The Year Behind, the Year Ahead

champagneHappy New Year! Like Teresa, and like many of you, I illumined this difficult and sometimes painful year with my reading. It was a place of respite, of interest and connection, where I could be refreshed. Here are a few of the books that stood out in 2017 because they immersed me the most deeply, or showed me a world I knew little about, or touched me, or made me laugh:

The Tijuana Book of the Dead, by Luis Alberto Urrea. These poems’ mixed English and Spanish showed me the lives of the people they were written about, with beauty and humor and grace.

Every classic I read this year! Ruth, Oblomov, Man and Wife, Daniel Deronda, The Age of Innocence, Ivanhoe, Chekhov’s stories, Measure for Measure, and more. After all these years, it shouldn’t be shocking that books written many years ago have such insight about race, class, sexual harassment, and institutional inequality. But every one I read is a fabulous thrill ride as well as a window into the human soul.

The Carhullan Army, by Sarah Hall. This brief dystopia was one of the best meditations on gender, violence, and action against the state I’ve ever read.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. Other Jenny pointed out that this book is ten years old and therefore not particularly fresh. Maybe. But a lot of it was still news to me, and it’s written in a succinct, clear way that makes it a good refresher even if you know a lot about the effect of mass incarceration on black America. I am unspeakably grateful to have read it.

Hild, by Nicola Griffith. Eleventh-century historical fiction, about the early life of St. Hild of Whitby. Completely immersive and wonderfully written. I adored it.

The Wild Places, by Robert Macfarlane. Macfarlane — one of our great nature writers — travels around Britain to see if there are any truly wild places left there, or if it has been completely domesticated. A gorgeous, startling, moving book.

Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. A quiet, plain book about people who care about each other. It was like a vaccine against this whole year.

A Kind of Intimacy, by Jenn Ashworth. A tense psychological novel about a sociopath in the company of a normal neighborhood. What happens when all the layers of deception are finally scraped away? Creepy and delicious.

Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories. I can’t overstate how excellent, how strange, how mesmerizing these stories are. I hope I’ve convinced at least one person to try them.

The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler. I haven’t even written this review yet, but I did read it in 2017, and it was the perfect way to wrap up the year! Another dystopia, this one compellingly plausible; our world, but worse. Butler is such a great writer.

a kind of intimacycomplete storiesour souls at nighthildnew jim crowmeasure for measure

The greatest gift I gave myself this reading year was to stick to my reading goals. I wanted to double the number of books I read by authors of color (from 12 to 24) and I did that, to my own huge benefit and enjoyment. I wanted to read 12 nonfiction books, and 12 books written before 1900, and with a little squishing of the rules, I did that, too. (I counted a couple of authors who seem pre-20th century to me, even if their novels are written in the early 20th century. Squish.) This year, I plan to do the same, and I am accepting any recommendations in the comments! (Also: THIS is the year I’m going to read Moby-Dick! Probably this summer. It’s going to be awesome.)

What were your best books? What was the best surprise you got — something you didn’t expect to like, but did? What did you rely on to help you through the year? What was the best genre book you read, or children’s book, or nonfiction book? Did you make any reading plans this year?

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2017 in Review

I know I’m not alone in finding 2017 a bewildering and stressful year. I’ve never followed the news so closely or been so troubled by it. I’ve also never been as politically active, giving both time and money. And what I’ve done was minuscule in comparison to what I saw so many others doing.

Through all this, books were my refuge. I jealously guarded my reading time, to the point that I ended this year having read 104 books, more than the last several years, when the total has been in the 80s and 90s. At the beginning of the year, I decided to just read by whim, which meant reading a lot more new books. Both the Tournament of Books and the Booker longlist brought some great books to my attention, and the conversation on Twitter, blogs, and among Book Riot contributors put many more new books on my radar.

Coming up with a list of top books for the year was a challenge, because so many of the books I finished were very good, excellent even. But I’ve settled on a baker’s dozen that were wonderful choices for me, either because they’ve haunted me ever since I finished them or because the experience of reading them was especially significant. (For example, reading Ali Smith’s Autumn during the weekend of violence in Charlottesville gave that book a resonance it might not have had at any other time.)

So here are my books of 2017. Click the links for my reviews:

And now I’m already regretting the omission of Home Fire, Between the World and Me, American Warand Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. An abundance of bookish riches, this year!

As for 2018, I do want to get back to reading more from my own shelves, which I neglected almost entirely this year. But I’m not going to force myself to read anything that isn’t appealing. So I won’t necessarily be reading by whim, but I will be reading for my pleasure in the moment. I’m just hoping to find most of that pleasure from the books in my house right now.

Happy new year to you all, and here’s hoping for a 2018 of peace, joy, and pleasure.

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All Our Wrong Todays

It’s 2016, and the world as we know it never existed because in July 1965, a physicist named Lionel Goettreider invented a generator that provided clean and unlimited energy. Technology leaped forward, and peace and prosperity reigned everywhere. That’s until Tom Barren got involved.

Tom is the son of Victor Barren, a scientist who is working to create the world’s first time machine. As the process nears completion, a chain of events leads Tom into the time machine. The result is the world as we know it.

I love a time travel story, and I really love the premise of this novel by Elan Mastai. But the execution. Ugh. Not good.

The main problem is the novel’s narrator, Tom. Tom is awful. He’s not at all smart, which he admits, and he sees women mostly as sex objects. There’s hardly a woman in the novel that he doesn’t end up having sex with. I can think of three, and he’s related to two of them. So there’s that.

The good news is that Tom does gradually become aware of his own sexism, and I think we’re meant to feel uneasy about his treatment of women. But when another, more monstrous character is introduced, it feels like his sexual violence is meant to reduce readers’ unease at Tom’s womanizing. Tom’s exploits are at least consensual, and he does seem to love Penny, the chrononaut/bookseller he meets in both versions of 2016.

Still, I find the romance that drives much of the plot a wee bit unconvincing, especially since it becomes an eternal all-encompassing passion in the matter of a few weeks. There’s a point, late in the book, where Tom starts to get some perspective on that, but it’s yanked back almost immediately. (This bit also introduces a plot hole around aging and time travel that is never addressed.)

The in the book women exist primarily to spur the men to action, and motherhood is treated as their most significant gift. There are three (three!) unplanned pregnancies that I found unsettling in different ways. And most of the men treat women as objects to fulfill their needs. (Tom’s father being perhaps the sole exception among the main characters.)

It’s a shame, too, because the book does play with some interesting ideas about sacrifice and happiness. I would have appreciation more consideration of how the original, utopian 2016 that Tom is trying to bring back is perhaps worse than our world. Mostly, we learn how it’s worse for Tom, and how he’s torn about whether to fix his time-travel mistake and bring it back. But there are hints that the technological advances of Tom’s 2016 have a dark side. They just don’t affect Tom much.

If the premise of All Our Wrong Todays intrigues you, then I recommend that you read Version Control by Dexter Palmer instead. It covers similar ground but is much better.

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Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

I didn’t think it was possible for me to shed tears over a biography, but by the time I got to the end of Ruth Franklin’s book about Shirley Jackson, I was so attached to Jackson that reading about her early death got me a little choked up.

Franklin’s book is a comprehensive biography that explores Jackson’s life and work, as well as that of her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. She takes a straightforward chronological approach, considering how her life and work influenced each other, both in the subjects she chose to write about and how she balanced work and family life. As a 1950s wife and mother, Jackson bore the responsibility of taking care of her children, and her literary achievements meant that she also carried the financial burdens when her husband failed to achieve the same levels of success. It’s no wonder that she struggled at times.

I came to this biography having read three of Jackson’s novels (The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castleand Hangsaman); her short story collection The Lottery and Other Stories and a handful of other stories; and her parenting memoirs, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Because Franklin builds so much of the biography around her work and discusses some of it in detail, it’s most rewarding to those who already know her work. Franklin describes her other novels well enough for me to understand the chapters about them, but the details could constitute spoilers to those who don’t know the work.

Jackson herself was a fascinating person. Her imagination was remarkable, as was her willingness to take risks in her fiction, creating dark and unsettling stories whose meaning is difficult to discern, even as the style and atmosphere are absolutely hypnotizing. And yet she also wrote lively comic and confessional memoirs that Franklin notes could serve as a sort of precursor to today’s mommy blogs.

Despite her generally sunny memoirs, Jackson’s life was not easy. She suffered from agoraphobia late in life and struggled during those years to leave her home. Her marriage was at times a fruitful creative partnership, but at other times was a burden that she longed to free herself from. A sense of helplessness and confinement come through in her fiction and it flashes up her nonfiction as well. (I found Raising Demons somewhat dark when I read it, and Franklin seems to concur.)

I found Jackson, as presented in this biography, tremendously easy to like. Even when facing down agoraphobia, she found ways to get on with life, bit by bit and little by little. When she fell apart, I sympathized with her. Franklin is a compassionate biographer who appreciates Jackson’s genius and helps readers to see it, too. This doesn’t feel like a hagiography or a defense of Jackson—it’s just a straightforward presentation of a brilliant writer’s sometimes haunted life.

This is a lengthy biography, with 500 pages of text, but it reads quickly, largely because Jackson is such an interesting person and her life takes so many turns that keeps it from becoming tedious. There were points where it started to feel, however, like a joint biography of Jackson and Hyman. I could have done without so much detailed discussion of his work. His life and work are relevant to Jackson, of course, but a few paragraphs would often have sufficed and felt less like a distraction.

Posted in Biography, Nonfiction | 5 Comments

Little Fires Everywhere

This novel by Celeste Ng begins with a fire—or, as the title suggests, a series of little fires that burn a whole house down. The house, in the exclusive planned neighborhood of Shaker Heights, just outside Cleveland, belongs to the Richardson family. The fires were, apparently, set by Izzy, the youngest of their four children.

Also included in the drama are the Warrens, Mia and daughter Pearl. Mia is an artist, and she and her daughter have lived an itinerant life for as long as Pearl can remember. But when they rent a home in a duplex owned by the Richardsons, Mia’s plan is to settle in one place for a while.

Ng deftly sets up the plot in the opening pages of Little Fires Everywhere. We meet the teenage Richardson children—Lexie, Tripp, Moody, and Izzy—as the house burns away. And we learn that Mia and Pearl have just suddenly moved out, leaving their house keys in the Richardsons’ mailbox. The job of the novel is now to piece together how these events tie together and what led up to the fire.

To me, much of the book read like the kinds of psychological mysteries that I often enjoy, where you know the crime happened but only gradually learn what was behind it. As the book steps back in time and we learn about the Richardsons and the Warrens, we gradually see the complex web of relationships form. Once the book gets going, it’s hard to put down.

A large part of the book centers on Pearl’s relationships with the Richardson children. She gets to know Moody first, but she later becomes close to Lexie and Tripp as well. The personal drama is the focus, but “big issues” also come into play—teenage sex and pregnancy, abortion, adoption, race, surrogacy. The book is set in the 90s, so there’s a bit of a time capsule feeling as the kids watch Jerry Springer and the adults fret over how to talk about the Clinton sex scandal. However, the relationships drive the plot, keeping it from feeling too dated or “ripped from the [old] headlines.”

For me, most of the pleasure in this book comes from watching the book’s various questions get answered. I’m not sure every answer and every action are convincing—Izzy’s conflict with her family is not delved into as deeply as I would have liked. But, truth be told, the plausibility didn’t matter to me much as I was reading. I was having too much fun speculating and seeing how it all came together.

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A Separation

A woman and her husband, Christopher, have been separated for many months. Divorce appears inevitable, but the haven’t even made their separation public, at Christopher’s request. So when Christopher’s mother, Isabelle, contacts her daughter-in-law, the novel’s unnamed narrator, asking where he is, the narrator feels she has no choice but to try to find him.

It’s been weeks since Christopher contacted his family, and all anyone knows is that he was going to Greece. Isabelle makes the narrator a reservation at Christopher’s hotel, and she finds herself alone in a small Greek village with nothing much to do but think about her relationship with Christopher and how it ended and what he might be doing now.

This short novel by Katie Kitamura has a premise with potential for a lot of drama, but it’s a quiet novel that lives almost entirely in the narrator’s head. She is not a particularly interesting person; in fact, we don’t learn much about her. It’s her situation and the choices she makes about it that held my interest. I think the blandness of the protagonist may be intentional, to get readers to put themselves in her shoes and consider what they would do.

The book is concerned specifically with the public and private nature of our relationships—and our grief when those relationships end. Relationships exist in a web, and when one shifts, there’s potential for change in all the others. When the narrator and her husband part, a door opens for a new relationship. When Christopher flirts with a hotel clerk, the driver who loves her is affected. When Christopher is gone, his family has to figure out how to fill the gap.

I think this would make a good book for a book group, mostly because of the narrator’s final decision. I’m finding that I want to talk about whether she did the right thing. Her choices appear to benefit her in the short term—she tends to drift along and let others figure things out, and others don’t want to hurt her. But in the long term, the implications are not so clear. And how does her choice affect Christopher’s family? Is she giving them what they want? Do they even know what they want? Would they feel happier if they understood more, or is it better not to know?

If you’ve read this, I’d love to know what you think about these questions!

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

The Grass Dancer

grass dancerThis novel by Susan Power meanders backward and forward in time. Its nonlinear structure feels right while you’re reading it; it’s like when you’re hearing a long family story from a parent or grandparent and they say, oh, let me back up a minute, I forgot to tell you about when your grandfather was selling shoes in the 1930s and he met Uncle Jack — this will become relevant later — The Grass Dancer is like this. Each chapter is time stamped, sometimes a year or two later than the previous chapter, sometimes eighty years earlier. Each time, we’re getting more information about the families involved in the tangled relationships on this Dakota reservation.

The Grass Dancer has a big cast of characters, but there are basically two families involved: Harley Wind Soldier’s family and Charlene Thunder’s family. In the opening chapter, there’s a big powwow, and people come from all over. During the dancing, Harley meets a young woman named Pumpkin from another reservation. Pumpkin is a grass dancer, even though that’s not a traditional role for a woman, and she excels at it, her body flowing like the long grass on the prairie. Harley falls for her immediately, to Charlene Thunder’s chagrin. Charlene’s grandmother, Mercury Thunder, notices Charlene’s unhappiness, and that night Pumpkin and her friends get into a fatal car crash. Was it Mercury’s doing? Well, it could have been. Mercury is known for her powerful medicine — medicine that’s meant to be used for the community but that Mercury keeps all for herself.

After this, we drift backward and forward in time, to understand the circumstances surrounding Charlene’s birth, the powerful ancestors from the reservation whose love for each other caused some of this tangle to begin with, and some of the stories the Dakota people tell. We see Christianity come down the Missouri and find the tribe, and we see the tribe adapt those stories to their own needs. There’s love, jealousy, kindness, cruelty, sex, power, creativity, a one-room schoolhouse, and the Apollo 11 landing.

I notice that a lot of critics talk about this book in terms of magical realism. Terry Windling even gave this book an award for best fantasy novel. I’m not so sure about either of those designations. There’s powerful magic, important rituals, ghosts, and visions, certainly, but those things are deeply grounded here, and meant to be believed as everyday occurrences. There’s a white character in this novel, Jeannette McVay, who comes to town to learn all about the tribe. She takes a job as schoolteacher and coerces the children to tell their stories aloud; she talks about how wonderful and natural “you people” are. She lives with Mercury Thunder and witnesses her spells and listens avidly to her stories. But when Mercury pulls off one particularly cruel spell that has consequences for several people, Jeannette doesn’t really believe that Mercury did it. She can’t take in the idea that the medicine could be real. And it seems to me that treating this book as fantasy is the same approach. Susan Power has said that the culture described here is her reality. This is fiction, yes, but not some special brand we have to treat with tongs.

I enjoyed this book, though in some ways it wasn’t as structurally sound as I might have liked. Even with the rather baggy structure, though, the more time I spent with the characters, the more I enjoyed them. I’m glad I read this, and you might be, too.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

Measure for Measure

measure for measureOkay, if there was ever going to be a Shakespeare play that was RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES, this one is it, guys. I was reading along, with no sense of what was going to happen, and then I found myself sputtering in total, visceral recognition and outrage. This play is stupendous. Everyone should be putting it on right now, because apparently the same thing has been happening for centuries — as opposed to it being a “cultural shift” — and Shakespeare knew all about #metoo.

Okay, so for those of you who, like me, knew nothing about Measure for Measure, the gist of the plot is this: the Duke of Vienna, who has been something of a lax ruler, decides to go away for a while and leave his deputy, Angelo, in charge. Angelo is an extremely strict person, known for his high moral standards, and he decides to clean house while the Duke is away. The first thing he does is to arrest Claudio and sentence him to death for getting his girlfriend Julietta pregnant, even though the two of them are engaged and just waiting for the dowry to get settled in order to get married. Death? says everyone. Are you serious? Serious as a heart attack, says Angelo.

Well, they go to Isabella, Claudio’s sister, who is about to profess her vocation as a nun, and ask her if she would come to Angelo and plead for Claudio’s life — he might listen to someone so pure and good. And here’s where things get interesting. Isabella comes to Angelo and begs him to let Claudio live. Her arguments about mercy and hypocrisy are convincing and to the point, but that’s not what changes Angelo’s mind. He finds that Isabella’s purity and goodness stir something inside him — and it’s not mercy. It’s lust. He proposes to her that if she’ll sleep with him, he’ll pardon her brother. Isabella instantly refuses in the clearest possible terms, even at the cost of Claudio’s life:


Angelo: Then must your brother die.

Isabella: And t’were the cheaper way:

Better it were a brother died at once,

Than that a sister by redeeming him

Should die for ever.

More: when Angelo presses her and tries to convince her, she says she will tell the world what he’s done. Angelo’s response is chilling — the iambic pentameter of what every Harvey Weinstein the world over must say.

Isabella: Ha! Little honour to be much believed,

And most pernicious purpose. Seeming, seeming.

I will proclaim thee, Angelo, look for’t.

Sign me a present pardon for my brother,

Or with an outstretched throat I’ll tell the world aloud

What man thou art.

Angelo:                     Who’ll believe thee, Isabel?

My unsoiled name, th’austereness of my life,

My vouch against you, and my place i’th’state,

Will so your accusation overweigh

That you shall stifle in your own report

And smell of calumny. I have begun,

And now I give my sensual race the rein.

“Who’ll believe thee, Isabel?” I shuddered when I read that line — because of course he’s right. The reason this play turns out with Claudio’s life and Isabel’s honor intact is not that Isabel is brave or that we believe women (in 1604.) It’s because the Duke didn’t really go away, he stayed in Vienna in disguise as a friar and lurked around and heard everything Angelo did, and we can definitely believe a Duke. So this makes a comedy possible after all. Sort of.

The ending of this play is kind of a mess. It’s as if Shakespeare presents himself with a moral dilemma he doesn’t know how to solve, and then solves it with a handful of (to me) very unsatisfying patches on a problem that isn’t going away anytime in the next few hundred years. Angelo thinks he’s sleeping with Isabel, but actually he’s sleeping with Mariana, a woman he dumped years ago and left in dire poverty because her dowry didn’t come through (more evidence that Angelo is a horrible person), so Angelo and Mariana get married. Poor Mariana! Even though this saves her from poverty! And Angelo obviously doesn’t want to marry her. The Duke proposes to Isabella, without making a single reference to her vocation as a nun. Isabella, oddly, doesn’t say yes or no. It’s sort of… assumed they get married? Claudio is saved by a trick they play with someone who was going to be executed anyway. So… happy ending? I guess?

But hanging over the whole play is that horribly chilling scene where Isabel, fierce Isabel, who is there to plead mercy and forgiveness and humility, there to remind Angelo that God forgives and he should too, is told that if she doesn’t have sex with Angelo, her brother will die suddenly and brutally, and she will never be heard. That her words will be outweighed and stifled by a man’s. That no one will believe her, that she’ll be the one to have a bad reputation. And she knows it’s true.

This was a shocking play to read in the wake of the many accusations of sexual assault and harassment we’ve been reading in the news. Of course I knew that this is not a recent phenomenon. But to read the same words we’ve been seeing over and over again in a play from 400 years ago was heart-poundingly relevant. Read it for yourself and see.

Posted in Drama | 7 Comments

The Portable Veblen

Veblen has a temp job as an office assistant at the Stanford School of Medicine. She translates Norwegian on the side, for fun, and she loves squirrels. Paul is a neurologist who has just gotten a contract to develop and test an emergency cranial surgery device for military use. When they meet, the chemistry is instant, and their romance a joy. But the engagement brings the complications of trying to blend already complicated families and lives.

This romantic comedy novel by Elizabeth McKenzie reminded me a bit of a Wes Anderson movie. There’s a lot of quirkiness with a dark undertone. To me, it’s a pleasing quirkiness, and the serious questions remain real and relatable.

Many of the book’s serious questions involve family. Veblen has a difficult relationship with her parents. Her mother is a hypochondriac who demands near-constant attention. Yet, she’s attentive to her daughter and shows every sign of loving her devotedly and sincerely. Her stepfather is tolerant and good-natured—and perhaps unappreciated. And her father’s mental illness kept him out of Veblen’s life for many years, although she sought him out as an adult and does what she can to care for him.

Paul’s parents are free-spirited hippie types, and his older brother has mental and physical disabilities that Paul resents, sometimes blaming his brother for behaving inappropriately. Paul has rebelled against his childhood by seeking out financial and career success where he can.

Given that Veblen is named for (and embraces the ideas of) Thorstein Veblen, the man who came up with the idea of conspicuous consumption, there’s a lot of opportunity for tension in the relationship. Veblen isn’t comfortable with the large engagement ring Paul got her, and she doesn’t care about having her wedding at the home of his wealthy patron. And does he really want her to move out of the modest home that she restored herself? And why does he insist of trapping the squirrels in the attic?

Paul, meanwhile, is finding that career success at any cost may involve unacceptable compromises.

A lot of the book involves sorting out questions of identity—how our families inform our identities and how our identities inform our choices. Those questions, for both Veblen and Paul, are hard enough when sorting them out alone. Now, they must bring those questions into a new relationship and see how they can answer them together—if they can. It’s a fun read, with enough silliness to keep it from wallowing in these big, difficult questions. I find comedy difficult sometimes in fiction, but McKenzie gets the balance right for me.

Posted in Fiction | 8 Comments

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem

If you’ve read about the Salem Witch Trials, you’ve probably heard of Tituba, the enslaved woman who was the first to be accused of witchcraft. But what do you know about her? What sort of woman was she? What brought her under suspicion? And what became of her?

Maryse Condé imagines a history for Tituba in this 1986 novel, translated from French by Richard Philcox. She draws on the historical record, including transcripts of the trial, but most of the book is a work of imagination. And it’s marvelous. Condé’s Tituba is a brilliant and insightful but flawed woman. Sometimes, in fact, her goodness is her biggest flaw.

In the novel, Tituba recounts the history of her mother, an Ashanti woman brought to Barbados and raped and impregnated on the way. She was later hanged for fighting back when her enslaver attempted to rape her. A young Tituba, witnessing this, ran away and lived independently until she met John Indian. Her passion for him led her back into slavery and eventually to Massachusetts, enslaved by the Parris family.

Tituba is, of course, not happy being enslaved, but she treats the women of the Parris family with kindness. In fact, she gets along nicely with all the women of Salem, who seem to value her healing ability. That’s until the accusations start. Tituba doesn’t spend a lot of time speculating about the fits that have seized the girls of Salem. To her, the answer is simple enough:

Imagine a small community of men and women oppressed by the presence of Satan and seeking to hunt him down in all his manifestations. A cow that died, a child smitten with convulsions, a girl whose menstrual period was late in coming set off a chain of unending speculation. Who had caused such catastrophes by driving a bargain with the formidable enemy? Wasn’t it the fault of Bridget Bishop, who hasn’t been to the meeting house two Sundays in a row? No, wasn’t it rather Giles Cory, who had been seen feeding a stray animal on the afternoon of the Sabbath? Even I was being poisoned in this putrifying atmosphere and I caught myself reciting incantations and performing ritual gestures at the slightest occasion. What is more, I had very precise reasons for being worried. In Bridgetown Susanna Endicott had already told me she was convinced my color was indicative of my close connections with Saran. I was able to laugh that off, however, as the ramblings of a shrew embittered by solitude and approaching old age. In Salem such a conviction was shared by all.

The strict and superstition religious environment, coupled with prejudice against anyone different, made Tituba’s fate almost inevitable. Tituba is always herself, wherever she goes, and wherever she goes, being yourself, if that means being out of step with the community, puts you in danger.

Over the course of the novel, Tituba also crosses paths with Hester Prynne, a Jewish merchant, and a community of maroons. Many people are good to her—this is not at all a novel of unrelenting pain—but there’s always a community ready to attack.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the novel is the character of Tituba herself. Her default setting is kindness, and she’s reluctant to seek revenge. She uses her connections to the spirit world to seek guidance for herself and give comfort to the grieving, rather than as a source of power and status. She chooses violence only when pushed. In fact, some might complain that she’s too good. Indeed, her goodness is sometimes her  downfall, as she acknowledges:

Those of you who have read my tale up till now must be wondering who is this witch devoid of hatred, who is mislead each time by the wickedness in men’s hearts? For the nth time I made up my mind to be different and fight it out tooth and nail. But how to work a change in my hear and coat its lining with snake venom? How to make it into a vessel for bitter and violent feelings? To get it to love evil? Instead I could only feel tenderness and compassion for the disinherited and a sense of revolt against injustice.

Myself, I find books about goodness refreshing, especially when that goodness is powerful and strong, like Tituba’s.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 4 Comments