testimonies of three different women come together in a three part narrative. We have the first person account of Aunt Lydia whom we remember as the cruel matron and moral guardian of Gilead and whom we had seen only from Offred’s perspective. The vicious and dreaded aunt who trains and indoctrinates the future handmaids in the role of the narrator we least expect is a brilliant move by the author. “I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woollen mitten…And I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch..”, she quips.

We delve into her past and Gilead’s emergence through her diary entries which she is recording for posterity and understand some of the difficult and duplicitous choices she had to make, her interactions with the other founder aunts which involved a lot of scheming and backstabbing  and how she eventually made her way to the top.  She is the mastermind that sets in motion the downfall of Gilead.

We also have the accounts of two teenage girls; the story of Agnes Jemima, a girl who grew up in Gilead and Daisy a girl who grew up across the border in liberal Canada. Daisy is raised by overprotective adoptive parents who end up being murdered under mysterious circumstances. After their death, she gets involved in the resistance movement despite herself and travels to Gilead. Agnes is raised by a loving foster mother in Gilead who succumbs to an illness and dies and is miserable when her Dad remarries a disagreeable and cold woman. She is about to be married off to a commander but on discovering that her birth mother was a handmaid, she sets out on a new path.

Both girls are on a quest to find themselves and their paths cross with each other’s and that of Aunt Lydia’s. It is interesting to see the contrast between Gilead and the life across the border in Canada. Organizations from both countries are working to lure or rescue the girls across the border. The weakness in the narrative structure is the fact that both girls have such similar voices that I could barely distinguish the two of them till more facts became evident.

The book is an entertaining page turner but the shift from the dark claustrophobic tone and setting of the original to an action- packed Hollywood style entertainer is jarring and robs the original novel of its seriousness and sobering message. Many of the plot twists seem predictable and hackneyed such as the revelation of Baby Nicole’s identity and that of the mother of the two teenage girls. I don’t even have to worry about revealing spoilers as I could see them coming a mile away. Yes, the book is that shockingly predictable.

While The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary tale, The Testaments ends on a note of hope. Although it is heartening to know that resistance is always possible and that tyrannical regimes do collapse, some questions are best left unanswered, some tales best left untold.  The Testaments doesn’t have the same bone chilling effect of its predecessor. The Handmaid’s Tale left me with a feeling of disquietude and despair. I shuddered with disgust and indignation. In short, I was shaken to the core.

The most frightening epiphany is that Gilead is not altogether dystopian.The story doesn’t feel dated or far-fetched. The novel is chillingly resonant in the current political climate characterized by the control of women’s bodies and reproductive rights. The character of the handmaid has crossed over from the realm of fiction to reality as symbol of dissent. Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer. The Testaments is a well- written and absorbing read.  I only wish she had left The Handmaid’s Tale as a stand alone novel. It would have been even more impactful and powerful like Orwell’s 1984.

Atwood has definitely shaken us out of our complacency that such events cannot transpire in our little worlds. Gilead exists in some pockets of society in every corner of the world. In some regions, women are banned from reading and writing; they are stripped of literacy, the ultimate instrument of empowerment. In other regions, they are not allowed to work, denied of their economic independence. All over the world, their bodies are objectified and subjected to violence, their voices silenced and stifled. In such an environment, things can escalate out of control in the blink of an eye. We only have to be reminded of Aunt Lydia’s ominous words:” You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.”