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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Questions of Categories

Wednesday, Mackinac Bridge

Brown: The Last Discovery of America, by Richard Rodriguez, is a loose meditation, sometimes almost free association of thoughts, on purity’s opposites, that is, mixing, confusion, and ambiguity. Lines of skin color, “race,” ethnicity, gender, nationality, etc. are all questioned. “Brown” as a category is turned upside-down, “Hispanic” investigated and found wanting, as is the very project of sorting human beings into mutually exclusive categories.

I finished the Rodriguez book on the eve of our departure and the next day picked up what would be my reading for the next few days. There was no plan to the selection, only happenstance, and yet, as it happened, the next two books continued the journey begun with Rodriguez.

Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker, by Carolyn Meyer, is an imaginative fictional account, written for young people, of the life of the mother of Quanah Parker following what I will call her recapture by whites after she had been taken as a child by Comanches in a raid and lived with them and as one of them for twenty-five years, growing up, marrying, and bearing three children. She was recaptured with her baby daughter. In the novel, she is taken to live with a brother who had escaped the raid a quarter-century earlier. When that brother’s wife becomes too unhappy with her presence, she is taken to live with another surviving brother.

But the child captured in the raid had grown to girlhood and womanhood as what white people called “Comanche,” and her language and all ways of living were of the People. Was she then “white”? In Meyer’s fictional account, imagined from the barest known facts (and even these contested, which is why I call the book imaginative rather than historical fiction or fictional biography), the sisters-in-law with whom she comes involuntarily to live -- first one then another -- say no, repeatedly objecting to her presence in the family and calling her a “savage.” The strange woman they insist on calling “Cynthia Ann” does not see or feel herself to be “white” or to be the person so named. She calls herself Naduah.” And the name “Comanche” is not one she uses, either.
“...We are Nernernuh, and that is our way, Lucy. Other is your way, white man’s way. We are not like you. I think you forget that.”
“But you’re white!” I said. “How can you believe those things?" 
 “You say I am white. I say I am Nerm.”
It is a strange novel to have written for young people. The points of view alternate between Lucy’s first-person diary entries and a third-person point of view from Naduah, but the diary breaks off abruptly in 1864, with everything including the Civil War still unresolved. Following the last diary entry, a letter dated 1864, written by a character who appeared only toward the end of the diary, tells Lucy that both Naduah and her daughter have died. Then narrator Lucy returns to write in 1883 that she had to cease her girlhood diary due to paper shortages during the war but later married the letter-writer and remembers Naduah and her stories of Quanah, the warrior son. A complete fiction would no doubt have ended differently, but historical truth did not allow Naduah to be reunited with her Comanche husband or sons or the way of life that had been hers for most of her years.

The story is convincingly told but cannot help raise more questions than it answers, since Quanah and his parents were real human beings, and teasingly little is known of their actual lives.

Next I turned to a small paperback edition of the English classic Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, a story I had not read for decades but one that seemed appropriate for a vacation getaway. With surprise, then, I became reacquainted with the protagonist’s life long before his famous shipwreck and island existence. Gone to sea against his parents’ wishes, taken captive and enslaved, he made his escape to land in Brazil, where he became a successful plantation owner. But –
As I had once done thus in my breaking away from my parents, so I could not be content now but I must go and leave the happy view I had of being a rich and thriving man in my new plantation, only to pursue a rash and immoderate desire of rising faster than the nature of the thing admitted. Thus I cast myself down again into the deepest gulf of human misery that ever man fell into or perhaps could be consistent with life and a state of health in the world.
The get-rich-faster scheme on which Crusoe next embarked (literally) was no less than a sea voyage to procure slaves for other Brazilian plantation owners. How could I have forgotten all this?

Shipwrecked but saved from drowning, Crusoe does not immediately turn to God in thanksgiving, but eventually (following a long, serious, debilitating illness) he does.
...Now I looked back upon my past life with such horror, and my sins appeared so dreadful, that my soul sought nothing of God but deliverance from the load of guilt that bore down all my comfort.

Meyer gave the woman Naduah sisters-in-law who would not admit her to be family, seeing her “lost” forever to the “white” world. Defoe’s Crusoe, slave-owner and would-be slave-trader, finds in apparent misfortune an opportunity to be “delivered from sin.” And so cultural oppositions and mixings again, in these two very different novels, color the question of “purity” and bring it into question.

I have not yet met with Friday, because Crusoe has yet to find the footprint. How will subsequent pages play out in relation to the meditations of Rodriguez? Will Crusoe recognize his involvement with slavery as sin?

It is a rainy day. I read on....

Friday, Kingston Plains

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