Even Cowgirls get the Blues, Tom Robbins

Melanie/GTL has been at me for some time to read Tom Robbins, especially Even Cowgirls and also his memoir Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life (2014); based on the partly mistaken belief that we are of similar generations and footloosedness. Partly mistaken because Robbins (b. 1932) is almost exactly the same age as my mother. An excusable mistake maybe to one so young as Melanie.

Even Cowgirls get the Blues was Robbins’ second novel, published in 1976, making it one of a number of novels which were iconic to boomer hippies but whose writers were actually of the previous generation. Two others which come immediately to mind are Catch 22 (1961) written by Joseph Heller (1923-1999) and A Woman of the Future (1979) by David Ireland (1927-2022).

Boomer hippies’ motto was ‘Free Love’ which a) wasn’t practiced anywhere as much as we pretended, nor as much as it appears to be today; and b) meant guys getting everything they’d ever dreamed of without giving much back in return. Robbins’ and Ireland’s upbringings in earlier, stricter times shows, as they adopt ‘free love’ in their fiction with prurient glee.

I wrote to Melanie: This is a novel about young women and it’s focussed almost entirely on those things about young women that men get off on. What distresses me most – and that is not too strong a term – is that he describes Sissy at age 8 (!) casually giving in to being fingered by men car drivers, and later has her describing it (being molested) as a side benefit of hitchhiking.

Before I give Melanie a chance to respond, let me say that this is a postmodern novel with a number of threads all based around Sissy Hankshaw, born in industrial West Virginia in the ‘Eisenhower years’ (1950s), whose mutated thumbs make her a hitchhiking legend.

Melanie wrote back that she was “happy to think about Sissy and her thumbs and her sexcapades this afternoon [I had thought she might be weighed down by the pressures of schoolwork]. I also read an article about a lesbian who was born without a hand and how Cowgirls resonated so deeply with her when she was 17, but now she sees the flaws in it. Nonetheless, she still recommends the book to young women.

Unfortunately, it’s a long time since Melanie read Even Cowgirls, and all she can say in response to my question is: “While I have completely erased from memory the sexual assault on Sissy when she was eight, later, when she is an adult hitchhiking, she is a willing sexual participant, and part of her confidence comes from her thumbs, which are categorized as a disability of which she is proud. In that sense, Robbins is ahead of his time.”

I can never hold the formal definitions of postmodernism in my head for very long, but this is a novel, though it is entirely about young women, which has a male voice, the voice of the author, taking the part of one of the minor characters, though I didn’t notice until he pointed it out; speaking to you the whole time, discussing what he is writing:

Or is the author trying to ease you into something here, trying to manipulate you a little bit when he ought to be just telling his story the way a good author should? Maybe that’s the case. Let’s drop it for now.

But look here a minute. Over here. Here’s a girl. She’s a nice girl. And she’s a pretty girl. he looks a bit like the young Princess Grace, had the young Princess Grace been left out in the rain for a year.

What’s that you say? Her thumbs? Yes, aren’t they magnificent? The word for her thumbs has got to be rococo – rocococototo tutti! by God.

and which has a certain playfulness in its premises – Sissy’s unreal thumbs; the two Clockworks, keeping geological time, which play no part in the story, yet are described at length; Sissy’s sometime employer (a gay guy), The Countess’s fortune built on his loathing of female odours, his feminine hygiene products empire, his beauty ranch in the Dakotas, the Rubber Rose; the rebellion, led by Bonanza Jelly Bean, which sees the ranch staffed entirely by young women who grew up wanting to be cowgirls, who deploy their unwashed bodies to chase off The Countess; a rebellion which takes a darker turn; and finally, the diversion of the migratory path of the endangered whooping crane who, initially attracted by the noisy lovemaking of Sissy and Bonanza Jelly Bean, are eventually persuaded to roost permanently on the shores of the ranch’s little lake.

What have I left out? Sissy’s off and on career modelling for The Countess; the Chink – a man of Japanese descent who has adopted ‘ironically’ the name given to him by the Indians who captured/rescued him when he escaped from wartime internment – who having been initiated into to one lot of Clockworks, has established his own in caves in the hills above the Rubber Ranch; Julian, an Ivy League educated Mohawk New Yorker who has renounced his Indian-ness just as Sissy is attemting to establish hers; who marries Sissy and then commits her to an institution; a pitched battle between the FBI and the cowgirls, over whooping cranes (!).

Of course, before the Hippies was the Beat generation, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, and while they too were taken up by boomer students, and Burroughs at least, was writing into the 80s, they were clearly of the generation before. The bible of the Beats was Kerouac’s On the Road (1951/57). Sissy’s hitchhiking is an homage to Kerouac (by Robbins) and Robbins has Sissy and Kerouac spend a night together, off stage as it were, in a sunflower field from memory, and without ‘going all the way’.

I’m glad Melanie persuaded me to read this work, it’s fun, innovative and well done. And if Robbins shows his age, which he does, then that can be largely taken in good part too – except for implying that an 8 year old can give consent – like looking at the relatively innocent pictures in an old Playboy.


Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls get the Blues, first pub. 1976. 365pp. Audible version, 1999, read by Michael Nouri. 13 hrs

City of Illusions, Ursula le Guin

Marcie/Buried in Print and I have been discussing off and on doing another read-along, and one of Marcie’s suggestions was le Guin’s Hainish cycle, which has a consistent SF universe, but a number of discrete stories.

The cycle consists of – in order of the period of their setting:
The Dispossessed (1974)
The Word for World is Forest (1972)
Rocannon’s World (1966)
Planet of Exile (1966)
City of Illusions (1967)
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994) Short story collection

The underlying story is that humans originated on Hain. That the Hainish, a peaceful race, occupied many planets, including Earth, sometimes with variants on humans who had been genetically engineered. They invented instantaneous communication, using a device called the ‘ansible’ (which name has been taken up by many SF writers since) and faster-than-light (FTL) travel, but only for objects, not for themselves. Inter-system travel for humans is possible at near the speed of light, which means that while travel may appear near instantaneous for the travellers, objectively years, and quite often centuries, have passed.

Over the (vast) period of these books, the Hainish civilization rises, as the League of All Worlds, falls back, and rises again as the Ekumen.

I’m sure those para.s above are indicative of why so many of you pass when it comes to SF, because it all seems so contrived, unnecessary and difficult to follow. For geeks like me these made up worlds allow the exploration and restatement of every day problems in new settings; and yes they provide a deal of escapism.

The importance of Ursula le Guin is that she was a major writer who chose to write within the SF genre; whose character development was unique in SF and fascinating in any context; and that she explores gender issues, ecology and cooperative systems of government in ways and to depths that are unique in any genre.

I have previously reviewed The Dispossessed, but was not meaning to preempt a possible read-along when City of Illusions fell to hand (I was actually looking for Gaskell’s Ruth to do a long promised review, but it’s in hiding – a common occurrence when I move books so that they will be closer when I need them). I’ll go ahead with this one now and in a year or two no doubt, Marcie and I and anyone else who wishes to join in will knock off the rest. In fact, just a few hours before I posted this, Lou (Louloureads) posted a review of The Word for World is Forest.

‘My’ copy, with the cover above, cheaply bound, pages yellowing with age, is inscribed to Milly, Mothers Day 1984 – a recent work from our favourite author, as I was just starting a new job after a period out of work, and we were living in a rental in Blackburn (Melbourne), with three children under seven, while we looked for a house to buy, which we did shortly after.

The period of this book, it becomes clear, is two thousand years in our future. The League of all Worlds has been attacked and has pulled back. Earth is ruled by a human-looking race called the Shing from the city of Es Toch – a wonderfully imagined city of transparent buildings which appears to have been constructed over the Grand Canyon. The people of Continent One (North America of course) are few, isolated into small communities and are living primitively, though with some remnants of their earlier civilization, in particular laser guns which don’t appear to need recharging.

“What do we really know of the time of our greatness? A few names of worlds and heroes, a ragtag of facts we’ve tried to patch into history. The Shing law forbids killing, but they killed knowledge, they burned books, and what may be worse, they falsified what was left. They slipped in the Lie, as always.”

The story commences in the vast Eastern Forest. A man with strange yellow eyes, intelligent, but entirely without memories emerges into a clearing. The community there, the house of Zove, even with their rudimentary telepathy, cannot know if the man is an idiot, or a Shing pretending amnesia, or a tool of the Shing, or a victim, a man whose brain has been wiped. But they take him in, give him a name, Falk, teach him, he becomes the partner of the teenage daughter of the house.

Falk and Zove determine that Falk must go on, alone, that his arrival at Zove’s house was but the first part in a long journey, and so Falk sets out, walking, to cross the continent to Es Toch.

This then, or at least the middle part of the novel, is the story of a long pilgrimage, as was Le Guin’s following, better known, work, The Left Hand of Darkness. In that, Le Guin used the shared ordeal to interrogate notions of gender. Here, the ordeal is not always shared, though it is at the end, and what Le Guin is exploring is Truth and Lies. What can be believed? Falk decides early on that he must take the stance of always telling the truth, that only then will he have a basis for detecting the deceits of others.

Falk finally comes to the edge of the Eastern Forest on the banks of the Great River, crosses over to the Prairies, gains a companion, walks and walks, together they cross into the mountains, and so he comes to Es Toch.

There he discovers that the Shing can Mindlie – lie telepathically – and he must work his way through that. Yes, this is in part an adventure novel, and is only in small parts concerned with relationships. All the author’s focus is on Falk and how he deals with, how he thinks through, the problems he must confront. We do not end with a great victory, just another step forward in a long journey.

I can’t at this late stage in your reading lives persuade you to began reading le Guin, but I love her, her work, her insights, her stories, and I was very glad to be back here, in this small corner of her universe, after an absence of nearly 40 years.


Ursula K le Guin, City of Illusions, Ace Science Fiction Books, New York, 1976. 217pp.

see also:
The Dispossessed (theaustralianlegend)
The Word for World is Forest (Louloureads)

Recitatif, Toni Morrison

North America Project 2022

I should at this point be reviewing Morrison’s Paradise (1998), which I listened to and enjoyed one or two weeks ago. I should in fact be reviewing something else altogether, and have reviewed Paradise last month, but I have dropped behind and my North America project will have to end on eleven books rather than twelve. Not that I haven’t been inspired to go on reading much more Black and First Nations North American Lit. than I have been hitherto.

Paradise will get its review eventually, when I have listened to it again, have time to do it justice, and hopefully, have some material to quote from. So, on to Recitatif.

Recitatif is Toni Morrison’s only published short story, first published in Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women (1983). The volume I have, pictured above, is a hardback published this year by the Penguin/Random House group, and includes an introductory essay – at 45pp, 8 or 9 pages longer than the story itself – by Zadie Smith, a Black English writer and professor in creative writing at NYU.

The fact that there is only one Morrison short story seems of a piece with with her oeuvre. There are no dashed-off Morrison pieces, no filler novels, no treading water, no exit off the main road. There are eleven novels and one short story, all of which she wrote with specific aims and intentions.

Smith, Introduction

It seems the “aim and intention” of this story was to tell of two girls growing into women, one African American and one white, without specifying which was which. I guess that was the aim, and the intention was to spark debate about how we tell one group of people from another.

I read the story two or three weeks ago, without thinking it might be the focus of my review. So last night I read Smith’s essay and this morning I re-read the story and if I didn’t take actual notes, I at least marked pages I might like to quote from. Smith writes a great deal – it’s interesting and worth reading – about how specific sentences of Recitatif might be read and the difficulty of drawing conclusions from them.

Briefly, two girls, Twyla and Roberta, are placed in a home, St Bonny’s, on the same day, share a room, and are forced by the situation they share to become friends for the four months they remain there. The opening lines of the story are: “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.” So we understand that the girls are not orphans, but that their mothers are unable to care for them. Then, within a page, Morrison writes: “.. it was something else to be stuck in a strange place with a girl from a whole other race.”

We were eight years old and got F’s all the time. Me because I couldn’t remember what I read or what the teacher said. And Roberta because she couldn’t read at all and didn’t even listen to the teacher … We didn’t like each other much at first, but nobody wanted to play with us because we weren’t real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky. We were dumped.

I must say that it was my assumption throughout my first reading that it was Twyla who was black and Roberta who was white, and that this assumption came from their names, and from Twyla being the narrator – in my mind, standing in for the author, who is of course African American, though Smith says that Morrison’s fiction tends not to be autobiographical. Smith also says that most Black readers think it is Twyla who is black, and most white readers think it is Roberta.

One of the problems for (white) foreigners like me is that the cues Morrison uses – names, food, behaviours, suburbs, speech – convey a lot more to Americans than they can possibly to anyone else.

Most of the girls at St Bonny’s were bigger: “put-out girls, scared runaways most of them. Poor little girls who fought their uncles off but looked tough to us, and mean.” They hung out in the orchard where they played their radios, smoked and danced. And chased off the little girls.

In an incident which in retrospect is central to this story, the kitchen woman, Maggie, who is odd and apparently mute, falls down in the orchard on her way to catch the bus, and no-one helps her get up.

Years later …

I was working behind the counter at the Howard Johnson’s on the Thruway just before the Kingston exit. Not a bad job. Kind of a long ride from Newburgh ..

That is a couple of lines full of race and class cues which mean nothing to me. I should look up every capitalized word. Smith discusses Newburgh at some length. It is apparently a once thriving locality outside New York city, hollowed out by the flight of industry to the south and overseas.

Twyla sees Roberta sitting at a table with two male friends. They speak only briefly. Roberta and the guys are on their way to the ‘Coast’ where one of them has “an appointment with Hendrix”.

Another twelve years later, Twyla is married, still living in Newburgh and bumps into Roberta shopping in a new mall. Roberta, also married, is living nearby in Annandale, “a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives.” This time they are happy to see each other. They reminisce:

Remember Maggie? The day she fell down and those gar girls [gargoyles – the older girls] laughed at her?
Roberta looked up from her salad and stared at me. “Maggie didn’t fall … Those girls pushed her down and tore her clothes.”

Bussing starts, Twyla and Roberta end up on opposing picket lines. They get into an argument:

“Maybe I am different now, Twyla. But you’re not. You’re the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was on the ground…” What was she saying? Black? Maggie wasn’t black… “Like hell she wasn’t, and you kicked her. We both did. You kicked a black lady who couldn’t even scream.”

The next time, the last time in the story, they meet, Roberta apologizes. She’s no longer sure Maggie was black. The gar girls did the kicking. They, the little girls, were watching, wanting to join in.

So did Morrison want us to enter into a guessing game, which girl is black? I don’t think so. I think she wanted to say that there are other things which join us, separate us. Circumstances. Class. Either way, she tells an amazingly detailed story in just 40 pages.


Toni Morrison, Recitatif, first pub. 1983. This edition, with Introduction by Zadie Smith, Chatto & Windus, London, 2022

Miles Franklin in America

Miles Franklin lived and worked in the US from 1906 to 1915, from ages 27 to 36. If she was ever going to get married this was the time. When she left Australia she was probably engaged to her cousin Edwin Bridle – going by his letters he certainly believed so – and her feeling of being trapped is probably one of her motivations for going.

On the ship over to San Francisco and on her travels through California, Nevada, Colorado, until finally coming to a stop in Chicago, she no doubt flirted furiously, she always flirted furiously, and received a number of proposals of marriage, not least from a circus strongman who wanted her to run away with him.

In Chicago, Franklin was employed by and mixed in the society of upper class women supporting suffragism and working women’s sometimes violent struggle against their employers. But she found time for night school, opera and dining out. For a while she was dating two playboy brothers, one of them married, plus another man, inevitably called ‘Fred’, all three apparently willing to marry her.

She wrote one time that if she married it would only be “to satisfy curiosity”; and another time that virtuous women could behave outrageously because they knew in their hearts they were pure. In the one novel of hers we have from the US years, On Dearborn Street, Franklin concludes that marriage, for her anyway, can only be with a man whom she is sure is also ‘pure’. Inevitably she remained single.

At some level, all of the books Franklin wrote up until she was about 40 are about the tension between “satisfying curiosity” and retaining her independence.

My post this month in the AWWC is more about Franklin’s work than her love life, but I hope you read on anyway …

AWWC: Miles Franklin in America
AWWC: Miles Franklin, The Old Post (short story)

Their Eyes were watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

North America Project 2022

A hurricane is ripping through the night. Three or four African-American workers are huddled in a shack in the Florida Everglades, waiting for the levees holding back the waters to give way, or the roof and the walls shielding them from the crashing rain to disappear. Hurston writes, they were not staring into the dark, “their eyes were watching God”.

I listened to this seminal American novel yesterday (as I write), driving down from Port Hedland, and now I must get my thoughts down on ‘paper’ before they disappear into the ether. Their Eyes were watching God (1937) was Hurston’s second novel. I reviewed her first, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) – a fictionalized account of her father’s life – a couple of years ago, and concluded by hoping that her next would have a female protagonist, and here we are.

I can’t tell you how the novel begins because a lot of it is dialogue and the dialogue is all dialect and it takes a while before you (I) work out what is being said, but once you do it flows. Anyway, the beginning doesn’t matter, it’s mostly just Janie and Phoebe talking, and then we get Janie’s story and Janie grows up and does life and goes away and finally comes back and sits down and talks to Phoebe and we’re back where we started.

What interested me most about the dialogue was why did Hurston choose to write that way. Maybe two thirds of the narrative is carried forward by discussions between the main characters; but more than that, secondary characters and secondary issues are also accorded great chunks of dialogue. Hurston is writing/recording talk for talk’s sake: describing the give and take during card games, or all the teasing the completely peripheral Matt suffers about the way he treats his mule.

It is clear that Hurston is saying ‘I am Black and this is what being Black sounds like’. I can’t tell from my limited American reading how close Hurston is to the beginning of Black American Literature, but she must be pretty close. And she is highly educated; an anthropologist; her chosen field is, I think, poor rural Blacks in the South; she is a poet (and playwright); and you would imagine that she is well-read, thoughtful about Modernism, about innovation in literature to more closely represent Black modes of thought and speech.

Hurston (1891-1960) grew up in the self-governed, all-Black community of Eatonville, Florida. Despite some disruptions, especially to her high school education, she made her way to Howard University, where she got her first degree at age 29, and then to Barnard College at Columbia University.

When Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925, the Harlem Renaissance was at its zenith, and she soon became one of the writers at its center. Shortly before she entered Barnard, Hurston’s short story “Spunk” was selected for The New Negro, a landmark anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays focusing on African and African-American art and literature. In 1926, a group of young black writers including Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman, calling themselves the Niggerati, produced a literary magazine called Fire!! that featured many of the young artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.


I haven’t read Langston Hughes, and I know I should. And I really haven’t read much on Hurston, except Melanie/GTL on Hurston’s collections of Southern Black folk stories. But my impression at this point in my reading is that Hurston is a thoughtful and innovative writer; not just writing about Black people, her people; but writing with all the rhythms and poetry of everyday Southern Black speech. The working poor had been making their way into Eng.Lit. over the previous century (starting with North and South?) but I wish the US had a Trove (searchable database of all Australian newspapers) and I could see how critics responded to this overthrowing of all the white, middle class values Eng.Lit. holds so dear.

The story, as distinct from the writing, is of a young rural woman, Janie, brought up by her grandmother when her mother deserts her. It stands out in the story-telling that Janie is a quiet, reserved girl, only slowly, over the space of twenty years growing into assertive, independent womanhood; and that you are not told this, but feel it in her speech as she matures.

I’m sure most of you know the story, those of you educated in America will no doubt have dissected it at length. Briefly, her grandmother, dying, worried how Janie will get on without her, marries her off to an older farmer. The farmer treats Janie as just another useful farm animal (Janie is attractive but sex is rarely even implied, let alone discussed). Janie runs off with another guy, Jody Starks.

Starks takes her to Eatonville where he is soon the store owner, property developer and mayor. Janie is expected to work in the store, which she doesn’t enjoy, but is also expected to be a cut above the townspeople when she would rather be of them.

The years pass. Starks dies leaving Janie well off. A handsome younger conman, Tea Cake, courts her and she goes off with him, happily enduring the ups and downs of his erratic life. They end up picking beans in the Everglades. There’s the hurricane, graphically described. And the novel, as I said, draws to an end with Janie returning to Eatonville.

At this point, two thirds of the way through my North American project, I am finding the First Nations/Indigenous writing flat, relatively unemotional, though the stories are important, and the African-American writing vibrant, full of life and poetry. And yes, I’m generalizing off a very small sample. Hurston, like James Baldwin, doesn’t include white characters in her story, but has them off at a distance, a malevolent other; as when, for instance, white men round up Black men to bury the dead after the hurricane, the whites in coffins and the Blacks in mass graves.

Of course, racism is the common theme of the project, the constant reality of Black and Indigenous life under settler colonialism. So while I am enjoying the writing, I am also feeling less and less certain about what I can do, as a settler, to make a difference (and Albomp embracing Shaq O’Neal to promote the Voice to Parliament doesn’t help).


Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes were watching God, first pub. 1937. Audiobook – Harper Audio, 2004, read by Ruby Dee. 6 hrs 44 min.

Just Above My Head, James Baldwin

North America Project 2022

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was one of the great novelists I’m sure. But for reasons of my own I didn’t read Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) for my matric (year 12), and though I did read many years ago, and still own, Giovanni’s Room (1956) I didn’t like it. They were his first two novels. I’ve now listened to Just Above My Head (1979), his sixth and last and thought it a work of genius.

I wrote that introduction a few weeks ago, so over the last couple of days, on my way down from North Queensland, I’ve listened again, and liked it just as much. The novel is ostensibly the story of a gay Black gospel singer, Arthur Montana, during the years of the US Civil Rights Movement, the 1950s and 60s, as told by his older brother, Hall.

Hall, himself, at the beginning of the fifth and final ‘book’, says something like “I set out to write a poem of praise for my brother, and inevitably I wrote about myself.” What I think Baldwin wanted, and succeeded in doing, was to spell out to the world the condition of the Black man at this time in America by focusing on two closely connected pairs of siblings – Hall and Arthur, Julia and Jimmy, growing up in Harlem but whose parents have come up from the South – mostly through the eyes of Hall, but sometimes through Arthur’s eyes using the device “he later told me”.

Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Daniel saw the stone that was rolled into Babylon
Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Tearing down the kingdom of this world!

As a reader I would have skipped this and gone straight to the beginning of the text, which would have been a mistake. Baldwin has infused the whole novel with driving rhythms, taken from gospel singing and gospel preaching. There is a lot of music in this book, discussed and quoted. Hall says at one point, “Look for the beat. And look for the beat underneath.”

A while ago, I wrote that Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Christina Stead’s Letty Fox (1946) appeared to indicate that there was a New York school of writing in the 1940s and 50s characterised by an unstoppable flow of words. Baldwin appears to be of this school, and to have taken it to a new level. Whole sections of the novel aren’t descriptions of speech and action at all, but bursts of words, reinforced by repetition, setting an atmosphere.

The damn’d blood burst, first through the nostrils, then pounded through the veins in his neck, the scarlet torrent exploded through his mouth, it reached his eyes and blinded him, and brought Arthur down, down, down, down, down.

And so the book begins, with a hymn and with Arthur’s death, alone in the basement toilet of a pub in London.

Hall is writing from the perspective of a couple of years later. He is settled, with a wife and teenage children. They are visiting Julia, who was once his lover. Jimmy, Julia’s little brother and Arthur’s lover for the 14 years up to his death, walks in and is welcomed home. Julia gets out a photo albumn and so the whole story is told in Book 1, and Books 2,3,4,5 are enhancements, reinforcement, repetition.

I wish, wish, wish I had the book beside me on this truckstop table. It deserves a much more detailed – and loving – treatment than I am able to give it here. As I have implied, it is a mighty work of poetry, 20 hours or so, which is of course a credit to the reader, Kevin Kenerly, who interprets, sustains it over that considerable time, interestingly, playing down the song lyrics quoted and playing up the rhythms and variations in force of Baldwin’s writing.

We go back 30 odd years, to the late 1940s, Hall and Arthur are with their parents at a church service to see Julia, a child prodigy, preach, and Arthur sing. Hall’s father, a pianist, plays accompaniment. Julia’s father, a spiv, reads the lesson.

“Amen”, said Julia. “Now that was David talking. You all know who David was? David wrote these psalms and I believe they was put to music in the olden times and the people just sang and made a joyful noise unto the Lord with the psalms. This is David talking, and you know who David was? Well David went out one day looking for this wicked giant … You all still don’t know who David was? David was a shepherd boy, he fed the hungry sheep! I hear some of you saying, Who was this David? tell me more about this David! Well David was a king …”

The two families go back to the Montana’s apartment for dinner and so we become engrossed in their lives. Julia’s mother dies. Jimmy is sent down south to his grandmother. Julia stays, is her father’s support. Arthur and his friends form a Gospel singing group, tour down south. Hall is called up to fight in Korea. We don’t follow him, all the action remains in New York and in the South.

Julia is beaten senseless by her father. Julia preaches her last service with Arthur once again singing. Julia falls out of the story for a while, living quietly with Jimmy and her grandmother, reappears in New York as a model as Hall gets home from Korea.

Every Black person is described in the degrees and shades of their colour. Until near the end, when Arthur has a white lover in Paris, there are no white people in the story at all, other than Klanners down South.

The terror, the danger, for Black people, Northerners, of even driving through the South is visceral. There are rapes and murders. But all along the focus is on the central four. Arthur tours, sings within the frame of the Civil Rights Movement, some of their friends go off to join Malcolm X, but the focus is tight, we are not told about the movement, or about racism. We feel it.


James Baldwin, Just above my Head, first pub. 1979. Audiobook: Blackstone, 2016, read by Kevin Kenerly. 21 hours

see also these reviews from Emma/Book around the Corner:
Go Tell it on the Mountain (here) “Interesting, but difficult to read”
Giovanni’s Room (here) “Another Baldwin masterpiece”
Going to meet the Man (here) “A Must Read”
If Beale Street Could Talk (here) “A Must Read”
A Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou (here) “An ode to James Baldwin”

The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich

North America Project 2022

This is an area in which I am a novice, so we’ll start at the beginning. Louise Erdrich (1954 -) “is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians [known as Métis in Canada], a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa)” from North Dakota (map)(Wiki).

The Métis are of mixed Indigenous and French (‘Voyageur’) ancestry, becoming a distinct group by the mid-19th century, during the fur trade era. I touched on this during my review of RM Ballantyne’s The Young Fur Traders, which is set in the 1840s in the Canadian states over the border from North Dakota.

Erdrich is of course a successful and well-known author, who has written 18 or so novels, seemingly all set in one or two fictional North Dakota Indigenous communities. The Plague of Doves (2008) is the first of three in the ‘Justice trilogy’ – the other two are The Round House (2012) and LaRose (2016).

Let’s get ‘the plague of doves’ out of the way. The novel consists of a series of stories over the space of a hundred or so years, told by four present-day narrators. So we begin with Evelina, the central character, telling her 100 year old grandfather, Mooshum’s story of when he was an altar boy for his Catholic priest step-brother. The town was blanketed in doves which ate everything and which the townspeople would trap, shoot, eat until they were sick of them.

The doves of this legend are Passenger Pigeons “which migrated in enormous flocks, constantly searching for food, shelter, and breeding grounds, and was once the most abundant bird in North America, numbering around 3 billion, and possibly up to 5 billion.” They are now extinct.

Mooshum then 12 or 13, runs off with his best friend, a girl, into the badlands, where they find a protector and after some years marry and return home. When the novel begins Mooshum is a widower living with Evelina’s family and Evelina is a teenager.

The stories which Mooshum, and his brother, Shamengwa, tell Evelina and Evelina’s ‘present-day’ story all slowly reveal connections, this is after all a relatively small community. So Evelina’s ‘boyfriend’ in primary school is Corwin Peace, who fades in and out of the narrative as Evelina becomes an adult, but for instance he is saved from juvenile delinquency by Shamengwa who teaches him to play the violin (and the violin has its own, complicated story).

The story around which all other stories revolve occurred when Mooshum was young. A white farming family is slaughtered. Mooshum and some friends are first on the scene a couple of days later. They discover a baby has survived and they give it some milk. Elements in the white community get up a lynching party and three men/boys with Moochum are hanged but he is spared.

Evelina then has to deal with the fact that her favourite teacher at the convent school is the niece of two men in the lynching party.

The second narrator, the Judge, first tells the story of the founding of the town, Pluto, which is on land illegally carved out of an Indian reservation; and then his story begins to run into Evelina’s as he and Evelina’s aunt become lovers and then husband and wife.

The third narrator, Marn Wolde’s story appears disconnected for a while. She runs off from home with a preacher, Billy Peace and they build up a following elsewhere. But eventually they are back in Pluto, and Billy establishes his congregation on her family land. When that relationship comes to a bloody end we find Marn and Evelina working in the same diner.

I probably have some of this out of order, as I no longer have access to the book which I listened to first on the way over to Melbourne and then again on the way home (and loved it both times).

The fourth and final narrator is Dr. Cordelia Lochren, who it turns out is the baby who survived the massacre. Though somewhere in there, Evelina gets at least one more go as she drops out of college, begins working in the state mental institution, where she has a breakdown and becomes a voluntary inmate. Until Corwin comes to visit her and they walk out together.

I was happiest with The Plague of Doves as Evelina’s coming of age, some of the other stuff I found distracting. But Erdrich obviously intends it to be more. Many readers seem to see the murder and lynching as central – that the main story is of how 80 years later a whole community still revolves around the family killed, the lynchers and the lynched.

What strikes me most is what a middle-class book this is. These are college educated towns people, teachers, lawyers, social workers, doctors. This is not a bad thing, but it is a long way from the fiery, underclass fiction of Marie Munkara say. But as in Munkara, there is a simmering sense of underlying injustice, of isolation from the outside, white world; and also of the links, of parentage, of action, acknowledged and unacknowledged, between members of the community, white and Indigenous.

Erdrich’s writing doesn’t fire me up. From that point of view I much preferred last month’s Nalo Hopkinson. But she writes a complex, involving story which I really must read again, and its sequels.


Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves, 2008. Harper Audio read by Kathleen McInerney, Peter Francis James. 11 hours.

Upcoming books for North America Project 2022
May: Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers
June: Zora Neale Thurston, Their Eyes were watching God

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (2)

North America Project 2022

Continuing on from Melanie’s essay, Malcolm X was one of those names emblematic of the great revolution occurring in America in the sixties when I went up to university in far away Melbourne, Australia. But my interest was in the anti-Vietnam War movement and I couldn’t have told you anything about Malcolm X the man except maybe the words ‘Black Rights’ and ‘Nation of Islam’.

So basically it has taken me half a century, and a big shove from Melanie, to rectify that, to listen to Malcolm X’s life on Audible (read by Laurence Fishburne).

Although the cover above – I wonder if it is the original – doesn’t say so, the autobiography is an “as told to” compiled by Alex Haley, a decade later the author of Roots, from interviews conducted with Malcolm X in 1963,4. Haley was a journalist and the style of writing reflects that, clear and straightforward with no literary flourishes. Wikipedia (here) gives a very good account of the “as told to” process, and while it is clear Malcolm X maintained control over the content, the construction and writing is all Haley’s.

Malcolm Little was born in 1925, the fourth of seven children, and grew up in Lansing, Michigan. His father, a preacher, had his his house burned down and was subsequently bashed and pushed under a streetcar, officially suicide, but more likely the work of white racists. This was the Depression and without the father’s income the family were in desperate poverty. Under constant harassment by state welfare, the mother had a breakdown and the children were dispersed to orphanages and foster homes.

As an older teenage Malcolm moved to Boston, to his older half-sister Ella who lived in the relatively middle class Black suburb, Roxbury. Malcolm I’m sure appreciated Ella’s support, but throughout the book he is scathing about Blacks with even a little bit of money, who are ‘Tame Negroes’, if I remember the wording correctly, more concerned with integrating into white America than they are with asserting themselves.

Malcolm got into the fringes of the Black music industry, graduating from a shoeshine stand to marijuana supplier, becoming a notable lindy hop dancer, hooking up white men and black women and vice versa, and ending up with a white (later married) middle class girlfriend of his own, of whom he is completely contemptuous.

When the US enters WWII he manages to dodge the draft, dope dealing becomes difficult, and he forms a burglary gang, with his white girlfriend and her teenage sister scouting for likely targets, until they are finally caught. Malcolm believes that the appropriate sentence would have been two years but because white women were involved he got ten.

In jail he resumes his education, mainly through extensive non-fiction reading, and becomes a follower of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, which preaches obedience to Allah with Elijah as his most recent prophet. There’s a lot of sciency stuff about the origins of mankind, Black of course, in Africa, to which I paid little attention. As a religion it seems unexceptional, arguing against Integration for a separation of the races. Socially, it was very conservative, the husband ruled his family, and adulterers and pregnant single women were expelled.

Interestingly, Malcolm and all the preachers, were given the surname X to signify their disowning of the surnames which their slave forbears had taken from their owners.

Malcolm rose through the ranks, setting up new congregations throughout America. Eventually he was made the leader of the Harlem congregation, and there became a prominent spokesman in the national press, while Elijah Muhammad and his sons established The Nation of Islam’s headquarters in Chicago.

Malcolm X’s increasing prominence, and the discovery that Elijah Muhammad had been getting all his secretaries pregnant led to a break, followed by Malcolm making a pilgrimage to Mecca and being taken up there by ‘official’ Islam.

The autobiography ends with him still speaking highly of Nation of Islam but attempting to set up his own organization while living in anticipation of attacks from his former fellows.


Malcolm X, Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, first pub. 1965

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when a man shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun and two other men charged the stage firing semi-automatic handguns. Malcolm X was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm, shortly after arriving at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The autopsy identified 21 gunshot wounds to the chest, left shoulder, arms and legs, including ten buckshot wounds from the initial shotgun blast.

One gunman, Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer (also known as Thomas Hagan), was beaten by the crowd before police arrived. Witnesses identified the others as Nation members Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. These three were convicted and given life sentences. Hayer disputed Butler and Thomas’ involvement and named four others who were never charged. Butler and Johnson were finally pardoned in 2021, well after they had been released on parole. (Wiki) (NYT).

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

North America Project 2022

My friend Melanie at Grab the Lapels is an American, a generation younger than me and was for some years a professor teaching creative writing where she would use Malcolm X’s story “as told to Alex Haley” as a teaching aid. She persuaded me to include it in my reading North American Black and First Nations writers project this year with the promise to write up her own experience. And here it is…

In the U.S. we are incapable of acknowledging our history and healing from it. When the oppressed have had enough, they make a lot of noise, leaving conservatives confounded. After so many years of Confederate soldier statues scattered throughout the country, especially in the South, why are protestors mad now? Does it desecrate the memory of a war leader whom some revere that others see as a symbol of hatred? History belongs in a museum, activists said. And when conservatives did not listen, activists turned to property damage, toppling monuments and leaving them in pieces. Is not a decorated white leader someone to turn to when racism makes a racist feel bad?

I began my education in 1990, and not once during that time can I recall hearing the name Malcolm X. A contemporary of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X could not be packaged nicely like the wise Southern pastor who included men and women, black and white, Southern and Northern in his group of supporters. In contrast, Malcolm X felt that African Americans do not want to live where they are not wanted and advocated for reparations in the form of land for the descendants of slaves. Any effort to integrate was a ruse, he thought, a way for “the white man” or “the white devil” to infiltrate black neighborhoods, steal their resources and abuse the residents, and then leave for the white side of town.

The fight over Critical Race Theory raging in the U.S. today appears to lean into the idea that white children will be made to feel bad if they learn that adults who look like they do were also adults who did everything in their physical, legal, and financial power to exploit human beings based on the darker color of their skin. Malcolm X begins his autobiography, as told to Alex Haley, with a story from before he was born. While his father was out of town, the local KKK attacked Malcolm’s mother and older siblings. Only her pregnancy — that was Malcolm — kept them from murdering the family. Later, under suspicious conditions, Malcolm’s father is found beheaded, but because it was set up to look like a suicide by train tracks, the insurance company did not pay out on the father’s life insurance plan. Plummeting into starvation and incessant visits from white social workers who attempted to pit the children against their mother left Malcolm’s mom in a mental health crisis from which she never recovered.

Sometimes life is so awful it’s hard to believe the stories of those who experience blatant discrimination, but Malcolm X writes a convincing narrative explaining how his youth, from his parents being torn apart to teachers discouraging him from learning because he’s just a black kid, led him into a remorseless young adult life of crime. Righteous folks like to claim we always have an option, but a person’s environment has loads to say about his level of education, empathy, and experience. After his time as a numbers runner, drug dealer, and then thief who dared cavort with white women, Malcom X was sent to prison where he learned to read, devoured the well-stocked prison library, and found the Nation of Islam. The NoI, developed by a black African American man from the South, is a form of Islam that Malcolm later realizes Middle Eastern Muslims to not recognize as true Islam.

Between his studies in prison and discovering that the NoI was not what he thought, Malcolm X developed intellectual political, economic, and social theories about how “the white man” is “the devil” harming the black community. Nothing he saw nor experienced proved contrary. Using the rhetorical savvy of a lawyer and supported by ten years of intense study of languages, history, and philosophy while incarcerated, Malcolm X exploded into the media, terrifying white people with his “hateful” statements about white communities. He served as an antithesis to Dr. King, an example of what an “angry black man” looks like when folks should just all get along (and be compliant). For as much as Malcolm X was in the media, to not know his name after I attended public education is baffling until I think back to how Malcolm X supported segregation. He doesn’t fit into a warm and fuzzy narrative about slavery being over, about how the Civil Rights Movement made everything alright and we can now feel good about our white selves.

After Malcolm X took his first trip to Mecca and learned about true Islam, which had worshippers from every country and skin color, he completely changed his mind. The white man is not the devil, he realized. “White” is a state of mind, not a skin color, hence the “Uncle Tom’s” in politics. And so why did I, a white woman in her thirties, teach The Autobiography of Malcolm X for five years, semester after semester? What would compel me to give this book as a gift at high school graduation parties rather than the expected $20? The ability to change with more information.

In the U.S. change is a slur we use to shame people we don’t like. We call them wishy-washy, flip-floppy, and even suggest they are lying. We hold a record of change against public figures, especially politicians and how they voted, even if it was twenty years ago. But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that with more information comes a need to change. Doubling down on facts from last year, last month, last week, even, could kill us. But looking at the bigger picture, holding fast to outdated information has led Americans to a stubborn place marked by ignorance. And if I can teach change through the narrative of a prolific American leader and thinking like Malcolm X, if only one person at a time, I’ll do it for as long as I can.


Malcolm X, Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X , first pub.1965

Thank you Melanie. I’ll put up my own review in a couple of days, Bill

Kindred, Octavia Butler

North America Project 2022

First, an apology to anyone who took me at my word that my first up read for Project 2022 would be ZNH’s Their Eyes were watching God. I meant it to be. I bought the audiobook. But when I was halfway through January with no work, no driving in sight I gave up on my chances of getting to Their Eyes and instead began reading Kindred which I had on my shelves (with the cover pictured, from Headline, London).

Of course, as soon as I was halfway through Kindred, I got a job, which turned into two jobs, one up the coast and one back, both overwidth so no nighttime travel, a day in between, plenty of time for reading. What did I listen to? Something stupid and an Amanda Lohrey, The Philosopher’s Doll.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was an African American woman, brought up by her widowed mother in racially diverse Pasadena, California where her mother cleaned houses for white folks and put up with a lot of shit.

The Octavia Butler site features the quote “I write about people who do extraordinary things. It just turned out it was called science fiction.” But in fact Butler was drawn to SF at an early age, through SF magazines, had her own typewriter at 10, and was soon writing SF of her own. In the late 1960s she worked days to put herself through college at night, graduated, went on to writing courses through UCLA Extension, and from there, recommended by lecturer and SF writer Harlan Ellison, to the Science Fiction writers workshop at Clarion, Pennsylvania where she met and became lifelong friends with (African American) SF writer Samuel R Delany.

The first half of the 1970s Butler describes as “five more years of rejection slips and horrible little jobs … before I sold another word.” But she had already begun work on the ‘Patternist’ series of novels, and after the publication of Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977) and Survivor (1978) she was able to write full time. You can only imagine how fiercely determined Butler must have been, to start writing, to get through school and college, and then to break into the man’s world, the white man’s world, of Science Fiction.

I have reviewed her later novels, Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) but I probably knew her before then for Lilith’s Brood, the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). If these are no longer on my shelves I blame my son whose taste in SF is impeccable.

Kindred (1979) is an exploration of why and how slaves put up with what they did, sparked in the first place by seeing what her mother had to put up with. Interestingly Roots, which of course deals with the same issues, and which I read and wrote about last year, came out as a book in 1976, followed by the immensely popular TV series a year later, so two or three years before Kindred. But I haven’t seen any discussion that this is where Butler got her inspiration.

Despite my great admiration for Butler, I was initially disappointed that she was using SF in Kindred as just the frame for another Historical Fiction account of slavery in early nineteenth century American cotton fields. But of course Butler is cleverer than that. The novel covers a few months in 1976 in the life of Dana, an African American woman and her white husband, Kevin, just another middle class couple in California, both writers, late twenties; or a few years if you count the time, the times, they spend on a Maryland cotton plantation in the years before the Civil War.

The room seemed to blur and darken around me. I stayed on my feet for a moment holding on to a bookcase and wondering what was wrong … I heard [Kevin] move toward me, saw a blur of gray pants and blue shirt. Then, just before he would have touched me, he vanished.
The house, the books, everything vanished. Suddenly, I was outdoors kneeling on the ground beneath trees. I was in a green place. I was at the edge of a woods.

There is a child, a white boy of four or five, drowning in a pond. Dana pulls him out, fends off the hysterical mother, begins mouth to mouth. Successfully, luckily. This boy, Rufus, is, or will be, her great great grandfather.

It’s a complex story and Butler uses it well to discuss complex issues. The Sf element is that each time Rufus is in danger he drags Dana back through time (and across the width of the continent) to save him. Each time she is in danger she returns to 1976, to within a few minutes or hours of when she left. If Kevin is touching her he goes with her. And if he’s not he doesn’t, which leaves him one time stranded in the nineteenth century for a ten years, from his point of view.

Dana, works out from her family history her relationship to Rufus, and intuits that his friend, Alice, the daughter of a freed Black family must be her great great grandmother. The thing is to keep saving Rufus until Alice has a child by him. Butler uses Dana’s status as a Black twentieth century feminist to interrogate black-white, and master-slave relationships.

Dana comes to see Rufus’ father in more and more nuanced terms but nevertheless she ends up being whipped by him not once but twice.

As they reach adulthood Alice takes a husband, but Rufus wants her for his mistress. The husband is sold down south, and then Rufus attempts to force Dana to persuade Alice that she has no choice.

We criticize Hist.Fic. authors for writing with modern eyes, but by framing Kindred as SF this is exactly what Butler does, with devastating effect. A wonderful, powerful novel.


Octavia E Butler, Kindred, first pub. 1979. My edition published by Headline, London, 2018 with Foreword by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀. 295pp.