The Discerning Reader.
“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious”- P.D. James
The above quote tickled me when I read it a few weeks ago. Call me guilty: I’ve read my share of bad lit as of late.
The thing is, I’m a stickler for finishing a book even if it is decidedly bad. I recently just finished “One Thousand White Women” by Jim Fergus and a quarter of the way into the book I put it down with the full intention that I would not pick it up again. But there it sat on my nightstand with the library due date looming and glared at me.
“Finish me! Finish me, you coward! You even had the library waste valuable resources shipping me to a different branch! You OWE me!!!”
How can I properly judge and rate a novel if I don’t finish it? Are some books just a waste of time? And most importantly, how has my writing suffered because I’m not reading “with discrimination” any literature that is thoroughly engaging, enlightening, and richly and thoughtfully written? Probably a lot. I couldn’t even be bothered to summarize Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (even though I liked the novel, it wasn’t his greatest work writing-wise).
As I move forward in my 2013 Book Challenge where I am attempting to read all 55 books on my Goodreads “To Read” list, I am still 12 books behind because I refuse to give up on the awful. I think I would be caught up by now if I properly gave up on these ho-hum selections:
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” Seth Grahame-Smith
“The Partly Cloudy Patriot” Sarah Vowell
“The Red House” Mark Haddon
“Starting Over” Debbie Macomber (a book club pick. Truly terrible)
“One Thousand White Women” Jim Fergus
However, in their defense, the above are not the type of novels or authors I normally read, so in a way I did broaden my horizons, or “Read widely” as P.D. James suggests. But perhaps that isn’t the point. I want to be a good writer and good writing isn’t strictly limited to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Austen, Steinbeck, Joyce, etc. In short, I must become a more discerning reader; to aim broadly but with precision.
So from now on: I will give each book the first 40 pages to make its case and if the book doesn’t speak to me or is just plain bad, I will let it go. I promise. No, really, I do.
And for fun, here is my post on Goodreads about “One Thousand White Women”:
Good god, if there is a medal awarded to those who “Never give up! Never surrender!” when it comes to finishing books, then I would surely win. And I would win in a major eye-rolling contest as well, had I been given this book to read.
I almost bailed on the novel several times. In fact, I stowed “One Thousand White Women” away on my night stand in favor of another novel and fully intended to return it to the library unfinished. And if it wasn’t for a chance viewing of “Dances With Wolves” that re-sparked my interest in Native Americans circa the 1870s, I never would have picked the book back up again.
In all actuality, the research and care the author has given to the Cheyenne Indians and their tribal customs is the best part of the book. It was also the most fascinating to me because I sadly do not remember ever reading anything about Indians in such detail when I was in school (a topic for another time). He has clearly done his homework about these people and daily life, but it wasn’t enough to make the story as a whole incredibly interesting or even factually relevant. The concept of the book is extremely intriguing: it is supposedly based on an actual event where an Indian chief in the 17th Century (although the story takes place in the 19th) asked a US Colonel for 1000 white women in exchange for horses so that the Indians and Whites could properly assimilate in the new territory on account that their offspring would be of mixed blood. But Fergus takes this idea (that was also never truly acted upon that we know of) and runs with it, using the voice of one of the White women- May Dodd- as his narrator and heroine to tell the tale of what might have actually happened had this treaty gone into effect. And here is where the story goes awry.
The main reason I did not like this book- and this seems to be the consensus of EVERYONE who has reviewed the book- is that it is written by a man in the late 1990’s trying to write from a woman in the 1870’s point of view. And he fails, miserably. May Dodd, talking about herself and her emotions and feelings, is so laughably bad that I actually got quite angry at one point. She’s written as a cross between Samantha and Carrie from “Sex and the City” and in no way did I believe this was a woman from over 100 years ago (at one point he has May woefully exclaim to a fellow white woman in the Indian camp during chores that her Indian name should be “Woman in need of manicure”). Apparently the author feels that only women who are sexually enticing and adventurous can be feisty, passionate, and opinionated. I mean, come on, if you were a well-brought up woman in the Victorian era who was raised in the Church and brought up to believe sex outside of marriage is a sin and there are no role-models around you for what a healthy marriage and sex life should look like and no sex education to speak of either, and you are desperately trying to prove your sanity and that you are not a promiscuous woman, would you REALLY SAY THIS to someone who has the power to free you from a lunatic asylum:
“‘Au Contraire!’ I said, and I told the nurse of the two precious children I had already borne out of wedlock, the son and daughter, were were so cruelly torn from their mother’s bosom. ‘Indeed,’ I said, ‘so fruitful am I that if my beloved Harry Ames, Esq., simply gazed upon me with a certain romantic longing in his eyes, babes sprang from my loins like seed spilling from a grain sack’!”.
And would a woman of limited sexual education who has only had sex with one man in her life at this point in the book, REALLY have this advice to give to another woman on “carnal matters”:
“‘Oh, yes, one final thing- let him believe that he is extremely well endowed, even if, especially if, he is not’. ‘But how will I know whether or not he is well endowed?’ asked my my poor innocent Martha. ‘My dear’, I answered. ‘You do know the difference between, let us say a breakfast sausage and a bratwurst? A cornichon and a cucumber? A pencil and a pine tree?'”
Do you see what I mean when I say “Sex and the City”? In fact, I think the discussion of penis size was even a topic straight from an episode in the series. Were women of the 1870s even talking about penis size? Somehow I suspect this is a modern age concern. Plus, if you only had one lover and porn obviously wasn’t around, how would you even know how to compare one penis to another?
And what does a liberated woman of extreme passion (but who is NOT promiscuous, just another fool for love) do right after she’s freed fro the asylum to go live with the Indians as part of a government experiment? She immediately takes up with a solider as her lover, of course! The whole affair with Captain Bourke is incredibly ridiculous and unnecessary. Again, it just reminded me of how badly written May is as a character. And the other women in the book fare no better. The author’s portrayal of all the white women who participate in the experiment is so flimsy and transparent at best, and they are given no inner life. May is the only one among them who is written as showing any intellect whatsoever. And the fact that Jim Fergus felt the need to constantly write the dialogue in each woman’s dialect was cringe-inducing:
Says Gretchen Fathauer (even the name is awful), a stereotypically large Swiss German-speaking woman: “Vell, I tink de savages not be so choosy, as dat farmer yah? Sure, vy not? I make beeg, strong babies for my new hustband. Yah, I feed da whole damn nursery, yah?”
Says Meegy and Susan Kelly, Irish twins who SURPRISE, SURPRISE! are a bunch of hooligans: “It’s sartain, Susie, and that would’ve been the end of it” chimes in Margaret, “if it weren’t for that damn cash. The jeewdge went directly to his great good pal the Commissioner of Police and a manhoont the likes of which Chicago has never before seen was launched to bring the infamous Kelly twins to juicetice!”
Says Daisy Lovelace, Southern Belle and token bigot: “Why Daddy lost everythin’ during the wah, suh,”
The only person the author chose, very wisely, to not write with a regional dialect was Phemie Washington, a freed slave. Obviously, he probably would have been lambasted and critically panned for having Phemie speak like a character out of “Gone with the Wind”, but why do it to the others? Why do it all, I ask? Regardless of the character’s color and station in life, the dialogue still comes off sounding ignorant, stereotypical, and vaguely cruel.
Part of the reason I think the story suffers so is that it is too plot heavy, but I also think that the way the novel is structured was not the best way to tell the story. Using journal entries and letters, we only get to know May through May and she has an awfully high opinion of herself. And while the author is obsessed with May’s sexual appetites, apparently May herself is not too concerned about daily life as a woman in the Plains among a people and a culture that is completely foreign to her. Um, I think my first thought- and the first thought of women everywhere since the dawn of time- would be, “what do I do and where do I go when I get my period and where can I poop in private”. And wouldn’t she wonder what an Indian woman would do in this situation anyway and try to learn from her? This is not discussed (probably because men forget this happens to women every single month, and anyway, the author conveniently avoids this topic by having May and everyone else get pregnant right away), but there are several discussions about how May likes to bathe and be naked and how she likes to smell good while everyone else smells awful. Halfway through the novel, the author abandons the concept of having May write letters to her family and it is never explained why. The writing often feels clunky and uneven when it is coming strictly from May Dodd, and I wish wish wish Jim Fergus didn’t feel the need to end the book so abruptly, either!
I do have to say, in defense of the book, that it does get better as you read through it. The first half is truly awful and is the sole reason I wanted to shove this book away and never look at it again. Once he starts describing the Cheyennes and their tribe, the book picks up immensely. This is ultimately why my review is two stars and not one. It’s never a “hard” read, either, and eventually the pages flew by. But I’m left wanting something by the very end, and it makes me feel unsatisfied and just plain sad. This book could have been so much better had it been put in more capable historical-fiction-writing hands, such as Charles Frazier or Geraldine Brooks.